The Effort Needed for Effortlessness – Valerie Russell

Directing a show, particularly a musical, takes a lot of research and careful planning. Every show has a segment that tests the experience and creativity of everyone in its company. Examples of this might be how half of the actors in Secret Garden are dead – how to make that clear to the audience without dressing everyone in sheets? Or possibly how to teach 5 local actors (men) to strip down to a G-string in The Full Monty (for real) and not let anything show. It takes creative co-operation from everyone and a lot of rehearsal to get it right.

The most multi-faceted one of these for me was the barricade scene in Les Miserables. How to erect, carry out a battle scene, have several revolutionaries die from different heights on the barricade and strike the structure all in a few pages of orchestral music with an overlay of crashes and gunshots and yelling.

The huge backdrop of the barricade in Les Miserables, flown in the Capitol Theatre.

The design was done by my daughter Lauren Page Russell and Tim (my husband) built the set…it’s a family thing. The barricade was built in 6 pieces some of which were incorporated into a street scape set. We moved the pieces into Paul Burnham’s barn (grateful for much needed space) and spent a Sunday practicing moving, putting it together, revolutionaries climbing over…reloading muskets, and being shot off, falling from heights into arms and on to safety mats. I gave the revolutionaries numbers and they listened to the numbers of bars of music they had to get into position, get their musket reloaded (women below the barricade), climb back, reposition, shoot and then get shot and fall…We ran this over and over and over me calling out their numbers.

Rehearsing the barricade scene in Les Miserables.

Feeling as if we had nailed this, we moved into the Capitol, only to find that we needed much more planning. How to get guns, stools, benches, hand props and set dressing pieces on and off fluidly, in record time? Lauren came up with the plan. Every available body backstage and a few onstage were assigned set pieces or props to place, and backstage every available body (stage crew, dressers, makeup people) formed a human chain through the wings to the storage areas and handed along everything needed, to the actors. The revolutionaries had placed the 6 barricade pieces and were ready for everything else. This was accomplished in record time and it was brilliant…every single person working as a unit. 

Audiences watched as this miraculously came together, and as the music and sounds swelled the battle raged on before our eyes (with about 20 more pairs of hands in the wings making it all happen.) And in the end, everything disappeared in reverse. No one was watching this happen…they were focused on the lifeless body of little Gavroche (Nicholas Graf/Aidan Hussey) left at the lip of the stage by a revolutionary after he fell from the barricade, his slumped body picked up and thrown onto a cart with other dead. I cried every rehearsal and every night. Added to all of this, brilliant lighting by David Hoare was the piece that brought it all together.

As a director I am always so very grateful for the creative company of Players whose willingness to work hard until it is perfect, makes me keep coming back.  

After long rehearsals and lots of hard work from everyone involved, the barricade scene in Les Miserables stunned audiences every night.