5 Tips for Performing Rep Theatre
Katie Elin-Salt explains her steps for success when tackling the challenge of repertory theatre – and how beneficial it will be for your craft!
Can you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time? Well, it’s time to learn: working on three plays at the same time feels a bit like doing that while reciting the alphabet and tap dancing the opening number of 42nd Street.
How To A Be Kid by Sarah McDonald-Hughes
It’s hard not to feel a little bit wobbly when staring at the prospect of joining a repertory theatre company. Rep is seen by many of our most established actors as the foundation and cornerstone of their careers. Sir Ian McKellen himself has always been a fierce supporter of rep theatres, having started his career in the early 1960s performing for eight pounds and ten shillings in no less than 15 productions at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Dame Judi has also been very vocal in her belief that performing in a rep company is an essential part of an actor’s training and career path:
You could make mistakes, and have a go at playing some terribly old person when you were 23. As long as there are some of those reps going, there’s a light, a little flame that we can nurture.
In 1974, Jonathan Pryce was challenged with finding a group of actors for the Liverpool Everyman Season. This launched the careers of Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite, to name but a few. Speaking of his time in this company Jonathan Pryce has said:
It was a family. You look back on it and think, yes, it was an extraordinary time. For a lot of us, it formed the way we approached our work.
So, you can imagine how I felt when in May when I joined the Paines Plough Roundabout Season for 2017. Rehearsing three new plays at once and then performing them (often all three in one day) around the UK for the next 10 months - we took it all in our stride and were very calm and blasé about the whole thing from then on. No biggie at all, mate.
Five months later, I am writing this blog on the last day of our Roundabout tour. I am more than a little bit tired - I swear there is steam coming from my ears - but I am happy to inform you that all cast and crew have lived to tell the tale. Somewhere along the line I managed to learn all my lines and it’s been one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever done.
Timing-wise, this has worked out great, as Dame Judi wasn’t available to write a blog on performing in rep theatre, so if I can stay awake for long enough, I shall attempt it in her absence.
Step 1: Organise
Trying to get your head around three plays in one day is a lot easier when you compartmentalise everything.
Can you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time? Well, it’s time to learn: working on three plays at the same time feels a bit like doing that while reciting the alphabet and tap dancing the opening number of 42nd Street. Organisational skills are key to making this whole thing work.
Being a creative scatty pants like me, there is a strong chance that this is not your strong point. Never one to turn down a shopping spree, my first step into the world of rep was to make a very expensive yet entirely justified trip to Paperchase. I arrived for day one of rehearsals armed with highlighters in all the colours of the rainbow, three little note pads, an alarming array of ring binders and a pencil sharpener that didn’t really need to be shaped like a unicorn.
Trying to get your head around three plays in one day is a lot easier when you compartmentalise everything. Spending a morning doing in depth work on a play and then having to put that on the back burner and jump into another in the afternoon can be mind boggling to say the least, but if you manage your time, energy and notes effectively it is better brain training than expert level sudoku.
Step 2: Prioritise
I was a very very bad friend, girlfriend and daughter during the run up to these shows, and I owe many many people coffee and apologies. But I did know my lines by the time we opened.
We had a six week rehearsal period in London. Under normal circumstances (i.e doing one play) this would be slightly longer than normal. But obviously having to get three new plays off the ground simultaneously, we had to be very disciplined about our time. This meant a lot of homework for all involved.
As an actor, things like looking at characters in more depth, staying late and learning lines, doing research projects in my own time, were vital in getting up to scratch. We all supported each other and any spare five minutes that we weren’t in the rehearsal room was spent running lines and having discussions about the play.
Learning lines for three plays with such a small cast has been one of the biggest challenges of my career thus far. I was a very very bad friend, girlfriend and daughter during the run up to these shows, and I owe many many people coffee and apologies. But I did know my lines by the time we opened. Well definitely by show three.
Even though we have been performing these shows for months now, we haven’t actually had as many performances of each individual show as you would during a normal run, as we don’t do the same show every day. This has meant that we have had to continue to find ways through performances, to continue to work things through and make decisions during the whole process.
Out of Love by Elinor Cook
Step 3: Look After Yourself
There’s a reason you don’t see Mo Farrah stumbling in with a macchiato, five minutes before he’s due to compete for the 10,000 metre gold.
After our rehearsals, the Roundabout company left their Pret sandwiches and established TFL commutes behind and started taking a much more scenic route to work, as we previewed and opened our shows in Theatr Clwyd.
Our family show was the first show to open and whilst teching and previewing this, we continued to rehearse the other two. We worked long hours, became life long dependants on caffeine, and kept company morale high with copious amounts of jelly sweets. I was doing just fine, thank you very much, until in the middle of a preview I bent down to pick up an invisible egg (as one does) and couldn’t get back up again.
Thanks to some excellent, firm-handed chiropractors, I was back cracking mime-eggs very shortly afterwards. But I learned from that point onwards that I was going to need to take an extra half an hour in the morning to do a bit of a body and voice MOT in order to maintain the mental and physical stamina needed for this theatre marathon. There’s a reason you don’t see Mo Farrah stumbling in with a macchiato, five minutes before he’s due to compete for the 10,000 metre gold.
Mentally, physically and vocally I really have had to watch myself like a thespian hawk. Of course, we’ve managed to enjoy ourselves too - but I think the key is to know yourself, your body and your limits. It really is a marathon, not a sprint.
Step 4: Look after each other
Everybody gets tired, things go wrong, frazzled hair and people can and will happen. But we’ve done it all together.
Having never been one for sports (see blog on fitness for further evidence), I missed out on the camaraderie of a sports team. Looking after each other, keeping each other going and taking up the baton when one person is having a difficult game, all seem very important on the playing field.
Exactly the same goes for being in a theatre company and rep theatre (especially a touring rep theatre). Except it is not a Sunday kick around with your mates. It’s the Six Nations Rugby Championships.
After opening the shows in Mold, we survived the Edinburgh Fringe festival and a UK tour together. My main tactics have been always having the kettle on and making sure to notice and say thank you to people working hard for the show that I am a part of. I really have never been part of a more solid unit.
Everybody gets tired, things go wrong, frazzled hair and people can and will happen. But we’ve done it all together. All for one and one for all, I believe is the expression.
The stage managers ran lines with the actors, the actors told bad jokes to the technical crew, the technical crew put banging tunes on to keep the actors going. Everybody has looked after each other and this has been crucial. If this were the Six Nations, I believe the team we had could have taken home the trophy. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Please, please, do not attempt to tackle any of us. We will cry.
Step 5: Enjoy It!
Being a part of a rep company has given me so much as a performer. Having done it and having lived to tell the tale, I believe it is something that every actor should have the opportunity to experience.
I have spent a lot of time in this blog talking about rep theatre being HARD WORK. And it is. But I have loved every single second and I have learned and grown so much as a performer. When I graduated from drama school in 2010, it seemed to be at a time when rep theatre was dying out. Sir Ian McKellen spoke about his worries in 2012; “The situation is desperate. There’s a desert,” he said.
The danger’s going to be that the current generation of actors won’t develop into good middle-aged performers because they won’t have been able to live from their work. The strength of British theatre should be that these actors in their middle years know what they’re doing and are good at it. Not rich, not famous, but making a living.
With this job, I have been able to play three brilliant parts at the same time and create work that I am immensely proud of with a brilliant team. Being a part of a rep company has given me so much as a performer. Having done it and having lived to tell the tale, I believe it is something that every actor should have the opportunity to experience. I am a firm believer that theatre should be real and accessible and being a part of a touring rep company is just that.
Being on tour and away from home is not without it’s challenges, but taking a theatre (in our case, literally in our pop up theatre) to people around the UK and performing to many different and diverse audiences is brilliant.
Black Mountain by Brad Birch
If you are a theatre person who has the ways and means to create a rep company: please, do it. If you are an actor: find one that you would like to work for and write to them. If you are an audience member: go and watch three tired but enthralled actors on stage in as many plays as you can. And if you are an actor who is lucky enough to be working in a rep company: milk it for all it’s worth and then go home and sleep until January.
And with that I am taking my PJs out of their suitcase for the final time and for once taking my own advice. See you next year!
You can see Katie performing in rep at Orange Tree Theatre from 25 January – 3 March 2018 (Out of Love by Elinor Cook, Black Mountain by Brad Birch and How To A Be Kid by Sarah McDonald-Hughes).
Katie Elin-Salt is an actor, singer and musician from Bridgend in South Wales, now living in London. She trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has done some nice bits of work over the last few years that she's chuffed with. Aside from this, she's most commonly known as Princess Elsa on weekends, and has also starred as Peppa Pig and Supergirl in various children's parties across the UK. You may also recognise Katie from working in the returns section of Ann Summers Cardiff during Christmas 2010. Series regular of Judge Judy (playing 'person watching it on the sofa whilst once again not in the gym'.)
Image credits: Jonathan Keenan