Meet our Members Series: Sound Engineer

Here is our third installment of our ‘Meet our Members’ series! We’ll be talking to our brilliant Sound Engineer, Jason Austin, whose editing skills and keen sense for cues ensure that are productions are atmospheric and smooth.We talk about what a Sound Engineer does and how he personally goes about it, and find out a little more about what makes him tick!

We know that you have been involved as a sound engineer for more than one local organisation – tell us a little about what you do.
Apart from being the sound engineer for Huntingdon Drama Club, I currently sit on the committee which I enjoy as it gives me an insight on how the dram club runs. I have been a church organist and sound engineer for HRC104FM. Currently I am writing music to pass the lockdown time and when the world is normal, I take on teaching the piano, which is a great passion of mine. If I am not listening to music, I’m editing, composing or teaching. 

Starter or dessert?
Desert all the way so I do not spoil my appetite with a starter!

Cats or dogs?
Cats as they are independent and sometimes a little crazy (the ones I know).

You have been Sound Engineer now for several productions, what has been your favourite moment with the Huntingdon Drama Club so far?
I do not really have a favourite moment as every play is different. I love doing every production because I get to work with brilliant and diverse people including, incredibly talented actors/actresses, great directors and always an amazing and talented production team.

There was a particularly brilliant moment in rehearsals for our most recent production, Cathy, where you were able to solve a problem with sound during a transition between scenes. It’s moments like this that people don’t always get to hear about – can you tell us what happened?
During the technical rehearsal of Cathy, Rae the director of Cathy said, “would it be possible to make the music for a transition longer” and me being me I said give me 5 minutes. So, I copied and pasted the intro to make it add those few extra seconds needed for the transition and had it completed in a couple of minutes, and it worked a treat, much to the amazement of everyone.

Where do you find your sounds, music and effects?
Most of the sound effects I use can be found on the internet. There are lots of free websites that allow you to download sounds for free. All you need to do is create an account and you have access to millions of different sound effects. 

How long, on average, do you spend editing sound for each production?
I usually spend 6 weeks collecting all the music, effects, and samples and liaising with the director to see what they would like (a lot of emails bouncing about at all times of the day and night). The main editing which is making sure all the sounds are correct usually takes 3 weeks ready for the fine tuning at the technical rehearsal.

Do you need expensive software to edit sound?
No, you do not need expensive editing software. I use Cubase 10 which you can buy for around £200. This programme allows you to edit any music and allows you to do recording of multiple instruments. You can usually do free trials, or if you want to try a basic free software you can try Garage Band.

It seems pretty technical, what advice would you give to someone just wanting to have a go?
The advice I would give is concentrate on one track at a time because what you do with a single track you can repeat the process for multiple tracks. The main thing you need is a passion for being creative.

Describe your perfect day?
My perfect day would be getting up, practice the piano, going to work and spending time with my family doing fun family activities and spending time with people who I am close to.

Meet our Members Series: Lead Actor

For our second installment of ‘Meet our Members’, we introduce you to one of our most talented and committed lead actors, Kerry MacCuaig, who played the pivotal character of Cathy in our Autumn Production of the same name. 
We discuss nerves, line learning, auditions and what, as a new member to the Huntingdon Drama Club, Kerry has learnt. We also cover the important questions of dream roles and perfect days…

You were brilliant as Cathy – what was your favourite moment of it all? 
Thank you. My favourite moment of it all was working with new people who I have become close with since finishing the play and working in a new style of theatre.


What was your favourite play you have acted in outside of HDC? 
I am really into musical theatre, so my favourite thing I have been in other then Cathy has to be ‘Oh What a Lovely War’.


How on earth do you learn all the lines? 
I am dyslexic so I find it quite hard to sit and read a script over and over again, so I recorded the play at the read through so I could play it over and over again. I also find moving with the script helps with learning the words, it makes it more of a physical act. To me moving with the script allows you to get the physical emotion into the movements and helps with learning the blocking (basic moment directions). I also printed off sections of the script and stuck them in different areas of my house. My husband thought I was strange but I learnt the lines!


What would be your dream part to play? Do you have parts you would like to play from different theatre genres?
Because of my love of musicals I would say Nancy from ‘Oliver’. I have recently watched ‘Jane Eyre’ and that role really intrigued me. I would also love to play the Woman from ‘The Woman in Black’ as I remember the play fondly and I’d love to make people jump! I would love to be a part of a play that I have always wanted to direct; it’s based on the film a ‘Matter of Life and Death’. I’d also love to be Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ as I would love to see it played in a different style. 


We’d love to see those! Do you ever get nervous? If so, when? 
I get really nervous in the first scene and then once I’m into it it seems to ease off, it’s the first few lines that get me. 

What do you do to manage your nerves?
I normally take myself out and have a few minutes just to myself and breathe deeply, I also run through my lines quickly as a sort of chant with a dance!


What advice would you give to someone thinking of auditioning but nervous about the process?
I would say that the Huntingdon Drama Club are really friendly and open to new people auditioning, I love the fact that the auditions are more like a work shop than an audition as I felt at ease and it’s nice to see and interact with other people from the club. I would say go for it, as even if you don’t get a part, making your face known can lead to good things. As for nerves, I guarantee they will fade within a few minutes of being there as everyone is friendly and welcoming and that is part of the reason I want to be involved with Huntingdon Drama Club again.


Starter or dessert? 
Desert because sweets are everything.I look at the desert menu before main menu most of the time.


Cats or dogs? 
I love them both equally and I am the proud mother of 4 ‘fur babies’ (3 cats & 1 dog).


Describe your perfect day? 
Have a big breakfast, go out for a fun activity like going to a zoo or something physical like swimming or going to a theme park, have more food and watch a new film with the family at home with a big bowl of popcorn or go to the theatre to watch a show.


Thanks very much for sharing this with us, Kerry! And as for our audience, keep your eyes peeled for our next interview in May!

Meet the Members Series: Stage Manager

Our very first ‘Meet the members’ interview takes you back stage into the world of our enigmatic Lola Harling, one of our most dependable and competent stage managers who transformed the role within HDC into what it is today. We asked her several questions ranging from those about the art of Stage Management to a few about the woman herself…

What was the first production you stage managed?

The first production I had a stage management role in was at college, on my BTEC Technical Theatre course. I was the Deputy Stage Manager for the musical ‘Oliver’. The college had a deal with the Key Theatre in Peterborough that students who studied Technical theatre, musical theatre and dancing could put on a professional quality musical twice an academic year. My first production I stage managed for Huntingdon Drama Club was ‘The Madness of King George’.

How long have you been involved in Huntingdon Drama Club? Tell us a little about your time with us.

I have been involved with the Huntingdon Drama Club since 2016. I became a member of the committee and have the role of Social Event Organiser. In that time I have seen the club move location from the Commemoration hall to places such as Huntingdon Town hall, in the courtroom and St. Mary’s Church.

Don’t you have to know loads to be a stage manager?

I have changed the role of Stage Manager for the drama club by combining two roles together. Before I joined the club the role of Stage Manager would describe a role very like a professional Stage Manager, where you act like a health and safety officer and ensure everyone is accounted for; someone who runs the stage area. I combined this role with the professional role of Deputy Stage Manager – this role involves a special item called ‘The Book’. The Book is normally a folder with an enlarged version of the script where the Deputy Stage Manager notes down blocking. Blocking is a note of where actors enter and exit the stage; the actors’ movements around the stage; if they have a prop (an item the actor holds or uses); and if the director envisions a lighting or sound change. The Book is very important to help if anyone is ill and misses a rehearsal or if there are any changes to what cast need to do, and is available for everyone to see. By combining these two roles it allows the director to concentrate on directing.

What is the most important thing to know?

The main role of Stage Manager is to look after the stage and what happens on stage, and normally does risk assessments for the production and plans how and when all the equipment and set get set up and come down, this is called a ‘Get In’ and ‘Get Out’.

To do a Deputy Stage Manager role (which we combined with Stage Manager), the only difficult part is knowing your Stage Left, Right, Up and Down when watching from the audience point of view, and making sure people understand your version of short hand notes.

Any other top tips?

My top tips are:

  • Stay calm
  • Forward planning/thinking
  • Be organised
  • Stationary is your best friend
  • Be confident
  • Remind actors to be quiet behind stage

Who’s in charge once we’re in the theatre space?

The Stage Manager is in charge of the theatre space once you enter the space. This means even the director must listen to you. Especially when you have a Tech Rehearsal – this is the rehearsal that is just for the technical team, lighting; sound; set and props. Actors may get bored and frustrated, but as I always say, actors have several weeks to rehearsal and the tech team normally only get a day.

Starter or dessert?

Most people who know me well know I’m a dessert girl; anything lemony or chocolaty mostly. If it is ice cream, sorbet or gelato I’m a happy lady. But if I’m feeling like a piggy wiggy I will have a starter as well – normally something garlicky or calamari.

Cats or dogs?

I don’t mind cats but I am definitely a dog person.  When my boyfriend and I get a house I’m hoping to get my own dog. I’m sad scaly babies are not included in the question as I have an amazing terrapin called ‘Ariel’.

Favourite HDC production moment and why?

My favourite production moment is an incident during the production of ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ when the character Denis accidentally crashed into the audience on a mobile scooter due to the audience members moving their chairs into the aisle. It was a concerning and funny moment all at the same time, will definitely go down in Drama club history.

Describe your perfect day?

My perfect day inside is curled up in my PJs with my other half or with one of my besties, watching feel good films, eating snacks and maybe some ice cream.

My perfect day outside is a day at the beach, near the sea, enjoying the nostalgia of being a child and feeling one with the sea (Yes, I believe I’m a mermaid!)

Cathy’s ongoing legacy

There is a human detritus swirling around in the backwaters of the welfare state which nobody seems able to do anything about. Society and its public servants want passionately to do something – but somehow they can’t.

Cathy Come Home review – The Guardian, 17th November 1966

If part of art’s power is its capacity to draw attention to issues faced in contemporary society, if a portion of its purpose is to throw a lens upon those on the margins, if – in egalitarian spirit – it can explore the emotions and experiences of people from all backgrounds – then plays like Cathy are fitting and timely. Following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the UK government enacted austerity measures which, though perhaps made in good faith, have come at a cost. Reductions in government spending have seen social services struggling under increasing pressure and those on low incomes have found it all the more difficult to get by.

Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) and Reg (Les Roberts) discuss Cathy’s new living situation. Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

First performed in 2016, Ali Taylor’s play is actually a modern re-telling of an older drama. The inspiration was Cathy Come Home, a 1966 made-for television play written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach. Over thirty years later, it was still recalled as an important piece of TV; in 1998 a Radio Times poll declared it to be the “best single television drama” and two years later an industry poll voted it as the second best British programme ever made.

Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

The story follows the lives of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who initially have a good standard of living due to Reg’s well-paying job. Circumstances soon turn against them, however, as an injury sustained in the workplace leads to Reg’s unemployment and Cathy’s pregnancy means they can no longer stay in their flat, since the building does not permit children. With the loss of Reg’s income, the couple are now unable to find affordable accommodation. Despite periods of alleviation, their luck continues to spiral, and the growing family eventually finds themselves squatting in an abandoned building.


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

At that time, subjects such as homelessness and unemployment received very little in the way of media attention. This may have been partly due to the post-war economic boom which ushered in an age of prosperity for Britain, with the 1950s and 1960s seeing wages and living standards rise for many. It is estimated that wages rose by approximately 40% between 1950 and 1965. Luxury items were no longer only the preserve of the wealthiest; those on lower incomes could afford them. In 1959, Queen magazine announced that Britain had “launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living” and historian R J Unstead’s appraisal was similarly positive. “Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

This era of general prosperity perhaps led to nationwide complacency when it came to regarding the problems of those who still fell between the cracks. Even in times of unimagined growth, there will still be a minority who, sometimes through no fault of their own, fall upon hard times. Subsequently, those who struggled to get by in the post-war decades found their plight largely ignored – but Cathy Come Home changed that. Watched by approximately twelve million people (which at the time was roughly twenty-five percent of the country’s population) it prompted telephone calls to the BBC from viewers who had been impacted and caused discussion of homelessness in Parliament. As a result, Conservative MPs William Shearman and Iain Macleod led a publicity campaign which drew even more attention to the experiences of the homeless and the charity ‘Crisis’ was formed the following year.

Jay (L. T. Hewitt) serves Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) with some unwelcome paperwork.
Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

Fifty years later, Ali Taylor’s Cathy is just as hard-hitting and thought-provoking as the play it is based upon. It does not shy away from the lengths to which some people are forced to turn towards in order to shelter and protect themselves – the squalor and hardship that Cathy and her daughter experience are unapologetically spotlighted, providing an unsettling window into the harsh and dismal circumstances into which their lives descend. But for all the depiction of unpleasantness, a grain of hope runs throughout the tale, barely visible at times, but always present in the minutest sense – serving, perhaps, as a reminder that in our darkest moments, hope is our single sustainer, and is possibly the only thing that the homeless can really call their own.

by Michelle Gibson, November 2019

Originally published in the Cathy programme 

The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.

Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.

Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.

This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee.  If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right. 

Auditions! Some advice…

Over two and a bit days I’ve auditioned 40 people for next year’s Shakespeare at The George production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On every other amateur production I’ve directed I’ve held ‘group’ auditions. Fairly informal, everyone has a chance to read several parts over the space of a couple of hours, sat in a semi-circle. You know the drill. This time, as I believe is the norm for SaTG, we held individual auditions, one actor at a time, 20 minutes each.

Auditioning is an unavoidable part of the process. In the professional world of acting it’s far, far worse. For the majority of the time you don’t even get a reply, let alone any feedback on how your audition went. This is changing slowly – the National Theatre have made a commitment to give every actor it auditions at least a yes or no reply. During my very limited experience as a professional actor the rule of thumb was “if you don’t hear anything, assume you haven’t got it”.

The actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) writes about auditions in his book A Life In Parts; “… focus on process rather than outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something. I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that… Of course I didn’t always get the job, but that wasn’t my intent any more. What was important was I always left that room knowing I did everything I could do.”

Auditions for our Spring 2017 production ‘Alfie’

Auditioning all those actors and thinking of Mr Cranston’s wise words I started to think about some tips of my own for auditioning actors. And before you read on – please let me be clear that this is not some “follow my advice for success every time” mantra. I don’t know enough about the business to do that and anyway, there are no hard & fast rules. And this advice is for amateur theatre, which I have far more experience of than the professional world. What I can tell you is what I, as an auditioning director, would expect and if that helps with your auditions in the future – great. So, here’s a few pointers (in no particular order)…

You’re auditioning before you enter the room

I had instructed each actor to prepare (preferably learn!) one of a choice of pieces from the play and to bring along their audition form containing all their vital information. Roughly one third forgot to bring their form. My immediate thoughts? They can’t follow instructions. A bit harsh, you might think, but you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage before you’ve uttered a word of the speech you’ve learned. What’s that? You haven’t learned it? Okay…

Reputation goes a long way

Every production I’m involved with – I’m quietly auditioning people. “He’s good”, “She’d make a great (insert character name here)”, “he’s fun to work with”, “she’s a very generous actor”. On the other hand, there’s also “he’s never on time”, “she misses lots of rehearsals”, “he never learns his lines until the last minute”, “she’s selfish & very high maintenance”. You’re auditioning ALL THE TIME.

Be courteous

If you can’t make it to an audition, for whatever reason – let the director know. Three no-shows in one day is an hour of wasted time that could’ve been spent seeing other people. And if you can’t let me know that you’re not coming to audition, then how many rehearsals are you also going to miss without notifying anyone?

Enthusiasm

Bring some energy into the room. Smile! Look happy to be there! An audition panel that have spent 2 solid days in a windowless room listening to the same words over and over again will appreciate it.

We want you to be great!

Every actor that walks through the door is potentially an answer to a casting problem. Directors are rooting for you – they want you to be good because they want to put together the best cast possible. A decent director is not there to put you off or catch you out. They are mentally willing you on!

Look the part

Either dress neutral or make some effort to resemble the part you’re going for. It helps to visualise you in that role. If you’re going for the role of the pantomime cow then you may want to discount this piece of advice.

Then of course there’s the actual ‘meat’ of the audition – the prepared speech, the sight reading, etc etc. I deliberately haven’t discussed this because I wanted to emphasise how important all the other stuff is before you’ve even begun your two minutes of Iago/Viola. When I was training at LAMDA, I spent a day helping out at auditions for new students. On this particular day we had four kids from Wales who had all travelled together to try and get a place at drama school. My acting teacher said to me during our lunch break that he’d love to offer them all places, simply because they were so nice. For a director on an amateur production (with all that entails!) things like reliability, dedication, punctuality, enthusiasm, hard work, commitment, team spirit & generosity are all equally important as talent.

Finally – it’s also worth remembering that this is your opportunity to assess the director. Are they someone you want to spend two or three evenings per week with for the next three months? Something to think about!

by Dean Laccohee 

 

 

 

The personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics…

Fear not. All amateurs are not the same,

Some Little Theatres higher standards claim

And hold with fervour nigh obsessional

That amateurs are better than professional

– Michael Green – ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’

It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.

Michael Green’s book on ‘coarse acting’.

Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”

But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.

Burt Reynolds in the 2008 movie A Bunch of Amateurs, with Imelda Staunton, Alistair Petrie & Derek Jacobi.

Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.

By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)

The Intertwining of Art & Nature

One of the wonderful things about theatre is that – weather and other factors permitting – it is an experience that can be enjoyed in a multitude of settings, something which is especially relevant to the club in the period following the closure of our previous performing space. Our venues since then have included our Town Hall courtroom and a church, and we frequently keep our eyes peeled for other potential locations.

The spatially transitory nature of the performing arts not only abets our creativity but also enriches the overall experience for both the actors and the audience. Imagine attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the depths of the woods, with all the mystery and mysticism that environment conjures. As the evening sun casts shadows – or could they be spectres? – upon the leafy forest bed, the sound of the breeze amongst the trees almost sounds like a ghost rustling its way through the undergrowth. The setting enhances the reality of the play; surrounded by the density of the trees, the audience may wonder what hidden secrets lie just beyond their sight. As twigs snap beneath the feet of a performer – or was it something else? – a spectator might feel that nature spirits such as Puck and Titania may well be lurking in the background. Everything is possible, everything is real.

Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre

This intertwining of art and nature manifests itself in various open-air theatres, one of which I recently visited. Located in Cornwall is the village of Porthcurno where, nestled amongst the cliffs, lies the Minack Theatre, founded during the first half of the twentieth century by local resident Rowena Cade. Inspired to do so by watching a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cade built the theatre with the assistance of her gardener Billy Rawlings. Completed in 1932, the newly-opened theatre welcomed its first performance – The Tempest – that same year. Miss Cade’s determination to maintain the venue was such that she worked tirelessly over the winter months to preserve the theatre so that it could be continuously used each summer.

Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre, pictured from above

In 1944, the theatre temporarily became one of the locations used for the film Love Story (which starred Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood) until poor weather no longer made this feasible. Eleven years later, its first dressing rooms were added and in the following decades, the Minack has continued to be a theatrical delight of Cornwall and is currently open for business between the spring months and September. Boasting attractive views of the surrounding coastal area, in the absence of a performance, the theatre is well worth visiting in its own right – though in the height of summer, when the sea is at its clearest turquoise and most inviting, you may have to fight the urge to dive straight from the clifftops into the waters. Bedecked with stretches of grass and flowers, the natural beauty of the setting lends a special romance towards the experience. Carved into some of the stone slabs is the history of the numerous performances the theatre has witnessed over the years, some of the most recent performances including The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing and The Producers.

A quote from Paul Cezanne reads thus: “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.” Exploring the twists and turns on the slope of the Minack Theatre, it was easy to see just how true his words were.

A Weekend At Shakespeare’s Globe – Director’s Studio

When it comes to theatre, be it acting, directing or working behind the scenes – you never stop learning. And I love the opportunity to learn more, especially from professionals working in the industry right now. And so a Directing Studio at Shakespeare’s Globe over a weekend in May sounded too good to miss! Located on London’s Bankside (which can you now reach by train directly from Huntingdon to Blackfriars – assuming the trains aren’t cancelled) the Globe has become an increasingly important centre for theatre in London since it opened in 1997. Seeing several productions at the Globe in the last few years (Henry V, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Doctor Scroggy’s War) I was struck by the unique atmosphere. Standing in the yard as a groundling literally inches from the stage watching Jonathan Pryce as Shylock or Jamie Parker urging us once more unto the breach as King Henry for just £5 is not only the sale of the century but also the most exciting way I’ve seen Shakespeare performed.

Jamie Parker as Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

Having somehow persuaded the Shakespeare at The George trustees to allow me to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their 60th anniversary production in 2019, this Directing Studio was perfect for me – I haven’t directed any Shakespeare for a number of years and was eager to be as well-equipped as possible for the first get-together and rehearsals with the cast. What I was eager to discover was how the Globe infuses it’s productions with such vitality and energy, engaging the audience to come along for the ride – several hundred of whom will be on their feet for the 2 to 3 hour running time.

Day One

We started on Saturday morning with introductions from our course leader Craig who gave us an overview of the two days before we launched straight into the first session – An Actor’s Perspective with director and actor Phillip Bird. Using a scene from The Tempest we had the opportunity to deliver a few lines on the stage of the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s indoor venue. Here the challenge is the same as in the far larger main venue next door – the audience are all around you – above, below, to your left and to your right. How do the actors manage to engage all sections of the audience? One way (which I tried hard to use in Richard III) is to be very specific with your delivery – to point lines to different members of the audience, to engage them with eye contact and make them feel involved – as if you are talking directly to them. It reassures the audience that, no matter where they are watching the action from, they will be involved. As an audience member watching an actor who stares somewhere into the middle distance, directing their lines to nobody in particular, it’s easy to become disengaged and lose interest.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Moving across the road to the Globe’s wonderful rehearsal studios, director Rob Swain took us through session two – A Director Prepares, which I found invaluable and could’ve easily spent a whole day on! Rob starts with what he calls ‘the clean read’. He opens the text and reads the play straight through from start to end, with no note taking or mental analysis – to make the play fresh in the mind of the director and erasing (if possible) previous readings or viewings. Then he starts to ask questions – anything that springs to mind. It could be “why does a bear suddenly appear?” or “have Hamlet and Ophelia consummated their relationship?” And after this first ‘clean’ read – note down your reactions and questions. Importantly – think about what your audience will NOT understand and start to think about how to solve those problems.

Rob talked about the ‘three worlds’ of the play; The First World – the time and place in which the play is written. The Second World – the world in which the play is set and the significance that brings to the story. And finally, The Third World – the world in which we live, and how the play engages with our audience. He encouraged us not to ‘impose’ upon the play but to have an on-going dialogue with it. Don’t worry about ‘concepts’ or ‘making it relevant’ but instead to be true to the play and in doing so ‘releasing it’s relevance’ to the audience.

Shakespeare’s Globe

Research is an important part of the directing process and this was broken down into three different types; Imaginative Research– what does the play say to me? Why should I do it? What is the play actually ABOUT? What actually HAPPENS during the play? What is trying to do to the audience? (This could be as broad as, with a comedy, ‘make the audience laugh’). Factual Research– are there different versions of the play? How do they differ? Why are certain passages in prose? (Very relevant to the Mechanical scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Why are certain lines longer or shorter than others? Historical Research– the place & time in which the play is set. How does this influence the story?

We also discussed the internal architecture of the play and the difference between ‘dramatic’ and ‘real’ credibility. How does the play deal with the distance between places and the time-span of the action? Pericles, for example, takes place over a course of some years, whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream happens in one day. Decisions made in the play by characters have a ripple effect on the story – if Lysander and Hermia hadn’t run away from the court then Demetrius & Helena would never have fallen in love. Above all Rob encouraged us not to be too ‘well-learned’ at this stage but to allow a ‘creative mess of ideas’. By the time rehearsals begin, the director should be able to give the actors enough to think about that they will come back with their own questions and suggestions.

The third and final session on day one was again with Phillip and drilled down into the text of classical theatre. Line lengths, verse versus prose, pauses, etc. He urged us to look at the direction of scenes – who’s chasing? Who’s running? What does the character want from the scene? What are they trying to get from the other character(s)? I was reminded of a tip from a book by the American director Harold Clurman where he talked about ‘the nice and the nasty’ and how it relates to movement or blocking in a scene. When characters say nice things to each other they tend to move towards each other. When they say nasty things they tend to move apart. Quite simple but effective!

Day Two

Returning on Sunday morning we started with a movement session led by Simone Coxall – a director and movement specialist who has worked extensively in the UK, USA & Australia and also teaches at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company. A good movement session can really open actors up and free them from the trappings of their own mental and physical habits. It’s a discipline I used to wrestle with at drama school (having two left feet and being a big fan of lying down) but I’ve come to embrace as an incredibly useful way to work through problems in rehearsal or on difficult scenes. (A Laban movement session at a Donmar Theatre workshop was invaluable during rehearsals for The Madness of George III– finding a different physicality for the ‘mad’ scenes). It’s not dance and the two shouldn’t be confused. It deals a lot with tempo – changing your inner and outer tempos and seeing how combining, for example a fast inner tempo with a calm, slow outer tempo can give an actor a unique physical place to work from. Very often in rehearsal we see that the tempo an actor brings with them when they arrive at the first rehearsal (their own tempo) will soon become the characters tempo which in turn dictates the pace at which they move around the stage & deliver all their lines. In life, our bodies are attuned to react in different situations – to laugh if we’re amused, to run away from danger. In rehearsal we need to unlock that in the actors body. It’s interesting, rewarding and something which the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwill benefit from. Simone has agreed in principle to come down to Huntingdon and run a session with us!

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe

Next up we were back in the Playhouse with Yvonne Morley for a session on voice. Yvonne was head of voice at LAMDA as well as being an associate of the National and Globe theatres. She has also recently been working on a project to create a ‘voice profile’ for Richard III, which you can learn more about here. Yvonne began by telling us the three things she requires from actors – (1) that you can be heard, (2) that you can be understood and (3) that the audience believes you. If any of those three elements are missing then we don’t have a real, full performance. Yvonne took us through an invigorating and energising vocal warm-up, before running us through a number of exercises focussed on breath, tone and pitch. It’s a lovely feeling as an actor when you’ve had a great warm-up and the voice is really resonating! On the playhouse stage we added exaggerated movements to the lines of a children’s story, to see how the body can combine with the voice. Another very useful exercise helped us to maintain the energy through to the very end of a line – avoiding the pitfall that actors fall into where they tail off at the end of a li…

We reconvened at the rehearsal studios for a final session with director Rob Swain – essentially a Q&A and feedback on the course. I was loaded with questions for Rob & probably asked three times as many as anyone else! So, what did I learn that I can take forward into A Midsummer Night’s Dream next year? Well, as Rob neatly put it, “if it’s outside then it needs to be bigger, bolder, louder & brighter. And invite them to bring food & booze and make it a party atmosphere!” The voice and movement sessions will help my cast to be heard and understood and hopefully to move more freely and with intention. The text work we did will enable me to guide the actors through their lines, helping to understand and to mine the lines for clues on story and motivation. You can never know it all and that’s why theatre-making is most rewarding when it’s a truly collaborative exercise – the cast, crew & director all driving towards the same goal – to create the best production they can.

Thank you once again to the Trustees of SaTG for this wonderful opportunity & I look forward to putting all of this and more into practise for next year’s anniversary production!

Dean Laccohee, Artistic Director

Thomas Edison & The World’s First Movie Studio

What comes to mind when you see the name of Thomas Edison? Visions, perhaps, of a wild-haired inventor, pacing his laboratory. Or maybe we imagine him hunched over paperwork, fraught with nervous tension, his eyes sandpapery and raw from lack of sleep. When recalling figures that have influenced the film industry, this great American inventor, hero of the scientific world, would not be the first name to roll off the tongue. But in the early days of the business, Edison made his mark – and, some believe, may have even played a part in inspiring companies to set up base in Hollywood.

Thomas Edison

First, the obvious – technology. Thomas Edison is credited, among other things, with the development of the motion picture camera – the Kinetograph, as it was otherwise known. Whilst Edison was responsible for the electromechanical work, his employee William K. L. Dickson – who, it is thought, was more influential in creating the finished product than Edison himself – tackled photographic and optical development. Completed in 1891, the Kinetograph was originally placed inside penny arcades and was first exhibited to the public in May of that year.

What may be less well-known is that Edison himself created and owned a film company. In existence from 1894 until 1918, Edison Studios made over 1000 short films and even a few feature-lengths. Examples include 1896’s The Kiss, notable for being the very first example of a kiss shown on film, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery (the first Western) and the earliest adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910.

‘The Kiss’ 1896

But his relationship with the film industry was not always a positive one. Towards the end of 1908, Edison formed the MPPC (Motion Picture Patents Company), a trust which included Eastman Kodak (at that time the largest supplier of film stock) and many of the then major film companies. Although the MPCC did bring some benefits – such as introducing a standard rental rate for licensed films – Edison’s trust was to become an overbearing and heavy-handed force, to the point where it is sometimes referred to as “Edison’s plot to hijack the movie industry.”

How was this plan set into shape? Edison’s idle daydreams of holding court over the increasingly popular film business were actualised by the MPCC establishing a monopoly on the features of filmmaking. As a member of the trust, Eastman Kodak agreed to only sell film stock to other members, which meant that independent companies were frozen out. Additionally, as the trust controlled the patents on motion picture cameras, this resulted in only MPCC studios having permission to film.

The world’s first film production studio – Edison’s Black Maria

The MPCC built a rigid system of rules and was not timid about taking swift legal action against independent companies and filmmakers who were using their equipment without authorisation. It has been claimed that this was one of the reasons that led to numerous companies bolting to Hollywood – California not only gracing them with an agreeable climate but also being a safe distance from the vengeful Edison’s New Jersey home. Setting up base in California made it more difficult for the MPCC to sue or otherwise bother the filmmakers who did not wish to abide by their stringent codes.

It has been written that were Thomas Edison to have succeeded in his endeavours, “he would have killed the motion picture industry or at least delayed its flowering by a generation”. Not satisfied with a tight grip on the industry technology-wise, the inventor was also prone to regulating content, maintaining that “nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone”, which gave him a common cause with the moral enforcers of the era. One such self-proclaimed upholder of all that was decent and respectable, wrote scathingly of the droves of wide-eyed cinemagoers, complaining that “I would have been more comfortable on board a cattle train than where I sat…what is hardest to swallow is that the tastes of this seething mass of human cattle are the tastes that have dominated, or at least set, the standard of American moving pictures.”

Thankfully for the flowering of the motion picture industry, many independent companies and distributors chose not to get with Edison’s program, and the MPCC ultimately floundered into decline, with the final nail in the coffin being a federal court’s decision in 1915. In the case of United States vs Motion Picture Patents Co it was determined that the MPCC’s actions were “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents or the monopoly which went with them.” The company officially came to an end three years later, but its steady waning in power had been ongoing for some time. “What finally did the Edison monopoly in,” wrote Matthew Lasar in a business article titled Take Heed, Tech Giants, “was the assumption that its legal/technical dominance over the trade, and its moral stance, would trump the public’s demand for ever more creative motion pictures…they didn’t. Instead, they flocked to Carl Laemmle and his fellow independents’ ‘illegal’ movies.” By the time a federal court pronounced that the MPCC had terrorised exchangers and exhibitors and described its methods as “arbitrary, oppressive and high-handed”, Thomas Edison’s reign over films had already stuttered to a halt.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson