The End of the Road? Not Quite!

First an apology; what with one thing and another, I’ve got a bit behind with this week’s post. (See what I did there?… Bottom! Behind! Oh, never mind!) And so I’m indebted to two of my fellow Mechanicals (Trevor and Adam) for providing me with the “meat” of this particular outing.

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The production arrives in Belfast

Last week A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation crossed the water to Belfast. I still find the logistics of the whole enterprise mind boggling and to have played successfully in so many venues with an ever changing cast means that the agenda underlined by the production’s subtitle has been well and truly met. Congratulations, once again, to any and all of the people involved in making it happen not just once but 103 times – so far. As you will have already worked out that means the production’s century has now been achieved. Last Thursday evening’s show was, indeed, the 100th and although I wasn’t there I know a man who was. Thanks to my colleague and fellow Bottom, Trevor Gill of the Belvoir Players for the following:

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Puck’s regionally modified topper

On Thursday 2nd June the Grand Opera House Belfast had the great honour of hosting the 100th performance of Dream 2016. Our fabulous Stage Manager Jenny Grand made a special tannoy announcement just before curtain up. A fitting standing ovation that night – the Belfast audience in full roar! Highlight was the wonderful Puck (Lucy Ellison) who with the help of some white paper, sellotape and ribbon magically turned her top hat into a pint of Guinness.

Thanks Trevor and I’m betting that one or two glasses of the real thing were raised in celebration later that evening.

And so it was that just three performances later, the end of the UK tour was reached with Belfast again the venue for another special night. At one time I had hoped to be there to witness proceedings at first hand but, alas, this was not to be. However, being younger than the rest of us old Tower fogies, Adam did make the trip and has kindly penned the following to give us all a flavour of that last night across the Irish Sea:
A hire car, a wedding, three trains, a flight and two buses. That’s how I got from London on Friday morning to Belfast on Saturday afternoon ready for the penultimate instalment on the nationwide tour of the production. A month in Stratford Upon Avon is all that remains after Belfast so there was very much a ‘breaking up for half term’ feeling amongst the Dream 2016 gang.
Converging from across the country were a Bottom and Quince from Glasgow, a Bottom from Bradford and almost the entire rude mechanicals from Norwich, all intent on joining up with the Belvoir Players and the professional RSC troupe to celebrate the (first)last night.

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A trio of Flutes (London, Norwich & Belfast)

And so to the play and the fantastic Belfast actors and accents on display. Having seen three versions (including ours) in performance now, and a whole host of others in rehearsal, there is no doubt that each of the mechanicals’ takes are unique with vastly different interpretations but all thoroughly interesting to watch. And in every town the local audiences shriek with delight at their native lads and ladies in action. I must make special mention of my fellow Flute, Chris Curry, who was as truthful a Thisbe as they come.

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A quartet of Bottoms (Belfast, Norwich, Bradford & Glagow) with Puck

As for the professional actors, it was a pleasure to see them again. It had only been two weeks since the curtain came down on our last show in London, and despite it feeling longer than that to me, it was like meeting up with old friends instantly. And testament to their professionalism, their 103rd performance included energy, attack and a freshness that is no mean feat to muster especially considering how tired they all must be. Lucy Ellinson, our wonderful Puck, for example, appears to have learned from each and every show and each and every audience, resulting in a performance that gets better and better every time it is let loose on the stage.

After rapturous applause it was on to the ‘half term’ party to celebrate what had been an excellently well received tour of immense quality. Credit to Trevor Gill, Belfast’s finest Bottom, for organising a great shindig with much dancing, drinking and merriment. The only shame was that licensing laws in Belfast meant the lights came up and the music stopped far too early for anyone’s liking, but that failed to dampen a wonderful evening. No-one can deny… she is indeed handsome, she is indeed pretty, she is the Dream in Belfast City.

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Farewell, Belfast – Hello, Stratford

Many thanks for that account Adam and I hope it wasn’t quite so convoulted getting back to London again.

And so, that was the tour that was. Working with just about the THE most preeminent classical theatre company in the world, dozens of amateur actors/Mechanicals and hundreds of schoolchildren/fairies have had the honour of performing in front of thousands of playgoers. That, as I am sure you are aware, though, is not quite the end. This week the production is on a well-deserved sabbatical but very soon the professional cast will reconvene in Stratford upon Avon for a further month of shows. During this time each of the 14 amateur companies (plus yet more local schoolchildren) have been invited to the RSC home to take it in turns to perform once again on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It just keeps getting better doesn’t it? The plaudits the show has received as it has travelled the country have ensured that ticket sales in Stratford are already extremely healthy so it looks like we’re all in for another great time once it gets to each of our turns. For a schedule of these upcoming performances please click here.

Following a really memorable week at the Barbican, our Stratford turn comes in the very last week of all. While this will inevitably be tinged with sadness we really can’t wait to get cracking again. Wish us luck and hopefully see you in July!


The production is on a week’s break and recommences on 15th June in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for the full schedule

Allgroups


The End of the Road? Not Quite!

Bottoms on the box

(NB – Links to the various programmes mentioned will take readers to the BBC’s IPlayer where programmes are available for a further 20 days at time of publishing this post)

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It’s Bank Holiday, it’s somewhat grey and miserable – no surprise there. Time to catch up on some BBC Bard telly missed while Dreaming at the Barbican. First The Hollow Crown with our old mucker Mr Cumberbatch (excellently done); then, at the other end, a second viewing of the Russell T Davis Dream (still have reservations). And in between, like the fancy filling in a Shakespeare sandwich, it was The Best Bottoms In The Land the set of TV programmes that recorded the process of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. These programmes were devised as part of the BBC’s 2016 Shakespeare Festival and set out to show the story of nine of the teams who auditioned, trained, rehearsed for and ultimately played the characters of the Rude Mechanicals in their local partner theatres as part of this mammoth enterprise. In case you’ve being paying close attention over the last year and have worked out that there were fourteen teams in all let me explain the discrepancy. Filming only took place in England (therefore, sadly, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast were not represented) and in both Stratford upon Avon and Newcastle only one of the two teams was featured. Each half hour film was made by the relevant regional BBC team. In a recent blog, overall series producer Ed Barlow explained how the BBC got involved (click here).

Radio Times 1

Radio Times 2

Now, I know I’m relatively late to this particular party but at the time of the live broadcast I was just a little bit busy appearing on stage at the Barbican. I then deliberately let things settle for a week to put some distance between the live experience of being in the play and looking at the recording of our progress– for one thing I thought it would just stir up too many emotions to have sat down and watched a recording straightaway. Anyway, the BBC’s IPlayer meant that I could now access all the different versions with relative ease. How best to approach them? Alphabetical? Numerical? The sensible route seemed to be to follow the order of the theatrical tour which would mean the added advantage of building up to and finishing with our own programme.

So first it was off to Stratford upon Avon. When we went and saw the show in Stratford we had seen the Bear Pit team so it was interesting seeing the same venue with a different set of players – the Nonentities. The recorded clips demonstrated how the Mechanicals scenes were, at once, both the same and yet different. Next it was Newcastle where perhaps the biggest dramatic moment took place – though not on stage. Graham Fewell of the Castle Players, playing Snug, broke a bone at the technical rehearsal and has still yet to get on stage. Blackpool and Bradford came next and reiterated the, by now, familiar scenario of amateurs overcoming obstacles to rise to the challenge of the professional world. As Ed Barlow admits in his blog: “The key to any successful story is conflict and jeopardy and at first it seemed we were going to struggle – everyone was having too good a time”. Well, sorry about that Ed but, and here I hope I speak on behalf of all the amateurs, we were focused on getting as much out of the process as possible and remaining positive and upbeat; who wouldn’t when such a wonderful prize was waiting at the finish line?

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Actor Sam West recording the voice over for the programme

Halfway through and the next programme, which featured Canterbury, was one in which I took particular interest as this was the version/venue I had visited in April. Heavily featured was the concern which Lisa Nightingale had about being the first woman to play Bottom for the RSC. As I can personally attest she had little to worry about. Norwich was next and I was suddenly surprised to see my name on screen when Owen Evans, the Common Lot’s Bottom, showed the camera the label inside his dungarees – which we evidently shared. Nottingham featured lady Bottom number 2 in Becky Morris and Truro the youngest Bottom in Pete Collett (our own programme tactfully – thankfully – neglected to mention that I was the oldest!). Eight versions in and I was struck by how diverse the groups were – I’d met all the Bottoms and a couple of the groups in full but (other than online) there were whole swathes of people I’d never been fortunate enough to encounter. What was patently clear though was that we were all united by the idea of helping to create the best version of the play possible, all passionate about what we were doing and fully aware of and grateful for the massive opportunity we had been given. If these were common themes I was pleasantly surprised to find a great deal of diversity in the actual content of the documentaries. I had expected a lot of repetition and shared footage to be used but the programmes took a rather more individual tack than that becoming more individualised as each one progressed.

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Oana and “crew” – final rehearsal day – Barbican rehearsal room

Finally it was time to watch our own London programme. I guess seeing yourself on screen is always a bit of a painful process (not that I’ve had that much experience, it has to be said) but the editing didn’t seem to paint me as a congenital idiot so that was a bonus. I was pleased to see my fellow players receive a good amount of coverage which I hadn’t felt was always the case with some of the other versions; despite the title of the programme what we had been through was very much a group experience and I was grateful that this had been acknowledged. What watching the programme certainly did was to provide a whole host of memories from the experience going right back to the beginning of the process. The auditions, the various tasks, workshops and online meetings we had participated in, the rehearsals at Clapham and the Barbican and the first night performance were all featured. All of this provides a very welcome souvenir of a very happy time.

The TV programme was always (in my mind anyway) very much a side show to the main event of the theatre production but it is great that someone took the time and trouble to record the event for posterity and my thanks go out to producer/director Andy Richards and journalist Oana Marocico who treated us with respect and patience and provided a true record of our fantastic journey. Andy had this to say about working with us:

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Programme producer/director Andy

I first became involved with the BBC’s ‘Best Bottoms in the Land’ project last September, when I was began filming the Tower team’s first workshops for ‘Dream 16’. During the months that followed, it was a real privilege to follow them so closely during the rehearsal process – as they shaped their characters into some truly memorable comic creations. I was struck by how much enjoyment the group got from the process of acting and rehearsing together, and how dedicated they were to creating the very best ensemble work that they could. All their hard work paid off with a tremendous opening night at the Barbican, which was great fun to film. I was rooting for them to bring the house down, and they duly obliged! The finished programme was very well received, and I hope that we succeeded in offering some real insights into what makes actors tick, as well as exploring the value of teamwork and the satisfactions of the creative process. I very much hope that I will be able to work with the Tower Theatre Company on other BBC projects in the future.

Andy, I hope so too.

To read reviews of Tower Theatre at the Barbican please click here


This week the production is at the Grand Opera House in Belfast– click on the image below to reveal full details.

Belfast

Bottoms on the box

Living The Dream: The Epilogue

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Curtain call Photo by Steve Gray

(Other images in this blog post are backstage photos taken by Ruth Anthony on our final day at the Barbican)

No epilogue, I pray you, for your play needs no excuse.

Duke Theseus’s words at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are an attempt to head Bottom off at the pass before he starts yet another self-indulgent speech. At the risk of becoming over identified with the character I think an epilogue is in order and even Shakespeare himself ignores his character’s own advice by giving a closing speech to Puck. An epilogue tends to be something solemn and with a sense of finality about it neither of which I want to particularly want to bring to bear on the project A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation because a) it has never been solemn (though it has been serious) and b) because it isn’t actually over yet.

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That said I cannot let this moment pass without reflecting on the aftermath of such an intense week as detailed in my previous half dozen posts. The “comedown” or “post show blues” is I am afraid an inevitable consequence of the highs of the shows themselves. One of the benefits that the Tower Dreamteam has had is numbering a doctor among its makeup. Maria (Quince) tells me that the effects of massive amounts of adrenaline pumping through the body is bound to have repercussions – for every action there is a reaction type of thing (just about as far as my understanding of physics stretches). Therefore tiredness combined with inability to sleep, hunger accompanied by little desire to eat and lack of concentration interspersed with moments of extreme lucidity are all to be expected. The comedown after a more run of the mill show is usually intense so multiply that by about 250 and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. I’m indebted to OnStage website editor Chris Petersen’s article Post Show Blues and how to cure them for putting things in a bit more perspective. In particular I’m reassured that having these feelings is as a direct result of enjoying the show and the company of my fellows quite so much; as he says it’s better to feel like this than being glad the whole thing is over. As it is, at least this is another shared experience – both Barry (Bradford) and Lisa (Canterbury) warned me about the aftershock last week and I’ve already forewarned Steve (Cardiff). I found writing the last blog post quite cathartic and have been touched by some of the messages of support received from others. The overwhelmingly positive reviews have also been reassuring that the team was up to the mark. Most of these reviews have been of the online blog review type and so provide a real insight into the experience of paying audience members – it’s great to see that they had such a good time.

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So gradually things are getting back to “normal” and the memories that abide remain exceptionally happy ones. My immediate colleagues were great to be with, the pros and musicians were warm and collaborative, the RSC directors, stage management and backstage staff were towers of strength, the pupils of Beam and Eastbury were a joy to work with, the Barbican was awesome to play and very welcoming to us and the audiences were just amazing. As a bonus I’m pleased to have been able to share the events of last week with so many blog readers old and new, whether they could make it to the show or not.

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It’s been a tonic to see that the show has successfully rolled on to Cardiff and is hotly anticipated in Belfast. Also it won’t be long before we start gearing up again for our encore performances at Stratford upon Avon in July (11th and 12th if you’re passing by that way). Beyond that I’ve still got the treat of watching the TV programmes “The Best Bottoms In The Land” to come – I felt it would be best to put some space between production week and viewing these. All the indications from my colleagues across the country are that here is something else of which we can all feel proud. Above all there is the very comforting feeling that we have conquered a mountain (of sorts) and that all our lives have been enriched by it.

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So no sombre epilogue here. Though Theseus denies Bottom the chance to make another speech he does encourage him and the other Mechanicals to perform the Bergomask – a dance of celebration and release – and it is that sense of joy which I would like to hold on to. To finish with another quote, this time from one of our reviews:

This RSC Dream gets the one absolutely essential thing about the play absolutely right – it quickly establishes and never forgets that this is a happy, joyous, celebratory and just plain fun play. (Theatreguidelondon.co.uk)

To read further reviews of Tower Theatre at the Barbican please click here


This week the production is at the New Theatre in Cardiff– click on the image below to reveal full details.

Cardiff

Living The Dream: The Epilogue

Living The Dream: Act 5

I always knew this would be the hard one to write – the last day of performance week – and so it has turned out. A combination of extremely long days, euphoria, massive physical exertion, poor eating habits, lack of sleep and high levels of concentration have taken their toll, hence this last piece is a bit later than originally promised. Anyway, let’s to it and see if it doesn’t provide some sort of catharsis.

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Lucy and Maria helping out at the touch tour

The day began with yet another new experience as the RSC was offering a “touch tour” for those attending the matinee performance and who would be using the audio description facility. The tour gave audience members the opportunity to meet some of the cast, explore the set and handle some of the key costumes and props. This was a really interesting half hour and it was evident that to the patrons in attendance it would make all the difference to their appreciation of the play. I was asked to “model” the donkey ears and run through a few lines so that the sound of my voice would be familiar to our guests. They also posed some questions about how hot I got and how quickly I had to change. I explained that I had three people to get me into the ears (one for the headset, one for dabbing some red make up on and one to hold the torch by the light of which the others worked), that they were then removed by Puck onstage and that the makeup was removed in the wings by ASM Lindsey scrubbing my face with a wet cloth  – most invigorating!

After the regular warm ups it was more or less straight into the afternoon matinee which as well as being audio described was to be captioned – not that any of this would affect what we were doing in the slightest. The performance is probably best described as a game of two halves. Things seemed a bit nervy in the first half (though personally I felt less so than on the previous evening) and there was a definite blip in our second scene which, fortunately, was able to be very quickly rescued. David came round to the dressing rooms at half time to give us a pep talk and this seemed to liven us up and provide a better second half. By the time we got to Pyramus and Thisbe things were swimming along very nicely again and this last scene, as ever, went down a storm.

In between shows it was time to start clearing up, gathering together greetings cards and presents and getting things ready for a later departure (not something I wanted to think about, believe me, but it had to be done). Various messages about the clear up procedures came from stage manager Jenny and company manager Suzi; as in everything else they are absolute models of efficiency but all done in a kindly and friendly manner. A quick meal in the Barbican’s Green Room with pros Alex, Ben and Jack revealed that they too were thinking about the immediate future and the journey up to the next venue in Cardiff. A definite feeling of finality was starting to set in. Back up in dressing room F3, dresser Jen appeared with our freshly laundered costumes (don’t know how they turn things round so quickly) and it was time to get ready for the final show.

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Final notes and encouragement from AD Kim     Photo by Ruth Anthony

I’m pleased to report that we went out on a high. From the moment we first came on I could feel that the audience were with us and as it was a now or never situation I decided to use all my reserves to give them a good night. There’s a fine balance, of course, and we had been warned about overpushing or becoming self indulgent; I think we managed to stay on the right side of this particular concern. A little extra bounce, a little extra swagger, a slightly more playful grin with Ayesha and just a hint more of audience engagement and I think it was possibly the best performance of the week – running a close neck and neck with Thursday evening. There were several emotional moments in the last half hour (mostly offstage but see the last paragraph below) but generally the trend was upbeat and celebratory. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the Bergomask section in the early days but over the final week had found myself carrying it out with more abandon – if perhaps slightly less polish each night. For this final time I was doing it for myself and I couldn’t have cared less who (or if anyone) was watching. As Adam and I swung into our final pose a little voice whispered “You did it! You really did it!”. There was one more final extraordinary and very touching moment. At the curtain call the professionals went down on one knee and applauded us; that really finished me off!

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Our visitors from all over Dreamland

Things moved apace after that. A swift get out in which I managed to leave my gifts of Dream Tour and Barbican T shirts behind – since located and set to one side for later collection – was effected. It was most unusual of course to not be going through the wearying process of striking the set and clearing the stage; every am drammer’s bugbear on the last night. For once there was a professional crew (I counted about 20 people) swiftly deconstructing the scenery and loading it onto a huge waiting van outside. I, for one, was mightily relieved. There were a few more well-wishers at the stage door and I reflected on how so many of our fellows had put in an appearance to cheer us on. Respect to the Canterbury Players team, Peter Cockerill from up north, the ever lovely Bradford Barry, Amelia from just down the road and part of Norwich’s Common Lot, Dorothy all the way from Cornwall and especially Graham for stop 12 on his tour of all venues; we thank you from the heart of our Bottoms. Just time for a brief celebration (glass of water for me as I got to the bar past last orders), lots (and I mean lots) of fond farewells and then the last train home.

As I fell into bed I reflected on a key moment that evening and one aspect of the play that was definitely different in performance. This was the “I have had a most rare vision” monologue towards the “latter end of the play”. Alone on stage for this section it is Bottom’s (and if I’m honest my) big moment. That night as I spoke the words they seemed to have a new resonance encapsulating not only what had taken place for Bottom but also what had happened on a personal level over the last year and a half:

I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.

Gentle reader, the words were Shakespeare’s, the feelings were Bottom’s but the very real tears were mine.

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Our last team photo backstage at The Barbican     Photo by Ruth Anthony

This week the  production is  at the New Theatre in Cardiff– click on the image below to reveal full details.

Cardiff

 

Living The Dream: Act 5

Normal Service Will Be Resumed…

Many apologies to my faithful readers. I know I promised to put up a new post each day detailing what had happened the previous day but I’m afraid a degree of exhaustion (and frankly emotion) has slightly conquered me today. Anyway five out of six isn’t bad and I’ll get to the final day as soon as I can. In the meantime here’s a picture of the whole darn gang to keep you amused

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The Dream2016 London cast backstage at the Barbican
Normal Service Will Be Resumed…

Living The Dream: Act 4

D16 Call Friday 20th May

I felt like I had jet lag, except I hadn’t actually been anywhere. Barry had warned me the previous day that I might experience a downturn in energy on the Friday of performance week – not because there was so much going on but, perhaps a little strangely, the reverse. Having the matinee the previous day had told my brain that meant the day was Saturday and that, therefore, Friday was Sunday – except it wasn’t. With all other normal patterns disrupted I was feeling generally disoriented and as though things were starting to unravel. Writing this blog proved a boon at this point as it gave a point of focus- especially remembering the ecstatic reception the show had received the previous day.

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Beam Primary take to the stage to rehearse

Our call time was relatively late – not until 4.30 pm in fact when it was time to run in our third and final set of fairies – pupils from Beam Primary School. Catherine, their teacher, was sitting in the auditorium looking tired but beaming with pride at what her youngsters were now experiencing; hats off to all the teachers across the nation who have devoted so much time and energy to this project. The Tower Dreamteam joined them and the pros onstage to run the Bergomask and it was great to nail this section first time – children included.

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Kim chooses her fairy scarf

The next hour or so was divided between our by now customary warm up sessions with Laura (big pumpkin/tiny prune) Harding and Tarek (Many men) Merchant, getting some food in the Barbican green room, presenting some beautiful hand made angora scarves to our wonderful RSC directors and running the Twitter “take over” which Adam and I had volunteered for. This latter meant coming up with regular tweets from backstage to interest and edify the Twitterati and give a glimpse into backstage life for those unfortunate enough not to be able to get to the show itself. To see the takeover in full please click here.

Some of our Twitter take over pics

There was a lot of extra activity on the RSC Twitter account this particular day for it was to be this evening that the “Best Bottoms In The Land” TV programmes were scheduled to be transmitted. These were the regionally based documentaries made by the BBC which followed the process from inception to completion. Our programme had only finished filming on Tuesday (first night) so Andy and his team had had to finish the edit pretty quickly. I can’t say too much more about the programme at this point because I have yet to see it and don’t intend to view it until our run of shows has finished.  I hope the rest of the teams around the country enjoyed their versions and that it provided a suitable souvenir of the project. As the start time of the show and the TV programme was the same I reflected at curtain up that there can’t be many people I know who can say they appeared on stage at the Barbican with the RSC and on primetime BBC1 television at the same time. Phenomenal.

Stage and TV

If I’m being strictly honest, and I think I should be, I felt my own performance was a little sluggish. Timing wasn’t quite right, focus wasn’t always as tight as it might have been and I generally felt somewhat off centre. At one stage I took myself into a corner and gave myself a good pep talk but perhaps I was fooling myself to think I might scale the heights of the previous day. Dresser Jen did more than she perhaps realised in bolstering confidence and I was particularly grateful for Tom’s calm and Adam’s ever cheerful demeanour and words of encouragement. The worst moment was when my brain started to tell me that I’d begun the wrong speech; I hadn’t (fortunately) but at times like this – and they do occur to most actors at some point – you just hope the stage floor will open up and swallow you. Now I don’t want to overdo the angst and these were, of course, tiny moments, in an otherwise sound evening. Fortunately, my immediate colleagues were holding things together very well so there was still plenty to enjoy and savour and, what’s most important, the audience were having a great time.

As there has been at every performance there were friends old (in both senses) and new and even complete strangers waiting to offer their congratulations at the stage door. The evening ended with a chat with a lady and three young boys who had come to see the show because the lads were appearing in their school’s version of the Dream soon. They had clearly enjoyed every minute of what they had seen and taken inspiration from what we had done; that’s what it’s really all about! So to Puck, Hermia and Starveling (sorry, didn’t get your real names) best wishes with your performance and if you get even ten percent of the joy we’ve had out of doing this play you’ll be very fortunate indeed.


This week the  production is  at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: Act 4

Living The Dream: Act 3

D16 Call Thursday 19th May

The thing about “show week” is that everything goes out of the window – eating habits, sleeping patterns, household chores….work! If that has proved true in the past then it is doubly so with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. The work aspect is relatively easily dealt with – we knew we’d be doing this for over a year and that taking holiday would be essential. The household chores can be put into suspended animation for a week. But the eating and the sleeping? They are pretty vital for keeping on top of the game and yet mine seem to have gone to pot. Ah well – you have to suffer for your art.

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So it was that Thursday morning dawned (literally) very early. At least this gave me an opportunity to answer some of the well-wishing messages which had been flooding in over the earlier part of the week. After another quick natter with Bradford Barry (see yesterday) he took himself off for a meet up with Lucy before travelling home. A thoroughly delightful and undemanding house guest – see you in Stratford, Barry. Then it was off to the theatre. Within moments of arriving two more “firsts” for me. First time being asked for an autograph from an audience member who had seen the show the previous night and now had picked up a ticket for another look on the following day (thanks glutton for punishment) and first time for flowers at the stage door (thanks family)

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The auditorium – soon to be filled with 1,000+ people (twice!)

It was a double fun day on Thursday with two performances to give. This meant another relatively early call as the matinee start time was at 1.00. The afternoon performance had a number of school parties in and we had been warned to be on our toes. All I can say is that the children in the audience were impeccably behaved – a credit to their schools and teachers and fully immersed in what was going on. They loved Pyramus and Thisbe – plenty of visual humour there, of course and one particular move I made nearly brought the house down.

In the post show (or pre show – depending how you look at it) lull I had an interview with Holly Williams of The Independent. The questions were pretty much par for the course and I enjoyed talking about the project. At the same time I was being a little wary of preserving my voice. We have actually had little by way of press coverage/reviews on the London leg. The national press (quite rightly) covered the opening in Stratford some weeks ago and local papers as such, have not continued in the capital as they have in other areas of the country. There was a piece in Time Out but this somewhat oddly took the view that the project wasn’t a success because the amateurs were too good – go figure! Other than this there have been a small handful of online blog reviews but nothing of any great significance.

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A view from the wings

The evening performance soon came round and this one really seemed to fly. Sometimes the rapport between audience and actors is so instant that a real bond is formed; everyone is there to have a damn good time and nothing is going to stop them. Al took a serious tumble in the chase sequence but seems not to have done any permanent damage and I got a bit too close to Maria’s eye when I connected with her cheek while I was wrestling the sword from Adam but otherwise it was fun all the way. I felt really comfortable with the Titania scenes – Ayesha boosted my confidence no end by making some very complimentary remarks just before we went on. And as for Pyramus and Thisbe –I think a couple of minutes must have got added on to the running time because of the howls of laughter; I nearly found myself corpsing (unintentionally breaking character by laughing) myself at one point and had to employ the well-worn “biting the inside of the cheeks” methodology to prevent this. What an absolute joy to hear about 1,000 people so enjoying themselves. The curtain calls brought yet more tears to the eye (“I will move storms!”)

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Post show Q & A

Post show there was a Q and A session led by producer Ian Wainwright. Mercy and Lucy from the pro company, Miles from the RSC education department and Erica joined us on stage for half an hour of discussion. There was a particularly moving statement from David Dickson the Head of Eastbury school whose pupils had been on stage at the two performances that day. He spoke eloquently about the effect that the project has had on raising his school’s literacy levels not only for those directly involved but for the other pupils too; truly great to hear. If anyone still doubts the need to take Shakespeare out from behind the desk then there is your answer. And on that heartwarrming note the day was just about over – time to catch up on all that missing sleep!


This week the production is at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: Act 3

Living The Dream: Act 2

D16 Call Wednesday 18th May

The emotional effects of a big experience shouldn’t be underestimated especially when you are recalling events through the written word. Thus I finished yesterday’s post in a bit of an emotional state. Fortunately the mood shifted fairly rapidly when David sent me some photos among which was an “interesting” snap of me in a onsie worn as part of the Pyramus outfit. As the pose struck might loosely be termed “provocative” I won’t inflict it on you – you might have recently eaten. My other discovery of the morning was that I had, apparently, broken Pyramus’ sword onstage in full view. I had absolutely zero recall of this and nobody had said anything after the show. It only came to light when I got a friend’s message asking how the breakage had been stage managed.

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Looks like I’m not the only tired one – would you believe these people are actually having the time of their lives?

So it was off to the Barbican late in the morning wondering how I was going to explain myself and whether a suitable substitute was available. The Dreamteam gathered first for notes with AD Kim which, as we have come to expect were both encouraging but also thorough. For me I needed to tighten some cues and take a little more time with some other aspects. I was reminded to give the audience credit for being able to work some things out for themselves and get more enjoyment out of it whilst doing so. No mention of the sword so I bit the bullet and asked. As it turned out I was in the clear – it had actually been broken completely accidentally and not even by me. Stage management had with customary efficiency effected a repair. Phew! They were about to let me loose on the Barbican stage again after all. The professional cast had arrived by this point and were also given notes. I was struck that they were asked for their reactions to the first night performance (actually for them the 84th) rather than the other way round. Most of their concerns centred round the way they were playing the “new space”.

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Caroline and Lucy at the BSL tech rehearsal

We were then introduced to the rather wonderful Caroline Ryan who was to be the interpreter at the British Sign Language performance that evening. I’m ashamed to say I thought this would mean someone standing at the side of the stage and being rather distracting but this was to be a semi integrated performance with Caroline actually dressed as a character (an extra fairy) and joining the action to explain the story and sign the dialogue. Hence we had another technical rehearsal to ensure that everything would run smoothly and so that Caroline could work out where she was going to be at any given point. She had already sat in the audience the previous night and had carried out similar interpretation duties at other venues on the tour so had a pretty good idea of what was what. Here you can see Caroline at work (NB – The video shows our colleagues from the Bear Pit in Stratford upon Avon)

This rehearsal lasted well into the afternoon but at least we had a chance to run through our scenes and put into practice the notes we had been given earlier. This was followed by the arrival of a new group of children from Eastbury school who needed to be drilled into the show. This gave us some time out but before the day ended everyone joined together to practice the Bergomask. Suddenly it was 5.00 pm; being inside a theatre by definition means you don’t have a view of the outside world and time can have a tendency to run away. With consummate timing our official performance photographs became available (they have to be sanctioned by Erica/RSC first) and so over supper we were able to browse through these making suitably ribald comments.

Photos by Topher McGrillis © RSC

A physical warm up with Laura (H) and a vocal warm up with Tarek told us that the performance was drawing near so time to get into costume and await “beginners”. The mood in the dressing room was a little more tranquil than the previous evening partly because we no longer had the BBC with us filming and partly because we’d come through largely unscathed the night before. That said there was still an air of anticipation.

Shortly after the performance begins Lucy appears to give us the “Puck report”. This is handy as it prewarns us about audience numbers and what we might need to do to draw the spectators in. If audience numbers were a little down on the previous evening it hardly showed – once again the warmth and the rapport came rolling back to us behind the footlights (and in this, albeit modern, production there are actual footlights). Our scenes felt strong and secure bolstered by the earlier notes and, as during the day, time seemed to whizz by. Dresser Jen and I had now got the costume changes down to a fine art. There’s an extraordinary moment when I need to get the ass head on and I have no less than three people “prepping” me while I just stand there and let it all happen. No scrambling around sorting yourself out as in amdram land and good practice for the way Bottom is pampered after the interval.

It was fascinating working with Caroline as part of the cast and I was in awe of her energy – she was, after all, onstage the whole time. I barely noticed she was there except as another character in the play; a tribute to her thorough professionalism and she deservedly received a huge round of applause at the end. This is yet another aspect of drama work that I could never have imagined being involved in without being part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation– the gift that keeps on giving.

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A rose between two thorns (or a Puck between two Bottoms)

Post show I met up with Barry, my Bradford opposite number, who had travelled up to London to see the show. We’d arranged that he would stay with me for the night before heading back north the following day so it was great to compare notes and swap anecdotes of our experiences (a little too) late into the night. As his group have already had their turn it was also helpful to get his experience of the need to pace yourself and get some hints of what was still to come. One of the huge bonuses of the whole project has been getting to know like minded people around the country; what a truly phenomenal experience this is.

So that’s about it for Wednesday except to say that I had been following the traffic to the blog off and on through the day and was amazed to find that the number of views had shot up exponentially. It was very gratifying to see how many people were accessing the site and finding out what we were up to – you’re adding to that number right now – so thanks, folks, for taking an interest and hopefully it’s provided a bit of a window into Tower Dreamteam’s remarkable experience if you haven’t been able to get to a performance. There’s still time!


This week the production is at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: Act 2

Living The Dream: Act 1

12 hours

D16 Call Tuesday 17th May

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The stage is set

An early call meant setting out in the rush hour and manipulating a bag full of stuff on the Tube. In the normal course of events (though not really sure what “normal” is any more) this would have meant costumes, make up, towels and a whole raft of other bits and pieces. But of course when you’re working with the RSC that’s all laid on. So the aforementioned bag was actually full of first night prezzies – more of which anon.

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Our costume rail – mine on the left

First job after signing in this morning was to get into costume. I actually have a degree of choice here with alternative versions of a 1940’s working man’s garb. Thus there’s a coat, for instance, which I can wear or not as the mood takes me. Apparently few of my colleagues have opted for this which I presume is in order to keep heat levels tolerable and, after all the play is A MidSUMMER Night’s Dream so I’ll probably follow their lead (I did!).

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The pros and the ams gather

We were introduced to the Barbican staff and given a Health and Safety briefing after which the rest of the day was taken up rehearsing. This was a bit of an odd hybrid. The professionals have, by now, many weeks of experience behind them so for them it was a cue to cue tech (passing over sections of dialogue when nothing technical is happening). However, when it was our scenes or the scenes involving the children (today from Eastbury) these were run in full – and sometimes rerun – and sometimes rerun again. Adjustments were often minute but always telling. The process took almost the whole day with the only diversion being a press call around midday. This involved running a couple of scenes with Ayesha so the press photographers could get some shots (as in photos – we weren’t that bad!)

Once the rehearsal was over the anticipation of the first night began to sink in. There were company vocal and physical warm ups to attend and then presents to exchange. One of the most touching parts of this was the relay gift from our buddies down in Cornwall – some proper Cornish fairings (look it up) and the actual fairy baton – ours for the week. For my own gifts I had struck lucky. A random internet search several months ago for “Rude Mechanicals” had turned up an Australian wine collective who produced a frizzante – couldn’t have been more perfect if it tried!

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Al and Adam check Twitter support

Almost before we knew it the first calls of the evening were being given and it was time to really concentrate on the job in hand. The BBC was still filming for the “Best Bottoms” documentary and followed the process of us getting ourselves ready. And then came the big moment – “Beginners to the stage”. Our first scene is about 20 minutes in but I wanted to be near the action so headed down to the stage. This involved quite a few stairs as our dressing room is four floors above the backstage pass. I took everything I would need with me as I didn’t fancy trooping up and down. There is a lift but we’re all banned from using it for an hour and a half before performance just in case it breaks down with us in it!

 

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The props table

The wings/backstage space at the Barbican is huge so plenty of room for some anxious pacing – except that wasn’t the case. I felt surprisingly serene about the whole thing and was confident we could do a decent job. Laura (Helena) went into the final speech of Scene1, the green light lit up and suddenly we were on. I must admit to a nervous flutter about three speeches in; that’s about par for the course so it’s just (JUST!) a matter of gripping the baton a little more firmly until the moment passes. The next two and a bit hours were just the most thrilling thing you can imagine. Lines flowed with ease, movement came naturally – the whole thing just barrelled along with its own momentum and the audience seemed to be loving it. No, actually they WERE loving it – the warmth coming back was palpable. The most magical part of all was Pyramus and Thisbe. Strange, all your life you try to avoid ham acting and then suddenly that’s what you’re called upon to do and everyone gives you a huge thumbs up for it.

And so to the curtain call – another huge wave of emotion crashed over us as the applause and cheering just went on and on. And when I found out later that one of those people was Sir Ian McKelllen oh my oh my oh my! And the children – they looked just so thrilled with the hugest grins. And the oh so generous professionals happy to let us have our moment – they truly are the best of people and they all deserves to be huge stars in the acting firmament. And the BBC cameras capturing it all. And the tears in Erica and Kim’s eyes when they came backstage afterwards and said the most moving things. And David – just like a proud parent. And Maria and Adam and Tom and Peta and Al – the best damn bunch of Mechanicals/mates in the whole land. And the generous and supportive comments afterwards at the Barbican hosted reception from friends, colleagues and even complete strangers….And I’m filling up – have to stop! Sorry!


This week the  production is  at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: Act 1

Living The Dream: The Prologue

D16 Call Monday 16th May

Walking through the stage door of The Barbican theatre at 10.30 am and signing in for the day is the first action of a desperate man – desperate to get things right that is. The RSC have devoted so much time and support to this project and it has been going so well so far that none of us want to go down in infamy as the one who “mucked up”. So it’s a deep breath and then down into the bowels of the Barbican to the rehearsal room. We’re in the rehearsal room because up above us the stage is being fitted up ready for the performances to start the following day.

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It’s just the Tower Dreamteam in the morning with Erica and Kim. Voice guru Michael is feeling unwell and we hope he can return to the fold really soon; I have a feeling I may be needing his talents ere long. We start, naturally enough, with our opening scene which I could by now recite in my sleep – and possibly do/will. We skip past the second scene as this requires Lucy (Puck) who won’t arrive until later and then move into the short transition scene in Act IV. The work is intense but still highly enjoyable, especially when we discover yet more new things hidden away in the text. A first go at Pyramus and Thisbe comes before a visit to the stage to see the set going up. There are boxes of materials everywhere; it looks like chaos but I’m certain that it is far from it. The visit serves as a very timely reminder of the sheer scale in which we will be working. I actually found sitting in the auditorium and looking back at the stage even more daunting as we contemplated what lay ahead. Meanwhile all of the morning’s events were being filmed by the BBC documentary team and a brief interview session with them finished the morning.

There was actually little time for lunch (well not for me at least) but some fruit on the terrace and some fresh air was very welcome; the Barbican backstage can be an airless place with few windows on the outside world. I had to return below ground fairly swiftly to work with Ayesha on our scenes – cue happy moments of reunion both with her and the other adult fairies. Ayesha as ever kept me on my toes with fresh approaches and new ideas and I was reminded that Bottom has a whole other side to his character (other than the rather loud blustering which passes for acting the rest of the time).

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The three wise men

Next it was time for the schoolchildren’s session; the Beam and Eastbury pupils were intelligent and alert and Kim in particular worked her socks off to get through so much in a short space of time. It was great to see all the enthusiastic, eager faces again and it is clear that they and their teachers have been doing a lot of work on their scenes. Finally we all got to do the Bergomask several times before the youngsters and their chaperones headed off home and we took a meal break. There’s a nice canteen (called the Green Room) for the artists and the Barbican staff which we are being allowed to use. Then there was just time to pay a visit to our allocated dressing rooms – the male contingent of the Tower team are all together in one space while Maria is sharing with Lucy. The dressing rooms are much swisher than many I have seen – individual stations, organised and spacious clothes rails and shoe storage, lockers for ordinary clothes, a shower, a sofa and even our own fridge – very snazzy. The room comes complete with our very own Jen– our dresser who helps us to sort everything out and keep things in good order. It’s all a far cry from the often cramped muddle of am dram world.

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The evening session was spent working on the rehearsal in the forest scene; Lucy joined us for this and added some inventive business with Puck’s mischief making based on what we were doing. We also did the second half of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tiredness was definitely setting in by now and I was having to play in a rather lower key than earlier. The directors were happy to allow this as they knew that when it came to actual performance the adrenaline would kick in and Doctor Theatre would work his magic. A last glance to see how the set was coming along (well, since you ask) and it was off home to get some rest so we could do it all again soon. Tomorrow is even longer and more intense but also contains THE big moment. Crikey!


This week the  production is  at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: The Prologue