Curtain call

Puck’s final words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provide theatrical closure. Would that I had a fraction of Shakespeare’s skill to bring this very last post of  this blog to a satisfactory conclusion but anything I say is likely to prove inadequate – “the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen” as Bottom has it. However, it has to be done and it must be done, so let’s to it.

I remember thinking when I first heard about the project which was to become A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation that there were going to be a number of very happy souls up and down the country who would be winning a place to be part of a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Little did I suppose that one of them would be me. Funny old world isn’t it? Despite many years of am dramming, my sum total of Shakespeare plays performed in could be counted on the fingers of one hand (in fact they still can). Now, eighteen months later I’ve played (hopefully successfully) one of the key comic Shakespearean roles on two major British stages in front of approximately 10,000 audience members. Along the way I’ve worked with practitioners at the top of their game and professional actors who have been more generous and encouraging than one can possibly imagine. A strong bond has been formed with my Tower colleagues – thanks for putting up with me! I’ve learned many new skills and techniques, appreciated new slants on performing and substantially increased my knowledge of working in a Shakespeare play. I finally conquered the fear of that organised movement known as dance. I delivered a monologue while being the only person on stage. I was on the telly. I flirted with the Queen of the Fairies. I got to ham it up outrageously as Pyramus. Perhaps, most bizarrely, I got to play the spoons onstage at Stratford upon Avon. The spoons….! Onstage!! At Stratford upon Avon!!!

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Photo by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

I think (I hope) the project has enhanced my skills as a director too. Watching and learning from the RSC professionals is an education that money couldn’t buy. I was doubly fortunate that so many rehearsals were in London and that my flexible work patterns allowed me to take full advantage of sitting in on some of them all the while absorbing techniques and different ways of working; I can’t wait to get back into the director’s chair and put some of that stuff into practice.

Nor is that all. There’s this blog for a start. It began as a short weekly item in the Tower Theatre newsletter but has grown to mammoth proportions (92 posts and 82,000+ words) with a wide readership in this country and abroad. I do hope it will prove valuable as a record of a wonderful process albeit from the limited viewpoint of just one person in one of the 14 amateur companies who have been involved in this chance of a lifetime. The blog also led in turn to me writing pieces for Sardines Magazine, amdram.co.uk and NODA  (National Operatic and Dramatic Association). I’ve thoroughly  enjoyed putting pen to paper – or whatever the modern equivalent is – and sharing this experience with you. My grateful thanks for being there; just like a play, for this sort of thing to work there does need to be an audience. But this is finished now too; not entirely relishing a second set of withdrawal symptoms I have already launched a follow up blog entitled 2ndFromBottom. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

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Then there’s social media – something I thought I would only very rarely engage with. Now I’m on Facebook, Twitter (@johnchapman398), You Tube and (briefly) Instagram and, what’s more, I now get the point of it all. I’d never quite understood Marshall McLuhan’s famous declaration “The medium is the message” but that is so true of the sharing experience which is social media: as Hector says in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys “Pass it on, boys”. The lines of communication provided have led to friendships all over the UK – fellow Bottoms, other Mechanicals, the professionals and everyone else involved. I am sure “we will meet” from time to time; even as I publish this post I am just about to take the train to the NODA summer school in Coventry where some of the gang from Nottingham and I will be joining up with Dream producer Ian Wainwright to regale delegates with our wonderful story. (See new blog 2ndFromBottom for further details shortly). Thus the Dream legacy will pertain and we few (“we happy few”) will remain as members of a very exclusive club. For the record let me commemorate the whole group and “name their names”:

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It’s a role call of honour and innovation; one big, extended, unique and very happy family. And that in essence is what a theatrical company becomes. A temporary family of like minded individuals who come together to make a play, support each other and celebrate their joint achievement. It is undoubtedly sad that this particular company is now breaking up and going its separate ways but such is the way with all theatrical enterprises. Of all art forms, drama is probably the most temporary, rooted in the here and now and completely of the moment of its playing. As Erica Whyman said at the final wrap party “We will never do this again; it can’t be done. But every single element of Dream16 can be done again and must be done again”. Heartening news!

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Photo by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

So what of the future? At the moment, who knows? Like Mr Micawber I am “looking about me in the expectation of something turning up” and gradually realising that it is necessary to be proactive in order to ensure that something actually does so. In the early days I succumbed to the cliché that being cast in the project was like a dream come true. Do you know what though… it really really was! Yes, it is inexpressibly sad that this Dream is over but by heavens it was thrilling and life enhancing and just the greatest fun while it lasted. Let’s have no regrets that something has been and gone but recall with fondness and joy that we were there.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in sails.

Explore. Dream. Discover.  (Mark Twain)

I did. I have. I will.

Time to wake up.

No more words.

Curtain call

2nd From Bottom

There is no doubt that though A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation was totally joyous, its demise comes with many a twinge of sadness. In my case the winding down of this blog is a case in point.

But of course life goes on and I hope that means there will still be plenty of general stuff to write and enthuse about. With that in mind I’d therefore like to announce the launch of my next blog 2ndFromBottom (quite tickled with that name)

Here I plan to record the aftermath of playing one of the Mechanicals in a professional production with the Royal Shakespeare Company….and what he did next. I don’t think it will be such a regular or even full blog as this current effort and neither will it have the coherence and continuity that writing about a single subject provided but as an outlet for my verbal incontinence it should pass muster. Look out for further adventures in the world of theatre, some drama, film, music and book reviews, educational musings, reports of outings and the occasional picture of a cat.

To my loyal supporters I hope you will wish to take up the option of following this new blog and to all regular readers please keep coming back for more.

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2nd From Bottom

Those things do best please me

Throughout the writing of this blog I have been so fortunate that my colleagues in the team have added their own contributions.  This has made it a real group effort in the spirit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. Thus they have written whole articles, contributed reports of trips to other groups, supplied photographs and oral reminiscences and generally offered their support to what has turned out to be quite a mammoth undertaking – as well, of course, as lending their huge talents to appearing in the production. My thanks then go to Maria, Adam, Al, David, Tom and Peta for their invaluable contributions and their companionship on this theatrical adventure.

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Composite of photos by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

As one last piece of collaboration I asked the others to nominate for me their best time, experience or moment in working on the Dream2016. There was an element of the “reality show” format to the beginning of this project so it only seems fitting that before the credits role we focus on the participant’s “best bits”. I am sure they found making a single selection as much of a challenge as I did simply because there were so many bits of magic to choose from. However, here, in their own words, are their choices and, indeed, mine. 

Adam (Flute/Thisbe)

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Tower Team and professionals at the first read through

For me one of the most defining and best moments was very early on when the six of us London amateurs read through the Mechanicals’ scenes in the script, with the professionals, for the first time. We were all sat around the rehearsal room in Clapham and we’d only just met the professionals a few minutes earlier. We felt a pressure, applied by ourselves, to make sure we did ourselves justice. We gave it some energy and performance and the professionals, cast and crew alike, laughed and congratulated us heartily for our efforts. For me it was the first time we knew this whole project would work and we would be able to work well with these excellent actors. It really gave us a great springboard into the rehearsal process.

 

 

 Al (Snout/Wall)

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Al records his speech as Claudio

Writing from Italy where I happen to be at the moment, I have been thinking about Shakespeare’s imaginative world in this country and how the Dream does not form part of it! The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado, Romeo and Juliet and so many other plays have such a strong sense of being set here, but the Dream feels like England, and Warwickshire in particular. The references to Athens have always felt nominal to me, and the Mechanicals are a unique group of ordinary people who get drawn into those other worlds of illusion and Realpolitik in the play. With regard to Dream 2016, one of the many things I shall not forget is recording the speeches we did for preliminary Task 1. I had been allocated Claudio from Measure For Measure but because I was recovering from pneumonia when I recorded it I was late sending it in! I was relieved when David said he liked it and that it would do. We talked about why we had been given the particular speeches we each had, which led to some interesting speculation. I seem to recall that Erica talked about this at some point, and she may have referred to what I feel myself, namely that it is good for someone playing a grounded character like Snout to explore the terrors of the imagination and this mortal coil, and that brings us neatly back to the world of the Dream!

 

David (Amateur Group Director)

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The first run through (Sue Downing from the Nonentities stood in for Maria)

The first read through was special. We had a head start of course having prepared two of the scenes and run through the others several times, but I felt proud of the Tower team at that point. Then we got the first run through in Clapham. We were lucky being the London team and therefore able to step into the Mechanicals shoes, but again it showed that the work we had done for ourselves and with the RSC production team had “the play fitted”. But most of all I think it is an overall impression and remembrance that at every stage, from whoever it was, there was a friendly atmosphere and we were welcome and included. Without exception, during rehearsal in Clapham, at the Barbican and in Stratford we were never made to feel less than full partners in an amazing adventure.

 

Maria (Quince)

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Maria delivers the first prologue   Photo by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

My Dream 16 experience was wonderful. The reason I wanted to be involved was chiefly for the opportunity to work with a production team at the very highest level, from directors to vocal and movement coaches to  an award winning stage management team, to a wonderful professional cast and I just loved it.  If there is one thing I am personally most proud of, it is being able to say that I nailed that first Quince monologue “If we offend…”. That monologue haunted and terrified me for a whole year! I tried it every way I could think of and it just didn’t work to my satisfaction. Trying to demonstrate a piece of Shakespeare which is punctuated in such a way that it becomes a nonsense is really hard! We got to the last few days before the performance at the Barbican and I still hadn’t got there. However, with the brilliant direction of AD Kimberley Sykes, it all suddenly clicked and for the first time I properly got it! On our opening night at the Barbican, where an enormous surge of adrenaline was palpably pulsing throughout the entire cast, I flew onto that stage and delivered the speech to the audience with a clarity I had never felt before and in return, the audience applauded. I’m told for that speech, that is a pretty good result!!

 

Peta (Snug/Lion)

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Peta  in the RST space

For me a magical moment while at Stratford was the final workshop with Michael Corbidge (Senior Voice and Text Coach)) and Polly Bennett (Deputy Movement Director), which suddenly seemed to “unlock” the RST space for me. Such as having the courage to do things in a thrust space that would seem completely counter-intuitive on proscenium stage; for example, turning outwards instead of inwards and learning to communicate with EVERY seat in the audience. It energised me and made the Stratford performances even more memorable than the London ones.

 

Tom (Starveling/Moonshine)

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Tom as Moonshine with “lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn”

To paraphrase Shakespeare – “we were such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  And the dreams will remain. It is the small things I remember most fondly. The friendliness of rehearsals and the drink and talk afterwards – especially at David’s; our first meeting with the professional cast and their continuing warmth, encouragement and cheerfulness; the delight the schoolchildren seemed to have absorbed and then radiated in their performances; the woman in Stratford who approached me to ask if I was the Man in the Moon; meeting the casts from the other companies and being introduced by Erica to Greg Doran at the splendid farewell party. We have been involved with the Dream for over a year and no other play remains with me as this one will. I can retire from the stage happy.

 

Me (Bottom/Pyramus)

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The Bergomask (don’t look too closely, it isn’t actually us)

I had a real breakthrough moment when I finally mastered the Bergomask dance at the end of the play. Dancing on stage (or at least as I have tended to think of it “co-ordinated” movement) has always been my bête noire and over the years I’ve talked myself into a position where I think it’s going to be a disaster before I’ve even started. Even David’s patience and Adam’s cheerful optimism wasn’t keeping my efforts afloat (I always found it distinctly ironic that my character was all for the dance and Adam’s wasn’t when in reality it was completely the reverse).  It was when I visited one of the school rehearsals with Miles, a brilliant RSC Education consultant, and saw how joyous and free the children were with it that made me determined to conquer it; if they could do it, then so could I. I repeatedly ran the training video supplied by the RSC and found that I knew it backwards at home. But as soon as I got it into the rehearsal room the cracks reappeared. Then once in a session with assistant movement director Polly Bennett we were encouraged to go for it and enjoy it even if we went wrong. That’s when I realised that to an audience it’s not so much about hands and feet as what’s going on above the neckline. After that my demons quickly dropped away and by the end of the run I was positively looking forward to that climactic joyous moment. Whoo!

There are so many other outstanding moments and wonderful memories that we will treasure from being involved in Dream2016. We have met the most incredibly kind, talented and generous people, from the cast, creatives and crew and the other amateur groups. We have made friendships which we plan to continue far beyond this project and we have learned what it is to be directed by a wonderful group of women at the very top of their game and who have helped us to recognise our potential as performers. We can’t thank Erica Wyman and everyone at the RSC enough for giving the Tower Theatre Dreamteam the opportunity to be involved in the most thrilling theatrical experience of our lives. We will never forget a single one of you and we love you all to bits!!!!

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Our three brilliant directors – Sophie, Kim and Erica

So, just one more blog post (probably) left to round out this extraordinary undertaking. Join me soon.


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

Those things do best please me

All For Your Delight, Part 3

Working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been a roller coaster of emotions …see told you that was going to happen, didn’t I? Some definite high points on the ride were reached in our two performance runs. The first of these was at the Barbican in May 2016 and the second at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in July. This forms the content of Part Three of our story told in pictures. If you missed the previous parts then click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

The photos show final rehearsals, what went on backstage and, of course the performances themselves; this latter group of pictures is by professional photographer Topher McGrillis (© RSC) so stand by for a sudden increase in quality. There are also some shots commemorating our appearance on the BBC TV programme “The Best Bottoms In The Land” as well as a peep at the huge after show party on the final night. Enjoy! We certainly did!

Barbican performance photos by Topher McGrillis (RSC). Some Barbican backstage photos by Ruth Anthony

To follow the written story of the third part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

All For Your Delight, Part 3

All For Your Delight, Part 2

The road followed by the A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation project  has been a long and winding one – OMG: Another cliché alert..next he’ll be doing the one about the roller coaster of emotions.

So here’s Part Two of our story told in pictures. If you missed Part One then click here first and see what led up to this point. You might also want to read the blog posts that accompany these pictures. This section looks at the six weeks of the project rehearsals in January and February 2016. Fortunately for us in Tower Theatre most of the rehearsals were relatively nearby in the RSC’s rooms in Clapham though there were always video broadcasts from other parts of the country (hence all the photos of people sitting down watching screens). Proximity meant I could attend some of the professional rehearsals as an observer and, of course, there were also the Bottom Hubs every Saturday. So from first read through to final run through here’s what it was like.

To follow the written story of the second part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

All For Your Delight, Part 2

All For Your Delight, Part 1

A picture is said to paint a thousand words…OMG cliché alert! However clichés, by their very nature, contain grains of truth and so it is in this case. There have been scores of photos taken by the participating  amateurs up and down the country commemorating and celebrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. And Tower Theatre is no exception. So here’s Part One of our story told in pictures which can be enjoyed for its own sake or as a substitute for reading the reams of words I’ve already written on the subject. Hopefully, of course, you’ll have a go at both. This section covers the application and audtion process, the preparatory tasks and workshops and throws in a little bit of Xmass for good measure.

Barbican onstage photo by Topher McGrillis RSC and Task 2 photos by Ruth Anthony

To follow the written story of the first part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

All For Your Delight, Part 1

The last hurrah!

And suddenly, there it was – gone! July 16th 2016 – the absolutely final day of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. The evening needed to be a little bit special and fortunately it was. This had been such a big theatrical event that some form of closure was absolutely essential if there weren’t to be dozens of gibbering wrecks around the country.

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Many of the amateur teams had been finished for some time but our performances had only been at the beginning of the same week; so we hardly had time to draw breath before the end was upon us. Our previous “ending” at the Barbican had produced a massive comedown and while this one wasn’t quite so severe (there being only two performances for us to give at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) the pangs were still quite sharp and lasted a couple of days. The real “downer” (for me anyway) was in the days immediately following the last night at Stratford but as I don’t want to dwell on the negatives let’s concentrate on the upside of our final Dream day.

On this last Saturday our team all made its way back separately to Stratford. I had been having a couple of days r and r in a wonderful country house hotel quite nearby so I was back in Stratford by lunchtime. I had thought about getting a ticket for the Swan Theatre to see a performance – after all I had nearly inadvertently appeared there a few nights previously – but, of course, this is Stratford upon Avon on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the tourist season so there really wasn’t a ghost of a chance. Instead I headed for HandlebardsThe Dell the RSC’s outside performance space and scene of the fairy portal camp/flashmob a few weeks previously. Playing here was group called the Handlebards (sic) a group of four peripatetic young women (there is an equivalent all male group too). Their USP is that they are cycling from London to Fife between July and September stopping off and giving performances of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of The Shrew en route carrying with them “all of the necessary set, props and costume to perform extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays”.

Well this sounded like fun and indeed it was. I expected a highly truncated version of Romeo and Juliet but not a bit of it. Most of the dialogue was intact though it tended to be played for comedy rather than any lasting seriousness; that’s not a criticism, as on a rare hot afternoon this was far more suitable for the casual audience who lounged on the grass in front of the rudimentary stage. Best described as “rough theatre” some of the staging was quite delightful. Instead of swords, bicycle pumps were utilised and the costumes were suggestive of character rather than attempts to provide anything full on. I was often reminded of the Rude Mechanicals’ attempts to mount a serious version of Pyramus and Thisbe only for them to find it falling apart around them. The cast worked extremely hard covering nineteen roles between them. They all had their moments but I was particularly taken by Lotte Tickner as a bawdy Nurse, a lisping Prince, a meowing Tybalt (“king of cats”), and a water spray wielding Friar John (long story – don’t ask). The performance finished only fifty minutes before they were due to do it all again (and then Shrew twice on the Sunday). They must be physically very fit but I suppose if you’re cycling all that way between shows then you probably will be.

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One last selfie in front of the theatre

After a last group meal at the Dirty Duck with most of the rest of the Tower team, it was time for that momentous last performance which was to feature Belfast’s Belvoir Players. As well as ourselves there were a goodly number from quite a few of the other amateur companies in the audience and for those unable to get a ticket the local Bear Pit group was hosting a pre after show party (!) at their theatre. It was strange to listen to all the lines slipping away one by one – never to be spoken again as part of this particular production – especially those of the Mechanicals. That’s the nature of theatre though, it is immediate and in the moment and needs the live audience element to really make it work (I confess to having some ambivalence towards cinema showings of “live” productions, though have certainly used them to see things I might otherwise have missed). It was particularly joyous to see the children in this last performance as they were from a local Special School. Here was the RSC really demonstrating inclusivity and, of course, just a couple of days earlier they had given their first Shakespearian “relaxed” performance for an audience including people with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability.

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I call this one – ‘The rest is silence’ (witty, huh?)

The last few minutes of the play definitely brought a lump to the throat and the final lines (delivered by Lucy Ellinson as Puck) were particularly pertinent calling, as they do, for audience approval; it can certainly be claimed that the project as a whole achieved that. There was a burst of fervid applause, the performers took their last curtain call, flowers were thrown on to the stage and then suddenly the houselights were up and the show was over not for just that night or even that week but for ever. I confess I stayed in my seat for some minutes gathering my thoughts and contemplating what a fantastic journey we (the amateurs, the pros, the schoolchildren, the directors, the creative, technical and support staff) had all been on. Unbelievable, truly remarkable and absolutely unique.

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And so to that traditional staple – the after show party. This was somewhat bigger (250 people plus) than the customary am dram affair, which is often squeezed in during the small hours after a backbreaking period of set striking and theatre clearing. None of that for us this time so it was straight off to the RSC’s studio theatre The Other Place which had been cleared for the occasion. It was a lively noisy affair populated by a myriad of Mechanicals as well as the professionals and everyone else associated with the production. RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran said a few heartfelt words about the project’s beginnings, the RSC’s hopes about what would come to pass and their huge delight at what had been achieved. Then he handed over to Erica who spoke with her customary charm and eloquence about what the project had meant to her and how she hoped it had touched all of our lives – don’t worry about that, it definitely has. She also speculated on what the future might bring and how although the Dream project really could not, would not and even should not be repeated the elements that made up its constituent parts should be encouraged to thrive and prosper. The project was declared officially over, Chris Nyak (Demetrius) presented Erica with a huge framed picture containing images of every adult who had appeared on stage in the run and then a short video featuring the amateurs was shown in which Erica and her team were thanked through the rewritten words of the song “Time Of Our Lives”. This was the videoing referred to in the last post and was co-ordinated by Nottingham’s Becky  Morris; it was a bit of fun but I also thought it was entirely in the spirit of the early rehearsals in which all shared via the medium of video.

After that it was eating, drinking, dancing, anecdote swapping, photo taking and general revelry until the small hours.

 

Eventually I found myself back at the Falcon hotel wondering how anything could top the experience we had all been through. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the last year – brilliant Bottoms, fantastic Flutes, sensational Snugs, superb Snouts, superlative Starvelings, quite awseome Quinces and dazzling directors. Not to mention the preeminent professionals, the terrific technicals, commendable creatives, a stupendous support team and everyone else connected with this truly magnificent project. Above all these people, however, sits one courageous and life affirming individual – all hail Erica Whyman and her “most rare vision.”

That’s nearly it for this blog, folks. Just one or two more posts and that will be another Dream over. In case I forget to say it later – thanks for keeping me company


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

The last hurrah!