3.3 Rehearsal process: methodology, structure, and challenges.

Methodology and structure

Neptune’s rehearsal period was scheduled from January 9th to February 9th 2023 (premiere day) which gave us only one month for the development of pretty much everything. Understanding the considerable time constraints, Greta, the director, had to be extremely efficient with time and our workplan.


Before the official start of rehearsals, we managed to have a 3-day workshop in December 2022. The main aims were: to express and discuss initial expectations and concerns of the cast, to map out the complex world of the play and negotiate rules of performative existence, and to assign roles. The last point might seem a bit unusual, since it is more common for actors to know what they will be playing before the start of the production, however, it was more complicated in case of Neptune.

One of the most important structural ideas for me was the idea of a mirroring couples, which means two actors for the roles of M and V, and two actors that play another, fictional version of M and V by wearing masks of numerous other characters. Plus, of course, the fifth character of MC who exists separately in the play. The role of MC was meant to be played by me, since she is the one who tells my story directly to the audience. So, the initial plan was to have five actors overall, which did not happen – we ended up with six. It happened for various reasons, including planning issues as I personally had to assemble this cast a year in advance due to the nature of my study program, which required me to be in another country for a year between the planning stages of production and the start of rehearsals.


So, when Greta and I found ourselves with six actors for the cast of five, the issue of distributing roles became clear. Since we could not have two actors play either M or V, it was decided that there will be three actors on the fictional level, and they will swap roles from episode to episode. Greta named the group ‘stage kittens’. Thus, we ended up with three layers and different rules of existence and dynamics for the group on each level, which together with role assignments were decided during December workshop. Some of the main rules were: M and V were always isolated in their own world and could not communicate with any of the other groups. On the opposite side, ‘stage kittens’ (the name Greta gave fictional characters, whom there were now three) could interact with every level, speaking with the audience, MC, and even sometimes breaching the world of M and V. MC could also see characters on every level, but could only interact with the ‘kittens’. Essentially, fictional characters from a couple mirroring M and V turned into MC’s helpers who would immediately adapt and transform according to each new narrative thread. That, in my view, changed the initial idea quite significantly and made the production process a more interesting experience for me as a creator, since I felt like I was working on something that was now branching out of whatever I initially conceived.


In January, we started rehearsals. Knowing that we had so little time for such a big text with so many characters, Greta had to utilize every working hour. So, instead of going for perhaps a more common approach of character devising through etudes and try-outs to determine their nature, physicality and particular quirks, we went immediately into the scenes. Greta’s idea was to cover the entire material as quickly as possible (preferably in two weeks), so she could start working on details later. Since we had groups of characters on different levels, rehearsal time for the first two weeks was divided by time-slots, and each group only worked with each (e.g. in the first week actors playing M and V did not even see any other performers since they were isolated in their own scenes). As an actor, I did not start working on my scenes until week three at all, since I was mostly on my own in my monologues and dialogues with the audience and did not require participation in group work. However, as a dramaturge, I was in every rehearsal.


Speaking of my part as a dramaturge, in the pre-production period, I explicitly told Greta that I would not mind re-writing pretty much anything during rehearsals if we find out that it does not work in the scene with actual actors. It was an interesting experience for me – prior to Neptune, I had only written one other play, and I was never a participant in its staging. I have seen different versions of my first play in production, and every time it was just a surprise how people would interpret my text. However, with Neptune, I could not afford to be surprised, I had to be actively involved.


Probably due to my Russian classical academy training, I still believe in strict hierarchy of most theatre projects. By which I mean: it is great to negotiate, discuss, and deliberate together as a team, but there should still be someone (typically, a director) making a final call. I asked Greta to be the director of Neptune precisely because I trusted her. So, the promise I made to myself was to go with her every decision, unless it specifically contradicted my main idea. Greta, on her part, was still very considerate with re-writing requests, and everything was discussed between the two of us prior to any changes. In the end, there were no significant scene or character changes, but there were, of course, cuts, and a lot of minor re-writes that kept happening throughout the entire rehearsal process almost until the premiere day.  



Every time I start describing Neptune’s production process, I mention challenges. It was indeed a difficult project, but here I want to focus on three major things.


-       Time constraints, schedules and subsequent burn-outs.

I keep repeating how time was a massive issue. I do not mind the allocated slot and the number of weeks we got for rehearsals per se, I understand that it is a typical quota, not just for the Academy, but for a lot of professional theatres as well. I have done full productions in less than three weeks, to be honest. However, the issue here is the level of ambition of everything that is happening in the text and around it in comparison to the resources we had (I am mostly mentioning time, but money was a big problem as well). Moreover, there was another added problem – conflict of schedules. One of the actors was studying in a different acting school during the time of the production, and they still had to attend classes, so were only available in the evenings. Some actors from Theatre Academy also needed to attend classes. This created a problem of schedules and, as some cast members thought, overly long working days. On most rehearsal days, we indeed had activities planned from 12.00 until 22.00. It did not mean that all the actors had to be present at all times since they had isolated rehearsal blocks by groups and scenes, but Greta and the creative team had to be present always, or almost always. This, together with constant re-writes and other changes, led to burn-outs and exhaustion among the cast. At some point, it also led to some cast members getting sick, so we had to cancel a part of the run. To be honest, by the end of rehearsal period, I thought we would have to cancel the entire run since the atmosphere was extremely tense, and the group spirit (for the cast) seemed low.


I would like to be able to propose a solution to that, at least a hypothetical one, but the more I think about it, the more I understand that there was no other way to handle it in terms of planning and scheduling. The only thing that could have been done to avoid frustration and exhaustion was just not to do this project altogether seeing how it was too big for the limits we had.


-       Overload of details: excessive amount of everything – props, costumes, changes, text.

Speaking of how big the project was, I mean it in all senses. There were seemingly countless props for every scene that actors had to always keep in mind, there were constant costume changes, there were songs in different language (including Russian and Japanese) that actors had to learn, there were choreographed bits, both dances and fight scenes, and there were infinite changes of text. I kept re-writing almost until the premiere day, and I was told that some of the actors’ emotional breakdowns were caused primarily by those re-writes. I do fully understand that – with everything that actors had to keep in mind, the last thing they had time to focus on was acting. There was absolutely no chance to fully merge with the text since it could have been changed any day, and that added to the building frustration.


The second most significant issue of information overload after the text itself was costumes. When I talked about designer’s tasks, I mentioned that Jenni developed a whole runway collection for each character which she later had to scrap off and start almost from scratch because it turned out that there was no way actors could get fully changed in time for each new scene. So instead of elaborate costumes, in the final version of the show, we were left mostly with accessories that could be easily changed and transformed right on stage.


To illustrate how much stuff actors had to keeps track of backstage, refer to the following video (and please note that this is already a significantly reduced version of what it originally was).

Backstage. Video from a personal archive.

-       Personal challenge: vulnerability vs acting

Finally, I want to talk about my personal challenges. To be honest, I did not feel particularly burnt-out – I have workaholism issues, and for me 12-hour work day is a mental blessing. However, what I personally struggled with was the intimate nature of this production. It hit me in two different ways – as a playwright and as an actor.


As a playwright, I felt constant guilt when seeing actors struggle with this production. I felt like I somehow forced them to be a part of my personal story that no one should care about apart from myself. I, of course, did not write it as such – I wrote Neptune as a means to connect with others, to maybe bring some hope, and definitely not to have a personal therapy day. But seeing the cast struggle, I could not help but think that if it was Shakespeare or Chekhov, or at least some play with a fictional plot, it would be easier to justify why we were doing it and would surely be much easier to distance myself. In a situation as it was, it pained me to see how my life story was now making someone suffer, perhaps, meaninglessly, and for selfish reasons.


As an actor, it was probably even more challenging. I never even questioned that I would be playing MC myself – there were some story details that I was sure only I could convey in the right way. What I did not predict was how it would affect my mental state (and for unexpected reasons at that). There are scenes in Neptune that describe incredibly traumatic experiences, and as a dramaturge, I wanted to spread them out to create emotionally diverse landscape, mixing them with more fun and light-hearted scenes. When we got to rehearsals, and especially to the show run, it turned out that for myself as an actor my dramaturgical plan meant to literally have a complete breakdown in one scene and entertain in the next, and then repeat again and again. It was not a progression of character from one emotion transforming into another, it was an extreme roller-coaster instead. I truly believe that for any actor the role of MC would be challenging, simply because even physically it was difficult to constantly switch between opposite extreme emotions (my eyes would hurt every performance, as I was forcing myself to dry my tears quickly, only to conjure them back again in the next scene). But for me it was especially difficult since I was essentially sharing my story, spilling my guts in front of the audience every day. And it was difficult not for the reasons Greta and I initially thought it would be (we thought re-traumatization and re-living certain experiences would be hard). It was actually difficult for the opposite reason. I am a trained actor, and due to my rigorous academic training in Russia, I was capable of juggling extremes on stage Stanislavsky-style. What caused my mental and emotional issues was precisely the fact that underneath this acting I did not feel anything. There is a scene where I talk about my mother’s cancer, a situation that is still ongoing and that hurts me to indescribable extent in real life. I was crying, I was breaking down on stage, my fellow actors would sometimes hug me after I existed the scene after cancer monologues. But I felt nothing. And this inner numbness started getting to me after some time, transforming into guilt. How can I feel nothing when my mother has cancer? How can I fake what I feel about it? By the last performance, I was completely drained guilt-tripping myself on all fronts. I still do not know, to be honest, how to deal with working with difficult personal stories as a performer and not further traumatize myself in the process and how to be vulnerable and not feel raw and completely exposed afterwards.

Neptune: clip from July scene. Video from a personal archive.