This mammoth undertaking had its beginnings when people from Kingswood and Avon County Community Leisure saw ‘Our Batch’ in Radstock in 1989. acta was already working in Kingswood, having established the Kingswood Youth Theatre in 1986 to 93, creating eight original shows with young people from all over the area. So when we were approached by Avon County workers in May 1990 about the idea of creating a large-scale community show for the area, we were excited by the prospect of developing our ties with the area, and involving the youth theatre members with the wider community.
We immediately set about raising funds, and instigating a raft of smaller, pilot projects to involve different community groups; over the next two years we created shows with adults with learning difficulties at Kingswood RAC, women in Cadbury Heath, elderly people and children in Willsbridge, and two shows with the Youth Theatre – It’s your Funeral and ‘There’s a War on You Know’. This last was a reminiscence project that engaged lots of older people in the area telling their stories to the youth theatre members. It had a fantastic set by Joe Green, and we toured it around the area in May 1992.
By this time a steering committee had been set up, and the amazing Ruth Sidgwick, from Kingswood Borough Council, had become involved. Ruth eventually became Play Coordinator in Jan 1993, when the community play project began in earnest, and did a brilliant job throughout.
It was a great project, with scores of people involved in devising, coming up with a show which linked the controversial building of a ring road through the area with the lives of coal mining families in the 18th century, and the tragic events of the long-forgotten Corn riots in 1853.
Lots of people were discovering new things not only about their area, but about themselves and their neighbours, and most found themselves doing things they had never done before. Not the least the wonderful Graeme Riley, who was then Kingswood Head of Community Leisure for Avon County. We roped him in to be front of house manager; a task he took with his habitual professionalism and sense of fun, arriving every night with a full tuxedo and a welcoming smile. (Graeme is still connected to acta, as Chair of our Council of Management).
Rehearsals took place during the autumn, directed by Kez Margrie and myself with a cast of hundreds, and were massive fun, extremely daunting and occasionally alarming – I was called out of one to rush to the birth of my son Pete! In the meantime, a huge army of volunteers were involved in costume making, marketing and building a huge set with a long curling ramp and giant jigsaw pieces which completely transformed the Kingsfield School theatre where the show was staged. At the same time a scratch orchestra was assembled to play the original music written by my long-time friend and collaborator Robin Grant.
It wasn’t easy, by any means – the funding was particularly dicey, and although we had great support from Avon County and Kingswood Borough, it was only on the opening night that the project was saved by a last minute grant from the Foundation for Sports and the Arts.
The show was a true sell-out for all ten performances, and totally exhausting (I was a new dad, don’t forget), but the reaction of the audiences and the cast, was completely worth it. It spawned an independent group – Kingswood Community Theatre – who went on to do more shows, with many of the cast members continuing their involvement, especially stalwart acta supporter Ben Searle.
It isn’t all it spawned, as Wendy and Mike, two long-time acta participants and volunteers, met during the show, fell in love and got married. In fact, it was their visit to the actacentre this week which reminded me to write about this brilliant project.