A celebration of acta participants

Participants Tony and Liz

Over the past 35 years, we have worked with many brilliant participants, taking part in and devising shows, as well as volunteering at events. In this article, we celebrate Abby, Kirsty, Betty, Liz & Tony.

Abby Hitchins, 10 June 2021

“… the confidence to be who I am and to be proud of that.”

Abby joined acta when she was 14, to take part in creating a play in 3 days from scratch in the school hols. She absolutely loved it, and immediately signed up for the afterschool term-time youth theatre at her school in Hartcliffe. Since then, she has performed pretty much every year, taking part in the Who Cares youth theatre for young carers, Phoenix Theatre young adults’ group and then moving on into acta Co, where she remains a member today, and is currently performing in Clippies.

Abby has lived in Bristol her whole life, except for going away to study at Plymouth University after she left school. As well as loving acting, she is a huge Disney and Marvel fan.

Abby says: –
(acta has enabled her to develop) “the confidence to be who I am and to be proud of that. I have also gained so many lifelong friends… who have turned into family to me. I have grown up with acta and they have shaped me into the person I am today. It is more than a group of people putting on a show; it’s about friendship, confidence, learning to just be you and knowing that is enough and ok. This has been most apparent since Covid as we have just started up our sessions again and I didn’t quite realise how much I had missed it since going back. Honestly there’s no other place like it.”

Abby has particularly enjoyed the outdoor performances that she has been a part of, at Cleeve Abbey (English Heritage), The Bishops’ Palace (Wells) and Lost Not Forgotten (Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol).
“These all hold a special place for me in my heart as they are so different from performing inside the acta theatre. Also, some of these were residentials, which was even more special as we got to spend a lot of time together as a cast which was lovely.

Abby discovered once that she had been asked to learn the wrong lines, when Ingrid got her in to cover a part in an acta show. They didn’t realise until the morning of the show, and it is safe to say there was some panic! However, Abby managed to learn all the correct lines in time for the evening performance and the show went without a hitch.
“To this day, one of my proudest moments, as it taught me that I can do anything that I put my mind to.”
However, now that Abby knows she only needs a day to learn her lines, can Ingrid ever expect Abby to learn her lines for rehearsals?!

Abby encourages others to join acta and says: –
“You honestly won’t regret it! Everyone is… kind, caring and non-judgmental. You will gain so much … confidence, friends and just some time for yourself. Acta is free to join and there is no audition process for any parts. Everyone has an equal part and a part that they have helped to create and are happy with. Each play is based around what we have devised; even if there are some factual parts to a story, the words and storyline is usually made up of what we have created.”

Abby (far left) in Three Green Bottles
Image | Taken from Three Green Bottles – Abby on the far left

Kirsty Ireland | 22 April 2021

Kirsty, 23, was born and raised in the heart of Bedminster, a short distance from the acta centre. Aged 11, whilst a student at South St Primary (now Compass Point school) she attended a one-day workshop with acta’s Ingrid Jones, which was aimed at encouraging new participants for the Play in a Week project. Saddened that she wasn’t available for the week on offer, but with a real interest in pursuing her journey, she asked Ingrid if there were any other ways to get involved.

The answer, of course, was yes! The weekly youth group “Vibe Theatre” was Kirsty’s first real taste of community theatre, and has led on to 12 more years of participating, performing and helping out with numerous shows and projects at acta. Some of the many shows include Gas Girls, Stories, Dream Queen, Sailors Tales, 1963 (which involved a scene that made her mum cry; the pinnacle of acting achievement!) plus the most recent acta performance: The Museum of Unsung Heroes; which took place in between lockdowns back in September 2020. She has also helped out with stage and production management alongside Katie Delaney, acta’s Production Manager.

Memorable moments & Right Place Right Time

While there are so many to choose from, Kirsty attributes some of her best personal friendships to the people she met at acta, including fellow youth theatre performers, Aiden and Grace. She was also offered the opportunity to gain work experience at the acta festival, aged 15, which was certainly an apt career decision as Kirsty later went on to study Acting at Falmouth University. Her dissertation, based on the work of acta and community theatre, supported her to achieve a first class degree. Sadly, the timing of the pandemic has meant certain opportunities haven’t been as accessible, yet Kirsty’s “ability to chat to anyone” has certainly kept her busy – with work at a local doctors’ surgery, a radio podcast, and summer festival work.

This attitude of giving everything a go has meant Kirsty has often been in the right place at the right time. A volunteering job tidying props that turned into running away with the circus. A chance meeting in Liverpool with a man who needed interviewees to talk about cider (what better than a west country local?). Even a casual conversation with a shop worker that turned into a regular slot on a radio show doing voiceover work!

What does Community Theatre mean to you?

“It allows me to be myself – unapologetically myself. I struggled at school, being put into a ‘box’ where people only really see one part of you. I put on a front going into secondary school, to be the loudest in the room. At acta I didn’t need to put on a front. I love learning, acting, being on stage, and community theatre was a safe space to do all of that. I had a support system in Ingrid [Jones, Associate Director], who helped me become self-aware to who I really was. It felt like I was able to be the authentic me that I wanted to be. When I finally left school and went to University, that was the chance, the fresh slate, to be the real me… the acta me.”

“I want to use theatre for social change. I have such an appreciation for how important community is, and it really is what I want to do”. Kirsty also spoke about her love of promenade and outdoor theatre to connect people with their local history and nature, which – combined with many years’ experience managing festivals, and backstage theatre production – seems like a brilliant idea!

What would you say to someone who doesn’t think theatre is for them?

“You haven’t found the right thing yet. It’s more than just a stage, or watching a Shakespeare play with language you can’t understand, it’s anything and everything. There’s nothing like it. I don’t believe there’s anyone that it’s not for.”

Kirsty Ireland

Thanks to Kirsty for taking the time for this interview. If you want to find out more, read on for previous Participant Stories with Betty Morris, Liz and Tony Hillitt.

Interested in getting involved? Check out our take part page, or come along to a show, box office now open!

Betty Morris | 10 February 2021

A well-known and well-loved acta participant, Betty, turned 90 during lockdown this year. We gave her a call to ask her all about her life in Bristol and experiences with acta …

Betty was born and raised in Redcliffe, Bristol. Aged 10, she made her pledge to the girl guides, in an air raid shelter. Since, she has become a guide leader, which has included being a rowing instructor and even taking a narrowboat up to Bath! Betty has also worked as a florist, and often turns her skills to creating wonderful arts and craft for acta’s Making Time sessions, or most recently in lockdown, through our creative care packages.

What was your first experience of acta?

Betty hope message
Betty’s message of Hope
February 2021

“I was going to CLASS (Continued Learning at South Street School). We used to decide on a theme – anything from Romans to famous people – pick one thing from that theme, go away, and write about it, and read to the others. Then one week, they said “someone from acta’s coming”, and it was Neil. He was so enthusiastic and wanted people to do a play; he said they had funding to include people from Redcliffe. Everyone else turned their noses up. But I said, I’m quite interested. He said, come along, you can join! If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come again.

Of course, once I came, I was in, wasn’t I?

Then a few months later, some of Neil’s drama group suggested I join the choir. Katie (acta Production Manager) then told me she was going to start a new project, Making Time. Me and my husband were the first two to come to Making Time. When my husband passed away, I had the most support I thought anyone could ever have. Katie would ring to check on me, then someone else, then Neil. They really went above and beyond. I had so much support.

My daughter said, ‘are you going back to acta, but Dad isn’t even cremated yet.’

I said: ‘What difference does that make? If I go there, I’ll be amongst friends.’”

What do you enjoy most about acta and theatre in general?

“Oh I love it. I really do.

They always find me a chair to sit on. I’ve said, I think I’ll stop doing shows, I don’t want to be a nuisance for people. I’ll come to sessions and stand in for parts, but I won’t take up space. Neil said, if you’re coming, you’re in it… we can always make you a narrator.

The friendship that’s there. No one thinks they’re better than the other.”

Tell us about a special show memory?

“We did one play, can’t remember the name, Neil wrote it. All about Bristol (Redcliffe Stories – see photo below), right back from when the first Matthew sailed. Russ wrote a song and put it to music with guitar. Neil interviewed me about my 10th birthday story; where we lost our home because of the bombings. We were living with lots of other people. My uncle bought a Christmas cake (as Betty’s birthday is around Christmas). On no account do we ask for a slice of cake. On boxing afternoon, two dads took us for a walk. When we got back, the cake was stripped and put a birthday message on.

This show brought together all people from choir, young kids, all sorts. We did stories of bombing, and the little kids played out my Christmas cake scene. It was performed for 5 days in St Mary Redcliffe School.

It all started from a picture of Redcliffe Church, and the bells ringing. Sarah from choir wrote a song that went along with the bells. I’d love to do it again. All people from my church wanted to see it – they’d love it to come back. It was published on the tele.”

(Betty also reminisced about appearances as inanimate objects, from a washing machine in Plastic Fantastic, to a plank of wood that had to be replaced in a bridge before people could cross). “Of course, last time I was a magic washing machine. I’d grant their wishes when they said please or thank you. I popped out the lid and frightened everyone to death!”

What are your words of wisdom to anyone thinking of engaging with the arts for the first time?

“Come and just have a go. There’s never a charge; which means a lot these days. There’s always friendship, over a coffee before all this happening, and have a natter. Just, give it a chance. If it’s not for them, you can help behind scenes if you want.” (Or, come and see a show!)

Finally, Betty… what did you do for your 90th in lockdown?

“Last year, we were going to have a party, to celebrate my late husband and my Golden wedding anniversary. I said no, no party. So, we just had flowers and a lovely meal. I said, for my 90th birthday, we’re going to have a party. They had 110 people ready to come along!” (As lockdown continued into the last months of 2020, Betty had a small family party instead, and told us about this…)

“They set up the house with balloons, banners, streamers and lots of presents. My grandson made me the most beautiful bird house, all covered in gold, like unveiling a statue. I thought, this can’t get any better. Because he made it himself and paid for the materials himself. I also got given a stained glass window with an owl design (from my time in the guides) and when it shines, it makes a rainbow across the floor.

I actually preferred that, than a big do, absolutely loved it.”

Betty narrating Stories Show
Betty as narrator for Redcliffe Stories

Liz and Tony | 8 January 2021

Liz and Tony Hillitt have been involved in acta for the last decade, taking part in a wide range of different theatre shows and projects since acta moved to the actacentre, on their doorstep in Bedminster. This week, they celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary, and we send them our congratulations and love from everyone at acta.

When acta secured lottery support to develop a local arts programme in 2011, Get Together, starting with a Winter lantern parade and community choir, Liz and Tony were amongst the first local people to volunteer to be part of it.

Through the community choir, they have performed in a whole host of community shows and events including 1963, the Stories Redcliffe community play and Blood on the Coal. Liz also volunteered to support the productions with costumes for many of the shows. Tony is a longstanding member of the Thursdays theatre group, and has helped to create and perform a long line of original shows for schools and local audiences.

In recent years, they have supported the lunchtime team to make and serve hot meals to those attending acta for the Making Time project for lonely local people, including supporting the group to deliver their own performances for local school children.

From all of us at acta, we’d like to say thank you for all your support Liz and Tony, you are stars!

Celebrating two of our longstanding acta participants, Liz and Tony, who are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.