Sandy Davidson blog: Performing with Northern Stage #2

Streetwise Opera Gateshead performer Sandy Davidson shares more of his experiences of performing in Northern Stage's Manifesto for a New City:

7 October
Third day of the third week. Singing in the morning with Steve Morton, our musical maestro, telling us that he's now taking a more back seat role and that we are going to have to take over most of the steering ourselves from here on. Then in the afternoon, Emma Roxburgh, our director, took over and we had a run through of most of the piece. Looking back on the day, it feels like, you know when you get one of those flat packs and you follow the instructions but you're not quite sure what it is you're doing, you're just following instructions and hoping, then you get it loosely pieced together and it's wobbling all over the place and you look at each other and think, is this right? Is this actually all going to really hang together into something decent? Then you start to tighten it up and surprisingly it not only hangs together but it's looks pretty damn cool too. There's no smugness but there's that feeling of 'hey this ain't half bad mate', and that flush of impending achievement courses through you and an appetite to get it completed kicks in. But, of course, there's a few bits that don't quite fit properly, and the manufacturer sent you too many of one type of screw and not enough of the others, but overall you can see it's going to work so long as you don't do 'owt' stupid. Well, that's how today was.
Yesterday I took time out in the afternoon to go to the Streetwise Opera Explore Group session at the Sage that I usually attend (when not in rehearsals for Manifesto). They say a change is as good as a rest and they (whoever 'they' are) are right. It was a fun session and things have moved on apace in my (short) absence. The drama element now plays a much larger role, probably down to the success of our summer sessions at the Theatre Royal. Everyone seemed glad to see me and it was clear that my 'success' in getting a part in a 'professional' show is not just 'my' success but 'our' success. Streetwise is now felt to be not just a fun couple of hours in the week but something that has the potential to allow marginalised but ordinary folk to achieve their untapped potential in the performing arts world. It felt like I was a kind of channel for an energy between Streetwise and Manifesto, that I brought a bit of added professionalism to the Streetwise session and that on my return to the Manifesto rehearsals, I brought back a certain healthy earthy quality - a kind of cross pollination between the sessions.     

8 October
The acid test has been passed. Last night my youngest daughter, Maya, came round and I played back some of the recordings from Manifesto rehearsals that I've been using to to rehearse at home with. My daughters are my two main gauges of success, my sternest critics, they cut me no slack and are unpitying in their responses. They don't directly say anything to me but I use their reactions to gauge my efforts, so... having played the songs I can say that the response was positive, not something I really want to describe or analyse or even put into words, but the word of the street is... we're cool! 
Wow, a week today and we'll have just finished our first performance of Manifesto, that's gone sooo quickly! Today we ran through some numbers with the music maestro, Steve Morton, in the morning and he was fine tuning us, however, this afternoon, Emma Roxburgh, directoress extrordinaire, came into her own. In direct contrast to Steve's earlier work, she's now spending her time roughing us up. Steve has spent the last three weeks honing us into a fine-tuned musical organism but now it's Emma's turn to work on us and it's her job to get us to grapple with the underlying themes, messages and meaning that act as ballast as well as giving structure and holding the whole piece together. In order to do this, she has to draw out, from within us, character/characterisation. Her role is like that of an elemental force of nature that draws out from the earth, the wildness that needs to erupt through the careful perfection of civilised society that is Steve Morton's musical score in order for it be really alive and not a mere confection or display. So many of the carefully worked nuances of our work so far will have to be jettisoned, as the raw character that lives under the surface of the piece is allowed to break through and wreak havoc. The perfection of the ideal that Steve had moved us into briefly with his musical arrangements is now being broken and eaten up by the undergrowth that is character and meaning. The child of this interaction becomes manifest, growing forth out of the action. We're not just pretty faces ya know!

9 October
When we started in on Manifesto, Steve, our musical director, advised us that during our month of rehearsals we'd get 'one of those days' and that when it comes, recognise it as just that and don't dwell on the stuff that happens that day. For me, this was that day and that was good advice. This song seems to capture something of how it was for me.

10 October
Looks like my last blog post may have given folk the wrong impression, that Manifesto is a bit heavy/cerebral. Definitely not the case. Personally I find the issues dealt with in Manifesto an interesting challenge to grapple with, however, it's a bit like the issue with My Fair Lady. If you read Pygmalion (on which it's based), there's a hard political core which underpins and gives it substance, but you can happily watch My Fair Lady without picking up on this at all. Manifesto is like this - it is possible to just sit back and enjoy the songs, they're really what the show is all about and they are unbelievably catchy, but at its heart there are serious political issues being explored. Anyone who knows me well knows that beneath my generally bouncy exterior there lives quite a fierce political animal. I'm personally a Brecht/Artaud man and think that a theatre experience should leave its audience feeling devastated but there are social/political climates and seasons that dictate what an audience, in general, will accept and in my own stuff I like to explore the margins of our existence but it's lonely territory out there so sometimes it's nice to be involved in something warm and genuine and fun, like Manifesto, before returning to wilder, harsher terrain.
On Thursday I likened the putting together of Manfesto, the blocking in process, to the putting together of a flatpack. Yesterday, after we had got it all together, everything in the right place, I realised that it was, in fact, a vehicle, that it was there to take people on a journey, so we acted out it all the way through, kind of like taking it for a drive round the block before taking it on the public highway, but oh boy was it rickety! The whole thing rattled, the engine coughed and spluttered, the gears ground a couple of times, bits fell off and had to be hurriedly repaired, and it stalled a couple of times, it was a real Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang! BUT we got it round, and even though it was a challenging experience, I saw enough there to suggest that more than just take people on a journey, there is something magical about it, and just like Chitty, it has the potential to fly, but phew, there's a lot of work to do...

12 October
The first day of the last week and a quantum leap day for Manifesto! On Friday I left behind a rickety old banger that just about got round the block, today I came in and what a difference a weekend can make! First of all, the initial energy from day one was back, everyone was in a delightfully light and cheerful mood when I arrived but now there was something else there too, I could see the 'eyes of the tiger' in us today. Emma, our director, got onto us straight off - no idle chitter chatter, remain focused - and we obeyed. I've never worked on a piece where the energy has been so sustained but supportive and focused, it was magic. So, after a brief singing warm up with Steve, we turned the ignition and whoah, she sprang into life and purred like a panther, like the thin black cat in the poet's poem. We began to run the whole piece through and it soon became apparent that a lot of hard work had been done by a lot of people over the weekend. Especially on the songs, they are now all well-weighted and beautifully tuneful, so individually and collectively Manifesto now has a strong, solid body of music to carry it through any mishaps that may occur. Friday you have what runs like an old banger and so everyone takes home something to work on. We come back on Monday and voila, we now have Rolls Royce. OK, there's fluffy dice hanging off the mirror and and it's got L plates and a few dents, but it's such a smooth ride that overall it's churlish to sweat the detail. I laughed as much today as I have any day of rehearsals so far. If there's any slight downside it's that faint tinge of melancholy that arises when you realise that it'll all be over in a week. I have had such a great time and made such brilliant friends that I'm missing them already! Ahh....but I can't wait for opening night!

Manifesto for a New City is at Northern Stage (Newcastle), 15-17 October 2015. Streetwise Opera wishes Sandy the best of luck for his performances!