Sunday, August 8, 2010

Once upon a time....

Once upon a time in a large, smoky metropolis, there sat a young, enthusiastic actress at a laptop.

"Dearest Google-on-the-wall, I've been cast in a show at something called the Exeter Fringe Festival. Tell me more about these festivities."

Well Google, being the swift dutiful little oracle that it is, promptly returned with a list full of exciting information.

"Hmm", said the actress, "the Bike Shed Theatre. That's where the revelries will be taking place. I wonder what else will be happening there?"

And as she looked over the names of productions happening in this shed of theatricality, one in particular stood out. Romeo and Juliet. Actually, in her eyes it stood out rather more like ROMEO AND JULIET. She stopped right there, as she particularly loved The Bard.

"How wonderful!", she exclaimed, "This festival must be of particularly good taste if one of our greatest plays is being performed. It's being produced by a company called Grassroots Shakespeare. I must find out more!"

So back she went to Google, who led her to a wonderful site, telling her all about the marvellous values of this wonderful troupe of actors, who dedicated themselves to performing Shakespearian works as the great man himself would have seen.

"Well this sounds fantastic! Just my sort of thing! I wonder if I could get involved..."

And this is how she ended up sending an electronic letter to the players and found herself, one Saturday morning, far away from the big city, across the country in an ancient town called Exeter, with a group of people she had never met before, prompting them on their Shakespeare.

It would appear that any great, fortuitous encounter requires a mythical backdrop and that is rather how I feel about the great luck I've had in finding Grassroots Shakespeare. From a personal perspective, I feel like I'm on a lifelong learning journey about Shakespeare, but there was something about Grassroots that instantly appealed to me. There was, and is, something breathtakingly genuine about a group of people who were committing themselves to a challengingly short rehearsal time in order to give the audience as authentic an experience as possible. The RSC have great long rehearsal periods, where you're encouraged not to know the text in advance and you spend weeks working on movement and text, but here were actors, throwing modern convention to the wind in order to get back to basics. That is admirable. Learning pages and pages of lines in only a few days is in my opinion nothing short of miraculous, and yet Grassroots achieve this, seemingly with ease.

I've seen some great onstage moments, with "Get thee to Manchester" (instead of Mantua) being one of my favourites. You could almost hear the audience saying "Oh, they've updated it to modern Britain! How clever!", while we were all trying to stiffle giggles, but being true professionals, soldiered on! I loved the casting of Lord Capulet as a woman and Lady Capulet as a man, as it brought so much out of the text I hadn't considered before, particularly what an abusive household poor Juliet had been raised in. It was truly horrible watching Lord Capulet trying to restrain herself from beating her daughter. It has also been amazing to see what can be achieved with little money for props or costumes, and the fact that it really doesn't make a difference to an audience's enjoyment. After all, it is the stage, and imagination is what it is all about.

I've now completed my second show with Grassroots, All's Well That Ends Well, and I can say I've loved every action-filled minute of it. As the on-stage prompter (a common feature of the Elizabethan stage, you know), I get to see all the action and to admire the actors, their decisions, their accents, their passion, their triumphs and their difficulties. I get to see how wholeheartedly they throw themselves into every moment on stage and how they strive to produce the best performances possible, not because they long for fame or huge pay cheques like many who aspire to our profession do, but because they long to reach the audiences, to produce something beautiful, memorable and moving. This for me is the highest aim for an actor and something that Grassroots embodies.

I've made some great friends through Grassroots and I loved being involved with their work. May Grassroots live long and prosper :)

Siobhan studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King's College London. She has performed in a number of roles from Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls to Daphne Bridges in ITV's The Battle of Britain. She has sung at the Dominion Theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Palace Theatre and worked as a backing singer, including for ITV's The X Factor. She performs regularly with the BBC’s Radio Theatre Group, recently creating the role of Fliss in the new work ‘Flying Solo’ and Eliza in 'Cupidity'. She acts, directs and produces and has recently been presenting red carpet interviews for an online entertainment website.

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