Thursday, 27 November 2014

Herding Cats

Well we certainly seem to have a lot of people on stage from time to time! The phalanx of 'new girls' is a mighty powerful sight when it's working well but it's going to take a lot of work (AND FOCUS!!!) to get it right.

 Last night we worked through a number of elements but the real frustration is that we always seem to have a key cast member away. Consequently we're a little behind where I'd really like to have been but with plenty of time to catch up I'm not overly concerned.

With our lighting guy Jack fully on board now and Alex well into his soundscape construction I'm increasingly confident about the finished product.

A local school has offered to loan us all the flats we need (phew) and with the other tricky items already identified I think we are in pretty good shape...

The National Theatre has approved all our artwork so that's all off to the printers now - I guess we'd better start to sell some tickets!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Boy Preference starts to take shape

To say I am excited about how The Boy Preference is shaping up would be a huge understatement.

Asking Emily to co-direct was SO the right thing to do and despite my control freakery I'm actually loving it. She's a great foil and inspiration and is bringing so many great ideas to the process.

Last night we met with Jack, our lighting genius. Jack has a long history with Best having lit many of our summer academies while he was till at school. I think he'll make our show look superb - and we now have a solution for the tricky 'diving board' issue...

And what's most exciting of all is to see how the cast have taken to it. There are some beautiful, rounded characters already developing and they seem to have instantly grasped the whole feeling of the piece.

I'm on the hunt for props which is turning into a really fun quest. Having tracked down the only remaining sunflowers in the UK last week, I'm after all kinds of other goodies now. More news on this as it comes in.

And finally for now, the National Theatre have finally approved our our poster - and here it is:-

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Boy Preference - week 1

A brilliant week started off by an excellent meeting with co-director Emily. We had a fantastic idea for a sunflower thing. My next thought was 'oh no. the sunflower season is over, where will we find some?' so I got on the phone to all the major growers of sunflowers in the UK and eventually spoke to Nicholas Watts of Vine House Farm north of Peterborough. What a lovely man! He grows around 6 million sunflowers a year and he personally went out and searched across all his fields to find the stalks we needed. We drove up there today to collect them.

"Sunflowers???"  I hear you ask - well you'll juts have to come and see the show to find out (although more hints will doubtless follow.

On the way back we dropped in to see the venue for our partner theatre show at Royal; & Derngate in Northampton. What a beautiful theatre! Two main house - a  lovely'producing' Victorian space (the Royal), a more modern 'receiving space (Derngate) and our studio - the Underground. It's just right for our show.

Then it was back home after a 200  mile round trip to rig up a strange contraption in the greenhouse to keep the mice off the sunflowers till next February! The thing we do for art, eh?

More news next week!

The very helpful Nicholas Watts!
Nicholas retrieving the stalks from the warehouse

The Empty Space
Heath Robinson strikes

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Kate Bush - theatrical genius!

I should preface this by saying I am a huge Kate Bush fan - I've waited 30 odd years for this so by gum it needed to be good. It wasn't just good. It was simply stunning.

At the end - and I feel guilty having taken it!

These blog posts are written from a theatre school viewpoint - so what can we draw from last night's show?

1. Never forget that if you are onstage, you are there to entertain. There's no purpose to what you do without an audience. Kate Bush put everything into drawing the audience into her differently created worlds - first as a multi-million selling uber-singer, secondly in the Ninth Wave as the desperate woman washed into the sea awaiting rescue, and thirdly as part of a summer dream tinged with the fear of blackbirds. Theatrical always, visually amazing throughout and all underscored by her wonderful music played by a superb band. And finished off with a song everyone could sing along with - somewhat euphorically!

2. Attention to detail - we go on and on about everything on stage meaning something - the slightest look, the tiniest hand movement. Everyone on stage was 'on it' 100%. But also the whole visit should be an experience, so the programme was a work of art, the merchandise original and apt (including a sea survival kit!) and even the confetti blown into the audience was printed with lines from a Tennyson poem.

3. Enjoy the show - leave the cameras/mobiles at home. Kate Bush asked fans not to take photos/recordings during the show and just enjoy the event. What a difference that made! Everyone just focused on the performance, not on dodging lit up screens. We always ask parents not to take photos or film during our main shows, primarily for security reasons but more and more I believe important moments are being ruined by the desperate need for validation through photographic proof that 'you were there' and to have every moment of your life digitally stored. So I (hypocritically)ended up like everyone else with a photo of the theatre outside, two of empty stages and one at the very end - and even then I felt a bit guilty. But it was nice to see the whole audience rapt and focused and not littered with little lit up screens. Perhaps our communications on this with parents should reflect more on 'being in the moment' rather than recording it.

4. There's no substitute for a massive budget sometimes, but it still takes skill to use it well. Kate Bush had obviously gone for the best specialists she could find - not just the brilliant musicians, but the lighting and stage/costume designers and even Adrian Noble as her co-director. I wonder if they'd come and help with 'The Boy Preference'. I'll ask...

5. Commit to your creation! Nobody is memorable for being mediocre. Try something amazing. You never know...

So overall, this might well have been the best gig I've ever seen - and I've seen quite a few. Trying to think now what my other favorites were... Japan as a support band for Blue Oyster Cult (yes it did happen), the original Two-Tone tour, Peter Gabriel's 'Growing Up' tour... no, this was the best.

There's rumours of a DVD of the show being released. I strongly advise you to make a small investment.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Not so Great Britain...

The West End transfer of the National Theatre's production of 'Great Britain' looked uncomfortable last night.

It was written and rehearsed in secret whilst the phone-hacking trials were in progress and opened soon after (June) without previews or too much publicity to generally favourable reviews (especially for Billie Piper in the lead role).

It is strange that such an immediate and 'current' piece should look so dated, so quickly! Not only is the phone-hacking scandal already very old news, but the 'state of the nation' on which the play comments has changed hugely during the debate on Scottish independence. We aren't living in the same 'Great Britain' that we were in June.

But even given this, it was a very uneven and ultimately disappointing show that dealt in broad stereotypes that we have seen far too often.

Lucy Punch played the role originally created by Billie Piper at a constant level of coarse smugness that was simply annoying after the first 10 minutes - to be honest she was pretty awful. Dermot Crowley did a good job as the Murdoch-figure and Robert Glenister was fun as the awful Editor (until he disappeared in the second act). The show was totally stolen by the hilariously incompetent Police Commissioner played by Aaron Neil and by the brilliant graphics displayed on very funky large dividing screens at scene changes.

But 'riotously funny' it was not.

There's a real benefit to the brilliant NT Travelex ticket scheme by which £15 seats are offered to most shows - you can go to a play and be disappointed without being too irate that you've wasted a huge amount of money!

And crisps £1.70 a bag (I missed my tea)! Come on....

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Fantastic fringe!

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year was superb. It's not just the vast numbers of variable quality pieces on offer (2000+), nor the ability to go from dawn to early morning in a constant stream of theatre, it's the whole vibe of so many people with similar outlooks brought together in one place. The vibe is remarkable.

Ostensibly we were there to support the youngest son with NSFW and his experience is very typical I suppose.

You arrive to a hastily constructed space (in his case an old office block just off the Royal Mile which was very atmospheric and are given a very short space of time to get your technical rehearsal done - 45 minutes at 6.30am in his case.

You open the next day and before your slot (12.55pm for NSFW) you are all out on the streets desperately leafleting away in the hope of getting an audience to see you. Walking down the Royal Mile during festival time is to run the gauntlet of creative, well-meaning, occasionally to pushy or just mad leafleteers. Your pockets swiftly fill up with bits of A6 card. Here's a nice article on the art of leafleting.

Next you hope for a good review, and the earlier the better, to attract more people. Luckily NSFW got 5* from the well-read in the first week and so numbers were pretty god. This was followed by a 4* and 3* from Edfringe later on. So the numbers were kept bubbling along - you are there for three weeks!

By the last week you are sick to death of leaflets and probably fellow thesps - NSFW's cast seemed remarkably happy together but this is probably unusual. But it's hard work being around actors for a long time and you long for the sanity of a quiet space.

At the end of three weeks you try not to count the cost of what you've just done. Very few productions make a profit. It's the experience (and the exposure) that counts.

And then home, with a bag full of ripe washing and a feeling of achievement that it takes a while to come down from.

If you've never been to the festival as audience, go. If you're an actor or director, it's part of any good actor's training.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

My highlights of the week!

It's been a thoroughly satisfying week - all the shows went well and were warmly received. And most importantly it looks like all the casts of all the shows had a totally positive experience! That's the most important thing.

But here are my personal highlights of the week - just things that will stick in my memory...

  • Fixing the toilet seat in the girls' loo at Sandringham. Twice.
  • Looking around at a key point of 'This Is My Elephant' to see 7 grown men weeping (albeit surreptitiously)
  • Frankie's accent in 'T.I.M.E' - beautifully observed, great character
  • Dom's scary and violent husband - took me totally by surprise and genuinely shocking
  • The other side of the coin - poor Megan!
  • Emily and Kieran in the cafe - "Show me."
  • Overall impression at the end of 'T.I.M.E.' that something really powerful and worthwhile had been created
  • Emily as the little old lady in 'Reality Bites' - "Don't leave me!"
  • Rediscovering James Saunders' work - love it!
  • The massive queues outside The SandPit - lovely to have good houses
  • The bling of the foyer, the gold of the stage...
  • The lovely sound of a cello in "Oscars" in 'Falling Slowly'
  • The lighting up sign thing - fab work Rachael!
  • My mispronunciation of 'Best umbrella' during the presentations at the end of 'Oscars'
  • Spooky lighting on the swans
  • The penguins of course! 
  • Generally, the whole 'animated animal casting' scene - that idea has legs I think...
  • Especially the line "please follow the horrific trail of blood to the end of the corridor"
  • Gareth - the human running order (see picture below)
  • Friday yellow's tears as four moved on - seeing them holding hands in the last number
  • Sarah's 'pratfall' 
  • Elola's alien
  • Hertford greenies flying a kite (what a lovely bunch they are)
  • The joy in the Hertford bollywood number
  • The horrendous pain of my knee at the end of the first Oscars show (and the relief that large doses of paracetamol brought)
  • and finally...Louisa's (Freudian?) gaffe at the end of her intro for the Casting Agency scene on Saturday - when you relax too much and you lose concentration for a moment, the subconscious brain kicks in and disastrous things can happen... we did laugh. A lot.

So we move on to Greenwich this Sunday where 'T.I.M.E' is being presented as part of the young peoples festival. And then on Monday the spring holiday courses start. Time for another deep breath...

Tarra till then!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

They think it's all over...

Well the virtual curtain comes down on a mammoth run of shows, and finishes with a glorious 'Night at the Oscars' from our St Albans Saturday schools.

A much shorter tech and dress (thank goodness) as we'd done much of the hard work the day before, but the performances at the dress were rather lacklustre. But they seemed to listen to the words of encouragement we gave them before the break and came back with all guns blazing!

A fantastic job from a lovely group of kids - well done all.

So that's the end of the 'Perfect Storm' - 8 days, 8 shows, 4 venues. We've come home to find our son has made us a lovely vegetable soup and that is the perfect end to an eventful, exhausting, inspiring and ultimately totally satisfying week. I'll sleep on it and come back with my highlights of the week tomorrow - and yes, Louisa, that little slip tonight will be one of them...

Saturday, 29 March 2014

What an epic!

Wow - 3 hours!?! The longest show we've ever done by a country mile, but the kids were fabulous throughout - patient, well behaved, polite and smiling - a total pleasure to work with.

As were the teachers who did a brilliant job, and the crew of the SandPit who coped admirably with our perhaps less than rigorous preparation.

The day started with us rigging the show and decorating Front of House - it's a bling extravaganza! The tech dress started late and got later. By the time it was supposed to finish we still had about 7 numbers to tech. But we got there in the end and boy it was worth it.

Mid show we decided to change the end so that a reprise of the final number was avoided - it was hot in that theatre and I think the audience had seen enough! Good call I think - we'll do the same tomorrow,

My feet hurt like never before, I can't move my right knee and my back refuses to let me get up. And the clocks go forward tonight.

But one more show to go... and we're sure it'll be a cracker too! What a day...

Friday, 28 March 2014

Exhaustion begins to grip...

I confess I'm totally exhausted already and we haven't even started the weekend run yet! My back is seriously stiff and my knee is killing me and A is dead on her feet...but the show must go on.

Today started with a trip to wonderland - well a barn in Flamstead anyway,  where Susie G's events company keep their stores. We left with loads of goodies for the theatre - Gatsby-style boards, chandeliers, VIP ropes. The theatre should look fantastic and we're very grateful to the hugely generous Mrs G.

And from then it's been absolutely relentless - printing 8ft posters using A4 paper which have to be stuck together, running orders for the shows backstage, burning CDs, creating a sound effect of a zebra being attacked by a lion, ironing hundreds of t-shirts, digging in the garage for the last prop or two, cutting sticks into wands, printing certificates, packing stuff into boxes, ticking off lengthy checklists, delivering everything to the theatre etc etc

And then the final blow - I've printed 130 programmes upside down. I think I'm going to cry. I'm sure I'll feel better after a good night's sleep. And a few Paracetamol. And a glass of wine.

But it will be brilliant tomorrow. We've got an excellent crowd in and a packed programme. Finally for today here's a picture of the SandPit team trying out one of our props for tomorrow.

I'll be blogging and tweeting from the theatre tomorrow. See you there!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Reality has bitten

It's not easy being natural on stage. The 'method acting' approach requires dedication and commitment and a high degree of relaxation. So the Best School of Acting Advanced group did a fine job last night with some extremely challenging (and very poignant for the audience) material.

They really have progressed as performers under Lisa's guidance and with this show and TheBYTE's show earlier in the week we are extremely proud of our older students!

So today it's getting the programmes ready for the weekend and a load of other admin-y type stuff. See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Elephant has left the room

So the virtual curtain has come down on The Maltings' run of TheBYTE's  'This Is My Elephant' which has exceeded all my expectations a brilliant job by uber-director Lisa, scriptmeister Anna Reynolds and the cast. The quality of the performances, scripting and characterisation were superb and demonstrated just what a strong group we now have at TheBYTE - our only sadness is that soon we are losing some to university and drama school but we know they will go there with some solid experience and technique behind them thanks to their time at TheBYTE and Best - and hopefully a whole bunch of great memories. Here are a few pics...

We did film the show too - hopefully we can do something with that.

We think that after the Greenwich Festival there's still another step for this show to take. The lovely thing was that when we asked the cast whether they'd be interested in a further show and rework, their hands shot up in unison.

The Maltings is a lovely little theatre. When Best was launched it was the venue for our first three years' public performances - 'The Selfish Giant',  'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Shake, Ripple & Roll.' but then it just became too small for the sizes of casts we had.

Then when we launched TheBYTE we took our first shows there too - 'The Musicians', 'Just' and 'Shut Up'. At that time it was  happy and thriving council-run venue with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who supported us at every stage. It was sad to see this energy dismantled - firstly when their budget was cut (mostly diverted to the incoming Trestle) and then when it was threatened with closure.

But now the space has a new lease of life thanks to local group, 'OVO'. They've brightened it up, brought high quality theatre back to the stage and we are delighted that from September we'll be basing our youth theatre activities there - including (we hope) a technical stream for budding lighting gurus.

So next on the agenda is our Best School of Acting showcase - 'Reality Bites'. This is a collection of mini scenes from the works of James Saunders and aims to flex their Stanislavskian muscles. It's tomorrow (Wednesday 26th March) at The Maltings.

For today, the last piece of costume for the weekends 'Oscars' show has arrived - joy!

Monday, 24 March 2014

This Is My Excellent Elephant

What a wonderful show TheBYTE has devised with the help of Lisa and Anna Reynolds. I admit I shed a tear at the dress rehearsal and I was smugly satisfied to see a number of pairs of spectacles being hastily removed and tissues applied in the first night audience. Sorry about the picture - will try and get a better one tonight...

TheBYTE has developed into a really strong team and this show is all about teamwork.

The devising process too has been a very important and valuable one for the cast.  Starting with their own character they allowed the story to develop organically. What has resulted is a witty, warm and very moving piece of totally original theatre - something they can all be very proud of.

It's the second night tonight and I strongly urge anyone who is free to get down to. The Maltings and see it. Tickets on the door are £5. You won't regret it!

From here the show moves to the Greenwich Young People's Festival on 6th April.

Next up it's Best School of Acting with Reality Bites on Wednesday, also at The Maltings (which is a fab venue by the way).

Meanwhile an offer has arrived of some really great things with which to decrease The Sandpit for the shows this weekend. Very exciting.

I am sitting here printing off tickets for tonight's show - need some more programmes too. Also have to write the programmes for the weekend...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Production week tales

Best is coming into a frantic week of shows:-

Saturday 22nd - First Class showings in St Albans
Sunday 23rd- tech, dress and show TheByte's production of "This Is My Elephant"
UPDATE - have just seen the dress of this and it is SUPERB!!! DON'T MISS IT!
Monday 24th - second show of T.IM.E., 
Wednesday 26th - Best School of Acting's show 'Reality Bites' at The Maltings
Saturday  29th First class Hertford show 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and we tech dress and perform 'A Night at the Oscars' with Hertford and Best St Albans Friday schools
Sunday 30th - Tech dress and perform 'A Night at the Oscars' with Best's St.Albans Saturday schools

So I thought I'd keep a little diary so you can see what this is all like for a behind the scenes point of view!

I'm sitting in the foyer of The Maltings Theatre as the tech whizz Phil and director Lisa set things up. 

Cast member Isaac has just arrived, fresh from his first Friday at the 'Thriller' academy which seemed to go really well. What and exciting opportunity for him! And aren't we proud?

At the moment the stage is bare and for anyone in the theatre a space like that sends a thrill of anticipation.

Meanwhile, back at Best HQ (er... our house) every available piece of space has been taken up with costume and props for the upcoming Oscars shows.

This is not a fun time - all the costumes are bought in or come from our ever burgeoning store in our garage and it's very hard on the back shifting around heavy tuff crates.

We hear two of our Hertford cast now won't be there for the show. This is not the place to set down our reaction to such late news but primarily our concern is for the rest of the cast and the work they now have to do in recasting, learning new lines and resetting choreography.

On the subject of missed rehearsals etc, this is the hardest thing to communicate positively to parents. The missing cast member (although they might know their lines) has to be brought up to date with the latest changes and as we only see people once a week they lose familiarity with the blocking and choreography and we have to do it all again when they return.

And it's the remaining cast who turn up who suffer. A rehearsal where any cast member is missing is not a true rehearsal and they lose the chance as a group to take the piece further - you can only tread water as you know you will have to go back and redo the changes and cues.

But we do know we are here first and foremost to give all our students a fun time - we can't be overly worried when children miss rehearsals - they have so much on in their lives it's hardly surprising. So we take a very laid back approach to our shows knowing "we'll get what we get" and although our teachers can get stressed as they want to out on e best show they possibly can, we are happy if our students are happy.

The cast for today's show arrive soon for their tech and dress. It's an exciting play they have devised themselves which has than been scripted by local playwright Anna Reynolds. After it's run here it going to the Greenwich Young People's Festival in April where it'll be performed at The Tramshed in Woolwich.

Check back tomorrow to find out how everything goes!

Friday, 14 February 2014

Cromwell v Lear

Two major shows seen this week - 'Wolf Hall' - the RSC's adaptation of the Hilary Mantel mega-award winning book at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale's 'King Lear' on the Olivier stage at the National.

Actually to compare the two would be somewhat unhelpful, but I guess the overall impression left  is valid - and for me, perhaps unexpectedly,  'Wolf Hall' wins it.

I'll juts mention here there is a SPOILER ALERT later in this blog about something in 'King Lear' - just so you know

The RSC has created a fast-moving, gripping narrative throughline with 'virtual' scene changes, snappy dialogue and an extremely strong ensemble who worked hard from first to last to tell the tale. Cromwell is of course central to everything but the action happens around him, with his controlling touch applied with deftness and calculation. So the show is about the interaction of a group of extremely well-rounded and beautifully defined characters rather than an individual tour-de-force. The Swan Theatre is a fitting environment for it too - intimate and at times a little claustrophobic. And hot!

Ben Miles as Cromwell was (for me) an unexpected choice for what has to be one of the plum roles of the year, but my goodness he is good. He beautifully portrays a man shaped by a cruel and relentless childhood into a tough, quick-witted and increasingly ruthless survivor with a yearning for security. He makes his choices and follows through and although he is never really likeable he is always fascinating. It was a complex and finely drawn characterisation.

As, indeed, were all the characters: there had clearly been a huge amount of thought put into each one, and this was described in the cast's question and answer session after the show - a rare treat and a big thanks to the RSC for putting this on.

We're seeing the second part of the production 'Bring Up the Bodies', next week. Can't wait! If only Stratford was a bit closer...

And so, last night, to 'King Lear'. I don't know whether it's an advantage to know a play very well. For my sins I studied it at A level and during my degree. It kind of helped in the opening to this production. There was a lot of indistinct shouting and even though I know the lines to the first scene backwards I was having trouble following where we were! Thankfully things calmed own and the production, for me, got better and better as it went on.

Sam Mendes has placed the play in a militaristic Eastern-bloc dictatorship and this suited the play well. It gave Lear a clear position as a fading despot and ensured the political elements where readily recognisable to a modern audience. It's a huge stage, the Olivier, and the setting used the vast area well, especially in the storm scenes.

So once we were over a slightly indistinct start the production got the play moving quickly. It isn't one of Shakespeare's shortest so pace is vital.

Beale's portrayal of the descending dementia was quite spellbinding - the scene with blinded Gloucester and his reunion with Cordelia being very moving.  Here comes the SPOILER...

Adrian Scarborough as the Fool is superb throughout - a tricky but important role made accessible and central. His death at the hands of a confused Lear was unexpected, violent and deeply unsettling - brilliant piece of thinking and theatre. I wish I had thought of that! (you will, Oscar, you will)...

Tom Brooke as Edgar was splendid - touchingly naive and raw. Other strong performances from Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan and Kate Fleetwood as Goneril and, particularly, from Stanley Townsend as Kent.

But some of the other supporting cast were not so strong and this gave the production a somewhat lumpy feeling.  In particular Olivia Vinall as Cordelia seemed to have dusted off 'Shakepearean Lady character B' for the occasion - over declamatory and not much sublety. I was a bit unsure about her as Desdemona in 'Othello' recently and I'm afraid I didn't like this either. Sorry...

So overall, I was left with a feeling that this was a very good King Lear, but perhaps not the definitive Lear I'd been hoping for.

And overall it was the ensemble work in 'Wolf Hall' that left me more satisfied and inspired.