Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Carrie's on the road!

After a brilliant opening week of Carrie's War at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, we were ready to tour. Now touring isn't for everyone. Lots of actors like to do exactly the same thing, in the same place every night. Which is absolutely fine! But I and many of the other actors in the company love getting to a new theatre, finding your way around, sussing the run round (which in some theatres was mental, and involved running at full pelt under the stage to get to the other side in time!), working out your entrances, your quick changes and adapting the play to a new space. It really keeps you on your toes, and ensures you never get complacent and end up just going through the motions, as you are always having to be alert and thinking about your next step. This has caused some hilarious moments though, with some exits where there weren't exits and running front of house to get to stage left whilst doing a quick change!

As fun as touring is, it is bloody hard work! We did a mixture of one, two and three day runs in each venue. Three days are a luxury, giving you a chance to explore the town you are in and relax with the company. Two days are fine, giving you one sleep between get-in and get-out and breakfast out on day two. But one day runs are hardcore! Tim and Vicky would get to the venue for 9:00am, some occasions meaning leaving at 6:00am, and spend the day working non stop getting the set up, rigging and focusing lights, sorting sound and everything that needs to happen before the actors stroll on at 5:00pm. Words cannot describe how hard they worked. I would arrive with the Guildford actors at around 1:00pm (usually a little deaf from a journey in the car with Nigel and Andy singing at the top of their voices!) and sort dressing rooms, hunt down the washing machines, see how many items of clothing I could fit on one hanger as there are NEVER ANY HANGERS, no matter how many I buy, check into the hotel then sort myself for the show. By this point I was usually ready for a nap just as the show went up! I also started a new job during the tour, because apparently I didn't have enough to do. So whenever I wasn't in the theatre playing Carrie, I was training and starting my new job. All this added up to a very VERY tired Amy!

When you're knackered it's hard to find the energy to run about the stage playing an excitable 12 year old who is in every scene of the show. Some nights as I was stood waiting for the curtain to go up I wondered how on earth I would get through this. But I did, and loved it! The audiences have been wonderful, and the feedback has blown me away. Here's a selection of the emails and tweets we've been sent:

superb production tonight thanks from all at primary!

'The acting was brilliant and the simple staging was really effective as was the sound. The beautiful singing was very moving.Thank you so much for a fantastic evening. We'll definitely look out for further productions from your company.'

'I have really fond memories of both the book and the 1974 BBC adaptation, and seeing it performed on stage by you in such a clever and entertaining way was wonderful.'

'I have just returned from seeing your production of Carries War at The Berry Theatre, Hedge End, and wanted to tell you how fantastic I thought it was. It was incredibly well acted, and very moving.'

 We loved Carrie's War!  Think I brought the youngest members of the audience (5 and 2.5!), but they were mesmerised....

'I was totally immersed in the play and the acting quality was superb. Even the stage transformations were executed with discretion and precision.'

Well there's no rest for the wicked, and we're already starting the cycle again, planning what to do next year....

In the meantime it's time to get those home fires burning again!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Taking the plunge....

So last week Apollo Theatre Company opened our biggest show yet! Our production of Carrie's War opened at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford on Wednesday 14th May, and ran there for eight shows, before going off on tour.

Tim and I have been planning this show for over a year and it has been an incredible amount of hard work. After the initial slog of booking theatres was done, then came everything else! I spent about a month designing the program, and it drove me absolutely mad! Just as I thought I'd got it perfect, I'd notice something else not quite placed right, and have to start all over again. I thought about it constantly, and even woke Tim up one night by shouting 'Mr Evans!' in my sleep. Tim has spent his weekends for the past month building and painting the set, working out how it would all connect and all the clever props he needed to make. He did get me back for my rude midnight awakening however, by one night shouting sleepily at me 'Just put another nail in it!' Our spare room was full of costumes with our cat Penny taking her role as wardrobe mistress very seriously i.e. hiding behind them! We've written press releases, made education packs, trawled eBay for pink ostrich feathers, had arguments with Travelodge on the phone, auditioned over 50 actors, made cakes (because actors LOVE cake!), taken up shorts, designed websites, replaced one actor last minute, and all the other things that come with producing a show! If anyone thinks this theatre lark is easy, they are very VERY wrong!

This was when we'd painted the floor cloth

And then all of a sudden we were starting rehearsals. Luckily we had managed to find the most lovely group of actors you could ask for. Don't get me wrong, we all worked very hard in rehearsals, but we also had a lot of fun! We were also lucky to be joined in rehearsals by Emma Reeves who adapted the book for the stage. It was really interesting to speak to her and hear how she had come to adapt the book and her background with the story. We all felt very privileged as this is not an opportunity you often get during rehearsals. And then almost as sudden as they arrived, we had finished rehearsals and it was SHOW WEEK!!

On the Monday it was our get-in day, and we only had until 5pm as there was a one-nighter that evening, so we knew we would be pushed for time. Being hopeless at anything practical, I was on costumes! I spent the day in the wardrobe room doing any bits of sewing and adjustments that were needed, and delivering costumes to the correct dressing rooms. My lovely friend Emma came in to help me and I put her on ironing shirts, as I hate ironing with a passion! Whilst we chatted and ironed and sewed, Tim, Vicky (our stage manager), Sarah (our lighting designer) and the Arnaud crew were working hard putting the set up and rigging the lights. I have to say the crew at the Yvonne Arnaud have to be the best crew in the world. For a start they are brilliant at their job, which helps, but then they are so incredibly helpful, and willing to help, which makes all the difference.

After a long day teching and dressing, it was finally Wednesday, opening day! The show went extremely well, the audiences laughed, the manic quick changes went smoothly, the tables wheeled on and off at the right times, the choirs sang successfully in Welsh, nobody dropped the skull, and we were all left very happy. Now to do it seven more times!

Now the thing with taking something onto a bigger stage means you get lots more reviews than in a studio space. We had some lovely lovely reviews but some not so much. Fortunately Tim lets all that go above him, and he doesn't care, which is the right way to be. Unfortunately, I am not wired like that. I would desperately love to write to the reviewers and point out everything they got wrong in their review. I know you can't please everyone, and that theatre is very objective, but it breaks my heart that someone can just be so dismissive of something we have put our hearts and souls into for over a year. It baffles me as to why in this business it is perfectly acceptable to watch someone at work, then write rude and negative things about actors and companies, and that's fine. Can you imagine that happening in any other industry? But that's what comes of this business I suppose.

What I should be thinking about is the feedback from the audiences. After all it is their views that matter the most! One thing I forget is that to people outside of the industry, being an actor is actual quite exciting! After the very first show, I was called to stage door to meet a family with two young girls. They had been reading the book as a family, so had been very excited to see the show. Well, I have never had anyone so happy to see me (bar my cat)! The girls looked utterly star struck, and had lots of questions to ask and so much to tell me! More excitement came when Nigel Munson who plays Mr Johnny appeared, and we all had a photo together. Later that day, I received am email from their mother saying how much the story and the show meant to all of them, and how happy the girls were to meet us after. Later in the week, Nina Bawden's family came to see the show. This was a huge deal, and Tim and I were honoured that they came. We met them after the show, and they were still wiping away tears. Robert, Nina's son, later emailed me this:

'My family and I thoroughly enjoyed Apollo Theatre Company's production of Carrie's War yesterday. 

From the very first moment we arrived at the theatre we were excited about the production. The poster immediately attracted our attention, perfectly evoking a sense of the story to come. The programme was excellent with very helpful and interesting notes on evacuation.

The cast were all excellent, entirely believable in their roles.The simple staging really emphasised the importance of my mother's words, the nuances of the story and the emotional content. It helped us notice detail we hadn't noticed before such as the taking of the ring and the way Mrs Gotobed held it in front of her. Mannerisms of the children were very well portrayed, Nina would have loved those as she was such an acute observer of children. 

It was a truly memorable performance, we all loved it, I am sure my mother would have loved it too.'

This praise from the family of the author is the highest we can get (not to mention he loved the programme! YES!!!)

This is what I should be thinking about, not some reviewer's opinion. This and the many children (and adults) I have met this week who so loved the show, and loved Carrie, and will remember their experience for months to come. And that's what matters, isn't it?

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Off We Tour!

On Thursday 24th November Apollo Theatre Company officially opened their first ever original production. Keep the Home Fires Burning opened at the Mill Studio in Guildford to a lovely welcoming audience. The week running up to opening had been stressful to say the least. I had been suffering with food poisoning for a week with no sign of it letting up. My trip to the doctor had not been very helpful:

'Ok so you need to rest. What's your job?'

'I am an actress opening a one woman show tomorrow.'

'Right. You need to seriously think about whether you can do that.'

I had to resist the urge to shout 'Oh yes that's fine, I'll just stay at home. Only problem is it's a ONE WOMAN SHOW so if I don't do it WHO WILL?? Would you like to Sir?!'

Fortunately the medicine he gave me and the advice of nil by mouth for 24 hours (the day before opening, excellent) seemed to do the trick and I was ready to go!

 That week we were very lucky to have Zoe doing work experience with us. She was fantastic, and took on any job we gave her, from mopping the stage to running the sound! On Thursday 24th, Zoe and Tim were in early getting the set ready. We had 10 enormous propaganda posters to hang around the stage and getting them to hang straight was a challenge! I was in the dressing room having a fight with my victory rolls and before we knew it, we had done our dress run and it was time for the show...

The show went brilliantly, and the audience was full of happy faces, which was very encouraging! I got home that night and fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow.

On the Friday we had a very special performance. As part of my research for the show I had visited a number of care homes in Surrey, so we put on a special showing just for them. I was particularly nervous for this one, as these were the people that actually lived through the war, they knew what it was really like, what if I'd got it all wrong?!

I needn't have worried. As I walked out onto stage I heard a cry of 'Here she is!' and they burst into applause. I was so pleased I nearly burst into tears (not that this is new, I cry most shows!) They joined in with every song, reacted to everything I said with 'Mmm' and 'Yes!', and thoroughly enjoyed the show. I came out to chat afterwards, and they were so wonderful. One lady had brought a photograph of herself in her ATS uniform to show me. I asked her what jobs she had done, and she replied 'Oh you know, nothing much.' As ever, so humble. Everyone backstage, on-stage and front of house agreed that the whole afternoon had been a very magical experience.

After four fantastic performances in Guildford, we set off on tour to our next venue....

Unfortunately we had not sold well there. We fought through 3 shows of awful ticket sales and were glad when Saturday night came. I am a strong believer in however many people there are in the audience, they have still paid their money and deserve as good a show as any, so I gave my best every night no matter how hard it was.

This is one of the major problems facing small theatre companies today. When touring to smaller scale theatres of roughly 80 seats, I expect the theatre to work just as hard for us in their studio as they do for whatever is in their main house. When we were at The Mill, on the main stage of the Yvonne Arnaud was Ben Miller in the world premier of  'The Duck House' which opened the same night as us to a sell out audience. In many of the local papers, you would see my face next to Ben Miller's as the paper would have an article on both shows. On the Yvonne Arnaud Facebook page and Twitter feed you would see posts about both shows with photos, quotes and facts. I, in The Mill opening to 50 people, felt just as supported by all members of staff as 'The Duck House' in the main house opening to 600 people. The Yvonne Arnaud's Mill Studio is a shining example of how a studio theatre should be run. Unfortunately I have learnt that not all theatres care about their studio spaces. Particularly when they are attached to a main house making shed loads of money, they don't seem to bother with the smaller shows. It costs nothing to send a tweet, to email the local paper, to put out a stack of leaflets, but that's what these theatres don't seem to understand can make or break a show.

Companies that begin touring smaller scale theatres grow, and one day we will be touring main stages. And we will remember the way we were treated.

This week we are very excited to tour to The Capitol Studio Theatre in Horsham, where we have sold excellently! Hooray!

Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards....

Friday, 27 September 2013

My Grandad

On Sunday 15th September my lovely Grandad passed away from cancer. 

That's very sad you might say, but I thought that this was a blog about Apollo Theatre Company...

The reason I am writing this is my Nanny and Grandad have always been really supportive of everything I have ever done, from coming to see me dance in a pink tutu at dance competitions at the age of four, to seeing every show I have ever been in. But I have never seen Grandad as excited about a show I was doing as Keep the Home Fires Burning.

When I told him our idea for the show he was clearly really interested in it, and soon I was getting books on World War II in the post from them. When I went round to interview Nanny about her memories of the war, he kept telling me about his war, despite me trying to tell him he wasn't a woman therefore not eligible for the show. He reminded me of this when I visited him in hospital in those last few weeks, saying I wasn't interested in him and kept telling him to be quiet!

He told everyone about the show. And I mean everyone! They came to see our production of Our Town at the Mission Theatre in Bath in April this year, and after I had got changed and came out to see them, I found him telling the audience about Keep the Home Fires Burning, saying that I was writing and starring in it, and it would be coming to the Mission later this year! Best marketing man in the South West!

They tried hard to come and see the show at the Ventnor Fringe on the Isle of Wight in August, but couldn't find any free hotels for the dates needed. But he enjoyed checking up on our updates on Facebook and Twitter, and I woke up the day after the first ever performance to a message saying 'How did it go??' After my review was posted,  I got a card in the post saying 'Proud of You'.

Last time I saw Grandad he said he was coming to Guildford to see the show, even though we are touring to Bath which is a lot closer to them, he wanted to be there for the opening.

Well now he has a front row seat for every single show. And I will try my hardest to make him proud every night.

'We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day.'

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Rain, bunting and model villages.

At 6.30am on a beautiful sunny morning in August, I found myself sat in the back of the car on my way to the Ventnor Fringe Festival on the Isle of Wight! We were previewing our production of Keep the Home Fires Burning there, and after three weeks of rehearsals we were off with a car full of suitcases, props and costumes, and the determination to find a bacon sandwich from somewhere.We had left ridiculously early as our get-in was at 10 o'clock, so we had to be on the ferry by eight.

Once on board the ferry we managed to find not only a bacon sandwich but a full cooked breakfast, and happily tucked in as we hoped all these people on the ferry would be visiting the Ventnor Fringe Festival (they weren't). After disembarking and driving to the other side of the island - which took us a mere half an hour! -  we arrived in Ventnor in the pouring rain, and found our venue, The Pier Street Playhouse, where the very first thing I did was get myself locked in the toilet. Luckily after 10 minutes panicking and wiggling the lock, I managed to break free (no thanks to Mr Bond I might add, who stood outside saying there was absolutely nothing he could do to help). Our one women show would have looked very different and I feel perhaps lost its meaning slightly being performed by a bloke in a dress!

The Pier Street Playhouse was a lovely venue, and we were pleased to have nabbed such a great location! Our get-in went smoothly, and after deciding the optimum position for our bunting, we set off to explore Ventnor. The lovely Nigel Munson and Jake Hassam were also at the festival with their fabulous production of Soften the Grey, so we met up with them and trudged down the enormous hill to the seafront to find shelter from the gradually worsening rain. Completely drenched, we squeezed into a vintage flowery tea room, and warmed up with copious amounts of tea and scones.

We spent the rest of the day checking in to our hotel and napping, and suddenly it was 7 o'clock and we had an hour to set up the show! The show before us had just finished, so after waiting for their cast to get out and change, we had a quick 20 minute set up and warm up, and then I was upstairs in the make-shift dressing room by myself, listening to Tim Bond play pre-show music, and getting more and more nervous. I was about to step out onto the stage and perform a show that I had written myself, completely by myself! I have never been more scared in my life....

As I stepped out I was greeted by a lovely full audience of smiling faces and I relaxed, until I saw the reviewer with the notepad in the back row. Oh dear!! As the show continued the audience laughed and made general noises of enjoyment in all the right places. This was actually going well! There were no major mistakes, everything happened when it should have, I managed my quick change without looking like I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, I didn't make up any dates, and my hat didn't fall off! All the makings of a good show I think.

It felt like it was over in minutes, never mind an hour as I legged it off the stage to collapse in the dressing room. Except I couldn't find the light switch, so spent 10 minutes fumbling around in the pitch black trying to find some source of light! We left the theatre to the happy mumblings of audience members, and a reviewer who seemed to have enjoyed it. Phew! Now it was time for a well deserved drink...

The next day we had time to kill so set off to explore the island. We didn't quite fancy the garlic festival (where apparently you can get garlic beer?!) so we headed to Godshill, where we decided to be proper tourists and trudge around the model village in the rain.

Despite the downpour we had a great time, and even splashed out on some chocolate from the chocolate cafe!

After an afternoon nap in the car we were ready for another show. With an equally full and encouraging audience, it went down well again, despite the Ventnor carnival going past right outside the theatre in the most poignant moment of the show playing 'Consider Yourself' as loud as they possibly could. Then it was time to pack up our props and weave our way back to the car through the carnival. We boarded the ferry home at midnight, where the boys decided the one thing they really needed on a ferry in the middle of the night was a caramel magnum. We whizzed down the motorway and were in bed by two.

A weekend full of eating, sleeping, exploring and getting very wet, topped off with two fantastic shows, and the realisation that this show could be something rather good....

Let's write a show!

In 2012 Tim had an idea for a show about women in World War 2, and said would you like to write it Amy? Erm....yes, I think so?! I have never written anything like this in my life, but thought I'd have a go! Up to now all our productions have been already published plays, and as brilliant as they were (very modest!), we wanted to branch out into the world of original shows. Now, where to start....

I knew I was going to have to do a hell of a lot of research for the show, but where should I start? I had the idea of getting some first hand experiences of the war from women who had lived through it, rather than just getting information from books, so I sent out letters to Surrey Care Homes, and waited. Not having much experience with care homes, I had no idea what, if any, response I would get. I was astounded by the amount of interest I got, lots of homes seemed up for me going in to chat to the residents, and my diary quickly filled up with visits.

Before the first visit, I was ridiculously nervous as I didn't know what to expect. Would anyone remember anything at all? Would they want to talk to me in the first place?! What if I say the wrong thing! But as I began the first interview (still trying to decipher my new Dictaphone!) I started to relax, as it became apparent that older ladies LOVE to chat! Everywhere I went, as I sat down and introduced myself, the ladies would say 'Oh I don't remember anything, it was years ago' but two minutes later, they were chatting away, telling me everything from where they were the day Chamberlain made that infamous radio broadcast, to the names of their next door neighbour in 1942! It was lovely to get this first hand insight into their lives, and to see them all enjoy reliving those moments. Granted not everyone was friendly and open, and I did have a few 'Can I ask you a few questions?' 'No.' 'Umm, Ok then.' I even had some men come to join in, and I didn't have the heart to tell them this was a show just about women!

Armed with a good variety of stories (including some Bristolian tales from my Nanny!) and lots of extracts from books on women's services (our bookshelves at home now look like the World War 2 section of a library) I now had to decide how to start putting together the show. How was I going to keep a one woman show from getting boring? I already knew songs would feature heavily throughout the show, as the wartime songs really suit my voice, so that was one tool to break up the show, but I needed a definite structure. I eventually came to the idea of using the various propaganda posters that are so famous, to separate the show into sections. Now it was starting to come together!!

It took AGES to write and create the show, and I had about five different versions on the go at once. My work colleagues got sick of me spouting random World War 2 facts at them constantly and I became obsessed with the 1940's! I bought ration cooking books, found a 1940's pattern to make a dress (not for the show I must add, just because I apparently didn't already have enough to do!) and slowly turned into a 1940's housewife. But I enjoyed myself immensely in the process. Apart from the constant state of terror I was in that the show would be rubbish, I had a whale of a time!

As well as the full tour dates I had booked in October, I had also booked 2 performances at the Ventnor Fringe Festival in the Isle Of Wight in August, to test the water, and try out the show (far, far away from Guildford, in case it was awful!!) Before I knew it, I was on a ferry to the Isle of Wight, with a car full of 1940's props, and a pair of Tims....