Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Finishing The Seam

Image by beanphoto

Working on Lancaster Theatre Uncut has been an absolute joy, even as we lurched from one crisis to another. We didn’t have much with which to make it happen. Besides the play texts, all we had was ourselves, what little time and other resources we could steal from our lives, whatever space we could borrow. Maybe that’s the essence, what theatre’s always made of; people, space, time. In our case the last two were in very short supply, but people made up the difference. So very many people stepped in to make Saturday’s event. From Hannah Price and her team down in London, the writers who donated their work, the people here in Lancaster who gave their time, their effort, their skills. For each person listed in our programme as part of the production, there were anywhere from two to a dozen of their friends and family members without whom the event would have been lesser, or not have happened at all. And that’s without going into the thanks page.

Time was what we had the least of. We held auditions a month ago, with extracts from the seven plays then available. In any ordinary rehearsal process of course, a month is plenty of time. Only we weren’t rehearsing every day. We were lucky to spend two hours together a week on any given play. Of course people put in time on their own, got others to stand in for rehearsals, and by considerable effort, it held together. Still, there were losses. The worst was that our schedule didn’t allow us to incorporate the eighth play, David Greig’s Fragile, into our event. This is a pity for all sorts of reasons. One of our first and most crucial recruits to the cause, Daragh Carville, was eager to direct it, sight unseen. I’ve understood from various reviews, and from Kieran Hurley, who performed it in Glasgow, that it’s not only excellent, but occupies a formal territory I’m personally fascinated by. But we were short of time and short of actors. We couldn’t do it, that was clear. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it and find out what we’ve missed.

It’s been a case of mucking in all along, never more so than on the Saturday itself. We had access to the Storey’s auditorium from 1 PM. The plan had been to quickly tech through the transitions between plays and the few light and sound cues, then go for a full dress rehearsal. This plan didn’t survive contact with reality. It was 1:20 before we were all assembled, un-stacking the modular stage, setting it up at one end of the auditorium, and unfolding the chairs. We were blessed that Emma Geraghty, a Lancaster University undergraduate who was already acting in two of the plays turned out to know her way around a lighting desk. Even with LitFest director Andy Darby, and Emma, and fellow undergraduate actor Leo, and Adrian, partner to one of our directors, all helping out with tech; even with all the rest of us doing what we could, it was after 2 by the time we were ready to start. There was no way to cram in a tech and a dress, we’d be lucky to finish a full tech run in time. I don’t know what we would have done without all the other directors and some of the actors thinking of all the things I’d forgotten to think about. I don’t know what we’d have done without Angela, smoothing the way and doing everything else. As it was, we finished teching just 40 minutes before we opened the house doors.

Some of the plays had had less than 5 hours rehearsal with a full cast. The reasons varied: Housekeeping, Lucy Kirkwood’s absurdist 3-hander had lost its protagonist. Twice. The final replacement had taken on the part only a week before, and we’d been so certain that he couldn’t learn the lines in time that we’d put it in the programme. He proved us wrong. That whole company, the least theatrically experienced of all of us, did director Tim Austin and the rest of us proud. Everybody did. I’m going to write the kind of thing here that gets theatre people mocked for being “luvvies”. I don’t care. Love was what these shows were made of, that and a shoestring. Knowing you can rely on people, to do what’s needed and more…well, it inspires love. But if trust was a product of our working together, it was also a requirement. After all the desperate scrambling for performers and recruiting of amateurs, we had to can someone in the last week. It was so late in the process that she’s in our publicity photo. Crazy as it sounds, it was an entirely pragmatic decision; better no-one at all than someone you can’t rely on. Come to think of it, the fact that she managed to show up to the photo shoot but failed to attend rehearsals speaks for itself. Director Keely Hawkins came up with an ingenious solution involving stylization and a pair of dictaphones, and in the end we had a better show for it.

I’m not in a position to give you a review, I’m much too close. I can tell you that it went remarkably well, with none of the disasters I was dreading, and that the audience was enthusiastic. I can tell you that it worked, as a production and as a call for political action. The audience was palpably fired up. Back in February, we were all pretty clear about why were doing this; why we were protesting, and why in the form of theatre. By Saturday night, it had all become about the how. We had our hands so full with the how of putting these plays together that we almost forgot what they were, and why we were doing it. To put it another way, making Lancaster Theatre Uncut inspired so much love that we misplaced the anger which sparked it. And then the house lights dimmed, and we started. When we spoke to audience, in the plays themselves and afterwards, in the bar, we remembered, because they reminded us.

Adam Gregory, who was in that audience, wrote that it was “like a rallying call for a minor revolution” and of course he’s right, that was the whole point. But there’s something else in his post that will stay with me from that night. I looked out into the house, and saw strangers and nodding acquaintances, teachers and parents from my son’s school, shopkeepers, neighbours, friends, people I knew from work- some of these categories are overlapping. I felt, for the first time since I moved from the large, hot, dry and bustling southern European city in which I was born to this small, damp, quiet town in the north of England, that I was at home. As much as our anger, it was our love we were asserting, our sense of this place and the people we share it with. Against the fraud of the Big Mac Society we set the reality of this small community and many others like it. Theirs is made of greed and lies, ours of love and people; that’s why we’re going to win.

This piece was commissioned by exeunt magazine