I’ll Eat You Last director, Dean Bryant, writes about the pleasures and challenges of working on a one-person play.
Having done a ton of highly populated and hugely technical musicals, the challenges of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers weren’t necessarily apparent on a first read. In rehearsals I’m used to there never being enough time and having to push forward constantly to even be ready by tech (where the set, costumes, lighting – and often in my case, a huge animatronic bus – are added) which then brings a different set of time-consuming challenges. What would I do with four weeks of rehearsal time and a generous tech period, for a play that specifically asks your solo performer to only sit on a couch and deliver a monologue about her life as a Hollywood superagent in the 70s?
And Miriam Margolyes, the beloved British/Aussie actor, came into rehearsals with an already-brilliant reading of her character, the German-born Sue Mengers. Miriam is widely known for her dexterity at dialect, and it was clear at the first read that the accent wasn’t going to be a stumbling block. And her text work was immaculate – everything John Logan had put in the script was already clearly being brought to life. So we weren’t going to spend a week learning how to do a good American accent, and we weren’t going to have to do a lot of work finding out how to deliver the script. And god knows the cushion on the couch was pretty easy to find. How on earth were we going to fill four weeks of rehearsal?
As nature abhors a vacuum, it turns out rehearsals do too.
As soon as you have your world marked out – one woman, one couch, one 80 minute monologue – you immediately set the parameters of that world and begin to explore in minute detail. If you have a bus, flying girls and 500 costumes as your production elements you work on that scale. When you have the lighting of cigarettes, filling a whiskey glass and the placement of throw cushions as your production elements, suddenly deciding when to do each, and where to place each becomes as challenging as any revolve, chandelier or helicopter. Miriam and I have spent hours now working out the best places to light a cigarette, when to drink from a glass and what positions to lie on the couch as if we were planning the opening ceremony at the next Olympic Games. When your world is a couch, and your time is a month, these decisions become monumental.
Which is not to say that we didn’t work on the accent and the text interpretation. We were gifted with having the brilliant Leith McPherson on board (as well as her gorgeous puppy-in-crime, Scout). Leith and I tag-teamed our way through the text, so that after a week or so, every word had been dissected from a dialect point-of-view, and every sentence mined for it’s various thematic, comic and character value. We started at the table, then moved to the couch. The couch is Miriam’s supporting actor in the show, so it was important to make sure it was comfortable – it’s the nest that Sue welcomes us into her home from – as well as providing enough space so that Miriam didn’t ever feel constricted. And everything has to be in reaching distance, as she is not allowed to get up for anything (when you see the show, her not-being-allowed-to-get-up-for-anything provides a couple of key comic highlights). Once on the couch we repeated the process, analysing accent and text while adding smoking, drinking and lolling about.
The whole time we were building the show, Miriam was building the memory-stamina required to deliver 80 minute with nothing to prompt her – no other actors, no stage manager, no music, not even the physical reminder of moving to a different part of the stage. We would finish our explorations mid-afternoon each day, and Miriam would then work with our gorgeous stage management team, Christine and Julia, on drilling the script for memory purposes. Her work ethic was amazing. Often she’d go home after rehearsals, have a short break and a bite to eat, then continue to drill lines until late at night.
Because, no matter how brilliant the work you do together, a one-person show cannot come to life until you are so confident with your ability to remember it, that you forget you once didn’t know it. It’s like riding a bike – it seems impossibly hard to get the body to work with the bike to work with gravity until you suddenly realise you’re coasting down a hill on it, handsfree. Moments would come where Miriam would fly through a section. Then the moments began to join up. And one day a whole run happens without any prompting, and a world comes to life.
After the memory-stamina comes the actual physical-stamina required to get through a show unsupported. Most plays allow you to go offstage for a bit, have a drink, a bit of a whinge about the audience, then head back on, refreshed. In this play, you have to figure out how to refresh yourself. This part of the process tends to feel like sports training. You just run and run and run until you know you can keep that energy going the whole time. In our last week of rehearsals Miriam did 18 runs of the play. It was Herculean. Seeing a show that many times without an audience can tend to blur your vision of what you even have. So it was a relief to do the company run for MTC and finally hear some new laughs and feel the engagement of an audience entering a world you’re creating. A relief and a terror, of course.
The final part of the process was tech, where Sue’s apartment, gorgeously created by Owen Phillips, lit by Ross Graham and aurally enhanced by Russell Goldsmith, was waiting to welcome Miriam. Like everything on this play, it was an experience in micromanagement. Where exactly should the couch be in the Fairfax space to make sure every seat had Miriam as close as possible? How do you light a show to make it seem like they never change, and yet subtly show the passing of the day and support the emotional weight of the text? How big should a chocolate be to make sure you can still talk while eating it?
And then you add the final element, the one that’s identical whether you’re doing a huge blockbuster musical or a one person-play – the audience. The only element you have no control over, the element that has informed every decision from the start. You watch them entering the auditorium, chatting away, glancing at the set, listening to the preshow music and hope that what they’re about to see will surprise and delight them. You want them to forget they’re in Melbourne for a spell and enter Sue’s modest little hacienda in the Hills of Beverley for an evening of good dish.
The whiskey’s poured, the cushions fluffed and Sue’s ready to meet you. Let the party begin.