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.

Dream2016 collage
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)

Read through 1
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)

Al Task 1
Al records his speech as Claudio

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)

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)

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

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)

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 a 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)

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

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)

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!!!!

Task 1 Feedback - Directors
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

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.

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:

Guinness Puck
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.

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.

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.

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


The End of the Road? Not Quite!

The calm before…

The tour fairy baton
Tour baton

It’s been a long wait for us at Tower to pick up the baton (and there literally is a small fairy baton being passed from group to group) on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. However we can console ourselves that the high point is still yet to come and that anticipation surely sweetens the reward (that’s what we’re telling ourselves anyway). When I was recently looking into the London Blitz for the blog post on our venue, the Barbican, I was reminded of the period that preceded the firestorm as the “phoney war”. I guess the waiting is a bit like that- a sense of anticipation building and a desire to get things moving. Either that or it reminds me of revising heavily for an exam and wanting to get in the exam room before forgetting it all.

During this period of relative calm, however, we have kept ourselves up to speed by having the odd rehearsal, using social media to follow the exploits of other groups, reading invariably laudatory reviews online and paying visits to our nearest neighbours. Following my trip to Canterbury a couple of weeks ago, Adam (Flute) and Al (Snout) took themselves off to Norwich’s Theatre Royal; the production featured local group The Common Lot. Over to roving reporter Adam Moulder:

Adam and Al Norwich
Flute and Snout go travelling

It was with boundless enthusiasm that Al and I took the train to the fine city of Norwich for a taste of the next chapter of the RSC’s tour. I was particularly over excited as I was returning to my university city and this would be my first viewing of the production in all its glory, having missed the Tower teams jaunt to Stratford Upon A. After a quick reminisce around the city, a beer and some lovely food, we took our seats for the show.

Before it had even begun two fair ladies to our right jokingly asked if we were going to be rowdy. We got to talking and eventually explained that they were sat next to a Flute and a Snout from London supporting our fellow players and gathering research. Turns out one of the ladies was due to be on a date with her husband but, not being able to find a babysitter, had come with a good friend instead. Shakespeare, a play for the nation, except babysitting husbands!

But to business; the music started and the next couple of hours were truly magical. For me the additions of costume, full music, proscenium arch staging and schoolchildren were all new and enhanced the production to a beautiful extent. It was also wonderful to see all the mechanicals scenes performed by our ‘Common Lot’ colleagues with such skill, comedy and Norfolk touches! The words ‘here’ and ‘hear’ in a thick Norwich accent surprisingly jumped out!

Owen, Norfolk’s best Bottom, was superb and his audience acknowledged this. We were there on the Thursday evening which meant a Q&A followed between the actors and audience, and we could tell the Norwich audience had enjoyed the RSC production immensely but above all were so proud of their local ‘amateurs’.

The Common Lot as Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals. Credit - Topher McGrillis
The Common Lot gather around Owen’s Bottom (sorry!) Photo by TopherMcGrillis RSC

It was also delightful to see the professional cast and crew in the pub afterwards (I hadn’t seen them for over two months) and be welcomed into the touring gang with open arms. But last word must go to the Norwich mechanicals, who, as well being superb on stage, were so friendly, humble and encouraging as we shared a few ciders long into the night. There’s no doubt that my nerves have ratcheted up a notch as our performance week creeps on apace but I learnt so much from the production at the Theatre Royal that my excitement and desire to work hard in our final rehearsals in the hope of producing a similarly entertaining result have also increased no end. “We stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and… charge.”

Thanks Adam. As I found in Canterbury the bar has been set high indeed. Meanwhile what have I been filling my time with? Taking a tip from some of my colleagues in other groups I thought it was high time I went and observed some real examples of equus africanus asinus so it was off to a local branch of the rescue centre Redwings situated at the Ada Cole stables in Epping. I actually have a horse adoption certificate there and have done for years. It started out as a gift while playing Albert the carthorse in Alan Bennett’s version

Albert the carthorse – Wind In The Willows

of The Wind In The Willows – yes, I do have previous form as a member of the equus genus. This was some years ago (thanks, Diane, if you’re reading this) and I’ve kept it up ever since and generally visit a couple of times a year. Though there are lots of animals to interact with I spent most of my time this time round observing their four donkeys, one of whom, appropriately, was a real Cockney charmer called Del Boy. Donkeys seem both mournful and sprightly at the same time, have deep soulful eyes and some endearing little habits which just might find their way into the final performance. Fortunately they were just being brushed and fed at the time of the visit and as fairy massages and food play a large part in one of the Dream scenes what I was able to observe will be really useful.

I also spent a couple of useful hours recently at the Shakespeare In Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library. Lots of books and manuscripts to see and even an example of WS’s own handwriting in a scene from an unproduced play about Thomas More (Ian McKellan performed the speech at the Stratford Shakespeare Live celebrations recently). Plenty of other good stuff too about the contexts in which various plays have been performed across


the last four centuries. Dreamwise there was a recreation of the white box set from the celebrated Peter Brook version of the 1970s. This exhibit also had photos, costumes and even props from the production. As usual with any exhibition there was simply too much to take in but if you’re a Bardophile and in the Kings Cross area I can thoroughly recommend this (it’s on until September)

One of the perks of working with the RSC has been being invited to events at the BBC. Having already attended their Shakespeare season launch and (very briefly) being seen in The One Show we were asked to a special preview screening of their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shortly to be shown on prime time television; and I stress it is a version. No spoilers but the text has been cut and runs at just 90 minutes. It also takes some interesting and surprising liberties – I was particularly intrigued by the concept underpinning the character of Hippolyta – and the whole has the unmistakeable whiff of magic sprinkled on it by creative genius Russell T Davies.

BBC Dream

The screening was followed by a Q & A with Maxine Peake (Titania), John Hannah (Theseus), Paapa Essiedu (Demetrius) and Mr Davies himself. After that it was time to mingle and star spot – Elaine Paige, Richard Wilson, Esther Rantzen and Alan Yentob to mention a few. I had an interesting chat with Russell T Davies about the RSC project (he called it “a very exciting idea”) and he fondly recalled working with our Titania, Ayesha, in a Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood. Apparently he’s had plans to put together a film of the Shakespeare play for many years now – it will be interesting to see how it goes down when it is shown publically.

The last event I wanted to mention is one in which I didn’t even participate but demonstrates the generosity with which the RSC have gone about this project. By way of a thank you to all the original companies which auditioned, the RSC announced their intention to run a Saturday morning workshop for them. Knowing it would be a popular event the immediate Dreamteam decided to take a back seat and let others get stuck in. So many thanks to participant and second roving reporter Ruth Sullivan for the following insight:
We had a super time on Saturday with voice and movement coaches Cathleen and Sinead. Several London-based amateur groups met up in the Green Room of the Barbican before being split into two groups and whisked away for the first session. As Tower made up the majority of the participants, we were in our own group with a whole mixture of Tower members old and new.

Lots of stretching, breathing and yeehaa-ing was followed by a look at a scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, going round the room saying a phrase each or even just a word, emphasising the words we thought were most important. Then a hugely instructive demonstration of Lady Macbeth’s speech with ‘interruptions’ from Macbeth – well done to participant Penelope.

We were disappointed not to spend more time looking at text but after a quick coffee break it was time for a movement session, spending a lot of time walking round the room in straight lines and curves, with broad or focussed perspectives, muttering lines to ourselves and observing how our intentions changed depending on how we walked. Fascinating to see how such a simple thing as walking in a particular way can change the way you speak. The physical can so often inform the verbal.

The session came to a close with a look at how the dynamics of a scene – one person walking to a chair, one person following walking to a window – can be affected by walking in a combination of curves and lines. Again, so simple and yet so effective.
Thank you to the RSC for letting us have an insight into their world and teaching us lots of useful techniques in the process. They assured us they’ll be continuing their relationship with the amateur world so watch this space!

Thanks Ruth; sounds similar to some of the stuff we got to do. I can only say that if they had as much fun and learned as much as we have done over the last year then they will have been very fortunate indeed.

So that’s everything up to date and tidied away ready for the final big push which begins imminently. It is with not a little trepidation that we look forward to the next couple of weeks but as the preparation has been long and thorough we can do so with a degree of confidence ( he said with fingers crossed while touching a piece of wood and clutching a lucky piece of heather). Look out for even more regular updates on the blog in the big week next week as you continue to share this wonderful experience with us. As Adam said above…”Charge!”

This week the production is at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro– click on the image below to reveal full details.


The calm before…