What is the purpose of theatre?

A little while ago (ten years to be precise) I auditioned for a very well known theatre company to be a part of one of their young adult productions. It involved writing a monologue about your take on the word “tragedy”. So desperate was I to work with this company that I quickly penned a short monologue about the trails and tribulations of performing in an amateur dramatics group. It was a funny little piece about always getting stuck in the chorus and the backstabbing between the leads. Hardly Pinter but a fairly jovial piece that (in my humble opinion) looked at what tragedy could mean without descending into tales of sorrow and woe.

I was beyond excited to be asked to audition for the company at their main site and travelled south to meet the other auditionees for the full day workshop. They all seemed pretty nice, if slightly more self assured than I was. We played some warm up games and it became obvious that a good 75% of them were currently at drama school so already knew the inner workings of ‘Zip Zap Boing’ and eye contact games that made me want to do anything but make eye contact.

It was then announced we would all audition in front of each other which immediately filled me with horror. One after another everyone stood up and delivered their monologue…they were all very earnest and soul bearing. I started to wonder why on earth I’d been asked along in the first place. After each monologue they were asked a question by the panel of three which consisted of an older, respected lady (naming no names) and two younger directors – one male and one female.

It was then time for me to get up and do my monologue. To say I was shitting it would be an understatement. I did the monologue as best I could, trying to be funny and desperately trying to remember it was them who had invited me to audition for them in the first place. I got a lacklustre clap at the end. Now time for the questioning:

Older, respected lady: Kate, what do you think the purpose of theatre is?

 Me (without hesitation): To entertain.

A gasp went around the room and the older, respected lady looked shocked whilst her two director friends smirked at each other. Then everyone started to snigger amongst themselves.

Older, respected lady: But don’t you think it is about so much more than that?

Me: Well…err…yeah…I mean it can…do other stuff like erm…

Director 1: Ok thank you Kate, you can sit down.

As you’re probably guessing, I didn’t get the gig. For years afterwards it annoyed me every time I thought of the reaction I’d got when I’d said entertainment was the purpose of theatre. Why had it been so shocking and laughable that I’d thought that? I reasoned I must have got it really badly wrong and that I needed to quickly find out what the agreed purpose of theatre was before talking to another theatre professional again.

However ten years later I still believe that the purpose of theatre is to entertain. I have been to lots of plays – West End and Fringe- where it is clear that at no point during the rehearsal process the director has looked at the production and thought to themselves ‘yes but will an audience be entertained by this?’. Entertainment to me means thinking of your audience not yourself.

I have been entertained by the saddest plays, the funniest plays, the most violent plays, the scariest plays, the silliest plays, the most frivolous plays and the most thought provoking plays. The key ingredient being that no matter what the subject, the production has been created with me, the audience member, in mind.

I would love to have the conversation with the old, respected lady from the theatre company again and ask her why she believed the purpose of theatre WASN’T to entertain? But alas, my seventeen-year-old self wasn’t quite so self-assured.

Any thoughts from the public at large? What do you think the purpose of theatre is? Give me your comments!

Panto Season!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and that can only mean one thing…panto season has officially begun!

This got me to thinking about my childhood panto experiences and it’s safe to say my junior schools annual trip to the panto was one of the highlights of my year as a child. Excitedly boarding the bus to take us up to the Sunderland Empire (showing my Northern roots here!), sitting on the red velvet seats, eating all the sweets your mum gave you before it started and then that booming voiceover announcing “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” and the curtains opened and all sorts of hilarity ensued (including everyone going berserk when hard sweets were thrown into the audience)

My absolute favourite panto involved Jet and Cobra from Gladiators (firm favourites) being joined by The Krankies in Aladdin. It’s one of my earliest memories of thinking ‘I want to work in theatre!’ – particularly if it meant I got to work with Jet and Cobra. However, the worst panto I went to was a version of Jack and the Beanstalk where an aging TV star had been cast in one of the key roles. Even as a child I felt genuinely concerned for his health as he looked like he’d just done a stint on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here living on rice and beans for three weeks. Even now I question his suitability for such a role and it really highlighted just how hard work panto is – I mean, you’re singing and dancing throughout the entire Christmas period AND start of the New Year. Most of us only manage that for one day over the festive season!

Despite my childhood love of panto’s I’ve never been to see one of the ‘adult pantos’ that frequent the London fringe scene at Christmas time. A quick look on the Timeout website reveals a particular trend for including the word “booty” in the title so as to distinguish it’s adult content. However I’m determined to broaden my horizons this year and the mission to find the best adult panto has officially begun…now!

PS. Oh no it hasn’t! Oh yes it has! He’s behind youuuuuu!!

PPS. Will be interested to see how the above phrases work in an ‘adult’ pantomime! Oh matron!

Henry IV – Donmar – Review

As you’ll know by now I was extremely excited to go and see Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse and just over a week ago I got my act together to buy one of the £10 tickets that are released every Monday.

I arrived at the theatre with about 15 minutes to spare to be met by a ‘guard’ at the door who ushered me upstairs only to be then met by another ‘guard’ who pointed out my seat. Knowing the play was over two hours without an interval I searched around for a toilet only to be met with double doors stating DO NOT ENTER. Time was ticking so I went back to the prison guard and asked where the loos were only to be pointed towards the DO NOT ENTER double doors! Slightly unglamorous start to proceedings but needs must!!

I did wonder how the ushers must feel having to dress up in prison guard uniforms for every show and, I assume, take on the character of a prison official. Do they enjoy it? I know a few theatre bods who do ushering work to keep the cash-flow going and pondered how much they may have got into character before selling their programmes and showing hapless people like me where the toilets were!

Anyway back to the show – the Donmar space was suitably kitted out to look like your average women’s prison – think harsh lighting, bare brick walls, plastic seats, you get the picture. Just before the start of the show a ‘prison guard’ who I’m not sure was the stage manager, an usher, an actor or even Josie Rourke herself came on stage and informed us that the actress playing Hotspur had been in a serious accident and would have limited mobility so could we all be understanding. An image of someone being wheeled on in a full body cast flashed through my mind. After the ‘prison guard’ left the stage a loud buzzer went off and the cast entered in grey prison uniforms (sweatpants and sweatshirts) – Hotspur had broken her arm which didn’t look too limiting until later in the play when I realised she was meant to swing off a metal pole, do press ups and participate in a boxing match! Lots of respect to Jade Anouka for making it work without showing an ounce of pain.

So. To the show. I liked the concept of a play within a play, it was a good framing device and lent itself nicely to power struggle theme, particularly the female power struggles you must get in such institutions. It was also great to see female actors play some of Shakespeare’s most masculine roles and for it not to feel like a gimmick. Very quickly you forgot you were watching ‘women play men’ and found yourself engrossed in the action – much like when I’ve watched the all-male Propeller productions of Shakespeare.

Having seen Harriet Walter play Cleopatra and Beatrice previously it was a joy to see her as the formidable King Henry. The way she delivers her lines is very interesting, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. It’s something to do with her inflection and does not have the super ‘naturalistic’ feel to it that the other performers had which made her stand out even more. Her role was not as large as some of the others but when she was on stage you felt like you were watching a different level of acting and you certainly sensed she was the one with authority. I’ve read reviews that pondered what her character had been sent down for and I must admit I thought the same thing! Perhaps if Dame Harriet is reading this blog (ha!) maybe she’d like to disclose?

Another enjoyable performance came from Ashley McGuire as Falstaff – nicely proving that women can indeed play the fool and in some ways, bring even more layers to this particular role than I have seen some men do. You felt that this female Falstaff used humour to mask so many other issues and you only just scraped the surface of her many complexities. On top of that she was also genuinely funny and had a good rapport with the audience. Once again I was fascinated to know what her ‘prison’ character was in there for.

The only element I wasn’t too sure about was the almost Brechtian way the “real life” prison world interrupted the action, often at very key dramatic moments. Perhaps because it only happened a couple of times it came as a rather unwelcome surprise and it was also slightly awkward to see the actors pretending to corpse on stage and/or get distracted from the action – something all professional actors would rather die a horrible death than do mid-performance (ok I exaggerate but you get the picture). However, if this had been used as a device throughout and the audience not only got to know the characters of Henry IV but also the women of the prison it might have been a more welcome addition.

Apart from that slight niggle I really enjoyed the production, the ending in particular was very strong (I won’t give the details away) and it made me slightly wish there had been a few more powerful moments like this in the show. I imagine that a lot of work went into establishing the prisoners back stories and I left the show feeling like I would have liked to have had more of a sense of who these women were so as to further understand the impact performing this play must have had on them.

This is a production being performed at a premier London theatre where I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say a full house is guaranteed for every show. However, I really hope it paves the way for other all female productions – be it Shakespeare or otherwise – as it really does highlight the many different layers a female performer can bring to a role, and how the energy of an all female company can produce a truly engaging and different piece of theatre.

Vanity projects – the future of Fringe?

Vanity projects – the blight of the London Fringe scene? Quite possibly. Most actors and directors will have a story about a less than favourable experience working on a production that ends up being a total farce. And whilst these stories of woe are often hilarious to share over a few glasses of wine it is often a sad reflection of where the London Fringe scene is slowly heading.

For those not familiar with your typical theatrical vanity project, here are few examples of the most common ones –

1) An actor/writer/producer combo looking for a director to direct them in a play they’ve written themselves, which they will also act in and are also producing (i.e. funding). They already have a set idea about how they want the play to be staged so the director is always a slightly pointless addition to the process. Notes are never taken on board and any suggestion to cut the script is met with cries of anguish. Chaos ensues.

2) Director/producer combo who has been desperate to stage a particular play and is looking for a cast to be involved no pay. Director usually overworks the actors and has little appreciation of time. Play usually makes no profit. Actors plot the demise of director and possibly report them to Equity.

3) Actor/producer combo who has been desperate to play a particular role in a play and is looking for a director to be involved for no pay. Play is usually Hamlet. Actor can’t understand why director can’t turn them into Laurence Olivier. Play usually makes no profit. Director plots the demise of actor and tries to blacklist them amongst director friends.

4) Director/actor combo looking for a producer and/or assistant director to ‘fundraise’ money for their show because they can’t be bothered to do so themselves. No money is offered up front and no money is ever made, in fact, the show itself is often never staged! This leaves the hapless producer/AD feeling totally despondent about the whole industry and considering a career in telemarketing.

In all of the above examples it becomes clear that making a profit is not the driving force in most vanity project’s and unfortunately in these tough times for theatre makers if there’s no profit there’s no way of making this career work.

Whilst it may not be as artistically satisfying, if I was involved in a so called ‘vanity project’ but was being paid equity minimum I would probably just suck it up and get on with it. But unfortunately, when no money is involved – either in an upfront payment or in the form of a genuine profit share – then you just end up feeling like you’ve been used and got nothing out of it (and you can’t afford your rent/heating/food/travel card to boot).

However, I’ve also been on the other side when I’ve produced plays with my own theatre company and known the extreme financial difficulties there are in staging a play and actually getting people to come and see it. Spearshaker Theatre has always been adamant we don’t want to be a company for vanity productions, however because of so many up front costs we have often been forced to offer profit share payments for the majority of our shows.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle in today’s fringe scene. On the one hand you have small theatre companies that genuinely want to stage a show with artistic credibility and make enough money to pay everyone a fair wage. However their costs are so high and bums on seats are so hard to achieve they often end up in the red by the end of the run and unable to pay the actors involved.

And then of course you do just get your out and out vanity project and heaven help you if you end up getting involved in one of them – though you will be able to join in the drunken hilarity of ‘worst show you’ve ever done’ and that’s something isn’t it??

So what is the answer? In all honestly I really don’t know. You can’t stop someone with money putting on a theatre show, and you could also argue that no-one is forcing an actor or director to give their time to a production where there is no money upfront. However, in an industry where even larger more established theatres are inviting people to work for free (that’s a whole other blog post!) your hands end up being tied if you want to have anything recent on your CV.

I am always genuinely interested to hear people’s opinions on this subject – whether you work in theatre or not, so please do comment if you have anything to say as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Hunger Games….on stage?

I read with interest this week that the Hunger Games films are set to become a stage show. I immediately scoffed at the prospect of yet another film being turned into a theatre show and wrote it off within the first minute of finishing the article.

However, it then got me thinking back to the time I saw The Lord Of The Rings: The Musical when I was a student in 2007. A friend and I had been trying to get day seats to Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth but had been turned away quite unceremoniously by the box office staff (apparently we were crazy to think day seats would be available!) so we started trawling the West End to try and get a cheap seat for any show going. We chanced upon the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and managed to secure £20 front row seats to The Lord Of The Rings:The Musical.

We settled down in Row A and braced ourselves for an absolute turkey. I think it’s fair to say the script was pretty weak and, having never been much of a fan of the genre at the best of times, the way the three books were condensed into three hours felt like you were trying to get through all plot-lines at a lightning pace. However, the sheer spectacle of it – the set, the acrobatic performers, the revolving stage that you thought Galadriel might fall off in her platform shoes – was unlike anything I had ever seen before. There seemed to be a cast of thousands, all of whom appeared to be able to do the most impressive physical tricks and the big budget spectacle of sounds, lighting and projection was totally mesmerising. You almost forgot you were watching Hobbits trying to sing!.

Actually one of my favourite musical numbers comes from this show, it’s a song by Galadriel sung by Laura Michelle Kelly and was just stunning to see and hear live, link here.

My friend and I both came out of the theatre three hours later and both concluded that actually, all things considered, it had been pretty good! It certainly hadn’t got the pretensions of some of the other big musicals in the West End and we felt like we’d had quite good bang for our buck (which I suppose we should have done considering it was the most expensive show ever staged in the West End!)

Sadly the Lord Of The Rings closed early amid dwindling audiences and very mixed reviews. It was a shame but somewhat inevitable as the audiences who went expecting the film would be disappointed, the West End tourist audience would probably rather see Les Mis (nothing wrong with that) and the theatre buffs like yours truly would immediately scoff at the idea of even staging it in the first place.

So with this in mind, I will try and reign in my eye rolling about the Hunger Games. Once again I’ve not seen any of the films, though I have a general idea of the plotline, and once again I can smell the turkey wafting from the wings but I shall hold back on trashing it until I’ve got myself a front row day seat!

Ticket success :)

The time is 10.50am on Monday 3rd November and I have a sudden thought…. Barclays Front Row tickets at The Donmar! If you’ve read my first blog post you’d know that I have an uncanny knack of forgetting each Monday about the Donmar’s front row scheme. However, prompted by my previous blog post I logged on just before 11am and managed to secure the last ticket available to Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry VI!  I’m seeing the matinee performance on Saturday 22nd November and have a seat on the front row of the circle. I couldn’t have been more excited and let out a resounding “wooooo hoooo!” when I got the confirmation email. I will be sure to blog my review of the show after I’ve seen it – fingers crossed it’s good!

Strangely the only other show I’ve managed to get a ticket for at the Donmar was also a front row seat! Quite amazing considering it’s almost impossible to get any seat these days. It was a production of The Cut by Mark Ravenhill starring Ian McKellen and directed by Michael Grandage way back in 2006. I was looking for an arty place to go on a date with my then boyfriend (now husband) and brazenly called up the box office requesting two tickets to be told they’d had a cancellation and we could have two seats on the front row in the stalls! Unfortunately this gave me a false sense of security and ever since then such phone calls to The Donmar have been met with slight surprise that I would think I could get on the front row to one of the hottest tickets in town! Oh well!

Anyway, it was such an amazing play and also incredibly special to see Sir Ian so close up and realise just what a good stage actor he is. As far as I’m aware the play hasn’t been staged since (please correct me if I’m wrong) but if it does ever come back to the West End I’d absolutely recommend you try and see it – just don’t expect a front row seat unless you actually are Sir Ian McKellen!

Open Your Eyes

A friend of mine invited me to come and watch a production being staged by her friends theatre company, The Off-Off-Off Broadway Company. The show was a chilling tale, a-la Woman In Black, entitled Peaceful and was on the Etcetera Theatre in Camden.

Arriving a little earlier than the 9.30pm start I found my friend deep in conversation with two guys from a band called The Ancient Order. We were then introduced to the rest of the band and found out that they had just played a set at Wembley as part of David Ike’s ‘Live At Wembley’. They had come over from Canada and it was their first time in London so I was eager to find out their impressions of the City – so far so good (though they weren’t so sure about where they were staying in Elephant & Castle!). They were all fun characters and it was really nice to talk to some fellow creatives about the industry we call ‘entertainment’ and the highs and lows we all go through trying to make it “big”. They were heading off to the World’s End in Camden so no doubt they had an enjoyable night!

It was then time to watch the play, a three hander running at just under an hour in the cosy Etcetera Theatre. The play followed Ethel Charles, an old woman living in a large spooky mansion, hiding from a ghost she believes is haunting her. I won’t give too much more of the plot away but it’s safe to say that the company were very successful in creating a tense atmosphere and despite the lack of set, you could absolutely visualise the large rambling house with endless corridors and creaky floorboards through the subtle use lighting and sound.

It was a pleasure to see a Fringe show that was so tightly crafted and featured good writing and good acting and kept my attention the whole time. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future shows by the company.

After the enjoyable show I was faced by a not so enjoyable tube journey home – oh the joys of the Northern line! However, at Moorgate three men got on the train brandishing…a drum, a trumpet and a violin! They then proceeded to play a lively rendition of ‘When The Saints Come Marching In’ – it was so cheerful and uplifting and I was so disappointed to see not one other person smiling, clapping along or putting any change in the hat they were passing around. I gave a couple of quid and clapped when they finished, I even found myself shouting ‘Is nobody else going to clap?!’ (I’d like to point out not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips that night!) and one other woman feebly clapped and gave a ‘wooooo!’.

Theatre and performance can be found everywhere in London, yet it is also a city where people regularly close themselves off to all the wonderful little bits of theatre going on around them. From the band at the bar, to the show above the pub to the singers on the train – it’s all there if you open your eyes a little bit, and when you do open your eyes it’s incredibly exciting!

Donmar disaster!

The time is 12pm and I have a sudden thought – Barclays Front Row tickets at The Donmar! I scramble to get the website up and hopefully click on the link to find…all performances for the next 2 weeks sold out. Dammit! Since The Donmar Warehouse started the front row scheme I have managed to successfully forget every week that I needed to log on at 10am on a Monday morning for the chance of a ticket.

I’m particularly desperate to see the current show, Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV – an all female Shakespeare production starring Harriet Walter which follows on from the success of the all female Julius Caesar performed last year (another one I didn’t get a ticket for!)

I’m always incredibly excited when an all female Shakespeare is performed, particularly at such a major venue like The Donmar Warehouse. The very first show Spearshaker Theatre produced was an all female Midsummer Nights Dream and since then I’ve always kept a look out for other same sex Shakespeare productions. It’s safe to say that all female productions have been rather thin on the ground (though I have heard excellent things about Smooth Faced Gentlemen – I must catch their next show)

The Donmar’s Henry VI is set in a women’s prison and, from reading the description and reviews, becomes a play within a play when the women of the prison stage a production of one of Shakespeare’s finest (and most male dominated) works. It is a concept that some reviewers have not taken too well to, and the word ‘gimmick’ has been whispered more than once. Of course I’m in no position to review a show before I’ve seen it, so will reserve judgement until I get my backside into gear and log on at 10am next Monday for tickets! Watch this space!

New Production – “Good Girls/Saying Yes”

 

Good Girls / Saying Yes POSTER

Good Girls / Saying Yes Poster

Spearshaker Theatre present an evening of new writing, showcasing two one act plays by Perdita Stott and Lisa Cagnacci at The Etcetera Theatre in Camden from 14th-16th Feb 2014.

’Good Girls’ by Perdita Stott, directed by Alexandra Agnew. Three women tell their stories. They have never met but their lives are linked over the years as they consider what it means to feel safe, to feel fear and what makes a person strong. Their gender stereotypes are challenged as they face vulnerability and what it means to be – and who can be – a victim.

’Saying Yes’ by Lisa Cagnacci, directed by Kate Murphy. Lauren and Ellie have been happily dating for 6 years. However, when Lauren unexpectedly decides to propose to Ellie their whole relationship is thrown into jeopardy! A light-hearted drama about what commitment really means and how sure we have to be before taking ’the plunge’ into marriage.

Performance times: 14th and 15th Feb @ 9.30pm, 16th Feb @ 8.30pm
Total running time: 1h 10mins
Tickets: £10 available online at www.etceteratheatre.com or in person at the Box Office.
Theatre adress: Etcetera Theatre, 265 Camden High Street, London NW1 7BU. Nearest tube Camden Town.