Downtime out now, Wyrd Sisters soon

When I started off directing Wyrd Sisters I’d hope to keep a production diary up on this blog. Predictably this ambition was quickly eaten up by the time and energy involved in actually realising the play. So you’ll have to look forward to a retrospective article instead. However I can report that we are at an exciting phase where the books are down, the movements are being fine tuned and the set is almost in place bar the painting, thanks to the marvellous efforts of Jeff Lunt and his team.. Not to mention a whole wardrobe of costumes which have largely been designed and made from scratch by Francis Clemmitt and her team. I’ve also been out banging the drum and trying to get people interested in coming. Marketing a play is a job in itself. We’re having some publicity photos taken tomorrow which hopefully will excite the local media. I went on Bolton FM radio a couple of weeks ago and I’ll be popping up again on their frequency on Monday during the drivetime show in the evening. I’ve also made a short video promo for promoting the show on social media.

It’s going to be a show that’s different from pretty much anything Bolton Little Theatre have put on in a while. The cast are getting better with each rehearsal and its great to work with them. Best of all is Terry Pratchett and Stephen Brigg’s script, which is funny and wise. You can find out more and book tickets at http://www.boltonlittletheatre.co.uk/terry-pratchetts-wyrd-sisters/

That’s Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters 7.30pm 6 – 11 March 2017, Bolton Little Theatre!

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I’ve also learnt that Obverse Books have just published Downtime – The Lost Years of Doctor Who. I am amongst the forty people interviewed by author Dylan Rees about the remarkable collection of independent productions, both video and audio, that appeared in the Nineties and early Noughties attempting to fill the Doctor Who shaped hole which the BBC had created.

Of course my part relates to my work with Bill Baggs and BBV. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but as someone who was very involved in that particular pond, not just as a writer but as a fan, I’m look forward to reading it. Within its 400 pages Dylan Rees promises many facts and stories that have never been printed before. The book is available for £9.99 as an e-book and £19.99 as a large format paperback. You can learn more by visiting http://obversebooks.co.uk/product/downtime/

Thanks for reading. Hope to be in touch again soon.

Wyrd Sisters Diary #1 – Setting out on the road to Lancre

I’m not trying to claim any snob value here but I discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld almost right at the beginning. Back in 1985 I read an interview with Terry Pratchett, promoting the paperback release of the first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic, thought it sounded funny and bought it soon after. Possibly as a birthday present for my sister Gail now I come to think about it. Turned out we both enjoyed this send up of fantasy novels and it set us, and eventually my whole family, on an enjoyable journey with Terry’s funny, ingenious books for many years.

Wyrd Sisters is the first proper Discworld Witches book, introducing us to the eccentric coven of the formidable, good but scary Granny Weatherwax, the cheerful, earthy, experienced Nanny Ogg, and the naïve, enthusiastic Magrat. As well as Witches, it has a ghost, a demon, lots of dim-witted guards, and a troupe of theatricals who stage a farcical play within the play.

It is in part a parody of Shakespeare, the Scottish Play in particular, but it is also a comedy about power, be it brute force, common sense or the subtler magic of storytelling. In fact I’m pretty sure it was Gail who bought me the script books of Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! for my own birthday several years later. I had no idea they existed until then. By then I had become involved with amateur dramatics, and I loved Stephen Briggs’ adaptations and the idea of realising them on stage. So in time I persuaded my then current group of Mawdesley Amateur Dramatics to stage Wyrd Sisters. The photo at the top of the page is from that production.

Like many groups, a majority of MADS were women, so it was an advantage to have a play with four really good female roles, not to mention a fair amount of characters who could be played by either gender. That 2007 production was my first experience of directing theatre. It helped that we were already a group of friends, so that made it less intimidating that it could have been. We played it on a smallish village hall stage, with much less in the way of facilities at the time than Bolton Little Theatre has. For example the sound system consisted of my laptop computer and a guitar amp at the rear of the hall. I should add that the current hall has had something of an upgrade since. However the show was a success, and I think the local audience enjoyed the fact that we were trying something a bit different from the traditional amateur dramatic fare.

Now ten years later I am about to direct a new production in a fully equipped theatre with a specially designed set and a cast that is an interesting mix of experienced Bolton regulars and newer faces, some for whom this will be one of their first plays. I have Glenn Robinson, Francis Clemmitt, Jeff Lunt and Joylon Coombs providing invaluable advice and help. I have been doing my homework and pouring over the script, plotting out movements, assembling the music and sound effects. As I write this, the first rehearsal looms this Sunday afternoon and I’m hoping I’ll remember how to do this. It’s not just the Witches who are embarking on an adventure.

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For more information and to book tickets, please visit our theatre website

Looking back at Frame 312

Lately my life has been dominated by rehearsing and appearing in Frame 312 at Bolton Little Theatre, which ran from 11-18 October 2016. I played Mr Graham, an editor at LIFE magazine at the fateful time when John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It proved to be a very challenging rehearsal for everyone, including the director Peter Scofield, but the result was a production that had a fantastic reaction from the audience.

Want the reasons I had wanted to be cast in this play it was a serious drama and I was keen to play a straighter character after my last three stage roles had been buffoons of one kind or another. This turned out to be a bit of problem because my usual comic instincts when it came to delivering lines had to be suppressed. Also I could not hide behind bluster and hesitation when remembering my lines. Learning the script was surprisingly hard this time. After learning Bob Acres at a run when I was emergency cast in The Rivals, I had gone into this play fairly confidently, however my confidence was soon shot as week after week my mind went blank in one place or another. I’ll admit that moving naturally on stage has also been one of my weaker areas. I’m a much more confident voice actor. There’s a real art to moving in a way that complements the lines and keeps the action visual, without looking too contrived. It is something I would love to workshop in the future. For example the director was keen for me to walk to the door and lean casually on the frame whilst talking to Young Lynette, but I never seemed to be able to reach the door and recline in anything like a relaxed way and ultimately I dropped it for merely moving about halfway to the door before turning. Another problem was that almost every acting choice I made was over-ruled by the director and I was unable to convince Peter that my take was better, which I made me annoyed with myself.

I had some pretty dark moments this last two months went I felt that I wouldn’t act again after this play. Suddenly it seemed to have become much harder and I was only playing a fairly straightforward character, who doesn’t have that much of a journey compared to the lead. Mr Graham was a good newsman, intelligent, cynical and caring about others, if somewhat condescending. Initially I thought he would be quite buttoned down but rightly I was told to increase the amount of emotion in my performance since it would be too de-energised for a whole play. I also learnt a handy shortcut when playing with an American accent, change t’s to d’s and pronounce “new” as “noo”.

Now I was not the only actor who struggled with the lines on this play, I think the whole cast seemed to have a bit of malaise for the first eight weeks. I discovered that my co-star in most of our scenes was far less experienced than I thought, and she was having an especially hard time. I wish I had known earlier on because I think I would have taken more of a lead and made sure we were in the right place at the right time for our entrances, perhaps done extra line-learning too. As it was, the part of Young Lynette was recast just a fortnight before the show began. Kimberly Armston did an amazing job stepping up to take on the complex  role of Young Lynette in such a short time and our scenes together became so much easier. Finally my own line remembering clicked in, even though I never managed 100% on any night, but then that’s usual for me. Kimberly Riley-Shipperbottom also did sterling work taken on the extra role of Maria, Old Lynette’s materialistic daughter-in-law.

I described Frame 312 as a play about the JFK assassination to friends and family but really it is as much about the corrosive effect of conspiracy and paranoia, both on one woman and on society as a whole. There’s a wider theme about the emptiness of the American Dream. Both Lynette and her son Toby are pursuing that image of a big house with 2.4 children, with nothing but the best. Lynette has long since realised that such status symbols do not bring happiness, whilst Toby is in denial. Meanwhile, whilst we see the drama of the conspiracy unfold in 1963/64 and the evidence mount up, in the end Keith Redfen’s play concludes that in the end conclusive proof does not matter. The most of the world knows that Lee Harvey Oswald did not work alone, that elements in the government covered up the successful murder of a president, but it keep turning anyway. Nothing will change now.

I am very glad that the production finally took off in the those last two weeks, with extra rehearsals and a lot of work from everyone. Jeff Lunt and Joylon Coombs did a marvellous job with the two time zoned set and the atmospheric lighting was perfect. The whole cast really came together and supported each other. We’ve had some lovely feedback from the audience. At the opening night, most of the evening performances were half-sold but almost every night we played to nearly full houses, indicating good word of mouth. I have not got any more acting lined up for the time being and I’m actually quite glad, because of the hard work this one turned out to be.

For now I shall be working behind the scenes and I am currently planning the stage movements for Wyrd Sisters, my next directing assignment. I’m write a separate piece about my preparations soon. Then there is the box office and marketing at BLT, plus some long overdue writing projects.

In meantime Bolton Little Theatre’s next production is Witness for the Prosecution. You can find out more about it on the website. Here’s the video teaser I created for it. Thanks for reading and more news soon.

If I Were You

A new season of plays is opening next week at Bolton Little Theatre, kicking off with Alan Ayckbourn’s gender swapping comedy If I Were You. I’ve put together a video trailer for it, the first of a new season of movie-style teasers, rather than the behind the scenes style I’ve used in the past. My aim is for none of them to be much longer than 30 seconds. So far it seems to have gone down very well, with plenty of hits on Facebook and Youtube. Hope you like it too.

Here’s the text I’ve written for the website: “A hilarious comedy about swapping bodies, living someone else’s life, and learning something unexpected.

“The Rodales seem like an ordinary family, but beneath the surface things are beginning to crack. Jill and Mal have lost the spark in their marriage, their son Sam resents his father and their daughter Chrissie has recently become a mum and is dealing with marriage issues of her own. And while they all share advice on how others should live their lives, nobody is really taking it on board – until Mal and Jill see things from a dramatically different perspective, that is.

“Waking up one morning and finding they have switched personas, Mal in Jill’s body and Jill in Mal’s, they must continue life “as normal” as their other half. Jill faces the challenges of working with their laddish son-in-law, Dean, as the Store Manager of a homewares shop, while Mal has suddenly becomes a housewife, learning more about his children – and finding out the secrets they already know about him!

“Will seeing things from the other side make matters even worse, or is this just what they need in order to save their family?”

Tickets are £10 and you can book them at the box office or online.

Book now

Samuel Crompton, Wyrd Sisters and more theatrics

This has been an exhausting month or so. Although the plays Samuel Crompton – A Fine Spinner and Wyrd Sisters are many months apart on the calendar, they have been overlapping to hectic effect. I’ve been directing the former with a small group of talented actors, whilst at the same time auditioning the large cast for the latter. Not to mention there being a family crisis that necessitated spending a lot much more time than I like in the local hospital. Although I am happy to report that things are looking optimistic on that score at the moment.

Samuel Crompton – A Fine Spinner is a biographical play about one of the key inventors of the British Industrial Revolution. He devised the “Spinning Mule”, a machine which mechanised the cotton industy, taking the process from weavers’ cottages to large factories producing vast amounts of cloth for the empire. Although as Donna Hughes’ play reveals, Crompton himself so little of that wealth. It has been the first bit of directing I have done in quite a few years, the first stage directing I’ve done in over a decade. So it’s been a re-learning experience. Not just helping the actor’s performances and blocking the moves, but the matter of organising rehearsal dates and rooms, thinking about props, creating the sounds and visual material, costumes, dealing with the commissioners of production Bolton Library and Museums, and the practical questions of staging a production in a old preserved building with limited facilities. The play is being staged at Hall’ith’wood, Bolton, Crompton’s former home and now a visitor attraction.

We are an element of Invention Stories – a family event with craft activities, storytelling and two performances of our play, taking place on Tuesday 26 July. The play and the day itself are admission free, although the audience for each performance is limited to 30 because of the size of the venue. If you would like to book a seat, please follow one of these links:
11.30am performance or the 1.30pm performance

Invention Stories is one of many events celebrating science and engineering as part of Manchester being the European City of Science in 2016. You can find out more at their home page.

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Despite the challenges I am glad we have been able to stage the play in the atmospheric room you can see above. For a while it looked as though building work would move us into the Central Library. I’ve been very lucky to have a talented and supportive small cast of volunteer actors (pictured above) who have taken on what is a quite wordy play full of narration with great aplomb. Their characterisation has been spot on almost from the word go, which has made my job a lot easier. I know them all from Bolton Little Theatre. I was quite nervous about approaching people to take part, so I’ve been grateful for the advice of Sandra Leatherbarrow (far left) and Nathalie Haley for their help with the casting. I’ve deliberately kept the staging modest, three chairs,  a table, a spinning wheel. On the day I’ll be running the technical side of the play, cuing the sounds and music, and the slideshow too. I’m definitely going to be relieved when I have this under my belt.

This educational play is definitely good practise for the far bigger challenge of Wyrd Sisters. Adapted from Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel of the same name, it brings his magnificent fantasy creation Discworld to the stage. Creating a fantasy kingdom, even a little one like Lancre, home of the Witches on a stage in a small theatre is definitely a challenge, particularly a script which has so many locations as this one. I’ve been very fortunate that veteran director and stage designer Joylon Coombs has agreed to take on the production design. He has come up with a marvellously flexible set that combines a heath with a stone paved area. Combined with lighting and gobo stencils projected on to it, I am confident that we can create a great fantasy atmosphere that is going to enjoyable in itself. Although the main focus is on the actors and Stephen Briggs’ ingenious adaptation. I am going to be using the model of the set to block out roughly what the moves will be and I hope to share some of that with you in a future post. Incidentally Joylon directed me in a production of Richard Sheriden’s The Rivals earlier this year, which also featured a clever set, recreating Restoration Bath. I played the foolish Bob Acres.

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But before I could start properly thinking about blocking, I had to cast my play. In the past I have generally worked with a group of people I’ve known for a while. This time however I had to audition a host of actors, many of whom were strangers to me. At least I had a good number to start with. I had advertised the readthrough online but on the night I was nervous that almost no one would turn up. To my gratitude however there was a very healthy turnout. In fact several Bolton Little Theatre friends approached me later in the week, saying they were surprised when they heard how many there were. This I put down squarely to pulling power of Terry Pratchett’s name. It was nerve-wracking running it, trying to make sure everyone got a fair amount of reading time, trying not to have favourites, listening carefully. It was interesting to see which lines got laughs too, The sequence with the Players pretending to be Witches was hilarious. I was not too worried if people got the characterisation a bit off, since this was the first readthrough.

I felt it would be unfair to cast solely from the readthrough, although in the end I did cast one or two parts from that evening. I went on to have two more auditions, one for the female roles and another for the male characters who will be doubled up,  each actor playing three roles. Finally there were one or two roles where I did call on my previous experience and offered them to talented folk I’ve worked with before who know will do them justice. I was lucky in some ways to be casting a play with so many roles, so I had plenty of opportunities to recognise the actors who had been kind enough to show an interest. However I still had to make judgements and disappoint a few people who for one reason or another did not fit what I had in mind. That was definitely the hardest part, but I strongly believe in getting in touch with everyone as soon as I could regardless.

So although January and the rehearsals seem a while away yet, already I’m thinking about props and putting together the soundtrack. I’ll share more about my process soon on the blog.

Finally, in other news I have just put together a preview trailer for the whole new season at Bolton Little Theatre. Hope you like it:

Visit their home page here.

Samuel Crompton – A Fine Spinner

I am currently working with Bolton Little Theatre on an unusual one day theater piece called Samuel Crompton – A Fine Spinner.

Samuel Crompton is one Bolton’s most famous sons, a gifted engineer and inventor who created one of the key machines of the Industrial Revolution – the Spinning Mule. It changed the face of the cotton industry, enabling a worker to reliably spin yard upon yard of cotton thread without it breaking. It was also very scalable, leading to huge mills with rows of machines and much of Bolton’s wealth was built on it. But the man himself saw only a fraction of the wealth that he might have earned from his genius, due to not patenting his invention, but instead accepting payments from mill owners to come and view his designs.

A Fine Spinner by Donna A Hughes, is the story of Samuel Crompton, his invention and his troubled relationship with the new world that machine ushered in. A cast of five actors from Bolton Little Theatre will be performing this one act play at Crompton’s former home of Hall’ith Wood, on Tuesday 26 July 2016, as one of the events celebrating Manchester’s status as European City of Science 2016. Admission is to the house and the play is free, and we will be performing the play three times during the day.

You can find out more about the year long festival at http://www.manchestercityscience.com

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It has been an interesting challenge so far to plan this production. The author originally intended the play for the theatre, with multiple sets, scenes and a larger cast. My first job was to sensitively edit her play to make it feasible for staging in one room and with the minimum of props. I also had to cut several characters to bring the cast down to a manageable level. First to go was the narrator, a fictional neighbour of the Crompton’s. He was purely a narrator, with no other role in the story, so it seemed sensible to take him out and give parts of his speeches to the characters to perform to the audience as asides. It also made the speeches a little more dynamic if the people involved were relating them. I chose to remove the first scene altogether, featuring Sam and his sister Ruth as children, since child actors bring their own complications and the scene mostly repeated information for elsewhere. My other main deletion was the Prime Minister, since he only appeared for about half a page. Instead the other characters will act as if he is there, while he remains off-camera as it were.

Hall’ith Wood is now a museum, dedicated to telling the story of the house, its role in the English civil war and its most famous tenant – Samuel Crompton. Open Tuesdays and Saturdays, free admission. You can find out more about the place by visiting its website.

I’ll be sharing some details about this production when we start rehearsal. But for now, if you are free during the day on Tuesday 26th July 2015, please mark your diaries!

April 2016 news round-up

It’s time for another quick collection of announcements about what my friends and I have been up to creatively and in some cases professionally too.

Last year I did an email interview about my times with BBV and writing three Doctor Who spin-offs, for a chap called Dylan Rees. Dylan is writing a book about the vibrant audio and video spin-off market which arose from the final years of the show’s original run and filled in the so-called “wilderness years” between the original and the revived versions of Doctor Who. It will be published later this year by Obverse Books. I’m looking forward to it, not just as a contributor but as a fan of that era. The cover has been already been released:

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Notice Sylvester as The Foot Doctor on the cover too! You can pre-order it from Obverse Books now. I’ll review once it is out.

My ever busy mate Rik Hoskin has had several projects out recently, including the first of a new range e-books based on 90’s cult TV show Hercules – The Legendary Journeys. I enjoyed Storming Paradise enormously. It captures the feel of the show very well. You can try a sample and order it from Amazon. He’s also written a second motion comic episode of Wolfblood, the hit BBC children’s series about werewolves. You can watch a trailer of it here at the BBC website.

Finally I recently made a new trailer for the next Bolton Little Theatre production. Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood is an excellent drama based on real events surrounding a US army investigation into suspected Nazi party members, following Germany’s surrender in WWII. Was famous conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler just a patriot on the losing side of the war, or an active member of the Nazi party? Colonel Arnold, traumatised by witnessing the aftermath of Auschwitz, is determined to find some culprits. For this trailer I decided to create a movie style one which sold the story, rather than a behind the scenes talking head piece. The results I think are pretty successful and I intend to make all subsequent BLT trailers story based too.