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The Making of 'Edith in The Beginning'
14th November
The Making of ‘Edith in the Beginning’: Confessions of a Zoom Creative Team
One of the very few positive things about lockdown has been the way it has forced us to try new ways of doing things and finding innovative ways to make theatre amidst the pandemic has certainly been no exception. After a successful online reading of her play as part of our lockdown play reading group, Karen Forbes generously offered us the play rights-free as a creative opportunity to try out the online form. All this was very exciting, but, how to start and how to make it all work?
Pre-production
Some things about the creative process were very similar to the way we might usually do things ...
Find a director ... Tick! ... I jumped at the chance to have a go, and was especially glad to have Karen there along the way as Assistant Director.
Cast the production ... Tick! ... Luckily we had some fabulous actors at the play reading who were keen to take up the challenge.
Find a production team ... Tick! We had a film editor, sound designer, props and wardrobe team.
But pretty much everything else about the production has been quite a different experience.
Rehearsals
In the middle of deepest darkest lockdown, and with two of the cast shielding, we could not meet at all except occasionally outside front doors, and then only individually and of course always social distanced. So all rehearsals were conducted on Zoom. As a massive positive, this did mean though that Lucy Hayton could join us from London as part of the production, in a way she never would have been able to conventionally. We started in late June 2020 with two weeks of rehearsals.
Scenes were played out through the Zoom boxes, the directors turning off their camera and then coming back in to give notes. Actors had to interact though their Zoom screens and get used to reacting to each other at a distance. Hiding the self-view became important for some actors so that one did not have to also see oneself on the screen-another distraction! All very strange.
Recording
We had to record the scenes to be able to put them together in the finished film. But, we had to do this from separate locations, from each person’s home space with their own domestic computer and webcam equipment. We purchased a green screen and light set up and borrowed another from Steve Brown. One was posted to Lucy in London, and the other was shared between the Coventry-based cast-as one person’s recordings were completed, the kit was passed onto the next.
We started recording the scenes in mid-July. Actors had to be the whole production team themselves- get into costume and makeup and set up their green screen, lights, mics, and recording software. Tricky things involved ensuring each person’s set-up worked, getting sound levels, positioning of actors to match up with each other and of course, making sure that the record button was pressed.
The timelapse video accompanying Lucy’s reflection captures the hard work this all took. As director, I had to work out a notation technique for recording different ‘takes’, counting down beginning of scenes, noting start and finish and detailing moments when lines were fluffed or actors went out of shot. Actors had to get used to stopping if a mistake was made and returning to a point in the script where an editing cut could be made.
Props and Costume
Costumes were made and sourced by Pam Coleman, including Helen Wither’s beautiful Anglo-Saxon garb. Sally Patalong and Erica and Bill Young were sent a list of props to put together, some of which were also creative challenges including an archaeological find, covered in mud. For scenes involving two people, duplicate props had to be sourced so that they could appear in both scenes in the separate houses! As director, part of my role was boxing up and getting props delivered to actors, including by post for Lucy in London. On another occasion I sat in Coventry watching Lucy in London change into a number of outfits, making selections for different scenes.
Film Editing
Once all the scenes were recorded, we handed over to Steve Brown, film editor and sound designer Paul Forey. Doubtlessly, the biggest job then started. The process of editing together a full two acts of scenes, plus voice overs, images and music is huge. Add to this the fact that what had to be edited together were scenes recorded from many actors’ individual computers, with the varying quality of sound and visuals that accompanied this.
Remember, we only had people’s domestic kit to produce this. In order to make it look like actors were in the same space, backgrounds also had to be added in to each scene. These backgrounds were constructed from on location photographs taken around Coventry by Steve as well as some shots down at Sutton Hoo taken by my mate Denis who lives in Norfolk.
Rendering even small scenes can take many tens of hours to process, and Steve only had a domestic computer to do the processing on. All of this increases the time it took to put this together. We can only thank Steve Brown for his painstaking and tireless work on this project over many, many weeks.
The Final Production
On November 20th we will be able to finally share the finished film. Purchasing a ticket will give you a link to the film which can be accessed as many times as you like over the week of its release until midnight on November 27th.
We are so proud of what we have been able to achieve over lockdown. It has been such an important learning experience and a valuable upskilling opportunity. Filmed and livestream versions of our plays are likely to be an important part of our offering going forward and Edith has given us space to try things out.
We do hope that you enjoy the story of Edith Pretty and our piece of theatrical experimentation, and appreciate the huge amount of hard work that has gone into this project and the bravery and can-do attitude of everyone involved.
Anne-marie Greene, Director.
Reflections from Karen Forbes: Playwright and Assistant Director
Edith - In the Beginning, my second play as a new writer, was originally a site-specific, outdoor commission by STUFF of DREAMS theatre company and the National Trust, to commemorate eighty years since the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Suffolk. Widowed landowner Edith Pretty subsequently donated the treasure find to the nation. It remains one of the most valuable and culturally significant discoveries of all times, providing archaeological evidence which changed our understanding of early seventh century English history.
At the heart of the play, set in class-rigid 1930s England, is a very human story about the unusual friendship between self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown and his employer Edith, a remarkable, educated woman in her own right, who served with the Red Cross in WW1 and became a first-time mother at 47.
As Lockdown began, I adapted the script to accommodate an indoor setting – a far cry from the gloriously hot August weekend in 2019, set on the porch of Tranmer House, in Suffolk overlooking the original burial mounds – ever mindful of the restrictions of cast members rehearsing online within the confines of their own homes. The focus moved from visually elaborate and atmospheric spectacle to a more intimate ‘up-close-and personal’ perspective which really brings the dialogue, poetry and song alive. I am used to being closely involved in the rehearsal process, so working with Anne-marie (Director) and our delightful company of actors, sound, lighting and editing team became a crucial aspect of developing the production collaboratively.
I’m pleasantly surprised how relatively easy it was for us to change our thinking and adapt to weekly rehearsals online in people’s homes, closely replicating the schedule which would normally have taken place in the theatre. There were times when we had to contend with failing technology (not to mention head colds, DIY props, cumbersome furniture and ‘green screens’!), but one advantage was me being able to contribute from Jersey and Lucy Hayton from London, which otherwise could not have happened. Both of us were able to renew our contact with the Criterion and even our Covid-shielding local compatriots could also join us.
I’m so proud to share the success of this new venture, to renew contact with the Criterion where I ‘cut my teeth’ in all things theatrical during my undergrad days at Warwick university. Thankyou for your patience, your wonderful sense of humour, for your willingness to experiment, for daring to take a risk, determined that we would find a way to continue our mutual love of theatre and the stage. Heartfelt thanks for making this happen and for giving Edith another life despite Covid.
Reflections from Lucy Hayton (Edith Pretty)
Performing a play online in the midst of a global pandemic is rather odd. You have sole responsibility for your hair and make-up (terrifying). You have to prepare all your props, set up the tech and turn over your tiny flat into a make-shift studio. There is no audience, no bar, no opening night and no set strike. Some things however, do remain the same. The endless line learning, the panic, the fleeting regret and the laughter. Whilst I would always prefer the ‘in-real-life’ experience of making a play, for me this was a real blessing in dark times.
It demonstrated the ingenuity and determination of a creative community and reassured me that the impulse to make and experience live theatre, is too strong to quietly fade away.
My one piece of advice for those of you considering undertaking a zoom play? Please, for the love of god, make sure you press record!
Watch a timelapse clip of Lucy recording a scene from the play in August here.
Reflections from Keith Railton (Basil Brown)
I’ve been involved in theatre productions for over sixty years but nothing that I had done before prepared me for the ‘Edith Experience’. Never before have I had to create the set in my own front bedroom, rig up a camera, lighting and sound, have costume and props left at my front door and work closely with an actor who was sitting nearly 100 miles away. But I stumbled through, experiencing enjoyment, fulfilment, and stress along the way and, when we’d finished, I discovered I’d actually learnt a lot of new skills.
Throughout the rollercoaster journey my hand was held by a talented cast, writer, director, and a very supportive crew. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve no idea what the end product will be like, but at least we gave it a go. I hope that our audiences will enjoy it. And as for me – well, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Reflections from Helen Withers (Queen Redwaeld)
I thoroughly enjoyed the Criterion Read of “Edith in the Beginning” and was delighted when I was asked to play the Anglo Saxon Queen. It is a beautifully written scene which allows rapport and ultimately affection between two women who were separated by hundreds of years yet united in their loss. It was so enjoyable to work, albeit at a distance, with Lucy while being supported by Anne-marie and Karen. I did learn new skills.
With Steve Brown’s guidance I was able to erect a screen and lights into my front room to create a studio (much to the amusement of my neighbours who did wonder what I was up to!) and was grateful to the various chauffeurs who transported the equipment between Keith and myself as we were both in Lockdown. Special thanks to the ever wonderful Pam for providing me with a Queenly costume and to Gareth for his reassurance when I expressed concern about singing the solo lament “It’s alright, Mum” he said, “I can always use Pitch Correction!”.
Reflections from the Audience
We watched Edith last night. When we lived in Coventry we used to come along to the Criterion, and were always impressed by the sheer professionalism of the productions. You may be in the 'am-dram' category, but you always punch well above your weight. Edith was no exception. In a Covid-19 world, live theatre will have an even more precarious future. What you have done with this production shows a way forward. I've watched some 'socially distanced' on-line productions (notably the Persians, from Epidavros) and also some improv and some 'live' concerts. Edith was quite innovative and shows what can be done on what I imagine was quite a small budget. Obviously there were technical hurdles, but on the whole it was remarkably well done. The position of the 'heads' , the focus, did move from scene to scene, especially noticeable when two screens were side by side. Hard to adjust, but a little disconcerting. The green screen worked well, with hardly any 'artefacts', except in the scene with Basil and his seed trays. I don't know whether this was to do with our set-up (mirroring to our tv from my iPhone), or was intrinsic. The use of archive photographs was good (was the rider's head deliberately out of frame?) and following so soon after Remembrance Day added a poignancy. And it's an interesting story which spurs me to visit Suffolk sometime. Well done. Good to see that you are rising to the challenge and producing excellent work (as usual!).
 
Congratulations are in order - to the playwright and to the whole team!  I really enjoyed this production.  The limitations of lockdown preparation and presentation were turned into positive advantages, notably of course the flashbacks to WWI. I shall no longer see the Sutton Hoo treasure as a set of artefacts and want to find out more about Edith.
 
I enjoyed this performance and found it to be very atmospheric and moving. This was quite a feat as I was watching on my Iphone. Having visited Sutton Hoo last year, the production was indeed more interesting, because of having visited the house and the barrows first hand. Thank you for an enjoyable experience, and a remarkable achievement, given the current constraints.
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