WHEN COMMUNITY THEATRE ENTERS THE MAIN STAGE

Community Theatre is exactly what it says it is, theatre made by the community for the community.

It’s not looking for the next Kenneth Branagh, nor does it aspire to appear at the Globe Theatre. It is simply local people, most of whom have little or no acting experience, with a desire to put on a show of some kind, and bring people together from the community to do it.

It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and requires one thing above anything else, and that’s passion. Bucket loads of it.

It’s not glamorous in any sense, it only looks to make enough money to keep going, and thrives on co-operation between local like-minded people. It borrows from Peter to pay Paul, and what it usually borrows is a skill here or a favour there. For example, someone adept at handy needlework to help make a costume, maybe an electrician willing to fix some dodgy wiring non-gratis, possibly someone giving up a few hours to sell tickets or make tea. Or both, or more. In short, a myriad of give and take gestures with the emphasis very much on the give.

But it also gives back. When it works well, it gives people opportunities to shine, to step out of areas that keeps them comfortable, make close friendships, build confidence. It thrives on encouragement, resilience, and laughter. Lots of laughter.

In my home town of Prescot in Merseyside, such a community theatre company has been resident since 2014. Imaginarium Theatre, formerly known as Mate Productions, was created by director and CEO Gaynor La Rocca. I first became aware of them properly when I saw them perform ‘As You Like It’ in a gorgeous woodland area in the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Prescot in 2015.

Since then, they have slowly gone from strength to strength, inspiring children from as young as 5 to get involved, running courses on acting, lantern making, performance drumming and creative writing.

Adults have become involved who otherwise would never have considered performance art and in doing so have performed across the region and have even appeared at the Edinburgh Festival on two occasions, a marvellous story in itself.

A Midsummer Day’s Dream

But alongside of this something miraculous was starting to grow in the background. In the 1590’s, Prescot was home of the first purpose built Elizabethan theatre outside of London. With the nearby Derby Estate being patrons of Shakespeare’s group of players in London over 200 miles south, and an annual three-day cultural event being held in the town in the early 1600’s that drew performers from all over the country, there was mounting evidence suggesting an indelible link to William Shakespeare and Prescot.

The evidence was so strong that it was suggested a completely new theatre be built in the town. The idea picked up support from Paul McCartney, Dame Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart and Vanessa Redgrave as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company itself.

Through setbacks and relentless dedication money was raised, and work began on a new theatre in the months before the covid epidemic, based on original plans by architect Inigo Jones in 1629 for a similar London theatre commissioned by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Fast forward to 15th July 2022, and the wonderful Shakespeare North Playhouse was opened to the public. To quote from one of my favourite films, Field of Dreams, build it, and they will come. And they have, from all over the region and beyond, drawing rave reviews for the theatre and it’s opening productions.

It is a stunning, intimate and at times spiritual feeling theatre space that holds at the most 470 people and is made entirely of timber, using not a single nail or screw in its construction. 

The theatre has lit up my hometown, for so long in the doldrums from a past of big industry long ago diminished. TV crews and national newspapers have come to the town as it forms a trinity from the Globe Theatre in London, Stratford-on-Avon in the Midlands, and Prescot in the north.

A Community’s Reward

I started by saying that those in community theatre don’t aspire to the Globe Theatre. But on Tuesday November 2nd Imaginarium Theatre did just as well by putting on a production on this new stage at the Shakespeare North Playhouse. ‘Strange Tale’, an original play having fun with the idea that Shakespeare appears in modern day Prescot through a time portal, is riotous fun and has delighted audiences and reviewers on it’s three-day, five performance run.

All of the performers were people with normal day jobs, or in the case Vera Farrell, an 86-year-old Great Grandmother. It is a wonderful testament to the influences and opportunities for those involved in Community Theatre. It is also a testament to the total dedication of Gaynor La Rocca and her lawyer turned performer Francesco who also plays the vital real-life role of supportive husband through difficult times, when it seemed like days like Wednesday would never happen.

But it did happen, and all those involved community theatre everywhere can afford to take a bow.

(Photographs from Imaginarium Theatre and http://www.visitliverpool.com)

 

HOW MEMORIES GAVE WAY TO THE QR CODE

Memories are made of paper.

Well, at least they used to be. Those much-coveted tickets for that gig you’ve been waiting so long to see, that show you’ve heard so much about, that sporting event you so much want to be a part of.

Following a two-year break due to covid restrictions, over the last few months I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a number of live events, from The Rolling Stones and Sam Fender, to several football matches and theatre productions. In previous years I’ve always liked to hold onto tickets as a tangible reminder of the occasion.

What can I say, it’s the way I am. But not anymore.

These days it’s all about downloading a QR code onto your phone that is scanned at the event and then deleted away into QR oblivion. It’s quick; generally, and efficient. It is completely cold and yes, I’m going to go and say it, soulless; without character or the capacity to excite. 

And it is also without the capacity for memories. You won’t look back on a QR code in years to come (even if you had the chance) and say wow, that was the best night ever.

It’s all a part of the general homogenisation of life, as experiences are there simply to paste on social media to show off where you are or have been to, quickly getting ‘liked’ as they move onto the next post waiting in line for someone’s fleeting attention.

Unlike a ticket, a code on a phone is intangible. Unlike a ticket, it wasn’t there. It didn’t que up with you. It doesn’t remind you of the thrill when those tickets you’d sent away for in earnest hope landed in the post and you would hold them gleefully knowing full well they were the golden passage to something that is going to be wonderful and memorable.

It doesn’t have folds like battle scars when you stuffed it in your pocket as you weaved yourself into a great spot near the stage, it doesn’t have a lager stain on when someone accidentally knocked your drink, or have great artwork representing that iconic artist or tournament. It doesn’t make you smile, bring back thoughts of people or places, the excitement felt in the build-up with the people you shared it with.

Such as 2004, a trip made with my likewise Wimbledon fanatic sister Jane watching a balletic Roger Federer on Centre Court on the brink of his second Wimbledon title. We have Tina Turner, third row, transfixing me at the peak of her powers with an energetic young Bryan Adams as support.

Two London Wembley Stadium events, one in 1978 watching my much beloved Liverpool Football Club be crowned Champions of Europe for the second successive year.

And a glorious sun-kissed Independence Day 1985, the day before my birthday and just three weeks after passing my driving test, absorbing and soaking in the glory days of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band, the memory of myself and my other sister Sandra wandering in awe down the players tunnel – and notice the torn battle scar made on the day that for ticket nerds like myself, blesses it with authenticity.

So yes, I will always miss the ticket. I forget the long hours physically queuing, the crush of disappointment of being told all the tickets have gone. I forget the envelope with my cheque returned because all of that, all of it, was preferable to today’s online world where your excitement is manipulated by monstrous agencies like Ticketmaster as they lead you in as ticket prices rise like an Apollo rocket before your very eyes.

When I am gone all my paper tickets will be found and discarded by someone as a relic and that’s fine. Until then I will look at them and smile as a world of memories takes me back to a time the QR drones of today could never be a part of. And I pity them for it.

THE HARD CHOICES WHEN OUR HEROES LET US DOWN

On Saturday 3rd September the Canadian band Arcade Fire played Manchester Go Arena as part of their world tour to support the release of their new album ‘We’.

As a fan of the band for 14 years I had a ticket for the concert; having seen them previously I consider them to be one of the elite live rock acts on the planet. Although fronted by lead singer and songwriter Win Butler, the band are very much an ensemble outfit, no-one greater than the sum of its parts.

ARCADE FIRE

Arcade Fire observe and reflect through their quirky, individual and strongly melodic songs that are never predictable whilst constantly evolving. They sing of the downbeat humdrum of the everyday, the fears of the everyman in a world where individuality becomes homogenised, as the distance between reality and aspiration grow wider.

In short, they feel like they get it. The pain and the hope, the angst and the liberation of the individual, and this forms an integral part of their strong, dedicated following.

So it was an unexpected body blow when on the eve of the UK leg of the tour allegations of sexual impropriety by Win Butler towards four women were revealed. Butler has admitted to the sexual conduct alleged whilst insisting it was consensual; a claim in part at least not denied by the women concerned.

WIN BUTLER

But it seems apparent that Butler used his power as a rock ‘star’ to foster these incidents, citing depression following a recent family miscarriage and abuse as a child as the driving force behind his behaviour. Whilst deeply traumatic incidents in his life, these can be judged as thin excuses for such sustained behaviour over at least a three-year period with women up to 18 years his junior.

Support act, Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, for whom this tour would have represented the biggest audiences of her career, decided to pull from the tour, explaining she was ‘claiming her responsibility now and going home’.    

Where then, does this leave the fan with a ticket, a no-refund policy from the band and Ticketmaster? And, more pointedly, their relationship with the music?

This is what I pondered painfully throughout Friday and Saturday in the hours leading to the concert. And I was far from the only one, going by the outrage and confusion splashed across social media from long-time fans across the UK and beyond. One couple announced on Twitter that they had cancelled their Manchester hotels rooms and had decided to go home, leaving their tickets unused and their seats empty.

Butler’s wife Regine Chassagne, a tour de force of electrifying energy and founding member of the band, publicly forgave her husband, stating that Win is ‘her soulmate’ who ‘lost his way, and he has found his way back. I love him and love the life we have created together.’

REGINE CHASSAGNE

If Regine, the one probably most hurt by Win’s actions could forgive and move on, surely that should be enough for the rest of us. Or is it?

My decision about whether to attend went back and forth throughout the day. It hung over me, knowing I should make a stand, even if I was the only one who probably would be affected by or aware of that stand.

My ticket had been part paid for by relatives for my recent birthday. Do I let their hard-earned money just go to waste? I was angry that myself and many others had been handed this dilemma by Butler, but four hours before the gig, I decided to go. The very least he can do, I decided, is sing for his supper.

And the show itself, of course, was brilliant. But throughout my enthusiasm felt muted. The two seats next to me were empty. I knew whatever decision I had made, would have felt like the wrong one. And where does this leave my relationship with their music from now?

Only recently that ultimate bastion of creative integrity, Bruce Springsteen, was heavily criticised by allowing Ticketmaster to employ ‘dynamic pricing’ that allows tour ticket prices to rise dramatically and in real time according to demand. Should a man who recently sold his song catalogue to Sony for a record 500 million dollars look to make extra money due to fan’s demand and dedication? Or should he be allowed to sell his art and hard work over fifty years for whatever price he chooses?

But charging extortionate ticket prices is one thing, cheating on your wife, and on multiple occasions, is another.

For an artist like Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger these principles would not apply, indeed such behaviour has enhanced their appeal. For someone like Butler however, particularly in today’s more enlightened age, he has chosen to stamp over somewhat hallowed and dangerous ground.

It’s hard when the creative people we look towards to help make sense of a confusing world let us down. Are we setting them up on too high an idealistic pedestal? Does it really matter at all?

It does matter, very much so. But how we deal with that disappointment is really down to the individual, whether to forgive and keep listening, or whether to close the conversation with that artist once and for all.

SATURDAY 25TH JUNE. 1988. THE DAY INVINCIBLITY FELL FROM THE SKY

Ever had one of those moments, one of those times, when you felt that anything was possible? When all your plans fell into place?

Or just simply something amazing you weren’t expecting to occur, dropped from space into your life? Did you feel at that moment that you could conquer the world? That you were close to invincibility?

And are you sometimes able to close your eyes, concentrate, and feel that you are still there?

For me this date, Saturday 25th June, is one of those times, perhaps THE time. But the year is 1988.

And I am drenched in sweat, at the front of 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium, London. I feel I could hold each one of them on my back.

I look up and the night sky is clear, straight up to heaven.

But I am in heaven, here on earth.

The only thing in front of me is Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, pounding, pulsating into my every muscle.

As they do, I’m thinking back seven months earlier, purchasing Springsteen’s new album Tunnel of Love, released only the day before, from a record shop in North Street, Liverpool. Placing it on my turntable that night for the first time, setting up a tape and hitting ‘record’.

Once done throwing the cassette into a travelling bag and the next morning flying to New York.

For the next month I travelled the highways and back roads of America in a collection of Greyhound buses, buses that were sometimes my bed through night streets, deserts, towns and cities.

And throughout I listened to this highly personal set of songs that were in stark contrast to the Born In The USA album that had catapulted New Jersey’s favourite son to superstardom three years earlier.

I absorbed each track, allowed them to soak in, to be my travelling companion via my portable cassette machine.   

I had Born In The USA on the reverse side. And on other tapes, U2’s seminal Joshua Tree from the same year, John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee, Springsteen’s own Nebraska.

But it was Tunnel of Love that defined this most lonely of journeys, a journey I had planned for years, a long trip of discovery and often tangible isolation. I never felt so wrapped up in a set of lyrics, lyrics that would take several months to fully identify with and comprehend.

And in the here and now at Wembley, a long, long way from isolation and living each line, involved in my own romantic roller coaster with someone who was stood my side, holding my hand and even briefly sitting on my shoulders. Each day we worked to discover what we had got in this new thing we’d found.

Right now, however, all doubts were put aside. Right here, on this hallowed turf, with this band, in this place and this set of unexpected circumstances, I felt invincible.

A year later, Bruce broke up the band. Me and the someone who had been standing by my side had parted to separate galaxies. For a while, the world felt a colder and more solitary place.

With time things got warmer, a little more populated and expansive. And eventually Springsteen reformed the band and my journeys with them continued to places such as Dublin, New Jersey, Paris, Barcelona. That journey is set to recommence next year.

But sometimes, when June 25th falls on a Saturday, or just whenever I need reminding of life’s possibilities, I close my eyes and think of that moment when all the stars aligned, and made me feel completely and utterly, invincible.  

MY 6 WRITING DISTRACTIONS LYING IN WAIT

I’m currently lucky enough to be connected to a major theatre in Liverpool that is showing faith in me as a writer, and investing time and money to develop any potential I may have.

And I’m about to start work on completing the first draft and on subsequent re-writes of a full-length play, based on the notes I’m about to receive from the production team at the theatre.

It’s critical over the next three months I’m completely focused on these rewrites, the last thing I want is to look back in regret at an opportunity lost through a lack of commitment, or giving in to distraction.

Taking distraction to extreme. (Image by Matthew Lejune through Unsplash)

So, before I get my all- important notes in the next week or two and start the real work, I’ve decided to look ahead to my usual batch of diversions so they don’t catch me off guard.

I’ve narrowed it down to six, in no particular level of importance (okay, maybe the last one), but you may have more.  

THE WASHING HAS TO BE DONE – NOW. OR PEOPLE MIGHT DIE

 Okay, so there are no recorded deaths due to not putting a wash on, but that’s the level of gravitas we can place on it. And the reasons we give? Well, if we put the washing in the machine now, then we don’t have to do it later. But later is the time we should do it, because that’s the time we have stopped after a productive, uninterrupted days writing.

Yet, ignoring the logic of this, we leap up from our keyboards, sort out or smalls and our not so smalls, and throw them in the machine. And when the cycle finishes, we leap up from our keyboards again and hang the damp washing out. If we don’t, it will all be creased up; which neatly segments into my next excuse.

THAT IRONING WILL NOT IRON ITSELF

This is an indisputable fact. No pile of clothes will ever un-crease itself, sort out it’s collars and cuffs, and place itself neatly on a hanger. No skirt or top will look better just being left to just hang; though I have heard that this is possible in some cases. But until I start wearing skirts and women’s tops (a whole other blog in itself), I’ll just have to keep on ironing my shirts and jeans. Preferably however, not when I’m supposed to be writing that difficult second act. And under no circumstances should I use it as an excuse to iron socks. Ever.

I’LL JUST POP TO THE SHOP NOW, WHILE IT’S QUIET

For what, an emergency pepper? An essential artichoke? Is it not possible that pint of milk can wait a couple of hours? And the shops are only quiet first thing in the morning or late at night, where you might find the odd writer feeling damn smug their writing shift is done and are now out and about in his or her neatly ironed outfit.

IF I DON’T GO TO THE GYM NOW, I’LL GET OUT OF THE ROUTINE

Now this is a tricky one. Regular exercise is essential when we spend so much time sitting at a desk.  I find it is best a couple of nights a week after a couple of hours of writing has been done, and usually at this time it’s also least populated. It can also aid good sleep patterns.

Add those couple of visits a session at the weekend and you have a three-times a week gym routine. But then, for too many of us an excuse not to go to the gym usually ranks higher than a reason to interrupt our writing.

But as it says on a large plinth at my local gym, you can make progress, or you can make excuses. There’s nothing worse than a judgmental plinth, don’t you think?

POP-UPS

Pop-ups; the internet equivalent of someone jumping into the middle of a private conversation.  The big danger if clicked onto it can lead to five or ten-minutes reading about our football team’s injury update or gossip regarding a celebrity you’ve have never heard of. So, as soon as you can, dismantle that pop-up!

SOCIAL MEDIA

This is the biggie. It’s evil. It’s accessible. It’s always there, tempting you for ‘just a quick look’, ruining your flow, and your attention. It only takes few seconds and you’re in, hooked into someone’s opinion on Twitter on something you may normally not be interested in, clicking on someone famous who’s trending just make sure they’ve not died, or a pointless photo on Facebook of someone’s pub meal. Why should we care?

But we do it. Then we go back to what we are writing and we need to readjust our thought process again. Some writers disconnect from the internet, this could be my next move.

How about you? Are you a slave to social media or do you have it neatly in its place? If so, what’s your secret?

So anyway, there’s my top six. And I didn’t even list writing or reading a blog. Nah, I don’t see a blog as a distraction…surely?

A BLOGGING BREAK FOR ALL THE WRITE REASONS

Whilst admittedly not being the most prolific of bloggers, I will be for the next few months somewhat less productive on the blogging front, albeit for a positive reason.

In January I was one of sixteen writers from the north-west region of England to be selected for a 9-month Writing Development Programme at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool.

I began the writing programme in mid-February but was hoping to keep up my blogs. However, with my latest post being as far back as February 22nd; just over a week after the programme began, this has obviously been less realistic than I imagined.

The writing workload since starting the course has been heavy, and productive, but stimulating. Each of us are currently working on the first half of our individual plays, the first draft of which needs to be in by April 13th. Following submission, we will receive notes on our draft for future re-writes, and we will be asked to read and submit brief comments on eight of the drafts from other writers on the programme.

In addition, we will be required to read thirteen plays between now and November. At present we are on Tennessee Williams’s classic play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Our final drafts of our individual self-penned plays will need to be in sometime in September.

Each class meets on a fortnightly basis (photo of our first meeting above), and we have so far also attended a showcase of the writers from last years course, and a dress rehearsal of a full play.

It’s a testing but exciting schedule and I welcome the discipline required of it. With little experience of writing for the theatre, I recall just how much I wanted to be selected when I walked out my interview in January.

The Royal Court, which is both running and funding the course, is the only one of the four main theatres in Liverpool actively looking for new writers and is regularly approached by the BBC on the look out for new writing talent. And with Liverpool having such a rich history of writers, both for theatre and TV, any association with one of its writing institutions is thrilling.

For my part, I am just wishing to come out of the programme a better writer than when I started it. Which, if I put the effort in, has to be a given.

Inevitably, this will slow down my blogging output, but I will attempt to comment on the blogs that I follow. It’s always interesting to read blogs from those blogging friends from different parts of the world with different stories to tell and viewpoints to consider.

So, although the blogging world is unlikely to notice that my blog average of one blog a month has fallen even further, for now at least I have a good excuse!

THE GYM VERSUS THE SOFA – MAN’S ETERNAL STRUGGLE

It’s a wet, cold Monday night in February. I had planned to go to the gym as part of my three-day training routine.

But the house is warm and the sofa is…responsive. It’s old, it knows how I like things, it encourages me to slouch like the evil soft furnishings monster it is. I start to calculate how if I don’t go tonight, I can go tomorrow night and two days after that and I’m back in my routine again. Easy.

After all, one night missed. It’s not going to hurt. Right?

Sofa apathy. What’s not to love? (Images by Unsplash)

But then I waver. What if it’s raining tomorrow night? I’d definitely have to go because I missed tonight and I’d look back at my 24-hour younger self with a resentment bordering on hate.

COLD CARS AND WARM NEIGHBOURS

So I pull myself off the sofa, partly because I’d be fearful of tomorrow night’s hatred, but mainly because I’ve made a commitment to my regular training habit. And that’s the key, commitment always trumps motivation because motivation can come and go. But if you’ve made a commitment to yourself, you do it whether you want to or not.

There is also the learned knowledge from years of backing out of a routine that it is a slippery slope to self-loathing. Slippery slopes and self loathing, it’s my thirties all over again!

So just go to the damn gym!

I get dressed in to my training clothes (so far no sponsorship deal) and try to block out any thought process that will convince me to stay. I turn out the light and head out of the front door. It’s drizzly, and cold, and everybody else is settled in their warm, comfortable houses. Putting on weight, I remind myself.

By now I’m in the car and that’s even colder so I get the engine turning, knowing full well it will be frustratingly warmed up just by the time I get to the gym.

LET THE SMUGNESS BEGIN..

As I pull out of my driveway I know the battle isn’t yet over, but I’ve landed a potentially fatal blow to apathy. I afford myself a self-satisfied smile. Before I know it, I’m pulling into the gym car park. I park as near to the door as possible, knowing full well one of the hardest and most difficult parts of all of this is still to come – the walk in the rain and the cold from my now heated car, to the gym entrance.

Once out of the car I stride swiftly to the gym doors, sidestepping the two people trying to come out at the same time I’m trying to get in. I can’t take any prisoners now, I have to get in at all costs.

And then I’m there! I’ve made it!

The sofa beaters rock it

As I saunter triumphantly to the cross trainer, I glance around to everyone else in there; the smooth latex brigade; the tattooed muscle men with their huge biceps and even bigger beer bellies; the casual poseurs on the treadmill tuned to the steady beat of the playlist plugged into their ears; to the late middle-aged men trying to address years of neglect by an attempted and ungainly burpee.

And back home, my sofa settles for defeat, safe in the knowledge that in three days-time, another battle will commence.