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 2nd from Bottom. 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 2nd from Bottom 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”:

Whole company

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

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

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)

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 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)

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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)

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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 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

Handlebards

The 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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David goes for 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!

Encore Encore

D16 Call Tuesday 12th July

How can you sum up an experience like this? Although it was my intention to try and do so in this post I really don’t think I can at the moment, especially as I’ve been struggling with it for over 36 hours and have had to publish a stopgap post in between. I think there needs to be a little distance in place first in order to fully appreciate the sheer scale of what we have been involved with and what we have achieved. Best, perhaps, to stick to an account of our last day and come back to an overview later. I say this simply so that you don’t regard what follows as a somewhat workmanlike (Mechanical!) narrative but I think if I take any other tack it will be a long while before this piece gets written. In reality, if this were being composed with pen/quill and ink the latter would be rather blotchy and probably running down the page by now. So … to the narrative

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The Tower Dreamteam with AD Kim

In theory we had a quiet time in store for us on our last day on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. There were no more rehearsals and it was only necessary to turn up at the theatre mid afternoon, get some notes and give our final performance. That was the theory. In reality the nervous energy and adrenaline were still in the ascendant and relaxing with the paper or a good book just wasn’t going to happen. I felt absolutely

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Pyramus & Thisbe twitter away

ravenous so after a very hearty breakfast I tried to focus by settling down to write the previous day’s blog post and started to organise some of the many (many many) photos we have acquired. Adam and I were also attempting another Twitter takeover as we had at the Barbican – this time as a Pyramus and Thisbe double act (see here). And if that wasn’t enough to be going on with the Tower Dreamteam also took the opportunity to get some important videoing done (more of this in a later post).

And then a very nice interlude. Adam and I had been invited by the RSC’s Education Department to join a small group taking part in a Q and A session about the production at King Edward VI School; this is sometimes referred to as “Shakespeare’s School” as it is almost certain that he attended there. Lucy (Puck), Mercy (Hermia) and Sophie (AD) also came along. The boys from Year 7 had seen the play the previous week and had obviously given a lot of thought to their questions.

They wanted to know how the project worked, what our favourite moments were, were there any other Shakespearean parts that we would like to play (I said Falstaff if there are any casting directors reading this), how we learned lines and how we had all got into acting. There was a good deal of laughter as we regaled the boys with anecdotes of our time with the RSC though I’m not sure Adam should have “treated” them to a picture of me in my Pyramus “onesie”. That must have broken some law or other…or at the very least a school rule. The boys are, apparently, working on their own production of the play so hopefully what we had to tell them will be of practical use. I wonder if the youngsters are really aware of just how lucky they are to have the RSC literally just down the road from their school and what a wonderful resource they have at their disposal.

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Notes with Kim

Next it was time for our final set of notes with AD Kim – as ever so kind, so thoughtful, so encouraging. It’s fascinating that even at this (very) late stage there was a striving for absolute perfection, a desire to enhance the audience experience (and our own) just that little bit more. I was pleased to have already spotted a number of the points Kim raised about my own performance and resolved to put them into practice that very evening – a distinct case of now or never.

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David’s picture Composite of photos by Topher McGrillis RSC

This session finished with a special little presentation. I think we were all conscious as a group that there we were every night up on stage, getting all the plaudits and listening to the thunderous applause and that really there should have been a seventh member of the Tower team up there with us. David, our director, did such a massively important job in getting us organised and into the project in the first place. It can’t have been easy spending eighteen months of your life “herding cats” (it has to be said that we were, sometimes, a somewhat unruly bunch) and we didn’t want the moment to pass without some recognition. So we’d organised a framed photo collage of ourselves to remind David of what a special thing he had done for all of us, for the Tower company and for the am dram world in general. He’s a project manager by profession and I hope he will look back on this experience as one of his greatest achievements – he certainly should do so.

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After a short supper break in the theatre’s Green Room café (sorry folks, only available to members of the RSC workforce) it was on to our final warm up sessions. The pro cast had held a farewell party the previous evening and there were plenty of ribald references to a “paper plate awards ceremony” which had formed part of proceedings. Then it was time for another piece of RSC tradition to be fulfilled. The pass at the back of the stage (the walkway from one side of the stage to the other) looks like a massive wall of graffiti but when you look more closely it contains the signatures of all the actors who have appeared at the theatre. In common with colleagues in all the other amateur groups we were invited to leave our monikers, so there we are enshrined for eternity or until they revamp the theatre again, whichever comes first.

And so to the final performance. Horrible word “final” isn’t it? It’s so…well….final, really. But let’s not dwell on the down side. The performance had such drive and energy that it would be quite wrong to emphasise any negatives. There were, thankfully, no wardrobe malfunctions or side trips to The Swan to distract me as on the previous evening and I tried to bear in mind Erica and Michael Corbidge’s injunctions to savour the moment and “juice” the words.

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Thisbe, Wall & Pyramus bring the house down

As I’ve said several times now everything builds to Pyramus and Thisbe and this time round it was really something special. The words came out crisply, the moves were full of dynamic energy and the timing just seemed to hit the sweet spot that’s important for a great comedy moment. The “kiss” through the wall was an absolute riot – if only someone could capture that feeling of unrestrained joy and bottle it they would make a fortune. Minutes later as I lay “dead” on stage hearing Thisbe’s moving rendition of the eulogy over Pyramus’s body I could feel myself welling up which, of course, wouldn’t do at all. To distract myself I ran through my last line and then stood to deliver it with as much force as I could muster. Then into the dance (fantastic), the group hug (this one was for real – I distinctly heard Maria say “We did it!”) and a race backstage to prepare for the curtain call. This capped everything that had gone before and …..well, as Bottom says when emotions get the better of his thought processes – “No more words!”

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Post warm up/pre show

As on the previous night I can’t really recall much about after the show. There seemed to be a never ending procession of positive comments, backslapping and smiling faces. A huge cheer erupted as I came through the stage door from all the parents waiting to pick up the children. I recall meeting and chatting with some of the incoming Cardiff team though think I just kept repeating how wonderful it all was. I didn’t know whether I was hot or cold, aching or physically alert, wide awake or fast asleep and dreaming. However amongst the melee one last moment of pride and pleasure occurred which is worthy of record. In the Dirty Duck, in the Snug (naturally), was a team photo of us hanging by the fireplace. The other amateur teams have been featuring there throughout the month’s run but for a brief moment it was our turn on this wall of fame just below a picture of a young Hugh Bonneville and just along from the photo of Laurence Olivier. Magic!

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Starry eyed and bleary eyed

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Encore

D16 Call Monday 11th July

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Well that was something else, it really was. If I’m being honest I think that after appearing at the Barbican earlier this year I may have been a little blasé about our dates at Stratford. After all we’d proved that we could do it and take an audience with us, hadn’t we? The critical reception had been highly positive and the team had bonded as a real unit, hadn’t they? How could anything possibly surpass that? Well something could and it did. And that was our first night on the RST stage a place of real wonder and enchantment. What a playing space, what a wonderful set up, what a fantastic audience, what an experience.

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The day began at 9.00 with a tour of the building which I found quite confusing simply because there weren’t many windows on the outside world which, personally, I find disorientating. However there were plenty of signs showing where everything was so that would be alright, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? We were taken to the dressing rooms which were very nicely situated overlooking the River Avon and with a balcony on which to relax.

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Then it was down to the stage to get on with the day’s work with directing supremo Erica. There was masses to do as the thrust staging meant reconfiguring much of what we had been used to. But of course the RSC is a very well-oiled machine and had already put eleven other teams through their paces earlier in the run so all we had to do was listen carefully and put into practice what they had already established would work. There was also the opportunity to do some last minute refining of the way scenes were played which would, inevitably, help to keep the production and our performances sharp and focused.

Next the pro cast started arriving which led to some emotional moments of reunion and there was a new troupe of schoolchildren to welcome – this time from Christ Church Primary. We spent some time on the last ten minutes of the play and I was instantly reminded what a joyous finale it is. A brief break and it was back on stage for our warm up vocal and physical work with the stunningly good Michael Corbidge and Polly Bennett. Eventually the rest of the cast appeared for the full company warm up with exercises from the “old favourites “ box and then it was time to get changed and await the big moment.

Panorama

As I had at the Barbican, I felt quite surprisingly relaxed before going on – this turned out to be misplaced. On my second line I went to move forward only to find my ankles hobbled by my workman’s apron which had somehow come adrift and fallen to the ground. Great – my first time on the Stratford stage and I was the victim of a wardrobe malfunction! Nothing daunted I hauled it back into place and went through the rest of the scene with one hand firmly clamped on the offending clothing and hoping that nobody in the 1,000 strong audience had noticed – fat chance! Strangely enough the incident sharpened me up mentally and made my delivery more focused and crisper than it had possibly ever been. I knew I only had two chances at this and wanted to make them count.

However that was not an end to the potential horrors that awaited. There had been a significant number of changes with regards to entrance and exits, particularly for me. After the apron business I didn’t want anything else to go wrong. So I immediately started to think ahead to where I was next going to appear. Having experienced some disorientation earlier I thought I’d actually better make my way physically to the vom entrance to assure myself I knew where it was and where I would be going twenty minutes hence. There’s a plethora of signs backstage “Stage Left” “Stage Right etc. One pointed to “the Voms” and so I followed the arrows, through a couple of pass doors until I could hear actor’s voices. The problem is they weren’t saying anything I recognised as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I heard the word Mephistopheles….but that’s a character in Dr Faustus…..which the RSC are doing in the Swan Theatre! Somehow I’d wandered into the backstage area of the second RSC stage and was in imminent danger of making an unscheduled appearance in two different productions on the same night. Fortunately I was able to retrace my steps to where I’d started without further incident. When I ‘fessed up later to Erica and Kim, I’m not sure whether they felt like laughing or crying but it did make for another memorable moment in this amazing project.

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Very nearly appeared in this too!

Fortunately, after this, things followed an upward curve as I motored through the scenes with Ayesha and the fairies – indeed the bower scene seemed to go down better than ever before. And then of course the comic highlight that is Pyramus and Thisbe which, as we have always found, went down a storm. Erica had made some minor adjustments to the actual playing which helped to build the laughs and the Bergomask was a joy. You can really see everyone in the RST audience (no seat is more than 15 metres from the playing area) and it was a real thrill to see the looks of pleasure on so many smiling faces.

The aftershow was a bit of a whirl with a drinks reception in the Swan bar. A number of old and dear friends had travelled to Stratford and I was touched by their enthusiasm and positive comments. Leanne from the Barbican had come up to see the show so it was lovely to see her again. Sam Redford’s father, himself a professional actor, paid us some very sincere compliments. Producers Ian and Claire were full of justified pride at the theatrical coup they had pulled off. To be honest it all became a bit too much and I had to step aside for a few minutes to regain my composure.

So one more show to go. One more last thrilling moment before it’s finally time to wake up. Let’s make it the best Dream ever!

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The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

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Never anything can be amiss

If the various reviews which have emerged as A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has toured the country are to be believed (and I think they should) the production has been a resounding hit. National and local critics, online bloggers and contributors to discussion boards and social media have been almost universally positive in their praise for the show (a digest of comments about Tower Theatre’s contribution can be found here). Ticket sales have also been strong suggesting a high level of satisfaction amongst the theatre going population. However, a number of blogs/articles have raised some question marks about the project and whether amateurs should or shouldn’t encroach on traditionally professional territory. As the final month of performances is now taking place this would seem to be an appropriate moment to address this point and the question of whether the experiment was a success and should ever be repeated.

Guardian blog

The highest profile commentator has probably been Michael Billington, a critic for whom I have the greatest respect. In his regular blog in The Guardian (and based on his viewing of the production in London) he gave the amateur cast a very positive review but raised the question of whether the project is or should be repeatable. He reaches the conclusion that it should remain as a one off:

If I argue that amateur and pro should generally be kept separate, it is because I respect the craft of both. Professional acting, as we all know, is a precarious business with a high unemployment rate… The RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream is a special case in which an honourable attempt has been made to create “a play for the nation”. It should be enjoyed as a one-off, but not become a template for future occasions. In hard times, we need to protect the status of the dedicated professional.

I have to say I find this argument a little disingenuous. The logical conclusion would be that in any given field only those specifically trained and dedicated to a professional standard should attempt anything. Really? By extension that would mean any actor struggling to find work should not accept a position as a part time tutor or waiter or call centre operator, etc because a) they’ve probably not trained for it and b) they certainly won’t be as dedicated as they would be to acting; that would clearly be both untenable and ridiculous. And who is to say that an amateur cannot make just as good a job of something as the “dedicated professional”? If I want a celebration cake and I know and can trust a good amateur baker, why would I necessarily go to a professional?

Stage 1

A similar argument has also been raised in a piece in The Stage in which anonymised professionals (not quite sure why they need to be so) were asked their opinion on mixing the worlds of pro and am.  Would you let an amateur plumber mend your sink? muses “Albert”; well, yes I might very well given that the context and circumstances were conducive. It is also not the case that allowing an amateur actor to appear on the professional stage is going to threaten someone’s health, safety, life span or possessions and so comparing them to (for instance) plumbers, dentists or lawyers is not really helpful. To be fair some of Albert’s fellow professionals take a rather broader view:

I think it’s great to use community and amateur casts. Not threatening at all… I have massive respect for them and for the role theatre can play in the community. (“Jenny”)

Totally inspires me. I have worked on a few community-based projects and it definitely encourages authenticity and originality, especially in new work. (“Tina”)

However, as these are Jenny and Tina’s only reported remarks in the article their positive slant is somewhat overbalanced and a rather more pessimistic view prevails. There is particular opprobrium reserved for producers who take this route to economise:

You Me Bum Bum Train and Secret Cinema – both dubious in the extreme as to their using actors and not paying proper rates. Or even anything. (“Albert”)

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The thing is, A Play For The Nation was anything but a rentacrowd or a gimmick led approach. No Andrew Lloyd Weber talent show casting here! (Interesting that Gary Barlow has just announced a resurgence of the format for finding a new Fake (sorry, Take) That) From the get go, the amateurs involved were respected and treated as an integral part of the whole RSC production, not some media generating bolt on. Lyn Gardner in another, earlier, Guardian blog summed up this position:

Without the involvement of non-professional actors, the RSC’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream simply wouldn’t have happened. Community involvement was at the very heart of the project. It’s a very different case from a theatre simply deciding that it will use amateur actors because they can save money on the wages bill.

Agreed. And I think there are other subtler ways of cutting down on the bills. I have absolutely no idea what the budget for A Play For The Nation has been – I can only imagine. Despite that I have seen little by way of cheese paring. We have had phenomenal coaching from the likes of Michael Corbidge and Sian Williams, directing from the Deputy Head of the RSC and her talented team, a full and generous complement of highly skilled backstage and organisational staff and unbounded support from the professionals in the cast. Neither have their numbers been skimped on as a result of using amateurs. There are 26 adult performers in each show (18 professionals plus the 6 amateur Mechanicals). Interestingly there are only 14 all told in the current Globe production and a mere 7 in the production at Southwark Playhouse (see here) – indeed in the latter case the paucity of performers is the key selling point of the show. Aside from this the RSC has enhanced prospects for workers in the regions through touring the show to a number of locations. Far from taking away professional earning potential I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that much work has been provided through this particular project.

Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, in a blog piece rebuffing some of Michael Billington’s arguments goes further. He contends that rather than the project undermining the work of those fully paid members of the company, it acted as a clear demonstration of how great art does not have any boundaries – a seasoned pro, or a teacher from Hackney, can both find pathos, humanity and truth in the words they are speaking.

 

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Lucy Ellinson

He then goes on to quote our very own Puck – Lucy Ellinson – who generously says:
I’ve learnt a lot from my amateur colleagues (the collaboration has been) “an important reaffirmation for me that when we tour the country with our work we’re not simply offering the local community something – we are making each and every performance with them.

 

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lucy, and I  think I can confidently say that, reciprocally, we have learned a phenomenal amount of stagecraft from our wonderful pros and that this will undoubtedly inspire us in our ongoing work within our local communities.

Indeed a learning experience is certainly what it has been right from day one. Susan Elkin, The Stage’s Education and Training Editor has stated:

The whole concept is one of the most inspired celebratory training initiatives I’ve ever encountered – as well as producing a glitteringly good evening’s theatre.

In her article she roundly calls on the powers that be to deliver a repeat of the project every year; well I’m game!

So was it worth doing? An unqualified yes. It has touched the lives of so many people amateur and professional, young and not so young, actors and audience alike that I think it will be fondly remembered as a trail blazer for many years to come. Should it be repeated? If the end results are going to be so joyous, life enhancing and affirmative it would be criminal not to do so. I’ll leave the final summation to Erica Whyman:

It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play in partnership with good colleagues. If it works it will strengthen those bonds and make visible a truly national passion for making theatre.

It most certainly did, Erica, and it most certainly has!

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Graham Fewell (who visited all versions during the tour) presents Erica with a poster signed by the amateurs

The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details

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Never anything can be amiss

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: 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