I think I’ll have to be in it

Mother Ice Heart

18th June 2020

“I think I’ll have to be in itCommunity theatre is full of challenges, not the least being the constant possibility that when a play has been suggested, discussed, devised, rehearsed, and ready to present, something will happen to prevent one of the cast members performing. It doesn’t always happen; but it happens often enough. It’s just part of the experience, something we’ve come to expect. In the end, acta is constantly working with people who are doing something extremely time-consuming, demanding and downright scary – making theatre and performing – often for the first time.

Although it’s fair to say that that participants don’t drop out because the nerves get to them – that, to be honest, is relatively rare. It’s more often the case that the demands of family life, illness, getting a new job, etc make it impossible for people to be in the play – often at the last-est of last minutes. There have been so many occasions with our young carers youth theatre work, for example, when on the actual evening of the performance a group member has been unable to perform because of something urgent happening just minutes before the show is due to start! It’s at that point that the Directors’ growing sense of panic at their non-arrival – ‘where are they?’ – turns into something more calm and controlled as the professional response kicks in. In the case of the Young Carers, this usually involves Ingrid, or more often Deb, one of our freelance Facilitators, cramming themselves into a costume, and muttering the lines to themselves backstage. (One of my favourite acta memories is our Creative Producer, Sara Snook, have to take a last-minute role as a spiteful school girl in a Bedminster Youth Theatre show, and being spot on perfect from the moment she flounced onstage – although to be fair her young companions struggled to stifle their giggles.)

Of course, the bottom line is that acta workers don’t want to be in the play, not because they hate performing, (some of them love it – see above, Ingrid enjoying Mother Iceheart) but because the whole idea for acta is that people from the community should create and perform their own play, tell their own stories, use their own words. Having to step in, and play the part of someone else, denies that aspect of the work. But it is sometimes unavoidable, in order to make the play happen for all the other performers who have worked so hard and are looking forward to performing to the audience. So, you do it. ‘The show must go on’ – is actually a painfully true adage.

There’s also an argument that sometimes having a more experienced community performer onstage with first time performers, really helps them: settles their nerves and brings out their confidence. We’ve certainly found this on many occasions, although I’ve always strenuously opposed any ideas of having professional actors along side community performers, as I believe that this would undermine their confidence – “he doesn’t think we’re good enough to do this on our own”! It’s a fine distinction, I know, but the important thing is that everyone is in the same boat, that there is equality, everyone is treated the same. It’s just that sometimes people appreciate a bit of support; especially the first time they perform.

We worked for a number of years in the Upper Horfield area of Bristol, developing a range of smaller projects which led to a large-scale community play. This was an area where there was little or no tradition of theatre – not a youth theatre, not even a local am dram group – and it was a very hard task to get people to commit to performance – though they were very good at sharing their stories. In the event, we did get a large cast of all ages together, and rehearsed the show mostly in smaller groups, with only a few key moments through the play when everyone was onstage at the same time. When the first night came, there was an extraordinarily high level of nerves, which was only made worse when one of the performers was ill and couldn’t attend. ‘It’s okay’, I said, ‘I’ll take his place’. So, show started, everyone on stage slowly, a scene of the community, an opening song (which didn’t go too badly, with most people remembering words). Song stopped and dialogue was then meant to begin – and nothing. The opening line unsaid, the cast froze, and stared helplessly out into the lights. A real ‘rabbits in headlights’ moment – as if the whole cast had just realised that they were actually there, and there was actually an audience watching them be there! It was a stroke of luck that I was onstage, and that I remembered the first line, and who was meant to say it, and I was able (in character) to remind them of what they had to say, then the next person remembered their line, then the next, and the play began to lurch into action. Then we got a laugh, and the cast began to relax, and the scene, and then the whole play, rolled on to its end, and a justified round of applause. So all was well; but, oh, that first moment of bewildered panic!

One of the wonderful things about having to step in at the last moment is being with the community performers backstage, and seeing it all from their perspective – the other side of the curtain. It’s good to remember what it is you’re asking people to do! I’ve experienced this a number of times during my years at acta – and I’ve ‘had to be in it’ more times than I can remember. Most recently, when we were touring Gas Girls for the second time in 2017, I had to stand in for one of the performers who was unable to do the final two performances. He had been very clear about this from the beginning – it was a long-standing holiday booking – but I was so keen for him to take part that I agreed to understudy him. I agreed! What was I thinking? So, it wasn’t a last-minute thing at all – I knew all about it, I’d agreed to it, but I was surprised at how nervous I felt – only 10 lines or so, and I had written the script, so why so worried?

We were performing in Weston Super Mare, at an old church refurbished as a performance venue. We had to make adjustments to the staging, we didn’t have that long to get in, and little time to rehearse with the set. Everyone in the cast was chatty, joking, catching up with each other; and I was getting a bit concerned; I really wanted the show to work in this new venue. But as soon as we gave everyone the standby, the mood changed completely, and I was amazed, and so impressed with the smooth professionalism of the cast as they coped with the new stage, the difficulties with waiting spaces, being ready and prepared for their entrances, checking their props and costumes, helping each other out, and, most of all, looking after me, and making sure I knew when to come on, where to stand, what I had to take on with me. Now, I had devised, written and co-directed the show, I should have been okay, but I was so grateful for their care and consideration as they guided me through the play.

It was so nice to be in the hands of people who knew what they were doing!

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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.

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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!