One of the total delights of working for acta for so long is the feedback I get from participants – past and present. It feels like a real privilege to have been part of people’s lives, to have helped to make some happy memories, to have promoted laughter, and friendship and love between people who otherwise would never have met. And of course, made some incredibly excellent theatre along the way!
Last week I received an unexpected e-mail from Richard Morse, one of the original members when the group began in 1986:-
“Hi Neil, you may not remember me but I joined ACTA right back at the start of the Kingswood group that you held in a school classroom in Oldland Common. I have memories of you picking Simon Hudd and myself up in your van on a Friday evening from the library in Kingswood, we bounced our way over to the hall before meeting the rest of the group for that week’s session.
I still remember the nerves I had before the first (and all!) performances of ‘Stowaway Spider’. During a visit to my loft recently I found the original script and all the memories just flowed back. These were amazing times and as the years go on the time I spent with ACTA remains firmly in the front of my mind.
We had an interesting summer project in the old outside swimming pool in Eastville park where you brought many groups together, and a performance in the Old Vic for ‘Pig on the wall’. For a fourteen-year-old these were situations that was beyond my wildest dreams and it was all down to yourself and the brilliant team you had with you.
Thank you for all the memories that I have taken from being part of ACTA and I wish you all the best for the future“
It was so nice to get Richard’s mail, and it started me thinking lots about Kingswood Youth Theatre, which we began as part of acta’s original vision and promise to have youth theatre accessible to young people across Avon. I badgered (this is the only word) the local Area Youth Officer, Graeme Riley (my much-missed friend, mentor and ex-acta Chair), until he gave acta some funding to support the group. Kingswood District was a large part of the County of Avon, and as well as Kingswood itself, included Hanham, Warmley, Oldland Common, even as far as Mangotsfield. After publicising the group, we found we had young people from all over the area interested in taking part.
As part of our commitment to providing access, we undertook to pick up all those young people from all over the area, take them to the session, then take them home again. This was done my job every Friday night, starting around 5.30, then finishing around 9.30/10. We had a minibus, supported by funds from the Greater Bristol Trust (now Quartet Community Foundation), and it did indeed bounce and rattle as we zoomed through Kingswood collecting enthusiastic and excited young people, eager for their session (it was just as raucous on the way back too)
It was an amazingly creative group of young people, and supported by acta staff and volunteers, they created a bunch of fantastic shows, some of which we took on tour around the area. The first of these, ‘Stowaway Spider’, is one of my all-time favourite shows. It took place on the deck of a cruise ship, with a group of 20+ characters; the disillusioned on-board entertainers (including a spoilt and terrifying child prodigy who couldn’t sing for toffee), a school trip with harassed teachers, a stowaway, and two mad scientists (played by Richard and Simon, as above). These two had been conducting growth experiments on a spider, which during the course of the show got loose, and continued to grow and terrify throughout, until at the climax, a massive spiders leg crashed through the set, sending panic and terror through cast and audience alike. (before of course, everything was put back to normal – I think it was the child star’s awful singing which finally scared off the spider!). The show had songs written by me and Robin Grant, a long-time collaborator on so many early acta shows. This massive undertaking was packed into the back of a van and toured all over Kingswood District; quite an undertaking, but carried through with massive enthusiasm and a ‘can-do’ attitude.
The next project was totally different, and was suggested by a saying we had heard in Kingswood, when describing a native of the area, that they had ‘a pig on the wall to watch the band go by’. We researched this, and traced it back to the annual parade through Kingswood of churches and chapels in the spring – and an apocryphal story of householders who used to dress their pigs up to look over their garden wall as the march went by. This prompted us to create a new play based around the early 1920’s, which looked at social conditions in the year 1920-21, framed by two parades, and charting the drastic changes in social conditions as the aftermath of war, and the terrible impact of the Spanish Flu epidemic, took it’s toll on the economy, creating massive employment and poverty. (it is doubly strange to write of this now, as the world struggles under similar stresses)
The young people rose to the challenge, undertaking personal research, talking to family members, reading, creating new characters and story lines which reflected these momentous times, and responding with great maturity to telling what was at times a very bleak story, which we left improvised and unscripted in order to get the most natural and vibrant performances. We wound up taking the show to the Bristol Old Vic, as part of a community festival, and this was quite an occasion for the young people, and their family members who travelled down from Kingswood to see them. The play set in motion a train of thought which would lead eventually to the Kingswood Community Play project in 1995.
Kingswood Youth Theatre carried on to create and produce a wide range of shows over the next decade, including ‘It’s your Funeral’, ‘There’s a war on You know’ ‘All right Now’ finally closing in the late 90’s. I’m still in touch with several of the members including Ben Searle, who kept the group going for some years independent of acta, the novelist Matt Thorne, and Fleur Darkin, who is a nationally renowned choreographer and Artistic Director.
I said at the beginning of this that it’s one of the privileges of the job to get feedback from participants, but actually, the privilege is to have spent time with them, to have shared adventures, the excitement of creativity, and the satisfaction and exhilaration of achievement and success; those golden moments when everything comes together, that after weeks of bouncing to Kingswood in a rackety van, a giant spiders leg can burst for the back of a set to thrill and startle an unsuspecting audience. Priceless.