“We are going to set you three tasks!” No, not the words of the king of a fairy tale land to the prince hopeful of winning the hand of the beautiful princess. These were the words spoken by Erica Whyman the project director for the RSC’s Play For The Nation and they were being said via a laptop stationed in the Tower Theatre office in the Bridewell in London. Our Dreamteam along with the thirteen others around the country had gathered together to participate in an online get together via Google Hang Outs (no me, neither – think of it as similar to Skype … if you’re not sure what that is then you’re probably on a hiding to nothing).
Tagging along with our group we were very pleased to welcome Amelia, a member of the Norwich team, the Common Lot. She is playing Quince for them; having recently moved down to London she will be commuting backwards and forwards once the real fun starts. Good luck with that and if you’re looking for a friendly and ambitious company to join once this great adventure is over……
If anyone’s trying to do the maths that means that around the country there were getting on for a hundred of us huddled round screens, eager to hear what Erica had to say and if possible pose some questions. At the end of the session we would know what first task the RSC were going to set us as preparation for our work on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed that is what the autumn sessions are going to be all about – some preparatory tasks and further work with RSC trainers on voice, movement etc. If all that wasn’t exciting enough each group was being filmed by regional teams from the BBC. I may not have mentioned this so far – there’s been so much else to reveal – that the plan is for each amateur company to have a documentary about its progress aired in their performance week– a piece of show promotion that most amateur groups could only dream about. The programme is provisionally entitled The Best Bottoms In The Land and, if you take my tip, I wouldn’t try Googling that!
Erica outlined her vision for the production and spoke about her preferred way of working and exploring the text. Though she admitted to a little trepidation – something of this size and scale has never been tried before – I think we all felt confident that this was something that could be made to work. Questions about set, costumes, period setting, music and lighting were dealt with. I really don’t want to give away too much at this point – in any case, nothing is yet set in stone – but I’m particularly excited that the set designer is Tom Piper, one of the two geniuses responsible for the stunning poppy display at the Tower of London last year.
Our group director, David, had already received an official letter from the RSC and once Erica’s introduction was over she asked the groups to open this and read out the contents.
Task 1 covering letter
Once this was done the focus shifted to each individual group and we were invited to introduce ourselves and the roles we were playing and to pose one pertinent question (per group) to Erica. The wonders of modern technology (hurrah for the RSC techies!) meant we were able to see and hear everything each group said – well apart from Cornwall who got rather lost in technical glitches – shame about that guys). It was all a bit reminiscent of the old style voting on the Eurovision Song Contest where they called in the results from participating countries. However, it was nice to put faces to names that I’d been swopping banter with on Facebook for weeks. Once this was done we were handed our individual tasks.
Rather than use the Dream itself (there will be enough of that next year) at this stage the RSC are encouraging us to work on our general Shakespeare skills. To that end we have all been given a speech or duologue from another play to research, learn and then perform/film before the end of the month. The chosen extracts have been selected to help us find out more about an aspect of the character we are due to play. What was amazing is that each piece has been tailored for the individual actor/actress rather than for each of the six roles. They are not specific to the age, physicality or even gender of the participants and it must have been a real labour of love finding quite so many differing pieces to challenge us with. Of course some duplication was inevitable and I know that a few of my fellow Bottoms have “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” from King Lear to work on. I can only assume that they think I’ve already got shouting a lot and raging against overwhelming odds off pat and therefore need to develop another aspect of stagecraft. Anyway, here is how it worked out for us:
- Maria (playing Quince) – Jacques: “All the world’s a stage…” (As You Like It 2.7)
- Adam (playing Flute) – Hermione: “Sir, spare your threats…” (The Winter’s Tale 3.2)
- Peta (playing Snug) & Tom (playing Starveling) – Othello and Iago: “My noblelord/What dost thou say, Iago?” (Othello 3.3)
- Al (playing Snout) – Claudio: “Ay but to die and go we know what where…” (Measure For Measure 3.1)
- John (playing Bottom) – “O, pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth…” (Julius Caesar 3.1)
Now if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that I slipped in the word ‘film’ back there; that’s right we have to record our efforts for posterity – well, the RSC anyhow. This will be nothing fancy and we can achieve this using any method open to us – apparently even VHS is an option! Once filmed the pieces will be sent to the RSC for analysis, comment and feedback – this latter will be happening at the next mass session in October when we’ll also be set Task 2. However, just to keep us on our toes, on the night of our next live link up some of us will be selected to perform our piece live to all the groups and, of course, the RSC themselves. No pressure then – all I can say is thank heavens we’ve already passed the auditions!
Now then, just time to peruse the RSC brochure and newsletter which arrived this week (and which really confirms the whole enterprise as official) and then it’s time to start some Mark Antony learning: “Et tu, Brute!” – oh no, hang on, that’s the other bloke!