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.
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.
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.
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:
Bolton Little Theatre’s latest production is “Dinner” by Moira Buffini. As with many of her plays it is concerns a set of apparently sophisticated liberal characters brought together in a room. Slowly however their veneers are stripped away to reveal ugly prejudices and other basic flaws and deceptions. In the case of this play, Lars a bestselling author of self-help books and his wife Paige are holding a small dinner party to celebrate his latest publication. But it soon becomes clear that Paige intends this evening to be an elaborate revenge against a group of people she despises for their hypocrisies. Somehow, the mysterious silent butler is the key, but what is his ultimate role?
I have made a short behind the scenes documentary to promote the play, which is being staged 6th to 9th April 2016. For tickets and more information please visit our webpage.
Bolton Little Theatre’s next production will be Richard Sheridan’s famous comedy about a clash between greed, snobbery and romantic ideals in 18th century Bath. The play is most famous for giving literature one of its most famous comic characters – Mrs Malaprop, a rich pompous dowager who frequently mangles the English language as she lectures all and sundry. “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” Sheridan probably based her name on the French phrase “mal a propos” meaning “poorly placed”. Although many comedies had used mixed up phrases before this, including Shakespeare’s, malapropisms has become the popular description of such jokes.
Last week I took my camcorder down to the theatre to interview director Jolyon Coombs about the challenges of staging the play and talk to some of the actors
Hello again. One of the hats I wear is updating the Bolton Little Theatre website. I’m also on the marketing committee. At the last meeting I suggested filming some interviews with the creative souls at the theatre to promote up-coming plays and I’ve just completed the first one, which you can watch below.
It is centered on our forthcoming production in April of “Lear’s Daughters”, a prequel to “King Lear” looking into what made Goneril, Regan and Cordelia the women they are in Shakespeare’s tragedy. The play is written by Elaine Feinstein. But I’ll let director June Grice explain more…
Hope you find it interesting. Here is Ben Latham’s excellent poster for the production too.