So here’s Part Two of our story told in pictures. If you missed Part One then click here first and see what led up to this point. You might also want to read the blog posts that accompany these pictures. This section looks at the six weeks of the project rehearsals in January and February 2016. Fortunately for us in Tower Theatre most of the rehearsals were relatively nearby in the RSC’s rooms in Clapham though there were always video broadcasts from other parts of the country (hence all the photos of people sitting down watching screens). Proximity meant I could attend some of the professional rehearsals as an observer and, of course, there were also the Bottom Hubs every Saturday. So from first read through to final run through here’s what it was like.
To follow the written story of the second part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here
The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Tarek and Sam – musical genius
Five Bottoms in a row
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 poet John Keats once said: “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced” and so it was that the Tower Dreamteam took themselves off to Stratford upon Avon to have a weekend experiencing the final outcome (sorry, latest incarnation) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. We had been planning this trip right from the time the tickets first went on sale so anticipation was high especially as this was the first weekend following the play’s official opening.
Arriving in Stratford on Friday afternoon the first task was to visit the RSC gift shop to pick up a selection of merchandise which the team had preordered – mugs, key rings, T shirts and so forth; even the RSC has to have one eye on commercial possibilities. After that it was time for a meal in the Black Swan (aka The Dirty Duck). Although I’d been to Stratford on several occasions this was the first time I’d been in this particular location. I’d always assumed that this being the hostelry of choice for the acting fraternity in Stratford was a bit of a myth but apparently not; they are a very definite presence being just a stone’s throw from the stage door.
Our show of choice for the Friday evening was the new version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote starring David Threlfall as DQ and Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza. I first remember seeing Threlfall in the epic RSC Nicholas Nickleby back in the 80s, indeed that is apparently the last time he worked with the company, so it was great to see him back where he belongs treading the boards in the Swan. He was every inch the gaunt and addled obsessive. The play was still in preview and there were one or two technical problems which halted the show. The famous windmills were a particular problem and led to Rufus Hound doing some hasty improv while the stage management team put things right. Generally speaking I found it to be a solid production; the main problem with it is that the source material is so episodic and repetitive in tone that it makes for a long evening. However, the two central performances were good and grew in stature as the play progressed. I’m afraid, for me, it will never hit the heights scaled by Nick Nick but it was good starter to precede the main course on the next day.
Before that, though, we took ourselves off to an extra event on the Saturday morning called A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Unwrapped. The RSC’s Unwrapped events offer audiences a glimpse into the rehearsal process; having been fully involved with this ourselves our interest lay in how the RSC would explain this mammoth process to the general public. The event was chaired by producer Ian Wainwright who introduced David Mears and Nicky Cox (Bottom and the group director from the Bear Pit company), Associate Director Sophie Ivatts and Laura Harding (Hippolyta and understudy to Titania). As well as the Tower Team the audience also contained representatives of other companies from Newcastle, Belfast and Truro and we were all invited to contribute to the Q and A session. Then it was time to demonstrate the rehearsal process itself and David and Laura were asked to run through the scene where Bottom first encounters Titania. It was then that an absolutely thrilling moment took place when first Trevor (Belfast’s Bottom) and then I were brought onto stage to run through the same scene again. This unscheduled first appearance on the RST stage was totally unexpected but one of many moments to treasure and the applause which followed for all three of us was affirming and reassuring. In hindsight it was probably best that it was an unprepared for moment as I don’t think I’d have had any sleep the previous night if I had known in advance what was going to happen.
After the event was finished all of we amateurs took the chance to explore the stage and take one or two souvenir photographs. Leaving the auditorium on a bit of a high, it was time for a stroll round Stratford. This was useful in that a good leg stretch was definitely needed but it also allowed the BBC (who had come up to meet us) to get some footage of us in Shakespeare’s home town. The sunny if brisk morning was delightful and the fresh air meant we were ready for the big moment of seeing the Dream in all its glory.
It turned out that Laura’s run throughs with us that morning couldn’t have been timed better as Ayesha had called in unwell and therefore the understudy was suddenly called upon to perform; Lila (usually playing Moth) doubled the part of Hippolyta. It has to be said they both did a first class job as did our colleagues from the Bear Pit who were performing as the Mechanicals. Although we had seen some of what they were doing a few weeks back when they came down to London for rehearsal and some more via the video links we had never seen them all the way through. They seemed to be having the time of their lives and I was struck by how high they were setting the bar for the rest of us when it comes to our turn. Lucy Ellison as Puck was very compelling, playing off the audience at every opportunity and producing a magical performance. Chu was brooding and commanding as Oberon and the Lovers’ scenes had never looked sharper. I was also highly amused by Jon Trenchard as a disdainful Philostrate and Ben Goffe brought the house down with a moment which I won’t spoil by recounting here (would that some of the critics had been as circumspect!). The production really looks bedded in now and sound, lighting and effects all combined to create a memorable backdrop to the action. The live music is the icing on an already extremely rich cake – I’d like a very big slice please!
We had some time to kill before heading back to London – the scandalous £50 difference in the rail fare between 4.30 and 6.30 rather made up our minds for us on that score. So after meeting up with the matinee cast at the stage door it was then back to the Dirty Duck to share experiences with colleagues from around the country – Trevor (Belfast Bottom), Becky (Nottingham Bottom) and Barry (Bradford Bottom) had all been in the audience that afternoon along with other colleagues from their respective groups. I must also give a special mention to Graham Fewell (the Castle Players’ Snug). His avowed intention is to attend a performance of all the productions nationwide; hats off to such a committed endeavour. Of course there are a myriad of plans for us all to visit each other in our various locations but nothing, I think, quite as truly comprehensive as that.
All too soon it was time to head for home leaving us to reflect that the next time we’ll be in town will probably be when we are performing in July. Meanwhile the production has now finished its first (sold out) run in Stratford and everyone has a week off to gird their loins and be with their loved ones (congratulations to Alex Tompkins in the pro cast who has become the second cast father in as many weeks – see previous post) before the tour proper starts in Newcastle; then it’ll be coming soon to a town near you. I’ll let some of the audience members so far have the final word
There are no performances of the production this week. The full UK tour begins next week. Please click on image below to show tour dates and venues
It was another big week last week (aren’t they all?) for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation with technical rehearsals, the dress rehearsal and the first public previews all taking place. These were in the RSC’s home in Stratford upon Avon so for us here in London it was necessary to view events from afar. Fortunately the advent of social media still means we got to share in all the excitement almost literally as it happened and meant we could follow progress to what proved to be a most rewarding conclusion. For one of the amateurs directly involved there was even a huge personal bonus … but more of that later.
I have commented on this blog before on the similarities and the differences between working as an amateur and working as a professional. One of the biggest variations is, of course, the amount of time that can be devoted to the various stages of such a project. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the technical rehearsals or techs (as they are known). These are rehearsals where the concentration is on the technical and design aspects of the show; lighting sound and music cues can be established and practised, manipulation of the set can be carried out by the stage crew, the look of the show can be scrutinized by the design department and so on. What they are most specifically not about is the actors and the acting so for them it can mean long periods of waiting for something to happen. Having said that, in the amateur world techs can be rather hurried affairs sandwiched somewhere between the “get in” (let’s say Monday morning/afternoon) and the dress rehearsal (let’s say Monday evening). They can be rather perfunctory affairs often working on a cue to cue basis – where great swathes of dialogue may be omitted in order to move rapidly to the next point where the lights need to change or a level for a sound cue needs to be established. I’ve even been in productions where the tech has had to be dropped altogether due to lack of time and the unfortunate technical operators have had to “wing it” through the dress rehearsal.
Not so in the professional world. Essentially the Dream tech began early on Saturday morning and lasted until noon five days later – N.B. there was a whole day free on the Sunday and rumour has it that they were also allowed the occasional meal break! During that time the two Stratford teams of amateur Mechanicals and various groups of schoolchildren/fairies attended sessions and for the rest of the time could watch as the production was painstakingly brought together. All of this was firmly under director Erica’s control and sounds like an exhausting if fascinating process for all concerned. The dress rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon followed hot on the heels of the last tech session and the vibes coming back from that suggested that the production was going to be a winner.
The Tower Dreamteam had tried its own attempt at a “dress rehearsal” of the Mechanical scenes the night before. We had decided fairly early on that even though we were not performing until May we should try and be performance ready at the same time as the first teams off the blocks hence my designation of it as a dress rehearsal (not necessarily what David, our director, would have called it though). If it can be called a dress rehearsal it was like no other that I had ever taken part in. We were minus costumes, props, a stage, the other actors and even the rest of the play but unfazed we did our best to meet a performance standard – which I think we did. Although it seems strange to be putting everything in mothballs for a while (another 3 months to be precise) we will still meet to run things through and try to keep things fresh until it’s our turn. Our last act, for the time being, was to raise a toast to the professionals, amateurs and schoolchildren due to kick off proceedings on the Wednesday evening.
This was the first public preview and as indicated earlier there was a huge sense of expectation and anticipation on social media platforms as the production neared this momentous occasion. Inside the theatre itself it seems that proceedings were rather more orderly and thought through; this extract from the evening’s call sheet shows how matters unfurled in the final hour and a half
As can be seen from this it is The Bear Pit from Stratford itself who had the honour of opening the batting on behalf of all 98 of us. We had worked with them a couple of weeks previously when they came down to a rehearsal in London so we had absolute confidence that the amateurs’ reputations were in good hands – and so it proved. Tweets from audience members after the show was over demonstrated that in spades. Here are a few choice quotes:
#Dream2016 is a stunning production and tonight came with a little added twist Thinking I must see every version of The Mechanicals now
Brilliant and funny production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” @TheRSC. Definitely the highlight of my trip to #stratforduponavon
Wonderful production and thank you for making it the most amazing experience for my daughter. She will never forget this week. Xx #Dream2016
First Preview utterly Sweet (as in Innocent) production just lovely in this Special year. Cannot wait for press night next week…….the local children as Titania’s train were adorable and the amateur mechanicals were first class. Erica’s got a mighty hit heading to a theatre near YOU #Dream2016
The whole Dream experience has been full of magnificent highs but there was still one more perfect moment to come as the birth of the production took place. Producer Ian Wainwright takes up the story:
“With perfect timing Dominic Skinner (from The Bear Pit)’s partner Lilly went into labour just as he set foot on the stage to play Flute. After successfully completing the first half he then jumped in a taxi and was there just in time for the birth of Edith his second child – at some point during Act 4 Scene 1. In an heroic act befitting of the whole Dream16 ethos, Alex Powell, playing Flute for the Nonentities company and there to watch the show, leapt into the breach performing the role brilliantly in the second half alongside his new Bear Pit team mates. The audience, in on the drama after an impromptu half time announcement from Erica, gave Alex particularly huge applause, and a great new story was added to the RSC’s already rich history.”
A real show bizzy story there and one that young Edith will relish hearing when she’s old enough to appreciate it. Two births on the same evening – a fitting end to another wonderful day on Dream2016.
The current week’s performances are at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Click the side bar for amateur group details
I know I have said it before but the level of intensity on Week 5 of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation rose sharply again. This was the penultimate week of the mainstream rehearsals and the final week that the professional company was due to be working in London so it was definitely time for a final push. To help with this there were link ups to both Norwich and Nottingham in order to share good practice and trade ideas. It is a wonder that there are any new ideas left to have but that, of course, is part of the joy of Shakespeare. There is always something new to discover; even if you haven’t discovered it yourself it’s likely that someone else has. Sharing has been absolutely at the heart of this project throughout – professionals with amateurs, amateurs with each other, regional theatres with local communities and so on.
On Wednesday evening it was a real treat to welcome our colleagues from the Bear Pit (one of the two teams from Stratford upon Avon) to Clapham and share our discoveries. The Saturday hubs meant that I had had plenty of shared Bottom time. However, this was the first occasion that the rest of the Tower Dreamteam had had the opportunity to work with their counterparts from another part of the country. Although there are similarities between the two teams there are some notable differences: their Quince is male and ours female, the Starvelings are the other way round and there could not be a greater difference in the physical appearance of our Snugs/Lions. It all serves to show how diverse this production is going to be as it tours the country. One aspect that will be the same, of course, is the professional cast and Lucy who is playing Puck was also on hand that evening to help us try out different ways of approaching the scene where the mechanicals rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe. We were able to demonstrate some intricate business with an almanac which had finally been resolved the evening before and a complicated exit was shown to us by the Bear Pitters. We will still need to perfect this but have a little bit more time than they do – their first performances are less than two weeks off (good luck, guys!). It was great fun working for the evening with such a talented bunch of like-minded people and we are looking forward to seeing the final results when we go up to Stratford and watch the Bear Pit company on stage in a few weeks’ time.
Friday was a big day for our team and, as it transpired a very long one. Firstly, I had a rehearsal call to go and work with Ayesha on the Titania/Bottom scenes. This was my first attempt at these; time had been at such a premium on the Saturday sessions that I had never actually got to my feet though I had spent quite a few hours observing my colleagues and how the scenes were to be structured. I had also spent a good deal of time thinking things through and having some preliminary practice with David and Karen (our director and rehearsal Titania). That said I was relieved to run the scenes through – especially given what was to come that afternoon. This was the time scheduled for the first full run through of the play and Tower had been invited to participate. There was a clear sense of expectation in the room as the professional actors arrived along with the entire creative team and the rest of the Tower players. Our one absentee was Maria who simply could not take time out of work. Erica had arranged that Sue Downing (Quince from the Kidderminster Nonentities company) who was visiting London, would substitute. Erica gathered us all together to offer some final words of encouragement, we all sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Sue and then we were off.
Of course there were great swathes of the production which we had never had the opportunity to watch (I had never seen Oberon in action for instance) and so there were some truly remarkable and surprising moments to appreciate. Our scenes were full of nervous energy as the adrenaline flowed; Sue’s expertise meant she fitted into our staging with little difficulty. My own scenes with Ayesha also went smoothly although I have to admit I did get Peaseblossom and Cobweb mixed up at one stage and I certainly didn’t get through the Bergomask dance unscathed. The rest of the team was also on fine form and both Adam and Al drew applause from the gathered audience which must have run to fifty people. I should mention that among these was the near-legendary former RSC Voice Director Cicely Berry now in her ninth decade; what an honour! Three hours later it was all over; I felt drained but elated but I think we acquitted ourselves well and it has shown us what things we still need to work on. Even that wasn’t quite the end – that evening we all had costume fittings with designer Tom Piper and the wardrobe team. It is great to see what we will be wearing and it provided a calming coda to what had been a tremendous day and one that I feel thoroughly privileged to have experienced.
And so to Saturday and the last of the Bottom hubs. This was attended by five of us in London linking up to our three Midlands colleagues with the opportunity for the rest of the country to tune in online as usual. The morning concentrated on the Titania/Bottom scenes and refining the detail of their two close encounters. At one stage there was quite an intense debate about the underlying sexuality of the scenes and whether Bottom’s transformation into an ass had included the acquisition of “attributes” other than a pair of ears. Nothing amiss with that of course, if anything I was a bit surprised that the topic had not arisen before. However, it was perhaps a little ironic that this was the exact time a journalist from Radio 4’s Front Row put in an appearance to investigate our rehearsal – she must have thought we were all a bit obsessed! Over the lunchbreak the same journalist interviewed us for a forthcoming feature; this time the carnal aspects of the play were carefully avoided.
When we got back to the rehearsal room a huge transition had taken place. While we had been away any remaining furniture, props and other rehearsal paraphernalia had been packed away in a van and whisked off to Stratford – even the walls had been stripped of all the notes, photographs, drawings and lists which had previously been there. Thus it was that the final afternoon’s work was carried out in a somewhat bare space and in an atmosphere of slightly Chekovian melancholy that this aspect of the work was drawing to a close. The time was spent investigating Bottom’s monologue in Act 4 and, as ever, several versions were tried; it has given me several ideas for how I might approach this key moment. And then suddenly that was it, the production’s time in London was up (well, until the actual play reaches the capital in May) and everything has moved to Stratford for final rehearsals, previews and the opening night. Although a key chapter in the production process has drawn to a close, a new and even more exciting chapter is just about to begin; best wishes to the two Stratford teams as they take us down the home straight towards opening night.