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  • Writer's pictureKate Sawyer

Who am I? And what do I want?

Today we are in the middle of the third week of rehearsals for The Faction’s production of Vassa Zheleznova by Emily Juniper (after Maxim Gorky) playing at Southwark Playhouse 15th June-9th July 2016. As a cast we’ve all got to know each other a little bit better. The intimacy of the close proximity of our physical improvisation sessions and a drink or two after rehearsal has aided with this. We’re becoming more acquainted with the text as we depart from table-work and start working on our feet, piecing together scenes and in and out of the room we are forming decisions and working-out who we are playing.

For me the discovery of the human that I will be playing in any production is one of the foremost delights of the job. When I receive any text and as we do this early work I try to constantly keep three questions at the forefront of my mind: Who am I? What do I want? Why do I want it? This triptych of enquiry sets me off like a Scandinavian drama detective, trying to work out just what this person whose story I have the honour of telling; feels, wants, is. However, prancing around thinking I’m Sarah Lund, in a jumper that is all too weather appropriate for South London in May and building a questionable Google search history, I seem to start my process hitting numerous brick walls and making very bad decisions. So as ever, it is best to go back to the text.

Firstly we have the time and the place. The play is set in Liverpool, in the docks, the year is 1996, it is winter, it is raining, heavily. Then there are certain irrefutable facts about my character, gleaned through stage directions, what other characters say about me or I say about myself. Presuming that none of these sources are lying (or considering that they might be) I am left with three facts:

  1. I am Anna Onoshenkova (Female, Age not defined)

  2. I am the Zheleznova Shipping Company’s Public Relations officer/executive

  3. I know CPR and First Aid

So not a huge amount to go on. Which for me is horribly exciting! I can let my already overactive imagination run riot!

Vassa Zheleznova in Rehearsal

However, I am in the lucky position to have Rachel Valentine Smith as my director and Emily Juniper as my playwright. Rachel assisted with me with adding fact four from her own research and the knowledge that character names in Russian literature are very often indicators as to attributes of the character.

  1. My name Anna, means ‘Grace’

As part of her adaptation of Gorky’s several versions of this play, Emily has included in her playtext a description of each character. With reference to the setting in the docks and our maritime connections each poetic description references the weather or the sea. Anna’s character description gives me four more ‘facts’.

  1. I would have been brilliant in the army

  2. I follow commands to the letter.

  3. My moral systems have been eroded- efficiency and accuracy now rule my everyday life.

  4. I lost myself years ago, I sacrificed my own life and have been carried in the wake of Vassa’s power.

This eight point list, whilst not distinctly telling me where and when I was born, what I like to eat or my favourite band in 1996, is enough to read at the beginning of each rehearsal to let me discover more and more about her, for after all isn’t a character defined by actions?

Don’t worry, I’ve done my due diligence; I’ve already spoken to some very helpful people at Martime PR agencies, watched some brilliant documentaries about the Docker’s Strikes and dug out my old Blur, Oasis and Pulp CD’s. But honestly, I think the best research that any actor can do is strip off the Scandi Detective knit, do a couple of sun-salutations, learn your lines and then just see where your intuition takes you when you look into the eyes of the actor opposite you, listen to what they are saying to you and then responding from your gut before that tricky, research-laden mind of yours has a chance to get involved!

Find out more and book tickets for Vassa Zheleznova at Southwark Playhouse 15th June-9th July 2016:


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