A whizz through some of the plays that have shaped my theatrical life on the Isle of Wight.
I am a Drama Teacher and theatre maker…
Every year, when my Year 13 students prepare for the visit from their external examiner to watch their final scripted piece (the best bit of any Drama course), I think back to playing Billy, the abusive father who is killed by his wife and two daughters, in my A Level performance of Shelagh Stephenson’s hard-hitting play, Five Kinds of Silence. It was back in 2008 or 09 at Cowes High School under the amazing guidance of our teachers Donna Steele and Liz Segal in a room at the back of the school hall. It was a tough play dealing with incredibly challenging issues but we worked hard to create an authentic and impactful piece. The set consisted of wonky shelves (that I had decided to make out of discarded pieces of wood found in my Grandma’s garage) stocked with unusual objects (also found in said shed) and a piece of transparent plastic we stuck to the side of a desk for our makeshift police station. We were a tight cast, tackling this play head on and challenging each other to give more and more in our performances. It was an incredible experience and a bold performance of this in-yer-face play.
In the same year, Helen Reading (artistic director of RedTIE Theatre Company) asked if I would direct the play for a couple of performances at the Quay Arts Centre, Newport.
Working with RedTIE, I loved the intimacy of rehearsals. We were rehearsing in attic rooms, front rooms, church halls, anywhere we could find. It was up close. It was intense. There was a real sense of collaboration between actor, director and the text. There was a sense of trust, a constant discovery of ideas from the text and an openness to play around with it. Helen taught me how to really get to know a play. We were immersed in it. It was constantly on our minds and in everything we spoke about for the whole rehearsal process. We’d be up until the wee-hours stood around the butcher’s block in the middle of her kitchen dissecting every line, thought, pause, character and action. This is something I have always tried to replicate in the rehearsal rooms of the plays I have directed and I continue to believe that those discussions are far more important than the simple blocking of scenes. Get to know your play.
We presented this show in a double bill with Harold Pinter’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’ where I got to see Colin Ford (or Lord Ford as I affectionately call him) deliver a stellar performance alongside Steve Reading and directed by Marlyn Ford. The reaction from the audience after this evening of powerful, provocative and extremely impactful theatre was phenomenal. Bold programming from RedTIE and the Quay Arts.
It is worth saying at this point, one of the reasons Helen gave this play to me to direct was that I had been rejected by another theatre for being ‘too young’ to direct a light 1960s comedy. It is also worth mentioning that I did go on to win the award for ‘Best Director’ at the Isle of Wight Amateur Theatre Awards (thanks John) for Five Kinds of Silence.
In my speech, I said ‘this proves the young people can do it’ and is something I still staunchly believe. On the amateur stage there is still a reluctance to allow young people to take on the ‘big jobs’ in theatre but their voice is essential in keeping theatre bold, fresh and alive. Written a play? Find an opinionated teenager to read it and give you pages and pages of feedback. Performing in a play? Find an opinionated teenager to dissect your character for hours afterwards. Directing a play? Find an opionated teenger to question every single decision you have made. We need them in theatre and they should be given the opportunities to flourish.
I moved off-island in 2009 to study Theatre Producing at London South Bank University. An incredible experience and one fuelled mainly by nightly trips to the theatre and £2.50 bottles of wine from the 24 hour shop next to my halls. The National Theatre had always been my Lourdes or Mecca, having made monthly trips up using my Entry Pass card as a 16, 17, 18 year old and falling in love with the vast variety of theatrical performances. Toby Jones in ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’, Rory Kinnear in ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’, Vanessa Redgrave in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, War Horse. In 2009, I saw a play (five times, in fact) that would have an enormous impact on me… ‘Mother Courage And Her Children’ with Fiona Shaw. I discovered Epic Theatre.
I directed Helen Reading in ‘Mother Courage’ in 2010 and was so proud of the hugely talented ensemble cast we pulled together for the show. It was a big change for RedTIE to move away from the small cast, intimate and intense dramas to this massive production. Mick Smith, the then director of the Quay, wrote an original score. A wagon was found. Helen was stunning in the title role. The show was a huge sell-out success and the whole experience felt fantastic. If I am completely honest, I wish I was bolder in my own direction of the play. Visually, it was too close to Debroah Warner’s production in the Olivier and I wish I had put more of my own take on it. Perhaps I will return to it one day… But the thing I learnt most from Mother Courage was to be ambitious. To aim high and know it will be okay if you don’t quite hit it.
In 2011, I directed Colin Ford in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. He blew me away in his final performance with his striking level of detail, his tenderness and his comic timing. We are incredibly lucky to have some highly talented performers here. Colin and Helen are both titans of the Island stage and constantly have this drive to better themselves and deliver outstanding performance after outstanding performances. Both Helen and Colin do a lot of thinking about the character and the play in advance of rehearsals. They both come to rehearsals with so much already researched and mulled over. As a director, I am there to provoke them, to challenge their ideas and ultimately to make them feel at ease with the text. In Krapp’s Last Tape, Colin doesn’t speak for the first 15 minutes of the play. He held the audience in the palm of his hand for the whole time. He elicited awkward titterings of laughter from the audience at exactly the moment he wanted them. He kept them on the verge of tears towards the end of the play. “How do you manage it, she said, at your age? I told her I’d been saving up for her all my life.”
I directed a production of Macbeth in the Crypt at Aspire in Ryde. A return to the EPIC. I was determined to put my own take on Shakespeare’s haunting tragedy and in a bold and exciting staging. I assembled an all-female cast, had the witches as ‘Pussy Riot’ protestors, used multimedia, puppetry, and a variety of stage configurations that put the audience as part of the action. I loved it. It was ambitious, it didn’t always hit the mark but it was a brave production. It was a sell-out success. Lots of people were raving about how good it was. Lots of people absolutely hated it. There is something quite exciting about dividing an audience like that. Yes, of course there are lots of things I might do differently if I get the chance to direct it again but I think I feel that about all the plays I have worked on. I am very proud of this one.
Finally, on my little trail through the plays that have shaped my experience in theatre making on the Isle of Wight… One Man, Two Guvnors. The Richard Bean comedy that made me really fall in love with performing. I approached Shanklin Theatre to see if we could perform this show back in 2016 and they gave us a series of Mondays in June and July. I played the role of Franics ‘Confidential’ Henshall under the direction of Fiona Gwinnett. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The high energy laugh a second production had me eating chicken balls, letters, hummus sandwiches and dancing around in an Irish accent. Holly Downer played the role of Dolly, my character’s love interest, and we still quote this play on an almost daily basis and often trot out the ‘Bench Scene’ for our students. We were asked to return to Shanklin Theatre in the autumn and the fun continued with a few cast tweaks. There is nothing that compares to the buzz you get from coming off stage after performing something like that. The show was tremendous fun to produce, we had a great laugh rehearsing it and the performances were something very special.
Plenty more stories about ‘The Long Road’, ‘The Children’s Hour’, ‘Penelope’, ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Pantomonium’ and ‘Really Old, Like Forty-Five’ but I’ll leave those for another day!
I have been incredibly lucky to have had so many plays that have helped to shape me into the theatre maker I am today. So many wonderful experiences with so many wonderful people. Long may it continue.
This is the third in a series of “Raising The Curtain” posts, thank you Joe!
If you would like to share an Island theatre story, to reminisce, let us know. We look forward to sharing your contributions.