Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Citizens Dream Players, The Mechanicals and the Royal Shakespeare Company's 's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream looks set to be something of a real life fairytale for Emma Tracey, the teenage acting student who takes to the Citizens Theatre stage in Glasgow this week as Starveling in Shakespeare's most out there rom-com. For estate agent Martin Turner too, who plays Bottom in the show, appearing in a major touring production initiated by the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, is a Dream come true.

Both Tracey and Turner are part of what has been styled as the Citizens Dream Players, an ad hoc ensemble created especially for this new production, which uses a locally based amateur or community theatre company based in each city the show visits to play the Mechanicals. The creation of the Citizens Dream Players as a bespoke entity differs from the other amateur and community performers that will take part in the show across the country, who are drawn from already existing groups.

“The day of the photo shoot was the first time we all met,” says Tracey, who is currently studying drama at Glasgow Clyde College (formerly Langside College) after stints in youth theatre with the Paisley-based PACE company and other groups. “I'd volunteered at the Citz as a steward during a project called On Common Ground, and I think they must have added me to their mailing list from that. That was halfway through my course, and the idea of doing A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Citz with the RSC sounded incredible. When I was cast it was beyond my wildest dreams.”

Tracey started acting aged ten.

“I originally wanted to be a writer,” she says, “but something clicked.”

Turner is a stalwart of Fintry Amateur Dramatic Society, whose work is regularly seen in competitions overseen by the Scottish Community Drama Association.

“I've been in Fintry for thirty years,” he says. “I'm a farmer's son, and there's not a lot of social activity there apart from the Young Farmer's Club, which is where I first did drama. I thought it was fantastic, and it really released a lot.”

Turner has become a leading light of the drama society over the years in more than sixty shows, including Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof. Early on in his involvement with the group, Turner appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream as Demetrius. Playing Bottom, however, is something else again.

As the comic heart of Shakespeare's play, the Mechanicals are a hapless troupe of artisans seen attempting to put together a play they've been invited to show at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. As naughty Puck works his wiles, however, the gang's show-off and would-be star performer, Bottom, is transformed into an ass. When Titania, queen of the underworld, mistakenly falls under Puck's spell, worlds collide in a way that leaves Bottom changed forever.

“I initially auditioned to play Peter Quince,” Turner says, “but after we did a read-through, I was asked to read for Bottom. Of all the parts one might want to get your teeth stuck into, that's the one.”

Alongside the other four Glasgow performers, Tracey and Turner were cast following an intensive series of auditions and workshops led over two days in February 2015. These were led by the show's director and RSC deputy artistic director, Erica Whyman.

“We very much wanted to work with the Citz,” says Whyman of overseeing such a mammoth task. “There's a lot of community-based work that goes on at the Citz, and there are a lot of community performers in Glasgow. Last year I met ninety-eight of those performers over two days, and then auditioned them.

“It's been a huge process doing the same thing at all the different venues, but we wanted it to be a genuinely national project that we hope will open up new audiences, both for the RSC and for Shakespeare.”

Since being cast, the Citizens Dream Players have been working intensely with the Citizens Learning team led by director Guy Hollands, and have rehearsed one or two evenings every week. The group has also had the chance to observe the professional cast and other community groups rehearse via live online streaming.

Once the tour has ended, all fourteen amateur and community companies will decamp to Stratford, where over a marathon few days they will watch each other perform the show alongside what may prove to be an increasingly exhausted professional team.

“I get goosebumps when I think about it,” says Turner. “I've seen some wonderful things at Stratford. One of the major performances I've seen is Brian Cox playing Titus Andronicus, so the idea of performing on the same stage is a real thrill.”

Tracey too is excited.

“I've never been to Stratford,” she says, “I read that it was a thousand-seater theatre, and knowing that going onstage would be my first experience of the place almost gave me a mini heart attack.”

Scheduled as part of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the RSC have styled this new production as A Play For The Nation. For Whyman, this means treating the Mechanicals with a respect they sometimes aren't afforded.

“It's a play about class and difference,” says Whyman, “and the Mechanicals approach to doing this play, which Theseus has welcomed into the court, is something they take very seriously. There's something there about the impossibility of them putting their play on stage, and their approach is very simple. The play doesn't want to forget what they do for a living, and that they take their jobs seriously, and that they also want to honour this glorious endeavour they've been asked to embark on.

“Sometimes productions are so busy mocking amateur actors that the seriousness of these characters is often ignored. We wanted to cut away all that baggage about amateur dramatics and ask what Shakespeare was up to. The Mechanicals are people with proper jobs trying to put plays on. In that way it's a bit like Dad's Army in that it's genuine situation comedy.

“We talked a lot about the scene where they're rehearsing in the woods, and they realise that you can't bring a real wall onto a stage. They take that problem seriously, and there's a real sincerity in how they try to solve it. So rather than ridicule the situation, you have to take all the characters seriously. It's funny, not because they're daft, but because of the situation.”

Beyond Stratford, Turner will continue with Fintry Amateur Dramatic Association.

“This whole experience has been fantastic,” he says. “I've learnt so much from it that I'm sure it will have an affect on what I do with the group.”

Tracey has auditioned for a place on the acting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and has her sights on a professional acting career.

“I don't know what happens next,” she says. “I'm hoping something comes of it, but let's see. If I got a job in theatre I'd be glad to play anything, but doing A Midsummer Night's Dream has already been pretty special.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, tonight-April 2.

The Herald, March 28th 2016


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