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.

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All For Your Delight, Part 3

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).

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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:

 

Andy Richards
Programme producer/director Andy

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

Andy, I hope so too.

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


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

Belfast

Bottoms on the box

Living The Dream: The Epilogue

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Curtain call     Photo by Steve Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cardiff

Living The Dream: The Epilogue

Living The Dream: Act 4

D16 Call Friday 20th May

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

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Beam Primary take to the stage to rehearse

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

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Kim chooses her fairy scarf

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

Some of our Twitter take over pics

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

Stage and TV

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

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


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

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

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

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

Living The Dream: Act 4

Living The Dream: Act 1

12 hours

D16 Call Tuesday 17th May

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The stage is set

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

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Our costume rail – mine on the left

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

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The pros and the ams gather

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

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

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Al and Adam check Twitter support

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

 

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The props table

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

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


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

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

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

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

Living The Dream: Act 1

When Bottoms collide

Q. What do you call it when you’ve got 14 Bottoms in a rehearsal room at the same time?

A. Anything you like – they aren’t listening – they’re Bottom!

Last Saturday was the first time the amateur actors who are playing this iconic role for the RSC’s A Play For The Nation project got together … but before we get to that, there were a couple of other events this week.

On Monday the Tower team and five other teams around the country gathered together for some feedback on the third preparatory task – their radio versions of the Pyramus and Thisbe section of the play. By now we were quite blasé about the setup having got used to the idea of hooking up electronically. Once again, the session was led by director Erica Whyman – it turned out that she was actually just down the road from us in the RSC office in Covent Garden.

Erica said she felt that all the groups had shown “brilliant dedication and effort” and that the results were “very creative”. She then proceeded to work through each group’s effort using appropriate extracts for illustration. When our turn came, Erica started by saying we had done two things particularly well….at which point the technology froze. When it came back to life she was talking about the second point, so we had no idea what the first thing was*. However, the second was that we had successfully used a variety of voices in creating the atmosphere of the audience watching the play within the play. Tom was particularly praised in this capacity as at times he was playing both the Duke and Starveling, talking to each other (thanks again to Leon for his editing wizardry); a clip was played of this section. Erica then worked her way through each of us in the team, commenting favourably on our individual renditions. I think it’s safe to say that we came off well in this analysis; this will give us increased confidence going forward.

After all the groups had received feedback Erica reminded us of the path we had travelled so far and pointed out that we were now at the end of Phase 1 of the process. She then gave us an overview of how the rehearsal process would work – complex to say the least – and then invited us to participate in a “bonus” task. This was to put together a very short video introducing ourselves to the professional actors in the company when they start work in January.

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BBC programme maker Andy

We decided to tackle this last task the very next evening and quickly conceived the idea of introducing ourselves while standing in front of various locations dotted around the area of the South Bank. So we visited sites such as the Millennium Bridge, the Globe and Southwark Cathedral to record our ten second pieces to camera. The task was more fun than it might sound as we grappled with the intricacies of filming at night (Adam’s bike lamp came in very handy) and trying to find reasonably quiet spots to record our pieces. We were accompanied by our regular BBC programme maker Andy who filmed us filming each other and who was able to give us a bit more of a lowdown on the documentary that he will be putting together. “Are you the BBC?” one passer by wanted to know. “Yes,” we were able to (reasonably) truthfully reply. The evening finished at the George Inn near London Bridge, by all accounts Shakespeare’s local. There was a surprise “secret Santa” and a modicum of merrymaking; as we departed we reflected that the next time we would meet we would be in rehearsal for real. OMG as they say nowadays!

However, for two us we hadn’t quite finished as there was one more aspect of Phase 1 to go. Both Maria and I attended a comedy workshop held at the RSC’s rehearsal rooms in Clapham. A somewhat unprepossessing building outside it was quite the reverse once we got in containing everything that an amateur could only dream of (pardon the pun!) That said I was momentarily alarmed to see a rather ominous winch/block and tackle arrangement fixed to the ceiling. Nobody had warned us about flying work! Eventually it dawned on me that we were in the rehearsal room used for the RSC’s current production of Peter Pan and Wendy and that none of us would actually be expected to take to the air.

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Sally Phillips and a trio of Quinces

The workshops were in two half days. Maria attended the morning session along with her fellow female Quinces and the two female Bottoms while I was in the afternoon session with the other male Bottoms. Both workshops concentrated on comedy technique though the exercises and approaches differed. The morning session was led by Sally Phillips (well known for her “Bear with” moments in Miranda as well as appearing in Smack The Pony and the Bridget Jones films). Our afternoon session was led by Nick Haverson who has played a number of key comic Shakespearian roles and who I recall fondly as Bingo Little in Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves. Both of these warm and encouraging professionals really added value to our experience and seemed almost as excited as we all were. I can’t speak with any authority about the morning session but the afternoon was intense, challenging and in some instances highly dramatic. This comedy is a serious business!

In between the two sessions it was our first (and perhaps only?) chance to meet and mingle with our colleagues from across the country. Having conversed with many of them via social media it was rather like a giant pen pals’ convention as we greeted each other warmly, falling into instantly formed friendships with so many people of a like mind. Our day was made even more exciting when Erica announced that she‘d like to bring in “perhaps the bravest actress in the country”. The door opened and in walked our Titania, Ayesha. There was an audible intake of breath and a huge ovation. Many photos were then taken with our leading lady surrounded by a fine array of Bottoms (sorry!) and Quinces.  If that wasn’t quite enough excitement, Maria and I also completed another short interview for the BBC documentary about our experience that day. Another exhausting but thrilling day in the life of two amateurs gearing up to work with the RSC – still can’t believe I can actually write that without finding it’s all a hoax!

Titania and her Bottoms close up
Titania surrounded by Bottoms (Photo: David Tett)

*Subsequently we discovered that this was about capturing a feel of the 1940s in our piece (as this is when the production is going to be set this isn’t quite as bad as it might sound!)

FOOTNOTE
Yesterday this blog received  its 2,000th view. Once again my gratitude for all your support .

 

When Bottoms collide

One, Two, Three…Go!

“We are going to set you three tasks!” No, not the words of the king of a fairy tale land to the prince hopeful of winning the hand of the beautiful princess. These were the words spoken by Erica Whyman the project director for the RSC’s Play For The Nation and they were being said via a laptop stationed in the Tower Theatre office in the Bridewell in London. Our Dreamteam along with the thirteen others around the country had gathered together to participate in an online get together via Google Hang Outs (no me, neither – think of it as similar to Skype … if you’re not sure what that is then you’re probably on a hiding to nothing).

The Common Lot from Norwich (minus Amelia who was with us)
The Common Lot from Norwich (minus Amelia  – who was with us)

Tagging along with our group we were very pleased to welcome Amelia, a member of the Norwich team, the Common Lot. She is playing Quince for them; having recently moved down to London she will be commuting backwards and forwards once the real fun starts. Good luck with that and if you’re looking for a friendly and ambitious company to join once this great adventure is over……

If anyone’s trying to do the maths that means that around the country there were getting on for a hundred of us huddled round screens, eager to hear what Erica had to say and if possible pose some questions. At the end of the session we would know what first task the RSC were going to set us as preparation for our work on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed that is what the autumn sessions are going to be all about – some preparatory tasks and further work with RSC trainers on voice, movement etc. If all that wasn’t exciting enough each group was being filmed by regional teams from the BBC. I may not have mentioned this so far – there’s been so much else to reveal – that the plan is for each amateur company to have a documentary about its progress aired in their performance week– a piece of show promotion that most amateur groups could only dream about. The programme is provisionally entitled The Best Bottoms In The Land and, if you take my tip, I wouldn’t try Googling that!

Erica - overall director of the project
Erica – overall director of the project

Erica outlined her vision for the production and spoke about her preferred way of working and exploring the text. Though she admitted to a little trepidation – something of this size and scale has never been tried before – I think we all felt confident that this was something that could be made to work. Questions about set, costumes, period setting, music and lighting were dealt with. I really don’t want to give away too much at this point – in any case, nothing is yet set in stone – but I’m particularly excited that the set designer is Tom Piper, one of the two geniuses responsible for the stunning poppy display at the Tower of London last year.

Our group director, David, had already received an official letter from the RSC and once Erica’s introduction was over she asked the groups to open this and read out the contents.
Task 1 covering letter
Once this was done the focus shifted to each individual group and we were invited to introduce ourselves and the roles we were playing and to pose one pertinent question (per group) to Erica. The wonders of modern technology (hurrah for the RSC techies!) meant we were able to see and hear everything each group said – well apart from Cornwall who got rather lost in technical glitches – shame about that guys). It was all a bit reminiscent of the old style voting on the Eurovision Song Contest where they called in the results from participating countries.  However, it was nice to put faces to names that I’d been swopping banter with on Facebook for weeks. Once this was done we were handed our individual tasks.

Rather than use the Dream itself (there will be enough of that next year) at this stage the RSC are encouraging us to work on our general Shakespeare skills. To that end we have all been given a speech or duologue from another play to research, learn and then perform/film before the end of the month. The chosen extracts have been selected to help us find out more about an aspect of the character we are due to play. What was amazing is that each piece has been tailored for the individual actor/actress rather than for each of the six roles. They are not specific to the age, physicality or even gender of the participants and it must have been a real labour of love finding quite so many differing pieces to challenge us with. Of course some duplication was inevitable and I know that a few of my fellow Bottoms have “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” from King Lear to work on. I can only assume that they think I’ve already got shouting a lot and raging against overwhelming odds off pat and therefore need to develop another aspect of stagecraft. Anyway, here is how it worked out for us:

  • Maria (playing Quince) – Jacques: “All the world’s a stage…” (As You Like It 2.7)
  • Adam (playing Flute) – Hermione: “Sir, spare your threats…” (The Winter’s Tale 3.2)
  • Peta (playing Snug) & Tom (playing Starveling) – Othello and Iago: “My noblelord/What dost thou say, Iago?” (Othello 3.3)
  • Al (playing Snout) – Claudio: “Ay but to die and go we know what where…” (Measure For Measure 3.1)
  • John (playing Bottom) – “O, pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth…” (Julius Caesar 3.1)

Now if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that I slipped in the word ‘film’ back there; that’s right we have to record our efforts for posterity – well, the RSC anyhow.  This will be nothing fancy and we can achieve this using any method open to us – apparently even VHS is an option! Once filmed the pieces will be sent to the RSC for analysis, comment and feedback – this latter will be happening at the next mass session in October when we’ll also be set Task 2. However, just to keep us on our toes, on the night of our next live link up some of us will be selected to perform our piece live to all the groups and, of course, the RSC themselves. No pressure then – all I can say is thank heavens we’ve already passed the auditions!

Now then, just time to peruse the RSC brochure and newsletter which arrived this week (and which really confirms the whole enterprise as official) and then it’s time to start some Mark Antony learning: “Et tu, Brute!” – oh no, hang on, that’s the other bloke!

RSC season brochure - inside

One, Two, Three…Go!