During the first half of 2010 I have taken part in three productions at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. My experience there has been hugely positive and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fantastic professionals from all aspects of the theatre, and share the stage with actors like Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Antony Sher and John Shrapnel, Ruby Bentall and John Marquez, before taking to the stage myself as an actor in my own right.
It began as all stories do with humble beginnings. Having been commissioned to document Sir Ian’s Performing Shakespeare workshop and ‘audience with’ event at the Doncaster Little Theatre, it was with great enthusiasm that I went the following night to see him performing his one man show, “A Knight To Remember” as part of The Crucible’s house warming season. Sir Ian was a delight to watch, enchanting his audience with excerpts from Shakespeare, books, poetry and films, and enlightening them with insights from a storied career in the profession.
Sir Ian McKellen
He was, and continues to be, a huge inspiration to me- he began his theatre life at the Bolton Little Theatre and did not attend drama school, and today is one of the most respected actors in the world. His inspiration continued when he asked for volunteers to join him on the stage- the epic thrust from which The Crucible gains much of its renown. I had never been on a thrust stage before, much less in front of a full house of nearly 1,000 people. Sir Ian sparkled mischievously with his comic retelling of a prank played upon him during his time at the RSC; fellow actors replacing the names of the French dead in Henry V (which he read from a list to avoid memorising) with the names of fine wines. We volunteers in this case played the humble dead, and our only direction was to collapse on cue and stay there until the scene was finished. A simple enough task, but one we all embraced with relish. As the scene closed to end the evening, rapturous applause filled the huge yet intimate space and we stood to take our bows with a knight of the realm.
That simplest action -standing on The Crucible stage surrounded by an audience that had been so completely entertained- was utterly electrifying. Looking out, it was like I had been transported to a Greek amphitheatre. It spoke to something very instinctual in me. I knew that applause was not meant for me- but I knew that now, I had to become good enough in my craft that one day, it might be.
The experience of that space is a phenomenon unlike any I’d felt before, and it wasn’t until I spoke to Daniel Evans (the Artistic Director) some time later, that I realised he felt the same way. I had emailed Daniel months before this with my resume, eagerly hoping to be involved in the new season- but it was at this point that the light bulb had switched on in my mind, and all element of choice was removed from my thoughts- I had to work on that stage.
An Enemy Of The People
Fortunately for me, that very chance was just around the corner. Daniel responded to my emails with news that the theatre would be requiring a community ensemble to play a great many small parts in a pivotal scene of the opening play of the season, Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, during which an entire town would fill the stage and turn against Dr Thomas Stockmann and his crusade to close the local baths for fear the water was poisoned. I jumped at the opportunity despite it requiring me to concurrently act in a play in Sheffield and direct a play in Doncaster- thankfully Sheffield Theatres were hugely accommodating to us all and I was allowed to perform part-time, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays while I directed The Jungle Book Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
The play itself was everything theatre should be- powerful & thought provoking with stunning performances and amazing production values. A friend of mine who saw the show could not stop raving about the scene changes and set design- a fact that spoke to the commitment to excellence in every facet.
Throughout the rehearsals Daniel Evans, who also directed the first show of the new season, took us all on an in-depth journey into the history and culture of the region and the significance of the baths- we took part in a series of workshops and improvisations in which we developed characters, and devised our different roles within the town- our jobs, our status, our friends, relatives and competitors- everything down to the way we walked and what mannerisms we might use. Through a steady process of refinement, we scaled our performances through the entirety of Act IV to slowly build from interest, through consternation, into disbelief and finally outrage as our rioting chants took over the stage.
When we finally opened to audiences, we took the intimacy of the space to the next level by scaling the stairs between the seats, bringing our own individually tailored characters and responses to a particular part of the space and making sure audiences enjoyed a unique experience of the town depending on where they were seated. The blistering finale to our opposition of Stockmann was very well received, and no matter how many times I did it, I always left the stage on a high, buzzing with that same intensity of connection to an audience I had felt with Sir Ian. Only this time, I had a character, a costume, and lines! My favourite moment had been crossing the stage in a rage to hurl off a drunk who had several times interrupted the meeting.
The professionals themselves were supportive and encouraging of all of us, and it was through them that I managed to secure my Equity membership as an actor, while regularly picking their brains for insights into how they worked and what their processes were, always looking for clues as to what insight might lend me an edge in my next performance.
As the production ended, I had two weeks left in which to dress rehearse and tech The Jungle Book. I had taken many of the experiences I had in the Crucible rehearsal room and used them in my own direction, doubtless contributing to show’s ensuing success- albeit on a very different scale. Exhausted from pulling double duty in the theatre while continuing my videography and practitioner work, I felt I needed a break. And so, I had two weeks off before I heard from Sheffield Theatres again, this time looking for an ensemble for a piece of new writing by Sheffield native Laura Wade- a revamped, irreverent new version of Alice In Wonderland.
In Alice I aimed to develop my role in this much more compact cadre of seasoned Crucible veterans- by now we were familiar with the thrust stage and what was required of us; or so we thought. It was not until I entered my first rehearsal that I was told by director Lyndsey Turner we would be dancing the Lobster Quadrille in pink tights and flippers! It took us all some time to get our heads around the surreality of the world Lynsdey and Laura were creating for us to live in after our stark and intense stay in Norway. Wonderland was to be simultaneously insane to the observer and completely unremarkable to we the inhabitants.
The rehearsals provided us an excellent chance to indulge in a far greater variety of stylistic choices, from the nuanced naturalism of the wake that opened the play to the quiet strangeness of Wonderlanders to the outright ridiculousness of the Quadrille, and in my case, the officious practicality of the Court Official. It was Lyndsey’s firm conviction to involve the ensemble more than ever before and continue to develop our Crucible experience, and she worked intensely with us in developing the parts we played, with a keen attention to fine detail that lent our efforts real polish.
This was the first time I would take part in a full run of a show at The Crucible, and I couldn’t have picked a more enjoyable and varied performance to enter into- or a more varied and enjoyable group of people to work with. The show was everything it promised to be, as “mad as a bag of trifle” while remaining hilarious, poignant and original. My particular favourite was Laura Wade’s reference to “Monkey Island”, an aspect of my own childhood I found to be a great example of the many subtleties woven into the writing that could only be appreciated through multiple viewings.
As the show came to an end, there was no respite for the wicked, as I plunged straight into the Sheffield Theatre’s Summer School for one of the most intensive opportunities yet.
The Laramie Project
In just two weeks, with 40 hours of rehearsals, we would put on the most performed play in America. Featuring 90 characters, the 30 members of the 18+ class of the summer school would endeavour to deal with the verbatim Tectonic Theatre project based on the fatal assault of homosexual student Matthew Shepard by two young men in 1997- an event that ignited discussion and dispute alike throughout America on the issues of prejudice and hate crimes.
Ruth Carney, principal of the Carney Academy of Performing Arts, led the summer school in a race against time to produce a piece of theatre that still feels gripping, relevant and above all, of immense importance. This was my first experience of verbatim theatre, and it spoke to my experience in documentary production- our mission was to find a truthfulness in our performances to match the true nature of the words on the page.
It was a challenge I was ready for, and relished. I played three characters in the production, dynamic drama student Matt Galloway, suicidal murderer Russell Henderson and the vitriolic Baptist Minister- a part I found I was to learn just two days before the production opened to an audience. I threw myself into researching my roles and differentiating their traits, mannerisms and cadences.
When the play was performed, our audience in the equally impressive Studio space responded wonderfully. Feedback I received after the show from friends and family to complete strangers all spoke to the importance of the message we worked to convey. Moreso even than that, many of those same people spoke to the powerful way in which we had managed to convey that message- all testament to Ruth’s direction, aided by Andrew Wilcox, Emily Hutchinson and Louise Scott of The Crucible in bringing us together with a singularity of vision and purpose.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this story is that it is not at all unique- many others in and around Sheffield have shared this experience with me, every step of the way. To me, it has been a fantastic apprenticeship and an insight into professional theatre. I have been able to work with multiple directors and experience their processes and techniques, seen multiple actors work through rehearsals and long into the run on crafting and experimenting with their characters, and gained a deep understanding of the mechanics of stage management that allow the whole process to run like clockwork.
For me, the experience has been an exercise in taking what once seemed a far off ambition and bringing it that much closer to reality. From falling down on cue to giving courtroom pleas that elicit tears from the audience, I have grown immeasurably as an actor as a result of my experiences at The Crucible. Furthermore, it has given me the drive to continue developing myself as I continue to work in the field.
Yet the most fundamental and profound lesson was the one learned at the very beginning- the removal of the element of choice from my life. Acting is not something I want to do, but something I have to do, and do well.