acta35 blog celebrating the Thursdays Theatre group
26th May 2020 – by Neil Beddow
I’ve been thinking about the Thursdays this week. No, not the middle day, named after Thor and all that, but the daytime theatre project we began back in 2012, which is still meeting. Although this week, given the circumstances, it will be on Zoom.
The beginnings of the group came from acta’s desire to make a daytime group for people interested in making theatre. The idea was always that the group would be completely open – in fact, would go out of its way to be so – and the only criteria for joining would be that participants must a) be free on Thursday mornings and b) want to make some new theatre.
To begin with the group had only a few members; three fairly experienced community theatre performers, Tracey, Karen and Louisa, but it was a great chance for me, as facilitator, to try out lots of new ideas in story-building and improvisation exercises. One day, I raided the acta prop store, and made a huge pile of unrelated objects on the acta theatre floor. The performers went in and out of the set, creating new scenarios and dialogue, adding, changing, exploring the pile of objects. By the end of the session, there were multiple ideas flying around, and out of them we crafted a new show ‘Sisters’ – no script, three performers, minimal set – with the pile of rubbish as the main focus. It still is one of my all-time favourite acta shows; it had a great story, it used resources well, but mainly because of the incredible performances at the heart of the show – the totally believable relationship between the two ‘sisters’ – played by Karen and Tracey. Made us laugh, made us cry, made us think – what more could you ask? (and also a small role for Rosalie Pordes, who had just joined the company on our Foundation scheme – right in at the deep end!!)
After ‘Sisters’, more people joined the Thursdays, and it became much more diverse, different generations, nationalities, different reasons for being available on Thursday morning. I was joined in facilitating the group by Rosalie, and together we set this new, expanded group the task of devising a show for children and families – the much-sought after ‘Christmas show’ gig among the acta groups. We played around with ideas for some time, trying different approaches to getting at the heart of what makes a good story for children; we had loads of ideas, but nothing quite seemed to work. Then, during the tea break at one of the Thursdays sessions, someone was searching for a teaspoon, and asked, ‘where do all the spoons go?’ This got us all thinking ‘and where do the pens go, and keys, and all the other things that get lost’. In a creative flurry – amidst the tea (and plenty of biscuits) the group came up with the story of ‘The Land of Lost Things’ – where all the things that are lost are taken.
Over the next few weeks we had great fun in fleshing out the story, creating the characters of the ‘Finders’ – magical creatures who collect items that people lose interest in, and take them to the Land of Lost Things to be looked after until they were needed again. We also created the ‘Keepers’ – more selfish characters who kept the things that people lose because ‘they don’t deserve to get them back’. From early on we had the idea that a little girl would become lost, and taken to the Land of Lost Things, and have an adventure. Of course, the only problem was, we didn’t have a little girl in the group! They tend to be in school on Thursday mornings. So, a problem!
We tried a number of different solutions, but grown-ups playing children is always a bit icky, and not believable, and we wanted there to be a realistic thread in the story, even if everything was mostly magical and fantastical. I’ve always believed that even the most outlandish fantasy must have it’s own ‘internal reality’ – it must adhere to rules and makes sense within its own context. So, we were a bit stuck. Then came the brainwave; why did it have to be a child that got lost? What if an old woman, an old woman who nobody noticed, who nobody wanted, who was ignored by society, was noticed by a Finder, and taken to the land of Lost Things?
It was a real turning point in the devising; by making the focal character an older person, a lonely and isolated woman, the whole story acquired new depth, and we were able to build in added layers of meaning; serious issues to underly the fantasy. And, it meant that performers could play their own age, that we would have that natural’ element.
The old woman was played by Irene Cleaver, a much-loved, mischievous, Glaswegian with a wicked sense of humour, who we sadly lost a few years ago. She played her character with such poignancy, even as the nonsensical adventure unfolded around her, so that there was always an underlying sadness to the story – which was resolved, with some heartfelt tenderness, at the end of the play.
After this show, the Thursdays group grew again, with many new members, and created another improvised play ‘High and Dry’ – a more serious piece, featuring a motley selection of characters all stranded in a pub during a flood. The members of this cast have formed the backbone for the Thursdays ever since, always providing a warm welcome for the many new participants who have joined over the years; devising and performing new plays in a real variety of styles and contexts, from local heritage in ‘Blood on the Coal’, to’ Plastic Fantastic’, a fun-filled comedy for children with a hard hitting environmental message.
I love working with them. I love their diversity, their generous inclusivity, their warmth and creativity. Most of all, I love the fact that all these different people, with time on their hands, come together to make theatre, one morning a week.
I’m very much looking forward to Thursday morning, when we’ll see each other, share some ideas, and find out how we can make theatre online.
Read more about acta35 here
As part of acta’s 35th year, Artistic Director and Founder Neil Beddow is releasing blogs that tell stories from some of the most memorable theatre moments here at acta. You can read them all here.
We are also looking for stories from you! Perhaps it’s a photo from a show you were in, or a memory of a friend you made. We will be compiling memories digitally as well as presenting some of these in a big party at the acta centre – hopefully towards the start of 2021. Email us your findings!