A question that I often asked after my shows is ‘how do you remember all of those lines?’. Having just completed 3 performances of a brand new show, I thought that you may be interested to read about the entire process from the original idea to the fall of the curtain, so here it is:
In the UK all of my theatre events are promoted by the Derek Grant Organisation. I have been working with Derek and his partner Michael for five years now and in that time have been touring with 2 shows. The first was ‘An Audience With Charles Dickens’ which is based on my biographical show ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, but also featuring part of Dickens’s reading of the’ Murder of Nancy’ from Oliver Twist and my one man version of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’.
After a couple of years we decided to lengthen Nickleby and make it into its own complete evening, which gave us our second show.
A year or so ago Derek suggested to me that we should introduce a completely new show into our repertoire and wondered if I could do anything with Great Expectations, which happens to be my favourite Dickens novel. I leapt at the chance and we agreed a deadline and so began the protracted panic of getting a new show to the stage.
The first thing to worry about is the editing of the script and with Great Expectations that is more of a problem than with, say Nicholas Nickleby.
Charles Dickens’s early novels tend to be quite episodic, featuring a central figure travelling through the story and meeting various larger than life characters along the way. In Nickleby, Nicholas starts in London, meets Newman Noggs and the villain of the piece, Ralph Nickleby, before travelling to Yorkshire to spend time with Mr and Mrs Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall. In Yorkshire he also meets up with Smike who runs away with him back to London, a few more wonderful characters there (the Wittiterlys and the Mantalinis), before they leave for Portsmouth where they discover the theatrical company of Mr Crummles. After a brief adventure there, they return to London and the final part of the story is played out exactly where it started.
So to adapt the show for a 2 hour evening is not difficult, some of the good characters have to be axed, but on the whole the central plot is easy to relate.
Great Expectations is another matter altogether, it is a much later book and regarded by many as his greatest. The huge wealth of characters are still there of course, but they all have a vital piece to play in Pip’s story, making it much more difficult to condense.
I’m sure that there are many ways of starting to write, and no doubt that people who have studied creative writing could tell me the best way of going about it, but I just like to get going. For the moment the staging of the show doesn’t come into my mind at all, it is purely doing justice to the words that Charles Dickens wrote: they must always be the star.
I of course have some idea as to what I’m going to include and what I’m cutting out, otherwise I’d simply copy the entire novel out.
As in the novel the story will be told in the first person by Pip, so that I do not need to change any of the narrative language. The opening is easy, why mess about with such a fabulously atmospheric passage?
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
I take the next paragraph out and go straight to the description of the marshes as well as introducing Pip’s mother and father who will be referred to later, so they need to make an appearance there. The little brothers don’t need to be there for the sake of the story, so sadly they have to go:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
So, the story has begun. Something that I will have to think about later is how I transition from the opening narrative into the terrifying appearance of the convict, Abel Magwitch. I really want an impressive crash of an entrance which will shock the audience in the same way that the opening sequence of David Lean’s classic 1946 adaptation does. Hmmm, will have to think about that.
In the first scene with the convict, what do I need to get across? That Pip is terrified, that he has no doubt that the man (of course Pip doesn’t know he is an escaped prisoner yet), will rip his heart and liver out, that it must be established that he lives in a forge and that the man needs his help to get away and that he realises that a forge will give him the tools that he wants.
Is it necessary to introduce the 2nd convict at this stage? No. Pip will be quite terrified enough by Magwitch without the secondary threat of ‘There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open.’
The second convict does need to appear later, but descriptions of him now would prolong the opening scene, so I’ll keep him in reserve.
Back to the forge and we are introduced to kindly Joe Gargery and to his wife, Pip’s older sister, who had brought him up by hand.
I won’t go through the entire novel but you get the idea, taking each scene and breaking it down to what is strictly necessary to tell the story and move it along.
During my career I have performed various passages from Great Expectations in other shows. Liz and I feature 2 passages from it in our Kinderszenen show (music from Robert Schuman with readings from various scenes of Childhood within Dickens’s work) and I of course have a passage in my ‘Complete Works of Dickens’ show. When I reach the scenes that I have used before, I heave a huge sigh of relief and simply cut and paste them without too much thought.
After a couple of weeks of editing I get the script to as pared back form as I possibly can. It is 50 pages long and I need it to be 30 pages! Ah.
At this stage in the proceedings it is traditional for me to completely abandon the project and say ‘it can’t be done. There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours. I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’ This, inevitably, will happen a few times during the process.
I leave the script for a while, maybe for a few weeks. I am probably working on something else, so I forget it completely. When I come back to it, pull the folder out from the memory of my computer and re-read it I realise that of course I can edit it much harder and so start again.
Often the first passages to come under the knife are those which I had pasted from previous shows. One such is the amazing boat escape at the end of the novel which I have previously used for the Complete Works show.
Cut, snip, bin.
‘It can’t be done. There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours. I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’
And on we go.
With so many re-writes, or at least re-edits, I am becoming more and more familiar with the words and the shape of the script so this becomes the first stage of the line learning process. Certain phrases just start to stick and the way the show moves from scene to scene becomes second nature. I don’t realise that I am learning lines at this stage, I am not going over them, they are just wheedling their way into my brain.
As the rewrites go on I also start to think of how to stage and perform the show. The first issue is that of the beginning and how to transition from the opening narrative to Magwitch’s first lines and the answer I come up with is a new one for me: voiceover.
When the show starts in the theatre I will have all of the lights fade to a blackout and then play my recorded voice. At the end of the voiceover I will burst onto the stage, with sudden bright light, bellowing the first line of dialogue ‘Hold Your Noise! Keep still you little devil or I’ll slit your throat!’
The next issue is how to distinguish the different venues in the story. In my version they are broken down into: The Forge, Miss Havisham’s House, Mr Jaggers’s office, Herbert Pocket’s lodgings and Wemmick’s house, with a few intermediate scenes. Keeping the scenery very simple means that I am not tied to certain scenes by the set, so I can use different moods of lighting. A cold, blue light for Miss Havisham’s , a nice friendly warmth for the forge and so on.
I soon hit upon another idea for the set. As Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactress, her presence looms over him for most of the novel. I have the idea of using my good old faithful hat stand, draped with a white cloth, which will simply stand at the back of the stage, a menacing presence throughout. The Havisham Hat Stand will have a permanent blue light of its own which creates her cold aura. It also means that I can light it with bright reds and oranges during the scene in which she burns.
At last I have a script that I am happy with. It is 33 pages long, it tells the basic story successfully and can be staged incredibly simply. But now I have to learn it.
There is no secret to line learning it is a case of repetition and repetition again. I imagine that every actor has their own way to do it, in my case I have to move, I have to pace. Firstly I have a script in my hand and start to read. I don’t ‘perform’ it out loud, but mutter to myself.
Let me give you an example of how a passage from Great Expectations might work:
‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’ Then I hide the book. ‘My sister went to fetch…’ look at the book. ‘My sister went out to fetch….’ Wrong again, check again: ‘My sister went out to get a pork pie’ Check it again, no, it needs the word ‘savoury’: ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’ Look at the next line: ‘…I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Hide book. ‘I could hear her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Check. No: ‘I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Now, put the two together: ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry’. Add the next line: ‘I felt I could bear no more, and that I must run away…..’ You get the idea.
Fortunately I was recently on a cruise ship (as those who read my last post will know!), to perform some of my other shows, which meant I had plenty of time during which I could walk around the deck line learning. The other passengers soon realised what I was doing and watched with amusement as I committed the whole of act one to memory over a period of 9 days.
I didn’t do any line learning on days when I was to performance as that might have become very confusing!
When I got home I had to really concentrate on Act 2, which is longer and more intense but the routine is the same.
For a long time it seems as if I am never going to get this one memorised (as I feel with every new script). It just seems to be an impossibility but if I am not going to make myself look like a complete idiot, there is nothing for it but to pace and mutter and mutter and pace. Little by little the lines start to stick. Soon I am reaching the point when I find myself going back to the script convinced I’ve gone wrong only to find that the words were perfect after all.
Sometimes I will find a combination of words that just won’t stick. For an example I site a speech by Mr Wemmick, warning Pip that Magwitch’s presence in London has been noticed and that he is being watched. The line is:
‘I accidentally heard, yesterday morning that a certain person not altogether of uncolonial pursuits, and not unpossessed of portable property had made some little stir in a certain part of the world where a good many people go, not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense — By disappearing from such place, and being no more heard of thereabouts. From which, conjectures had been raised and theories formed. I also heard that you at your chambers in Garden Court, Temple, had been watched, and might be watched again.’
The words that I just could NOT get were: ‘…and not quite irrespective of the government expense…’ Every time I came to it, the words ‘..not quite insensible of the government expense.’ came out. I know, I know, it doesn’t even make sense, but that was no help to my befuddled brain. Back to the script look at it, mutter it; ‘Irrespective, irrespective, irrespective.’ Hide script: ‘and not quite insensible….NOOOOOOOO!’ Check it again and again and again. ‘Not quite……I know it is not insensible, but I can’t think what it is’ Now there is a mental block coming as I approach that line and even though I have convinced myself that it is NOT insensible and I know that it IS Irrespective I bottle it and end up floundering pathetically.
This is when I have to find a key word, a hint, fixed into my brain to let me attack the line confidently. To make this technique work successfully I have to look at the whole sentence and find a hint that relates to what I do know. In this case the end of the sentence is….’government expense’. Government…expense……finance….taxes….. OK, what word links irrespective to taxes, more to the point what word sounds like irrespective and not insensible. Irrr. Irrres. IRS! The USA Internal Revenue Service.
Now, as I approach that line I know that the word has the IRS sound, which steers me away from insensible and straight toward irrespective. More importantly it breaks the mental block that I’d found myself up against.
One other example of the same technique:
The appointment was for next day. Let me confess exactly with what feelings I looked forward to Joe’s coming.
Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.
In this passage the problem was with ‘considerable disturbance, some mortification and a keen sense of incongruity.’
The final item of the list was fine and makes sense in the context of the story but I got confused over the first two, so I needed a key to get me into the list correctly. Answer: CD (Charles Dickens) = Considerable Disturbance; and SM (Scrooge and Marley) = Some Mortification. Easy!
As the first performances approached the line learning went on and on, concentrating mainly on the 2nd act, although in the days immediately preceding the shows I was doing full runs twice a day. It was with great relief that I discovered that all of the work done on board the cruise ship meant that Act 1 was still safely in my mind.
The First Performances
And now, to perform. As an actor in a one man show there is nowhere to hide, you are judged purely on your individual efforts. This has great rewards if everything goes well but huge opportunities for self doubt and despair if it all goes wrong.
With a brand new show the doubts are doubled as they creep in about the script itself. Great Expectations is very dark and intense with very few moments of levity to bring a smile to the audience’s lips, and that is completely different to all of my other shows: I’ve always relied on laughter to give me a clue as to how a performance is going.
My first performance is to be in the city of Leicester in the Guildhall museum. I performed there last year and it is an amazing hall dating back to around 1380. Of course it is in no way a theatre so for my first 2 performances I won’t have my nice moody pools of light to create each scene, I will have to rely on the words and the action, which actually is no bad thing, it will help to focus my concentration onto what is really important.
The date is 7 February, 2014 which is Charles Dickens’s 202nd birthday, it is also the day on which the very first UK statue of Charles Dickens is to be unveiled in the city of Portsmouth. Today, therefore will be a day to honour Charles Dickens and to celebrate his amazing life and career, all of which heaps more self-induced pressure onto my shoulders.
By 12.15 the 1 pm audience are arriving, I can do no more pacing on the stage itself, but find myself still walking round in circles in my ‘dressing room’ which is a fabulous Jury Room with a little wooden hatch looking down into the main hall.
‘Hold your noise, keep still you little devil…… not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense……. Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity…..’ and so forth, over and over.
I’m getting rather like a caged lion now and really could do with starting, I always get very impatient before a show and really want to get out onto the stage. At 1.pm I go downstairs, into the Mayor’s Parlour, from where I will make my entrance onto the stage and almost before I know it I can hear the opening voiceover playing. The nerves ratchet up a few more notches and the butterflies in my stomach begin to flap harder and faster.
‘……and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.’
I burst onto the stage trying to create a flurry of movement and noise:
‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!…..’ There is a little squeal of shock from the front row: that opening works, then!
And now the nerves and the butterflies have gone, I am where I want to be and can’t do anything about the show other than to give it my best and concentrate on telling the story as well as I can.
When I get to the end of the first act the nerves return…how has it gone? Have the audience enjoyed it? Will they even come back for Act 2. The applause is long and loud, it seems as if Great Expectations is working as a piece of drama.
Back in the dressing room I pace some more, mutter some more, filled with adrenaline, desperate to get back to it, want to do act 2. Trying to listen for the audience going back into the hall, why is it taking so long?
At last we are ready to go. Act 2 begins in the same way as act 1, with a voiceover, setting the scene in London.
The second ‘half’ is much longer than the first, although much more happens in it and is faster moving, why, it even has a few laughs!
On stage I am aware of the audience’s intensity, they are following each line, each scene. It is joy to feel that concentration coming from the auditorium because it means that I can pace the show accordingly, leaving longer pauses and ‘feeling’ the silences, rather than rushing through them in an attempt to keep people on my side.
At the end of the show the applause and the ovation is everything I wanted it to be, it really seems as if the script and the telling of it has worked well.
There is a second performance in the evening and now that there is no daylight coming in, the Guildhall takes on an even more atmospheric tone, which is helped by the mournful tolling of the cathedral bells right next door. As with any show I relax into the performance the more I do it and the more familiar I become with it.
The evening reaction is as positive as the afternoon’s one, which is a relief (just because one audience likes a show there is absolutely no guarantee that another body of people will) and I pack up and drive to my hotel feeling very satisfied.
On the following day I have a 2 hour drive to Boston in Lincolnshire, another ancient town, this time on the east coast of England. I will be performing one show at the Blackfriar’s Arts Centre, which is a stunning little theatre.
Performing in an actual theatre means that I can try the show out in its fullest form, with lighting etc. Michael Jones, the technical side of the Derek Grant Organisation, travels to the shows as well, to oversee the lighting. As there was no lighting available to him yesterday he was able to watch the show and try to get a sense of how it works and moves along. Tonight is his debut!
We spend quite a lot of time focussing and placing the lights, with the help of the theatre’s resident tech team, and then we are ready to go.
Sadly it is a small audience, in comparison to 2 sell outs in Leicester, but that’s not important to me as a performer, the people who are there have made an effort, they have made a commitment of time and money to watch me, so they deserve as much as the larger audiences last night. It is frustrating, of course, but the energy and the effort are the same
The show goes very well again and in a more theatrical setting it seems to become even more dramatic and intense. I am getting used to the fact that this is a drama now and that the audiences will not respond as they do for Mr Dickens is Coming, or Nicholas Nickleby or any of my other shows.
With 3 performances behind me at 2 different venues I am very satisfied with how things have gone. There is a little time until I perform Great Expectations again but I am now no longer terrified about the prospect but very very excited.
I hope that this has given you some idea as to how I bring a show from the depths of my mind onto the stage. Of course this story isn’t finished yet, as Great Expectations will continue to change and develop each time that I perform it and alongside that, there are new shows to be written, learned and performed. New lines that will not stick, new panics, new fears, new depths, new highs.
And I Love It!