Monday, 14 March 2011

The continuing adventures of Lancaster Theatre Uncut

This time last week, everything seemed to be coming together for the Lancaster group of Theatre Uncut volunteers. We had a great venue in a central location, a good friend and ally in LitFest, a network of supporters lending us everything from clown costumes to hospital beds and volunteering to ferry bits of set for us, usher on the night of the 19th, help publicize the event. We’d acquired an excellent and cheaply printable poster from The Secret Surface just for the asking, and Angela was back from a family wedding and able to apply her considerable administrative skills to my slapdash if energetic attempts to manage the event. We’d lost three directors and two actors to paying work and the demands of postgraduate study, but we’d managed to replace them by asking almost everyone we knew and howling our (make that my) despair on social networks.

One actor we found by such a convoluted, 21st century set of connections that I can’t resist telling you about it. My friend Emma is the bar manager at Manchester’s greenroom. She saw my facebook post announcing that we needed a young man to play Bill in Lucy Kirkwood’s Housekeeping. Because, of course, it had to be one of the parts in the Theatre Uncut plays whose age and sex were specified that we suddenly had to recast. Within 20 minutes, Emma had given me an email address. If you know greenroom, you know that most of the people whose work can be seen there describe themselves as performers or theatremakers, not actors, so even this first step in the sequence was reasonably unlikely. I wrote to the guy, who replied that he’d love to do it, but he was broke and living in Manchester. He couldn’t afford the train fare, and knowing the purpose and circumstances of the show, didn’t want to ask us for expenses. Quite right, too, we couldn’t have paid them. He suggested, though, that we contact his agent, who by chance is based in Lancaster, for an alternative. It felt very strange writing to an agent to offer his clients unpaid work, but to my surprise, that too, worked out, and a couple of days later I finished making arrangements to have the venue especially opened for a Housekeeping rehearsal on Sunday afternoon, and went to read my son a bedtime story. I returned from my nightly exercise in vocal characterization and 1-on-1 performance to an email from Tim, who’s directing Housekeeping. Our newly recast Bill had found a paying gig for that weekend and left us.

I’d already done despair earlier in the week, so I went for swivel-eyed optimism instead. That, and accosting friends and badgering them to play the part. Tim and I decided that it no longer mattered that whoever played Bill be as young as the script required, or as male. Anyone who could read the lines and speak them audibly would be welcome, and I was on the verge of breaking out the spirit gum and the false mustaches and playing him myself, when Anthony turned up. A cartoonist and illustrator by trade, he’s acted in shorts for the DIY film-makers group in town, which is how we heard about him. Cunningly, I offered him the part without mentioning that it was the lead, and he accepted. The email I received on sending him the script began “Yikes!”, but to his great credit, he’s made no attempt to back out. He’s also never acted on stage before, nor had to learn anything like this many lines, so though Sunday’s rehearsal went very well, we think it’s likely he’ll go on if not quite script in hand, then with one easily available.

Some of the other plays have had their ups and downs, though none have been quite so close to being cancelled. I’ve not had much to do with Things That Make No Sense, but I gather it’s been going smoothly ever since we had to replace the director and one of the cast. I sat in on one rehearsal for A Bigger Banner, and especially enjoyed watching director Jayne Davis come up with low-tech staging solutions for the time-travel effect that its central device. I’d only come by to bring them a dress from 1950, borrowed from the Vintage Shop, and ended up staying for two hours to enjoy the fun. The dress was a perfect fit, and matched the gloves Jayne had brought, and Keely loves it and looks so good in it that’s she’s buying it after the show, for the princely sum of 8 pounds.

I’ve had more to do with Whiff Whaff. The director, playwright Daragh Carville, has never directed before, and asked me to sit in on rehearsals, I think because he felt he needed help. He doesn’t, but I haven’t told him so because I’m enjoying observing the process too much. The play is satirical, and the characters could easily be played for cheap laughs, but he’s bringing out the subtleties in the text, turning them before my eyes from monsters into people whose monstrous opinions, fiercely as they are held, have cost them dear. Myself, I’m directing all the monologues. Open Heart Surgery is a spare, affecting parable. Nickie , who’s performing it, is a physics student with a lot more political conviction than acting experience, but she has the good sense not to overplay it and a beautifully expressive face; it should cut straight home. I’m also directing HI VIS, easily my favourite of the texts. Back in the distant reaches of February, when I first started trying to get people involved in this, I received an email from actor Christine Mackie, saying she’d like to join us. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but that email nixed anyone else’s chance of getting cast in HI VIS. I’d seen her in Sabbat, here at The Duke’s Theatre, and I knew she’d do it justice, and more. It’s a wonderful text, rich, complex, and heartbreaking; working on it with Chris is sheer delight. As for the Anders Lustgarten piece, which I’m performing, it’s a barnstorming rabble-rouser of a polemic, not a character monologue. There’s a glorious, compelling rhythm to delivering it, a heady pleasure, and as I walk around town, I have to stop myself addressing it at passers-by. It flows well and is easy to learn, so I’m only a little worried that, thanks to my hectic schedule, I’m still six paragraphs short of knowing the whole thing.

So all’s well with Lancaster Theatre Uncut again. Except for the inquiry we received on Friday from the police, asking what sort of protest this was exactly, and how many people we were expecting to attend. The director of LitFest and I think it’s a misunderstanding, and he was ringing them today to explain that it’s a performance, not a protest, and that a risk assessment’s been carried out. It’s the end of the working day, and he hasn’t called to say we’ve been shut down, so that’s probably okay too.

This piece was commissioned by exeunt magazine

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