Meet our Members Series: Producer

Join us here for our sixth ‘Meet the Members’ interview. This time we speak to Matt Calleway, who takes on another of our most crucial and rewarding but less apparent roles; that of the Producer. He shares the highlights of the role, along with how he became involved with the drama club and explains what a Producer for Huntingdon Drama Club actually does…

How did you get involved with HDC?
I expressed an interest in helping out as an assistant-producer for Alfie (back in 2017). Somehow I ended up full producer though, supported in my role by the Director and Stage Manager who had both produced before! I then produced The Crucible (2017) and The Thrill of Love (2018) and was involved with writing and developing Fantastical Folktales for the Bridge Festival in 2019.

So what does a Producer actually do?
The role of a Producer with the Drama Club is nothing like the musical! You basically “project manage” the play, organising production meetings and schedules, keeping an eye on the budget (as worked out by the Director), helping the Stage Manager facilitate the “get in” to the venue and “get out” of the venue, organising publicity in the form of organising a poster tour and sometimes writing press releases for local papers.

What’s the best thing about producing?
Seeing the whole play come together. You attend very few rehearsals as Producer, as your involvement is almost entirely behind the scenes. As a result between the read-through (where you meet the cast) and the dress rehearsal in situ, you may only make three or four rehearsals so you really get that ‘wow’ moment when you see the finished production!

Do you need any experience or training?
None, my first foray into producing was my first foray into the world of amateur theatre!

What is your no.1 tip if you want to be a great producer?
Be organised and get to know the Director and Stage Manager early on, you will be working really closely with them so make sure you are all on the same page.

What was your favourite moment of the shows you have produced?
Seeing the buzz of the audience coming out of The Crucible, so excited and energised by the play – even though it had been nearly 3 hours on hard wooden seating – and hearing the conversations that it had sparked in the pub after.

Starter or dessert?
Dessert, but it could be a good cheeseboard.

Cats or dogs?
I had both growing up, but to avoid offending our current pets I’ll say cats.

Favourite season and why?
Autumn, I love that sense of change in the air and being able to watch it happening in the trees.

Describe your perfect day?
Early start, good coffee, then heading out to explore a new place (urban or rural), a swim in the heat of the afternoon, and then cooking up something seasonal and fresh for dinner with a pint of ale.

Meet our Members Series: Lighting Technician

For our fifth ‘Meet the Members’ interview, we have a chat with one of our highly skilled but seldom seen members, our talented Lighting Technician, Max Richardson. We are treated to a journey through the surprising variety of tasks his role within local theatre entails, both for Huntingdon Drama Club and other companies and groups, as well as learning a little about the man himself…

So what exactly do you do – both for our Drama Club and with other organisations?
I wear 4 hats in am-dram, which in most professional environments would be accomplished by a team:
Lighting Designer:Start by reading the script and highlighting what the scene is and anything that can indicate the time of day or where they are. Next, I will talk to the Director – some have clear opinions and have a fully formed idea, some develop ideas during the rehearsal process and some prefer the lighting designer to visualise the end product. With directors that develop ideas over time, it is sometimes an challenge that they will realise they want an effect that needed to be considered much earlier, such as the almost cliche moment during the tech when the director announces “…and that’s when the smoke comes in”, not having talked about the possibly of it prior, and this has to be worked out fast!Once I have established what the director wants I watch at least two full rehearsals of the show; seeing the rehearsals in the correct order for the running of the show generally helps; from this I decide how to divide up the space, when the lights will change and the position of any special lighting effects such as a bonfire, a lantern, a sunset etc. This also gives understanding the feel of the show, while keeping in mind issues of visibility, safety and the capability of the venue.
Rigging and Wiring Technician (the Get-in/Setup): Before the get-in I have written all my plans down so that when the company get the equipment into the venue we can work quickly with fewer mistakes. My main goals are to construct the lighting rig, run the correct wires to the correct lights and making sure all things being rigged at height are safely attached, get the lighting power distributor working, put the right coloured gel (whilst checking all the lamps in the generic lighting are working), give any smart lights addresses, get the lighting desk running, then fix what ever is not working then finally position and angle the lights so they are the same as the plan I drew up in the rehearsals.
Lighting Control Programming: There are two types of lighting control – analogue and digital. Analogue is straightforward and the ‘programming‘ is affectively note-taking, but is very limiting on the number of lights you can control, plus most of the lighting controllers with this capability are archaic.Digital lighting control comes in many flavours and require specific knowledge for each kind, but share many principles, meaning if you put in the time to learn a particular desk or software, other forms of lighting control will be familiar, but still require some study to understand. With Digital lighting control it is possible to create memories or scenes (which is specific lights at specific percentage levels), and with a couple of button presses they can be recalled. If the get-in has gone smoothly and I’ve not spent too much time fixing problems I will program these be ready for the tech rehearsal. Another nifty ability with Digital lighting control is the ability to make a cue list or sequence – this is many memories or scenes that play in a specific order activated by the go button. Aspects of the cue list or sequence generally get tweaked after the tech and need re-recording, and any notes about the timing of the lighting changes need to be updated and written into my script and the Stage Manager or Deputy Stage Manager’s Script.
Operating the Lighting Control and Live Problem Solving: Before each performance I turn on the lighting power distributor, check that all the lights turn on and are focused on the stage correctly and that the lighting control works as it should. Then I enter pre show stage until the show starts – if there is a Deputy Stage Manager I will maintain contact with them during the show and they will tell me when the lighting changes happen, as they happen, otherwise I will watch the show and follow my script and activate the lighting changes based on my notes. If there is something not working before or during a show I have to decide if I have time to fix it with out disrupting the show, or wait until the interval or after the show.

Wow… no wonder you’re busy! Thanks for sharing all the hard work that you put into local theatre! What are the biggest challenges as a Lighting Technician?
HDC in the last few years have staged performances in alternative spaces such as the performance of The Thrill of Love in All Saint’s Church. Sally Fuller, the Lighting Designer was stumped as how to rig a top spot light with nothing to attach over the area it was required, so over an afternoon I engineered an ultra-lightweight solution made from some cable, some scrap metal (a beer can!) and a small low voltage lamp! See photo below…
More recently for the performance of Cathy, Rae Goodwin staged the show in a thrust shape (audience on three sides) on the Commemoration Hall floor instead of the stage which creates a multitude of issues with the installed rig, so this required supplemental tripod lighting stands for adequate coverage.

Tell us a random fact about you – or about your role – that we might not know!
I currently work as a full-time theatre technician for Oundle School’s Stahl Theatre.

How much time does it take to set up lights for a production?
It can vary based on the complexity of the set up but generally 2 to 3 days!

How did you learn your lighting skills?
I studied at Peterborough Regional College on the Technical Production arts course in 2008, but I have also volunteered for many am-dram shows in Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire since then.

What would you say to someone who would like to learn about being a Lighting Technician, but has no experience of it?
Showing an interest and asking questions is the best way, I’m always interested in talking and teaching my lighting skills!

Which production’s lighting were you most proud of and why?
Rather than being particularly proud of any particular show, I find my pleasure in specific lighting scenes or changes that are particularly beautiful:
Oberon’s magic affect in Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare at The George, Night time at a stranger’s apartment for Cathy, Huntingdon Drama Club, The forest glade in Shakespearean, Shakespeare At The George, Lightning in a dimly lit theatre, for Bunch of Amateurs, Huntingdon Drama Club Sunset to sun rise before the battle, Richard the Third, Shakespeare at The George, The top spot for Thrill of Love, Huntingdon Drama Club
etc. 

Starter or dessert?
Both, but if I was pushed to decide, two starters.

Cats or dogs?
This little kitten called Beatrice, who goes by Bea:

Describe your perfect day:
A day that is equally relaxing and productive, perhaps a Friday.


Meet our Members Series: Director

Here is our fourth installment of our ‘Meet our Members’ series! We’ll be catching up with Rae Goodwin, one of our talented directors, having directed two recent award wining dramas for us. We discuss some of her favourite directorial moments, as well as what advice she would give to new directors and where on earth a director gets their ideas from…

Tell us how you first got involved with Huntingdon Drama Club.

I relocated to Cambridgeshire in 2015 and, with my new job, found I had more free time on my hands in the evening. I’d been wanting to get back into performing having had a 10 year hiatus and this provided the perfect opportunity. I researched a number of local groups and was drawn to Huntingdon Drama Club because they had produced interesting plays such as Breaking The Code and The Accrington Pals in the past. I contacted the Club, was cast in The Madness of King George andhave been involved every production since in some capacity or another; whether it be performer, producer, stage manager, front of house or director.

Starter or dessert?

It really does depend on the mood I’m in! However, I’m more likely to go for starter as I have a savoury tooth.

Favourite time of year?

Autumn because I love the colours.

Describe your perfect day?

Browsing some record shops, popping into the National Theatre bookshop to pick up a play text or two and then heading off to a gig or a show.

You have now directed two award winning productions for us, Cathy and The Crucible. What has been your favourite moment with us so far?

I was incredibly privileged, on both occasions, to work with an extremely talented and dedicated cast and crew. Having gradually come together during the rehearsal process it’s that moment, when the first performance is over, of seeing the cast and crews’ facial expressions and feeling the buzz of camaraderie in the room.

We know you have been involved in directing for some time – what was your favourite directing experience outside of the club?

That’s really difficult to answer; like being asked to pick your favourite child! In my previous job, as a Head of Drama in a secondary school, I directed many productions across the years but two, in particular, stand out: the first one I directed, Teechers, which my GCSE students performed in promenade around the school. It was a first for both them and me and was a really enjoyable process. Another production that has stayed with me was a whole school production of His Dark Materials. It was a challenging show to stage but the students really stepped up to that challenge; especially those working with the dӕmon puppets.

Which theatre would you love to direct in – if you could choose any in the world? Do you know which play you would direct?

It’s too hard to narrow it down to just one! I’d probably say either the Dorfman Theatre in London, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester or, more locally, The Place in Bedford. They are intimate, interesting and flexible performance spaces and I’ve seen some innovative and inspiring productions in all three.

With regards to the play, I’d probably want to direct an Ancient Greek drama; either The Women of Troy or Medea. Despite originally being performed in huge amphitheatres, I think both of the plays would lend themselves to a more intimate setting.

Where do you get your ideas from?

It can be anything, from a photo or image to a piece of music. I collect ideas in a notebook of things I’ve seen that, as an audience member, I’ve found effective whether it be on stage, TV, film or online. It could be the use of a particular lighting or sound effect to heighten a moment of tension, a detail in a costume or the portrayal of a particular type of character. I will reference this notebook when collating initial ideas for a production. Also, ideas will be generated organically by the rehearsal process; a performer will bring something to light that you, as a director, haven’t necessarily considered before. Those discoveries can make the rehearsal process even more rewarding.    

What are the most important steps throughout the whole process of directing?

Every director will have their own approach and those approaches will inevitably differ depending on the type of performance being created. For me one of the first steps, when working with play text, is to think carefully about a concept; making sure it’s coherent, consistent and most importantly, serves to tell the story rather than just being a gimmick. This is especially important when tackling period pieces or classics such as The Crucible where an audience may have a preconceived idea of what the production should look like.

Whilst I will have a clear idea of the concept and of how certain moments could look, I also try to be flexible with those ideas during the rehearsal process as performers and technical crew will make interesting contributions which can enhance elements of the performance. Similarly, if you have the luxury of time during your rehearsal process, giving the performers the opportunity to explore their characters through both on and off text activities can be a really rewarding experience and also serve to elevate the performance in the long run.

Feedback is another important part of the directing process; not only providing it, as a director, but also encouraging cast and crew to contribute their feedback too. I am always interested in hearing the cast and crews’ thoughts and opinions about how the production is developing.    

What advice would you give to someone interested in directing but was unsure where to begin?

I’d recommend reading a variety of plays as well as watching different styles of performance, whether online or in person, to discover what interests you the most. Once you’ve found a play you’re interested in directing, bounce ideas around with a friend and, when you’ve consolidated your initial ideas, pitch them to a local drama group. Also, I would highly recommend approaching a local drama group and asking to shadow a director for a production because it will give you a real insight into the demands of the role.

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. 

Witchcraft and ‘The Crucible’

 

Some people might scratch their heads at a modern setting of The Crucible and wonder what relevance it might have for today. But it is often the case that our past and our oldest fables will lend meaning to the currents of the present – such is the cyclical nature of human experience.

In 2017, there are thousands of people in Britain who practice witchcraft. There is an annual ‘Pagan Pride’ festival – currently in its eighth year – where attendees can purchase wands, incense, crystals, and various other ingredients for their pursuits. They can be open about who they are without fearing execution. Modern-day Salem is now a haven for contemporary witches and professional psychics, with many a metaphysical business lining the streets. Its first ‘witch shop’ – founded by Boston-born practitioner Laurie Cabot – opened its doors in 1970. Described as the “grande dame of witchcraft” in the USA, Cabot is “proud of the fact that her witch shop and openness turned Salem into something of a safe space for practicing witches.” But however much we may like to think that we’re a universally tolerant society, there is still very much a cultural prejudice towards the idea of witchcraft. In some respects, little has changed.

Antipathy to witchcraft can be traced to the rise of Abrahamic monotheism, especially traditional Christianity. In the preceding polytheistic pagan cultures, the practice of magic was a natural and popular way of participating in an individualistic spiritual experience. However, the traditional Church frowned upon personal spiritual experimentation and insisted that the only valid way of exploring such matters was to submit to their organised hierarchy. Witchcraft was deemed demonic and those who practiced it – witches – were denounced as the most abhorrent type of evil, traffickers with Satan.

Those who practiced witchcraft were forced to do so in secret – the alternative being to suffer brutal capital punishment. Instead of understanding such customs, society was steadily gripped by a climate of fear, misconception and suspicion. Slowly, insidiously, this collective fear produced an unstable culture of finger-pointing, a world where no one was safe, in which monsters were skulking in the shadows and prowling the streets in search of fresh victims.

 

So people saw witches everywhere – and anything from a run of bad luck to a death in the family could be blamed upon maleficent workings. Huntingdonshire itself was home to what was described by George Kittredge as “the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England.” This case – known as ‘The Witches of Warboys’ – involved a plethora of accusations against local resident Alice Samuel – and her family – over a period of several years.

The initial allegations came about in 1589. Alice Samuel – then 76 years old – was accused by 10-year-old Jane Throckmorton (whose father Robert was Squire of Warboys.) Jane had become ill and was suffering from seizures; she proclaimed herself the victim of malevolent sorcery. On an occasion when Mrs Samuel had come to visit the ailing child, Jane is reported to have cried out, “Grandmother, look where the old witch sitteth – did you ever see one more like a witch than she is? Take off her black thrumbed cap, for I cannot abide to look on her.”

A number of the Throckmorton family’s maidservants became similarly ill, as well as Jane’s sisters; this led to further accusations against Alice Samuel. Robert Throckmorton’s friendship with Sir Henry Cromwell (grandfather of Oliver) led to a personal visit from Lady Cromwell, in which she interviewed Mrs Samuel about the pronouncements that had been made against her. This took place in 1590, after which Lady Cromwell maintained that Alice was deliberately appearing in her dreams to inflict emotional torture. Coupled with the now numerous allegations from the Throckmorton family, this was enough to indict the Samuel family in the eyes of the public, if not yet the law. After Lady Cromwell’s death in 1592, Alice Samuel was pressured into confessing to witchcraft and, along with her family, was tried in Huntingdon in 1593 – all were found guilty and subsequently faced death by hanging.

When so many are caught in the throes of fear, misunderstanding and prejudice, such travesties of justice are the order of the day. The history of Britain’s witch trials is filled with such stories; innocent people convicted on testimonies derived from ignorance or personal grievances. Hundreds sent to their deaths – all in the name of putting to rout an imaginary wickedness, concocted in the minds of the intolerant and the uninformed, and stoked by the fires of fanaticism.

Britain’s modern-day witches may no longer live in fear of the noose or the stake, but many are still subjected to a cultural alienation stemming from prejudice. There are many things that The Crucible can still teach us, and I’d suggest that one of them is that we might consider applying fair-minded appraisal and comprehension to individuals who are perceived to be following an unconventional route in life. There is an alternative to whipping up a panic and that is the opportunity for open dialogue and a willingness to learn.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

An abridged version of this piece was published in ‘The Crucible’ programme

Code Breakers Assemble…

code door
Turing would have cracked this in 2 seconds…

Arriving at the venue for our auditions, I aptly found myself unable to break a four digit code. Two members of staff later – we were in the room. Mr Turing would have been horrified…

Fortunately, the evening was a hugely successful one, with an excellent turnout, including three brand new club members eager to impress. We started with the usual ice-breaking excercise of introducing ourselves to each other, before I waffled on, almost coherently, about the play. Hugh Whitemore’s ‘Breaking The Code’ is based on Andrew Hodges’ definitive biography of the mathematician and wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing. It’s episodic structure takes us back & forwards through key moments in Turing’s life, where we meet his family, friends, colleagues, lovers and persecutors. It’s a surprisingly warm, and emotional story – funny at times and ultimately heart-breaking.

Watching the actors reading the parts and finding their way through the (often complex) script, we hit on an idea. I’m not going to reveal what that idea is just yet, but it will allow us to explore this play in a way that may not have been done before. Rehearsals begin next week and we’re raring to go..!

 

Dean Laccohee – Director