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

Ruth Ellis

Sunday 10th April 1955 – Easter Sunday to be precise. Bleary-eyed Britons were wakened by the peal of church bells. Christians reflected upon the resurrection. Slavering children avariciously attacked their hordes of Easter eggs. And in South Hall Park, Hampstead, a woman armed with a 38. Calibre Smith and Wesson revolver fired four successive bullets into her lover.

The woman was Ruth Ellis, the lover David Blakely. Ellis had a chequered history, beginning with her childhood experience of rape at the hands of her father. Thus, the first Ellis ever knew of sexual relationships not only took place at a hideously inappropriate age, but was informed by domination, pain and abuse. This unhappy pattern was to continue into her adult life, resulting in a short-lived marriage to an aggressive alcoholic.

Ruth with her lover David Blakeley at the Little Club in 1955

It was in 1953 that Fate would entwine the lives of Ellis and Blakely, leading to the two-year courtship which would end in tragedy. From its inception, their relationship was beset with problems, a dangerous mixture of passion and jealousy. Both possessed powerful feelings for the other, but neither seemed able to commit. They continued to see other people and their own relationship increasingly descended into patterns of envy and physical violence – one such interaction leading to Ruth suffering a miscarriage after David had punched her in the stomach. And so went the unhealthy cycle, until – on that unsuspecting Easter evening – there came the dramatic denouement, when Ruth Ellis approached David Blakely outside a pub and shot him dead.

At this point, capital punishment was still the sentence passed down for murder. There is an understandable, if cold, logic to this train of thought; the idea that intentionally taking a life – and the grief this causes for many – should be met with the forfeiture of the culprit’s own life. But its history goes farther than that; capital punishment had in the past been the sentence for other crimes, some much more minor by comparison, to the extent that the term “Bloody Code” is a modern term for Britain’s legal system as it stood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, there were no fewer than 220 crimes which could be punished by death, including the act of being in the company of gypsies for a month and the theft of goods valued at as little as 12 pence – roughly £12.60 in today’s currency.

Unsurprisingly, the harshness of the system brought calls for reform, beginning in 1808 when Sir Samuel Romilly had the death sentence abolished for minor offences such as pickpocketing. From this, a series of further changes spurred; in 1861 the number of offences liable to result in capital punishment stood at just five, treason and murder being amongst them.

At the time of Ruth Ellis’ trial, the death penalty for murder was still more than a decade away from being abolished. However, there was discussion amongst the media and the public over whether her case warranted such punishment, or even whether she should have been charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter. The violence she had suffered at the hands of David Blakely was suggested as grounds for a reprieval from hanging, with many feeling that a custodial sentence would have been more appropriate. It is often said that by the standards of the law today, Ruth Ellis would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder.

 

The Magdala pub in Hampstead, the scene of the shooting

 

However, the trial must be viewed through the lens of the law at the time – and within the framework of the legal system then, it can be argued that there was no other option but to find her guilty of murder. It must also be said that Ellis herself did little to help her case; she herself stated that she did not want a reprieve from the death sentence and seemed to believe that her punishment was just. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” she remarked. In light of this, there has been speculation that, after killing her lover, Ellis willed death upon herself so that she might continue to be with him, that perhaps even the murder itself was her way of ensuring that she and Blakely would never be parted.

In a letter to Blakely’s grieving mother, Ellis wrote, “I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him.” Could this hint at the agenda behind the events of that fateful Easter Sunday? Was David Blakely’s death just the first tragic act in a greater drama? Had Ruth Ellis already chosen the conclusion when she pulled the trigger? Could she have intended all along for the chain of events to close in the way that she wanted – her own consignment to death – her delivery back to David Blakely for eternity?

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson. This piece will also appear in the programme for ‘The Thrill Of Love’. 

Looking Back… 2017 in Review

In 2017 we presented three plays in three different venues – quite an achievement! The Spring production of Alfie was the last to take place at the Commemoration Hall before its closure for major refurbishment works and also went on to represent the Club (in an abridged version) at the Cambridge Drama Festival. Probably best known from its big screen incarnation starring Michael Caine, Bill Naughton’s play premiered in 1963 and pictured a London still in an austere post-war hangover and yet to explode into the vibrant, swinging 60s. Alfie became our biggest selling show on record (beating previous record holder Outside Edge by one ticket!) & drew high praise for an ‘energetic & entertaining production’ from the Festival adjudicator. The cast & crew worked incredibly hard on this production to make the many transitions between scenes & locations as seamless as possible, giving the production a slick & pacy edge – a genuine team effort. Combined with an evocative soundtrack & period wardrobe Alfie was a tragi-comic affair for our audience with a central character you either love to hate, or hate to love.

Finding an alternative venue for our following two productions was a big project for the committee. We felt it was essential to stay in Huntingdon, preferably not too far away from the Commemoration Hall so as not to inconvenience our audience too much. We also wanted to keep our excellent front of house experience in place so facilities for a bar were also a must. The Town Hall offered two spaces which lent themselves to different styles of theatre, it was close by and the dates we wanted were available. The Town Hall it was. The Assembly Room on the top floor of the building would be our venue for Shakers, the comedy by John Godber (Bouncers, Up N Under) & Jane Thornton. Vicky Spurway made her debut in the director’s chair and assembled a talented cast, half of whom were brand new members. The four actresses faced the challenge of playing multiple roles, switching instantly between the many & varied customers as well as the long-suffering waitresses of Shakers cocktail bar. The cast & crew pulled it off superbly – drawing an excellent review from our NODA rep Julie Armstrong who commented “I left the performance with a smile on my face and the 1980’s soundtrack ringing in my ears. Shakers was a fabulously fun piece of theatre!” Thanks to a grant from the Freemen’s Trust of Huntingdon we were able to light the show with a brand new portable lighting kit which has enabled us to perform in ‘non-theatre’ settings.

As soon as we reached the decision to present Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Town Hall’s historic Court Room for our Autumn play, we strongly suspected that we would have a commercial & critical success on our hands. And so it proved, as all five performances went on to sell out long before opening night. Under Rae Goodwin’s meticulous direction & with an exceptionally strong cast & crew on board (many making their debuts for the club), this production felt like the culmination of a lot of hard work over the last 3 or 4 years. It was bold, daring & powerful, presented within the intimate confines of a venue where the audience were just inches from the action. A glowing NODA review ended “with a wonderful and atmospheric setting, inspired use of music, great direction and an excellent cast, HDC’s The Crucible was a triumph!” Indeed, The Crucible has been nominated for Best Play at next May’s NODA district awards.

At the Donmar Warehouse for a workshop on ‘Limehouse’

As well as all the on-stage activity there was a busy social calendar in 2017, including theatre trips to see new plays – Fracked  at the Cambridge Arts and Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where we also took part in an open workshop on the rehearsal process. We enjoyed a fabulous acting workshop with actor David Hall, where we covered aspects of movement & voice & learned a great deal. The Crucible director Rae Goodwin attended the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend to go behind the scenes at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon & learn some tricks of the trade that we can feed into our productions.  I also attended a workshop on directing hosted by Theatre 503 Artistic Director Lisa Spirling – an opportunity to learn from a professional director, which was invaluable – lots of techniques & ideas that will find their way into our rehearsal room. And of course to cap it all off there was our fantastic Christmas Party in December. A great opportunity to let our hair down after a challenging & ultimately rewarding & satisfying year. Here’s to 2018!

Dean Laccohee (Artistic Director) 

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A mischievous day out to the theatre…

Since Mischief Theatre’s rise to prominence with The Play that Goes Wrong, the company has been soundly riding the wave of success. Two further plays – Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery have helped cement the group of LAMDA graduates as a fixture in the current West End and dispelled any suggestion that they might have been a flash in the pan.

My first exposure to Mischief Theatre was on a club trip to see The Play that Goes Wrong in February 2015. Delighted with the non-stop hilarity, chaos and robust youthful energy, I insisted that my friend (who had at that point never been to a theatre in his life) accompany me to see it again. It might be a tad excessive to say that I pinioned his arms and frogmarched him into his seat, but ‘fan’ is abbreviated from ‘fanatic’, after all, and I’m sure my cajoling at times took on the tenor of an Evangelical preacher. (As it happens, the friend in question is glad that I got him to go.)

So I already had an idea of what to expect when I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery last month. Although I anticipated a great show, I had to brush back the niggling concerns that I think we all experience when returning to the work of any kind of artist – “what if they’re not as good this time?”, etc.

Any vague doubts I might have had were groundless. The Mischief Theatre actors exploded into action with a verve that I’d been looking forward to. The play charges forward at such a frenetic pace that it can be hard to keep up with every single bit of action (part of the joy of such plays is that you’re sure to spot new things upon a second or even third viewing) but the story introduces us to a the eccentric staff of a Minnesota bank (upon which is soon to bestowed a priceless diamond) and the efforts of a jail-busting bunch of ne’er’-do-wells to execute a robbery (one of whom happens to be the daughter of the bank manager.) Also in the mix is the neighbourhood’s conman/petty thief who begins a relationship with aforementioned daughter, which leads to him being dragged into the diamond-snatching escapade.

The Comedy about a Bank Robbery is a ridiculous farce through and through, delivered with all the outrageousness that I’d seen in The Play That Goes Wrong. For me, particular scenes of note included a Fawlty Towers-esque sequence in which Sam Monaghan (impersonating Mr Freeboys) is forced to stumblingly deliver a potted history of Freeboys’ life, based upon his attempts to read the miming of Caprice. Later in the play, there are no fewer than three Freeboys (minor tongue twister there) – the real one and two impostors – whose multiple run-ins with the police officer and fellow bank staff are a source of much confusion and amusement. There is also a clever segment in which Freeboys and his lackey Warren are conversing in an office – suspended sideways on the wall, allowing the audience a bird’s-eye-view of the scene.

Performances were strong all around, but two that I especially favoured were Sean Kearns as the greedy, self-important bank manager and Tania Mathurin as Ruth Monaghan. Kearns seemed to fairly revel in his role as he barked orders at staff, butted heads with his daughter’s boyfriend and screamed and stomped his way around the stage in a verbal to-and-fro with Officer Shuck. Mathurin at first added a more low-key humorous warmth to the show, but as time stretched on, revealed her character to be just as conniving and corrupt as everybody else. Adding to the show’s charm was the interspersing of short doo-wop songs (performed by the cast) between scenes – matching the time-period of the play, which is set in 1958. Above all, just as with The Play That Goes Wrong, you knew that the cast were having the time of their lives, and their exhilaration and glee spread like a welcome virus through the audience.

If this hasn’t yet convinced you, I’ll leave the final word with theatre critic Dominic Cavendish, who failed to be impressed by Mischief Theatre’s first effort and declared The Play That Goes Wrong to be one of the “worst shows of 2014.” After reluctantly allowing them a second chance, Cavendish emerged from The Comedy About a Bank Robbery with an entirely new outlook. “This is the funniest show in town,” he raved, as though apologetic for his earlier dismissal of Mischief Theatre’s abilities. “The jokes, visual and verbal, are piled skyscraper high…there’s such youthful relish to the playing and so much surrounding theatrical invention that even the hoariest gag earns its keep.”

Glad you finally came around, Mr Cavendish – what took you so long?

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

How To Complain…

I’ve recently been reading a humorous book called ‘How to Complain’, which does exactly as it promises – offers advice on how to go about venting your feelings any time you are the unfortunate recipient of bad service. With dry humour, the writer – sports lawyer Mel Stein – regales the reader with tale after tale of the woes he has suffered from airline companies, misleading travel agents, poor restaurants, and various other businesses that, at some time or another, have failed to deliver the standards that customers have come to expect. It got me to thinking of trips to the theatre, and the irritations that can stand in the way of enjoying the experience to the fullest – and as I progressed through the book, I saw that Stein does indeed cover this area with a chapter of his complaint letters to several theatrical venues.

So what calamities might be in store for the unwitting theatre-goer? The play itself might not be to your taste, but you pretty much have to take that into consideration when you book. Perhaps some of the performers might not be up to par, but with something as subjective as acting, that again might be down to the individual alone. What you perceive as the most wooden of actors, someone else might believe to be Hamlet material. Luckily, if you like to complain, you’ll possibly run into some more undeniable annoyances that put a spanner in the works of your evening’s entertainment.

This might be best illustrated by a story. Put yourself in the shoes of your average theatre-goer. You’ve been waiting several months to see a play you’ve high hopes about. Perhaps you’re familiar with the playwright or there’s an actor or two that you really like. You’ve got a decent seat and paid somewhere in the range of £60-£70. You arrive at the venue in good time, buy yourself a drink and a programme, pre-order a wine for the interval, and settle into your seat.

Other people filter through, and that’s when you become aware of them. An obnoxiously loud group just beginning to make their way in. You can hear them from the other end of the auditorium. Two couples – in their forties. One pair look like they’ve just emerged from a tanning salon. You dub them Mr and Mrs Fake Tan. Mrs Fake Tan must be 45 but still dresses like she’s 21. She’s wearing clothes you’d see at a nightclub, not a London theatre. Their friends look like they’d be more at home in your neighbourhood’s grubbiest dive of an alehouse. You nickname them Mr and Mrs Boozer. You hope they won’t be sitting anywhere near you.

Your hope is in vain. They plonk themselves into the empty seats beside you. They are laden down with endless bags of shopping, which look to be in danger of spilling into your leg space. “Mind if we dump this lot here?” asks Mr Boozer, then dumps it around your feet before you’ve had a chance to respond.

You hope that might be the end of it, but it turns out that they’re Talkers. Mr Fake Tan explains that they don’t usually go to the theatre, but he and the wife won some tickets and thought it might be fun. Mr Boozer thinks acting is “poncy” but Mrs Boozer persuaded him to go along because it was a free night out, and there’d be drinks. You nod and smile through gritted teeth

Finally, the lights dim and the play is about to start. Ah! Relief! But your celebration is short-lived – as if on cue (really, it’s as though they time this) the crinkling and rustling of paper bags is heard as the actors say their first lines. The Fake Tans and Boozers have loaded up on snacks for their night out and have chosen this time to break into them.

Your heart is sinking fast. You try to concentrate on the performance, but not only is the crackling of food wrappers a distraction, these four are also some of the loudest eaters you’ve come across. The squelchy, slobbery cacophony emanating from their mouths resembles a herd of cows gnawing in unison. By now you’re experiencing the beginnings of panic, the sense that you are trapped for the entirety of the show with audience members dragged from the lowest echelons of hell. You start to sweat, your pulse quickens. The first ten minutes have already elapsed and you’ve barely heard any of it.

This can’t go on. But it does. You try to cling to a vague hope that this is a set-up, a trick, that you’re secretly being filmed for one of those prank TV shows. Any minute now Peter Dulay and Arthur Atkins will jump out and reveal that you’re on Candid Camera. But it doesn’t happen. Your neighbours have now flipped open the first of their beers and continue to munch their way through what seems to be an entire week’s groceries.

To make matters worse, they’re still talking to one another. Mrs Fake Tan pulls out her mobile phone and starts sending a text message. “What’s this play called?” she asks her husband. None of them are bothering to keep their voices particularly low. You tap her husband on the arm and give him your best icy glare. “This is not a dinner party,” you hiss. He doesn’t understand. He thinks you’ve given him the name of the production and repeats what you’ve said to his wife. Natter, natter, natter. On it goes.

If you thought the interval might be your oasis of peace, you were wrong. There’s been a mix-up and the wine you pre-ordered has been given to another member of the audience instead – Mr Fake Tan, who you know had in fact ordered a cider, and is now enjoying your prosecco. Although you’re aghast at his nerve, you don’t bother to confront him. You angrily join the lengthy queue to the bar. There are eight people still ahead of you when the usher announces that the performance will recommence in two minutes. There’s no chance you’ll be served in time. Wearily, you force yourself back to your seat, though you’ve by now resigned yourself to the fact that your whole evening will be a thoroughly miserable experience.

You get the point. Many people have had their enjoyment of a play or a film considerably curtailed by noisy eating and chin-wagging spectators. While I’m not one who thinks that a complete ban on food and drink should be implemented, there are others (such as Imelda Staunton) who feel it’s warranted. At the very least, it’s an interesting discussion. One which the understandably crotchety Mr Stein might feel obliged to weigh in on, given what he witnessed at an RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew:

“Just as the action had started for real a family, obviously tourists, took up the seats next to me. A mother, father, elderly relative, two children of about nine or ten and, to my horror, another child so young it had to sit on its mother’s lap. Now, unlike W. C. Fields, I have nothing against children in the theatre…these kids next to me, however, were not devotees and they were never going to be as far as I could tell. The elder one wriggled throughout and the younger one steadfastly refused to go to sleep and had to be placated by the mother with a bag of sweets throughout. I’m not sure if the rest of the family got the point either as they chomped their way through the goodies as well, to the point that not only could I not concentrate, but I wanted to scream.”

Stein’s advice for such scenarios is to “complain on the spot and complain quickly before you make yourself into a martyr.” And again, for those of us who love to complain he provides a checklist of potential theatrical disasters:

“Broken or uncomfortable seats – Restricted view – Inability to hear – Noisy neighbours – Dirty theatre – Warm interval drinks – Poor access to the bar – Insufficient toilets…”

Enjoy your next show!

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

Pushing & Pulling – A Director’s Workshop

Investment in the future has been a theme of 2017 so far for the club. After being forced from our ‘home’ by the closure of the Commemoration Hall we’ve been set the challenge of being more creative than ever – mounting productions in non-theatre venues such as Shakers and The Crucible which will take place in the Town Hall. A very generous grant from the Huntingdon Freemen’s Trust has allowed us to invest in a brand new portable lighting rig which will ensure that we can be seen wherever we perform! We’re now looking ahead to 2018 for venues and plays.

Earlier this year we sponsored committee member Rae to attend the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend (which you can read about here on our blog) and this week I spent a day at London’s Lyceum Theatre for a directors workshop with Lisa Spirling – artistic director of Theatre 503 in Battersea. The aim of these two ventures was to learn from the professionals – to develop new skills and techniques that we can use to improve our own productions. Rather than go into too much detail here I’ll try instead to give a flavour of the day & hopefully adapt some of it into a future workshop of our own.

The Lyceum Theatre

As we sat in the swanky Ambassador’s Lounge waiting for some late-comers held up on the Tube, Lisa decided to take us through for a quick look into the Lyceum’s stunning auditorium – the home of the long-running ‘The Lion King’. Lisa mentioned two things here that would later resonate during the workshop. The first involved the dreaded subject of blocking – actors who join the cast of The Lion King are subject to what sounds like a human game of chess or Battleship. There are so many moving parts in the show that the stage is divided into a grid system – if an actor stands in A6 as opposed to A5 he may be run over by a scenery truck. Less rigorous blocking methods would be discussed later. Second point on The Lion King – a big part of it’s success was down to it’s theatrical language. The director decided against simply carbon-copying the animated movie onto the stage and instead delivered a piece of total theatre that still plays to packed houses eighteen years on.

Back down to earth. Why were we there? What did we want to get out of this day? We started with some very basic but important considerations – who is your audience? How big is your venue? What’s the size of your cast? From here we moved to choosing a play and once it’s chosen, how do you prepare to direct it? Several readings of the play are essential – an initial reading to discover the story and further readings from the points of view of the characters. Asking questions of the play is crucial – who, what, where, why & how? One of the key things in any play is – does it make you want to find out what happens next??


This discovery of the play continues into the first days of rehearsal with the cast. Rather than just a straightforward table reading, the cast & crew read through the text, fine-combing it for FACTS, OPINIONS & QUESTIONS. This approach ensures that everyone is equally familiar with the script & has an equal understanding of it. During a read through of our current production of Shakers we discovered that our four cast members had no clue who Alan Whicker was – they do now!

Up on our feet we played around with a series of ‘push & pull’ excercises, designed to inject a physical intention into the lines. Lisa explained that dialogue is never just people talking – in every scene there are WANTS and INTENTIONS. (Remember the old adage “what’s my motivation”?)
We continued with a ‘thought through’ reading of a scene. In this, the actors must vocalise the thought that motivates each line and then speak the line. Another approach is an ‘action through’ or ‘tactic through’. This concentrates on the doing words, the actions in a scene that motivate the words. This forensic analysis allows the cast & director to really get under the skin of the text for a greater understanding. As amateur theatre people we may feel that we don’t have the luxury of time for this kind of work but I felt that two rehearsal sessions dissecting the text in this way would pay big dividends later on in the process.

We approached the subject of ‘blocking’ with some caution. It seems to be a real hot potato, both in the amateur & professional worlds. In Nick Hytner’s book ‘Balancing Acts’ he mentions renowned stage actors who were often relieved to work with directors who literally told them where to stand, where to sit and when to speak. Others like to find their own way. Ultimately it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ – whatever works for the truth of the moment – as a director you must create the best possible environment for the actors to work in.

Lisa Spirling

Lisa mentioned two things that must ALWAYS be choreographed – sexual or romantic scenes (snogging, basically) and stage combat. Those two things are never left to chance. Other tips Lisa mentioned for blocking included putting something interesting on the fourth wall (a mirror, a window…), working actors into diagonal rather than straight lines and something which had never ever occurred to me before – because we are used to reading from left to right on the page, entrances from stage right have more visual impact than stage left. It’s true what they say – every day’s a school day.

For me directing becomes more and more enjoyable the more experience you have of doing it. As you find your style & become more familiar with the rudiments, your confidence grows and with that your imagination has more freedom to be creative. It’s a passion that you never stop learning from and this day was invaluable. Thank you to Lisa Spirling & to Ambassador Theatre Group for the opportunity!

The RSC Big Backstage Weekend

During the weekend of 6th – 7th May, HDC sponsored me to attend the Big Backstage Weekend; an event organised and facilitated by the Royal Shakespeare Company to provide training to amateur theatre companies across the UK. Needless to say, I was extremely excited at the prospect of learning from such a reputable theatre company and the experience did not disappoint!

Day 1

The weekend began in the Studio Theatre in The Other Place with a welcome meeting hosted by the RSC’s Project Producer, Ian Wainwright. It was lovely to bump into some of our friends from Shakespeare at The George who were also in attendance for the weekend.

We stayed in the Studio Theatre for a sound workshop lead by the RSC’s Head of Sound, Jeremy Dunn, who was ably assisted by technicians Nathan and James. For the first part of the workshop, Jeremy explained the various different types of sound equipment the RSC use in some detail; demonstrating how to assemble and use a basic sound system with a microphone. He also talked us through troubleshooting different sound issues we might face e.g. feedback. For the second part of the workshop, Jeremy and his technicians rigged up a sound desk and, using the sound system installed in the space, showed us how to operate the sound desk as well as use software package QLab on a laptop to create a soundscape.

After a delicious buffet lunch, we took a leisurely stroll down the road to the Clore Learning Centre for a set construction workshop led by freelance set designer Alex Marker. During his career, Alex has designed for a wide variety of West End, fringe, touring and regional productions. The first half of this workshop was an introduction to scale model making. A scale model can be an incredibly useful tool in set construction as it can be used to identify and solve potential problems before the set build commences. Alex talked us through the basic equipment and materials needed before challenging us to create a 1:50 scale model based on technical drawings. I partnered up with Julie, a fellow Drama teacher, from the Wirral and we set to work. Thankfully, Alex provided us with a few time-saving handy hints which we took on board and a short while later we successfully presented our scale model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second half of the workshop was dedicated to set construction. Alex talked us through the essential toolkit for building a set as well as the various health and safety considerations that have to be made when designing and constructing a set. After divulging some helpful money-saving ideas regarding the use of different materials, Alex introduced us to some tricks of the trade; demonstrating how to create a variety of paint effects and successfully create textured surfaces.

Following the set construction workshop, we had the opportunity to visit The Play’s the Thing exhibition. For the exhibition, the RSC have opened their archive to display a variety of artefacts spanning one hundred years of theatre-making at Stratford-Upon-Avon. There were plenty of interactive activities to engage with but it was the costumes that really sparked my interest; particularly Vivien Leigh’s costume from the 1955 production of Titus Andronicus and Anthony Sher’s hat and nose from his portrayal of the Fool from the 1982 production of King Lear. However, my personal highlight of the whole exhibition has to be seeing a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

 

 

Then it was off in search of a bite to eat before attending the evening performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. The production forms part of the RSC’s Rome Season which includes Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus to name but a few. The production was presented in traditional Roman dress and used some clever staging ideas; making effective use of hydraulic lifts to change scenes. The two leads, Josette Simon and Antony Byrne had a real chemistry on stage and gave engaging portrayals of their characters. It was interesting watching the performance having participated in the workshops earlier in the day; I definitely had a heightened awareness of the use of sound and was able to recognise and identify the different types of sound effects being used throughout.

After the performance, we popped over the road to The Black Swan – more commonly known as The Dirty Duck and a regular haunt of RSC actors – for a nightcap before retiring to our B&B and, sure enough, as we were leaving we bumped into the cast of that evening’s performance enjoying a well-deserved drink.

Day 2

We were privileged to be taken up to The Other Place rehearsal room for our stage management workshop which was led by Julia Wade, Company Stage Manager of the RSC’s Mischief Festival. The room was being used to rehearse the productions taking part in the Mischief Festival and provided an interesting insight into the rehearsal process at the RSC. Julia explained the different types of roles and responsibilities involved in stage management as well as giving us a forum to discuss our own experiences of stage management. We were shown examples of the different types of paperwork produced by a stage manager e.g. rehearsal notes, show reports. We were given advice on how to mark up a script as well as the opportunity to look though the stage manager’s copy of the Antony and Cleopatra script.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final part of our stage management workshop was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre which took us into the control rooms of the lighting and sound operators so we could see what kind of environment they work in during a performance. We were also taken backstage to see the quick-change areas, prop store area and stage manager’s desk. It was fascinating to wander around the back of the cyclorama that had been used during the previous evening’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra and also see the props up close. Another highlight of the tour was discovering an RSC tradition: one of the corridors backstage was littered with illustrations and signatures of the actors involved in different productions.

For the final workshop of the weekend we were taken into the auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – where we had sat the night before watching Antony and Cleopatra – for a lighting design workshop with the RSC’s Head of Lighting, Vince Herbert and his talented technician Claire. On stage was a rug, armchair and table with a small lamp. We were given a very brief four scene synopsis to light as a collective which incorporated the opportunity to explore practical, character and surreal lighting states. As the ideas flowed, Vince explained – whilst Claire demonstrated – how to use different types of lights to achieve a variety of effects. Vince also demonstrated how to layer the lighting; focusing on practical lighting before establishing the mood. We were given some very useful tips: if an actor is entering the stage during a blackout they should close their eyes a few minutes before to adjust their eyes to the darkness and, when working with thrust staging in particular, find the ‘sweet spot’ where all of the audience can be addressed. Claire gave us an interesting insight into the complexities of follow spot operating; having recently performed the task for the RSC’s innovative production of The Tempest which combined the use of a digital avatar with live actors.

Following the request of another attendee, Claire treated us to a tour underneath the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to Sub Level 1. Claire explained how the stage could be rearranged to meet the needs of different productions and also gave us a brief outline of the RSC’s technical rehearsal process. We were also given an insight into how the RSC create the effect of flooding the stage with blood when Caesar is stabbed by Brutus: a crewmember on a stepladder with a pump and a bucket of fake blood; reassuring to know that not all of the methods in professional theatres are high-tech!

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative weekend. I’d like to take this opportunity to say a massive ‘thank you’ to HDC for enabling me to participate in the Big Backstage Weekend and I look forward to passing on what I have learnt to other club members as well as putting it into practice for future productions. Watch this space!

by Guest Blogger Rae Goodwin 

In Defence of Freedom of Expression…

If I were to propose a single essential requirement for a democratic state, it would likely be the right to freedom of expression. For, when stripped of the ability to express ourselves unhindered, what do we become? To deprive a person of this right is to steal away their personhood: to consign them to the divergent cognition of the nonhuman animal. One difference between humans and other species is our ability to reason and self-reflect, and self-expression is a result of such. When someone is robbed of this right, they might as well – at least in cerebral affairs – be a slug.

Thus, freedom of expression is a danger to the totalitarian ruler – and with the arts being one of the most inspiring, influential and universal means of expression, a savage clampdown on creativity is one of the first attacks on liberty that an autocratic state will undertake, as evidenced by the behaviour of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.  In 1966, at Chairman Mao’s behest, the Cultural Revolution – in which remaining elements of historical Chinese culture were forcibly purged – sprang into action in a storm of violence and abuse, a period which led to the persecution and deaths of prominent Chinese playwrights such as Wu Han and Tian Han.

So the question of how theatre – and the arts in general – both suffers and survives under totalitarianism is potentially of educational interest to the average Westerner, unaccustomed to the censorship that has prevailed in other countries and cultures. Prior to the Nazis’ rise in Germany, Expressionism (or Epic Theatre) had taken hold as an artistic movement, and was particularly associated with themes of individualism and rebellion against authority. Unsurprisingly, the architects of National Socialism were not at all pleased with the influence of such drama, and quickly directed their jackboots towards the stage. While plays sympathetic to nationalism and militarism were encouraged, Goebbels enforced regulations to obstruct “ecstatic theatre amateurism”, whilst Hitler snarled that expressionistic art forms were “sickly aberrations of the insane and depraved.”

As a result of the anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi ideology, the Third Reich was also determined to remove all traces of Jewish contribution and influence to cultural life; of the many “anti-Jewish decrees”, one passed in 1934 banned all Jewish actors from performing on stage or on screen, temporarily aborting what had been a rich theatrical presence in Germany from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. With further draconian regulations on the content of plays – and other depictions of art – the creative evolution of German theatre was inevitably interrupted and stifled.

Their Russian cousins were not faring any better. The Bolsheviks arguably brought as much oppression to Russia as the Tsarist regime they had replaced, and the beginning of Stalin’s reign precipitated severe restrictions on artistic freedom.  The propagation of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable art form, and the intolerance towards contrasting philosophies, led to mass repression and purging of all art deemed undesirable. Novelist and dramatist Daniil Kharms – whose creative proclivities favoured the avant-garde, surrealism and absurdism – was arrested in 1931 and branded “anti-Soviet” due to his unwillingness to allow his work to become propaganda for the state’s materialistic ideology. Mikhail Bulgakov – closely aligned to the Moscow Art Theatre – found a number of his plays banned throughout the 1920s, the final nail in the coffin coming at the end of the decade, when the government decreed a prohibition on the publishing or staging of any of his work. In an act of desperation, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin, pleading with his leader to allow him to emigrate if the USSR had no use for him as a writer. Describing himself as “doomed to lifelong silence”, he spoke plaintively of the effect such censorship had on his health –

“overtaxed, unable to survive any longer, hounded, knowing fully well that I shall no more be printed and staged in the USSR, driven to nervous breakdown…I appeal to the humanity of the Soviet Government and request that I, the writer, who could be of no use to his country, be magnanimously set free.”

One of the most lengthy expositions on the state of art under Soviet oppression was written by Isaiah Berlin, who returned in 1945 for a visit, having not been in the country since leaving as a child. ‘The Arts in Russia Under Stalin’ is a fascinating insight into the withering of culture under a dictatorship. “State control was absolute,” observes Berlin. Next came the purges – instigated by Nikolai Yezhov in the late 1930s – in which many writers were killed. Some of those who managed to escape exile or state murder were so internally tormented by their situation that they committed suicide – including poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

“The most eminent survivors,” writes Berlin, “sit silent and nervous for fear of committing some fatal sin against the Party line…it left behind it painful and humiliating memories from which the survivors of this terror are never likely completely to recover.

Yet Berlin’s screed also contains pockets of hope for an eventual evolution of theatre and writing, noting that the Moscow Arts Theatre “nevertheless preserves a remarkable standard of individual acting and of inspired ensemble playing”, and praises the performances from smaller city theatres in Moscow and Leningrad, which “perform classical plays with verve and imagination.” He also expressed hope that the Russian public’s “child-like eagerness and enthusiasm” for literature and theatre could possibly foster a future in which the arts could again run unrestricted:

“If, therefore, political control were to alter at the top, and greater freedom of artistic expression were permitted, there is no reason why, in a society so hungry for productive activity, and in a nation still so eager for experience, still so young and so enchanted by everything that seems to be new or even true, and above all endowed with a prodigious vitality which can carry off absurdities fatal to a thinner culture, a magnificent creative art should not one day once again spring into life.”

Perhaps above all else, this analysis by Berlin can stand as a testament to the power of theatre and other arts to incite innovative thought and ideas, and as an example of the ubiquitous human need for creativity to run free and unfettered. We invest our very being into works of art; as writing, acting, music and painting act as necessary liberators from physical ‘reality’, thus an unconstrained cultural environment is synonymous with personal liberty.

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson