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Playwright Rachel De-lahay: Some of my most exciting theatre experiences were the least rehearsed

Rachel De-lahay. Photo: Alpha Badio Rachel De-lahay. Photo: Alpha Badio
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For an actor, and playwright, there’s probably nothing more terrifying than an under-rehearsed production of the story you’re trying to tell. We rehearse to learn what works and what doesn’t, in the hope that on opening night we have absolute clarity of narrative.

The magic, that creatives speak of so often, happens in-between – the line that falls out differently one night, the blocking the actor impulsively knows to alter. It’s what lifts the work out of the safety structure laid down, through the company’s ability to play. And it is glorious to see.

As a playwright, I like rehearsals – I like the safety they offer. So I’ve often assumed this ‘magic’ can only come when proper foundations are laid down. However, some of my most exciting experiences of being in a theatre have been when there’s been little to no rehearsal. Noma Dumezweni stepping into the lead at late notice for Penelope Skinner’s Linda at the Royal Court is a performance etched into my brain. She was electric.

It’s most clear to see at improv nights. Actors are thrown into the deep end, unaware of story or structure, and when it flies, it’s pure joy. Like the stand-up trying new material that dies and then somehow they lift themselves back up with unrehearsed patter and appeals for kindness. It’s the artistic director who has to go on in place of a sick actor.

We’re no longer sat in the auditorium completely at ease, waiting for that production to deliver. Now we’re more alert, attentive, perhaps uncomfortable, but a little bit more ready and willing to do our bit to help the show get there. We take in every word and are more forgiving to minor mistakes because if the plane lands, the rewards are going to feel much more joyous.

This is the energy we want for My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid). These will be stories shared for the first time that night and we have no idea how they will be received. What we want is our audience to be ready and attentive because our writers are really putting themselves out there. They’ve been given the task of saying what most never dare to – addressing the things that scare them the most. And for that, we’re going to need a different kind of listening.

This might seem like an excellent ploy to ensure all scripts and dialogues are completely honoured in their entirety, created by an obsessive and controlling writer. And maybe it is. So rarely in our profession are we afforded such a luxury. But in truth, I am all for collaboration and discussion around scripts – none of my plays would have survived without input from wondrous teams.

However, I do think when scripts are cold read, like on the first day of rehearsal, each word is often afforded much more weight than usual. And maybe when the stories are really deserving, it is okay to indulge in this.

My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid) runs at the Bunker Theatre from March 18, 2019 to March 23, 2019

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