Two plays in two days – and that was just me

After my delight in directing at the inaugural London 14/48, I was determined to join the next round in Leicester. It’s downright addictive, and I thought I might have a go at the acting side of things. Because if there’s anything I love more than theatre, it’s novelty.

“I memorise quickly” I thought, “I can take it.”

Hubris?

You betcha.

Acting is an entirely different beast from directing at 14/48 – though success and happiness demand the same trust in the process, and your fellow actors.

With directing, there is at least the sense of relief that you aren’t actually the one on stage (though of course, if you’ve invested yourself in the work you are, it’s just that not everyone cottons on. It’s like when you’re in a dream and you’re watching yourself from the outside but feeling everything on the inside).

With acting, there is no watching from a safe distance. You’re under the lights in a room full of people and either you get them into your world, or not. And if you fail, well, then you’ve got ten torturous minutes of people suffering through your incompetence.

No pressure then, right?

I lucked out (I mean, all of the plays would have been great fun to be in – and I wanted to collaborate with literally every actor there – but the fates handed me two roles that were just made for me, and perfect co-actors). In the lottery both days I was cast in Jess Green’s plays – well structured, great characters, and boy howdy, that second night play about Workfare? I mean, damn. Smart, surprisingly poignant political theatre written overnight (directed with sharp insight by 14/48 Wolverhampton producer Neil Reading) and delivering an emotional punch and rich political arguments in under 10 minutes? That, my friends, is impressive. Shaw, eat your heart out.

Also, I sweet-talked my way into ad-libbing a couple of closing lines with winking communism jests. And I snuck in ‘I am the Walrus’ into the second show on the first night. Because apparently I am secretly dying to be a stand-up. One of my selfish joys of the weekend is that people were actually laughing (sincerely, or at least in a convincing imitation of sincerity) at all [ed-most] of my quips and witticisms.

What I loved about London 14/48 is that it distilled everything I love about theatre – focus, energy, creativity, and trusting collaboration. In Leicester, I was further seduced by the warmth and acceptance and (dare I say it) genius of the community as a whole. All these good, lovely, talented people brought together by a shared passion to create. If I listed everyone who kinda blew my mind I’d essentially be reprinting the programme.

And while it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much capability without feeling the occasional twinge (or more) of envy, the inclusiveness of all involved turns jealousy to pride. Because if these are your people, then their success is yours, too.

As someone who has moved around so frequently in life and is always a little homesick no matter where I am, there was something about being around these people that felt like a homecoming.

It is no small thing in life to recognise when you meet your tribe.

Next up… Wolverhampton?

What a night

Well it all came together. The dress rehearsal Sunday night left me stunned – whether it was being in the theatre and having all the tech, or the immediate pressure of knowing this was the end of rehearsals, or if it was just amazing timing, the actors’ energy suddenly jumped, and their was a real palpable feeling of being an ensemble, not just a bunch of people in the same play.

Opening night was a blast. The audience was really engaged and, thankfully, held a lot of loud laughers, so the cast was really able to enjoy a lively response to their zingy lines and physical humour.

There’s still room to improve – there always is – but what they’re doing now is head and shoulders above where they were last week. If we can keep this energy and focus and enthusiasm going, there will be a lot of fine shows to be seen.

It’s this feeling – this joy – that we do all this for. For hearing the audience enjoy what you’re putting on for them, and seeing the actors relish the performing.

What fun.

Opening Night Approaches

Well, it’s nearly here.

 

As I anticipate the madness of tech and dress rehearsals over the next couple of days, and the anxiety of opening night, I find myself reflecting on the nature of different types of theatre. This is not a professional production, though I hope I hold myself and my lovely actors and techies to a professional standard.

It’s that standard that I wonder about. With amateur theatre, of course, people are doing it for love and for fun, not because it’s their job. As both a director and an actor, I wouldn’t begin to know how to separate the two. I don’t know how to do anything without trying to make it the best it can be – and I think there’s a real shame in the snobbery that insists that things aren’t likely to be good if they aren’t expensive. That’s the same mentality that assumes only Oxbridge types are sufficiently equipped to run or do anything. It’s the same mentality that thinks since nurses get paid less than doctors they must be less important or less skilled.

No, money is rarely a good reflection of true value.

With art in particular, what makes something good (or not) is passion and dedication. This affects amateur theatre when it comes to time and energy. Everyone involved in this play has other, admittedly more important things to do – we have jobs and/or families that require our attention, and of course must take priority. This doesn’t mean that amateur productions are destined to be half-assed, only that there is more to contend with.

I was speaking with a friend (and fellow director and actor) yesterday, at another amateur production. Over the course of our conversation, I wondered if perhaps the standard to which I held my actors and crew was too high, too demanding, for the world we were in. The people involved are doing this for no other reward than the task itself – is it unkind to push them, to expect as much of them as I would of professionals?

From my earlier directing experiences with this particular company, I have found it rewarding, though certainly difficult, to help less-trained performers do professional quality work. I have also found a significant amount of push-back from people who find my methods too stringent – I’m sure they don’t necessarily realise all the implications, but the take-away message from those complaining is that what I’m asking is too hard, and I’m not letting them relax and have (enough) fun. (I must defend myself somewhat; people are not despondent and enslaved to some maniacal obsessive, there is plenty of laughter in my rehearsals, but I don’t settle).

So then the question becomes, is it right to hold an amateur team to lower standards, to push them less, to train them less, so that the process overall feels less intense – or does that do them a disservice, knowing that when the show arrives, the result will be merely adequate?

What is the super-objective?

I work, or have done so far, holding to the idea that the whole point is to push for excellence, to push people out of their comfort zone and make them reach for things they didn’t necessarily think they could, or even should, do. I believe the best theatre happens when people are striving.

But is it wrong to try to get the ‘best theatre’ from amateurs? I don’t know. I don’t know that I could change my style even should I decide it would be morally correct. For me, pushing myself, working hard at theatre, while challenging, isn’t unpleasant – it’s the bit that I like. Work and play, for me, are the same. I get the impression from some that I work with, that is not necessarily the case for all.

For this play, of course, the rehearsal period is almost finished, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

But for the future, the question remains. How much should one manage expectations; how hard do you push?