RAISING THE CURTAIN #1: “Two Planks, and a Wardrobe Malfunction” by Olly Fry

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You don’t even get paid anything?!

Isn’t it just for kids…or the elderly?

Isn’t it pretentious?

Isn’t it boring?

Isn’t it just…a bit rubbish?

These, and more, have been some of the questions that I’ve been asked when doing Amateur Theatre, right here on the Isle of Wight and indeed on the mysterious mainland by friends, colleagues, parents, grandparents and even casual people in coffee shops and supermarkets, maybe staring at a poster just put up advertising the fourth time “Oliver Twist” because its December and none of these companies ever really organise around each other that well.

Amateur Theatre, particularly here on the Isle of Wight, has been a great part of my growing up life, and even now, after being part of some semi pro/professional theatre jobs and tours, continues to today. From the age of 17 when I joined the Apollo Theatre in Newport, its honestly been the setting of many coming-of-age moments, the place where many friendships have been formed, where relationships have been started, moments of absolute side splitting funny-as-hell moments that I still laugh about today. Many anecdotes of wisdom have been passed either on-stage, off-stage in that centre of banter that is The Dressing Room, and of course, over many a pint in the pub after a great performance. It’s taught me about life, about working with people, about being passionate and going the extra mile to make something that means a lot to you. It’s shown me a multitude of people types and how they all align in the pursuit of making Peter Pan with some fairy lights and wooden sticks or working away for months on musicals, all so you can hit notes you never dreamed of hitting.

It’s pushed me physically as well as mentally further sometimes then I wanted to, its caused one or two sleepless nights worrying on lines/dialogue or working with people I wasn’t quite so keen on. I have seen things on stage that despite often rudimentary props, basic lighting and costumes held together with tape and crossed fingers that genuinely have moved me to tears… in short I owe it a lot.

And so dear reader, if ever you have asked any of the above questions then I want this series of blog posts to be your answer. I want this to let you hear straight from the horse’s mouth (Panto Horse of course).

Why it is that this scene has such a devoted following and why it is important …and most importantly, why it will continue to be so?

And so this is why this needs to be made. A collection of these flashpoints, these moments of brilliance, of comedy, of tragedy. All to be enjoyed courtesy of friends and fine actors all round of this humble Island Theatre troupe. From the Panto Exploits of The Wight Strollers, to Classics, to new original work home-brewed right here on this little rock, read on and come see why, as Shakespere did say “The Play is the Thing”

The Apollo Theatre in Newport has been a hub for drama for fifty years. Located in Pyle Street Newport it originally was a Methodist Chapel before it was bought by John Hancock and now is staffed by a team of dedicated hardworking volunteers. Their output is prolific, they find time to make seven shows a year, ranging vastly in tone, casts and themes and can hold claim to having one of the most extensive wardrobe collections on the Isle.

So I was, politely putting it, bricking it when I asked to join in my teenage years and auditioned for their Christmas production, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen (Take that Frozen, Disney owe them some serious royalties!)

To be honest, my reason for joining was as far removed from some creative quest for artistic betterment as can possibly be, I actually joined because a girl at High School I had a huge crush on was a member, and due to the endless quest of Theatre Companies needing more younger men, recommended me in all my gangly nervous self to be perfect for the job. As I was far too socially awkward to even emote my entirely unrequited feelings and I literally had nothing better to do, I decided to jump into theatre in the hope that the rehearsal process would bring us closer (It didn’t) and the casting of her brother in the play (instant friend zoning) would make her see me in a new light.

I loved the process, I loved the closeness of the cast and the fact everyone was so supportive and eager to help you, something I always will champion as I feel sometimes there is a notion that Amateur Theatre is all filled with backstabbing and people mumbling how rubbish you are as “third tree from the left” under their breath whilst having a cigarette outside the Theatre, I’m glad to tell you it has always been quite the contrary…..they shout

I’m joking.

Anyway so the play was fun and a good time largely was had by all. A sweet lady called Paddy Croydon-Fowler taught me to sing at her house, and the motley crew of cast and technicians put on a thoroughly decent, winter warming piece on a Sister’s quest to save her Brother from Elsa from Frozen….or something or other. So it was with great excitement I decided to do the next play, one penned by the late great Island Hollywood Director Anthony Mingella no less.

The play “Two Planks and a Passion(now we are back on target) was written in 1985 and cleverly tells the story of a medieval local theatre company putting on a show telling the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion.

Blending Comedy and Drama it had a great script and a large cast, I had a small part but it involved me working with a few great Island Actors including one Stuart Pointing, hairdresser and father to another talented Island Thesp Josh Pointing, and Graham Brown, poet and Arsenal fan, no arguments there.

One scene in particular involved Stuart and I dressing as Roman Soldiers as our “Characters” comically try to rehearse the main scene where the actor PLAYING Jesus is “Crucified”, the idea being that we cant remember our lines and are only doing it to get off work for a few days. This Meta-edge helped costuming as our togas needed to look shoddy so the wonderful Liz Santer did a superb job of conjuring up two “Life of Brian”-esque Roman togas to make both Stuart and I feel suitably ridiculous as we tried not to send Graham (Playing the bloke playing Jesus, seriously nuanced people) from falling somewhat un-scripted into the front row of the audience like some totem pole of terror.

However, upon recollection it appears there may have been a small miss labelling of exactly whose costume was who’s. Indeed Stuart, a stocky man of about 5ft 7 was gifted what was akin to a giant sleeping bag of a toga, whilst I (gangly and awkwardly 6ft 3) was given….a mini skirt.

Literally.

Coupled by this mix-up was, on my part, a disastrous choice of underwear. As at the time I was a thinly built (Late Developer), and so, without wishing to lower the tone of this analytical look at Theatre too much, suffice to say that I wore underwear you could describe as, a tad ill fitting.

Being but young and naive, as well as keen to just be a pro and get on with the scene, opening night came soon and with it, several bus loads of tourists that yearly visit this little isle. Yes “Maggie” from Aberystwyth, “Carol” from Barnstable, all came clutching their sticks of rock and ornamental tea towels, desperate to see a lovely heart-warming take on the Easter story, blissfully unaware of the sight that would be snaking its way towards them that night!

Also in attendance were several members of the Mingella Family, who shared ties to the Theatre and had come to mark the occasion of us putting on a play commemorating several years since Anthony Mingella had tragically passed away. Again, totally not ready for the malfunction incoming!

So the play passes by without a hitch, everyone was on it! People laughed, sighed cried in pretty much the right places, and my little scene with Stuart and Graham came all too soon. As it was dialogue heavy we were instructed to sit on stage while we delivered lines before a stirring monologue would be delivered by Graham echoing the struggle of Christ and showing the earnestness of these players from hundreds of years ago, coming together to mark a sacred holiday…..undercutting this poignant moment however was my ill advised choice to sit on stage legs open….

…facing the audience, …

….it wasn’t until Graham began his speech that I heard a faint titter….before he’d finished the first paragraph I could hear sighs and laughter, halfway through and there was audible whispering and laughing…I could not however work it out, come on everyone, this is a serious moment…then sadly my eyes fell upon the director, sitting at the end of the front row. Angry, angrier then you are picturing, mouthing at me to close my legs?…..close my legs?…close my OHHHHHH!

…..Needless to say, parts of my anatomy made their debut that night, and rest also assured that the mockery I received was well dealt out. But, to end this little tale on a happy note, it only went in my eyes towards adding to the earnestness of the performance.

Like our Medieval predecessors, we aren’t all Drama School trained, we are all trade-people who work in offices, hospitals, building sites or schools but creatively, our minds and souls came together to make a Theatre show that genuinely moved people. As Graham finished his long talk people were stunned into silence, there on a cross was an honest reminder of all Easter stands for, I am no Christian but neither am I denying the power of that moment, a real earnest moment in a lot of tomfoolery. Good writing there Anthony!

So yes, there is my little tale to kick things off, proving you always need to wear appropriate underwear at all times, whoever we are.

….A rule not just for Theatre….but for life itself.


by Olly Fry.


This is the first in a series of “Raising The Curtain” posts, thank you Olly!
If you would like to share an Island theatre story, to reminisce, let us know. We look forward to sharing your contributions.

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