UPBEAT was the last show of our 3 year Connections project funded by the Strategic touring programme from the Arts Council. A buoyant poetic play set against the backdrop of the heritage waterways of Wessex which toured from 3rd March – 9th April 2016. Forest Forge commissioned writer Deborah Gearing, directed by Kirstie Davis, designed by David Haworth and composed by Rebecca Applin. We are delighted to have Deborah as one of our writers in residence at the Observatory at Buckler’s Hard during the Forest Arts Festival 10th – 25th June 2017.

“Sharon asked me to write a blog piece about how it was, rehearsing UPBEAT.

I enjoyed it, I really, really enjoyed it.

But the rehearsal process begins long before getting into the rehearsal room at Forest Forge – and for me, as a writer, I’ve already handed the bulk of my work over by the time rehearsals start. The director is making their mark on a play and thinking about how to rehearse from the moment a writer shares. And a play might go through several drafts of sharing.

I suppose the moment that kicks off the actual rehearsal process is the auditions.

Normally, as a writer, I wouldn’t be invited in to them. I suppose the thinking is, that writers might complicate things unnecessarily. But Kirstie did invite me in, and there was no way I was going to miss them. As an actor, many moons ago, I had been on the other side of the table. I knew what it felt like to perform in a small room, to be either scrutinised too closely or not watched as people seemed to scribble more and more notes (are notes good, or are they bad…), to see someone hold up a hand and whisper (that has to be bad…?). It had been years since I’d done an audition myself and I thought it would be fun and I was determined to be interested and encouraging and make everyone feel special. But by the end of the day, my face was cracking from smiling so hard, I could see the possibilities in each and every actor and the myriad permutations were stretching my brain. I felt the responsibility weighing on me. Luckily, it was quite clear that Rebecca, as musical director, held the magic key. Of course, music is a cornerstone of the play and without good musicians it cannot work. The magic combination lies with people who can act and play the violin. And there have to be three of them. A tall order. But some kind of magic happened, and we engaged Wolfe and Pete and Abbie – and then I waited for the rehearsals to start.


What I love about Kirstie’s work is the ambition of it; she seems to be unafraid to take the smallest stage and make it into the whole world. UPBEAT is a play with music. A lot of music. Some songs are traditional, set by Rebecca, others are new to the world and Rebecca has woven her magic and written music for them. The three actors have an enormous amount of work to do. For them it begins the moment they get the script – they have to get their lines learned as best they can before they enter the rehearsal room. Learning the music is like learning another set of lines, a whole other dimension stretches through the play. The music spans time – the traditional songs bring history with them, the modern underscore situates the action in the present. For me, this was like the river itself – there is some eternal movement, something ancient and contemporary in its very presence in our lives.

It was about this time last year that we were rehearsing. I remember having my birthday and feeling extremely happy and lucky that I was having this experience – that I could go to a rehearsal at Forest Forge and watch three fine, talented, generous actors sing, play and act their hearts out. I was full of admiration for their ability as actors and musicians, and willingness to graft. Everyone went through colds, sickness, weariness, frustration – but miraculously everyone kept their good temper, their generosity and their optimism. I thought I would see bleeding fingers, but still they kept going. I know that, after a hard day on their feet, people were going home and practising on their instruments before falling into bed. (Sometimes, but not always, after a well-earned glass at the pub).

In rehearsal, I regard it as my job to be ready to rewrite. A play on the page, untested, is not the same as a play on the stage. Sometimes a line has to be added to clarify, sometimes it’s clear a section should come out. Sometimes there might be a moment discovered for a new opportunity altogether. We all have to trust the director’s judgement, finally, because they are the person pulling it together. They have to be firm in their belief in the world they are creating, and strong enough to hold the team together. The rehearsal room is the director’s realm – and UPBEAT was in good hands. When I was in rehearsal, it was my job to keep track of changes, which I tried to do diligently, but I have to admit, I was often sucked into watching the acting and not looking at my page. Which is I think, as it should be – for me the magic was working.

David brought in more and more bits of costume and the actors really began to live in their parts. I remember one serendipitous moment when he came in with a tie-dye top, picked up in Salisbury on a spur of the moment – and Abbie put it on and she looked beautiful – but more to the point, the patterning looked like a fish. It was all in the flow. And then the set painting was finished and the lights went on, and I was astonished….David, how do you do that? How do you make paint look like water in changing light? And how does Dom know how to light it? And then Dom added more layers of sound – the water rushed and burbled and slowly it was heaven..upbeat

For me, as a writer, the rehearsals are the reward – the more I can be in the rehearsal room, the better. It is the bit I really love. Performances are where all the magic is in place and the team are in charge: I feel like a guest. But I’m a guest with some hidden responsibility – I’m going to worry about the audience, whether they’re getting it, whether they’re enjoying it or it’s stirring up divisions from way back, whether the actors are enjoying it, whether the words to that song are too obscure, whether the person who told me that story has made it to the performance…

But then three actors run through the audience and onto the stage (who else has written a play and had three violins open a play like that?), Wolfe stamps his foot and the story begins – and I’m down by the river I knew as a child, watching the water, hearing the water and every time it’s as though I haven’t seen it before. (Really it was like that, the actors are that good!).”