The tinsel’s on the tree…

acta Christmas shows

As a child in the fifties and early sixties, my first experience of theatre (apart from various roles in Nativities, of course) was the panto at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. This is where I fell in love with theatre; all the magic, mystery and excitement, the way the audience buzz faded with the lights going down, the colours, the characters, the jokes, the boiled sweets hurled at the auditorium, the enjoyment of the live experience. It had a lasting effect on me.

acta’s mission has always been to get more people interested in theatre – making it, watching it, having ownership. But it’s not something that many people think is important, or relevant, to their lives. The thing is, that even if you never usually go to the theatre, Christmas is traditionally the one time we make an exception. As it was for my family in the fifties.

So given that, it’s not surprising that since acta began, the company has worked with communities and young people to make theatre for Christmas. More Christmas plays than we can count.

It began in the first year of acta operation, as I described in an earlier blog about the Peasedown panto in 1985. This kicked off a bit of a tradition, and we went on to do several Peasedown Christmas plays; Worzel’s Christmas Crisis – an original story inspired by the children’s books, featuring a robot scarecrow (don’t ask!); a new play, Do You Believe in Father Christmas? with naughty children’s disbelief in the old geezer causing him to disappear – all sorted out by the Magic Postbox (that was some costume!); and probably my favourite, an adaptation of the Snow Queen, with local community worker Penny McKissock being possibly a little too terrifying for comfort as the Snow Queen herself.

The show involved lots of local people of all ages; lots of local children, women from the estate, local workers, an adult literacy group. It was a very loose adaptation, and pretty dark in places, and quite chaotic to rehearse and stage. We performed in the local Youth Centre, a fairly new building, but with a tiny raised area as a stage, and a small activities room as the only backstage area; where we had to cram all the cast, props, costumes etc. Very busy and noisy and huge amounts of excitement.  The second half of the show included a Christmas feast which was brought on to distract the adventurers who were trying to stop the Snow Queen – I think she was trying to rule the world in some way (they usually are in these plays!) I was out front watching, in that curious mixed state of wonder and fear which inhabits every acta director on first nights, and when the time for the Christmas feast came, the performers brought out trays of empty plates, sandwich crusts and pastry crumbs; the children had eaten the feast in the interval.  The performers on stage adlibbed their way out of trouble; and the next night we made sure there was one feast for the children, and another, very clearly marked, as props.

The  Peasedown Christmas plays were a great way to engage people in making theatre for the first time, and this was really important in the development of the South Wansdyke Community Play, Our Batch, in 1989.

In the nineties, although our focus was on creating large-scale community plays, and work with people with learning difficulties,  we continued to make Christmas plays all over the old Avon area; in Batheaston, Southmead, South Bath, on the Bournville estate in Weston Super Mare. In 1998, we took over the estate with a huge event featuring a lantern parade, scores of aliens, fireworks, a performance in the church, and free food. (A brilliant night!)

It’s also worth noting the Lawrence Weston Christmas Community Play, Crackers; a massive undertaking with over a hundred performers and a tangled time-shift story; of which more another time.

From 2002, when we moved into our permanent base in Bedminster, we began to create Christmas theatre with local people on a regular basis. Two of these plays were created by our Advance group, Mother Iceheart and Goblin Silver, which we also took on tour around Bristol, to areas of the City where there was no theatre, to provide low-cost opportunities for local families to see high quality community theatre at Christmas.

Since 2011, we have presented an annual show in December at the actacentre, with our own set of traditions; new original stories; seasonal plays, NOT pantos; low-price tickets. These are some of my favourite acta shows out of the hundreds we’ve done, and I’ll probably write more about them later next year. The job of creating the Christmas play is zealously sought after by our resident groups; and staff members! There is something very special about crafting the Christmas play which everyone at acta loves; devising the story; designing the costumes and set; finding the music. Creating the magic, mystery and excitement that I so remember as a child, and presenting it to people who ‘don’t normally go to see plays’. Theatre is magical and special and belongs to everyone; especially at this time of year.

Tonight we open our latest show for Christmas: The Tree of Life. Downstairs the tinsel is on the tree, the lights are on in the bar, and the ice-cream freezer is stocked right up. Can’t wait!