Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Cat Sheridan and Susan Worsfold - The Attic Collective

Cat Sheridan was two days into her new post as Learning and Participation Co-ordinator at the Festival and King's Theatre in Edinburgh when she proposed an idea that would introduce a radical new way of working within the walls of Edinburgh's two receiving theatres run by Festival City Theatre Trust. Sheridan had seen first hand how workshops and other educational initiatives designed for budding theatre professionals were out of the price range for many, while other potential participants were restricted by external work commitments. Too often, Sheridan observed, this meant that only those with the economic freedom to be able to pay for such valuable initiatives could take advantage of them, while those with less disposable income but who were potentially just as talented were unable to develop their skills.

Eighteen months later, the result of Sheridan's proposal is the Attic Collective, a brand new theatre company for aspiring actors aged between eighteen and twenty-six, which will be run by Sheridan as creative producer in conjunction with director Susan Worsfold. From almost 400 applications, a company of eighteen were selected from two rounds of auditions to take part in three full productions over the next year, which will cover classical work, new playwriting and musical theatre.

The first show, a version of Aristophanes' ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women go on a sex strike in protest at the war, will open at the end of this month. This will be followed in May by the world premiere of War in America, by Jo Clifford, which is set to be performed in the unique interior of the Old Royal High School in Edinburgh. The third and final production will see the Collective take on Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. As with Lysistrata, this will be performed on the main stage of the King's Theatre.

Each production will be able to utilise in full the artistic, technical and administrative resources the King's and Festival Theatres can provide. This will include free workshops with professional practitioners in a way that will see the Attic Collective function as both a repertory company and a training organisation. So while there are similarities with community-based theatre and youth theatre, especially as the acting ensemble will be working voluntarily, the Attic Collective looks set to be a skill-sharing exercise designed for those serious about a future career as professional actors.

“The starting point for the Attic Collective is very much from the point of view that opportunities to become involved in the arts should be everyone, and that you shouldn't have to pay for it,” says Sheridan. “I see all these amazing theatre companies coming into the King's and Festival Theatres, and the workshops they run aren't always fully subscribed because not everyone can afford them. So it seemed a really obvious choice to offer these resources which these brilliant companies bring into the building to the talent there is in Scotland through something like the Attic Collective.

“To make things accessible we had to negotiate. It's important that the young talent coming in were able to have lives as well. People have to eat and pay rent, and it can be incredibly hard to earn a living in this industry, and that raises a lot of questions.”

Rehearsals for Lysistrata have remained flexible time-wise, with initial sessions taking place on Saturdays prior to the collective working more intensively over evenings and weekends in the run up to performances. While such inclusivity itself makes a political statement, as Worsfold points out, the season itself is even more overt.

“2017 will be the twentieth anniversary of the referendum on devolution in Scotland,” says Worsfold, “so I felt there had to be a political edge to the season. Every play we're doing in the season is about cash, capital, war and women. In Lysistrata, you can see that while we look a lot to Greek society in terms of democracy, the gender politics are still the same, but Lysistrata is a play that's trying to broker peace.”

War in America should prove to be even more of an eye-opener. Originally commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 1991, the play was subsequently dropped from the theatre's programme after the play's subject matter was considered to be too much of a risk for its subscription-based audience. Having worked extensively with Jo Clifford on plays such as Jesus, Queen of Heaven, Worsfold read the still unperformed script and was blown away by a piece which, twenty years on, seems to have found its time.

“It's a brilliant piece of work,” says Worsfold. “It looked at gun crime in America, it predates The Thick of It by about nine years, and there's a couple in the play who are in a same-sex marriage. When the company read it they got it straight away, and for an older artist like Jo to see a work which had been rejected resonate with a younger generation is an incredible thing.”

Given the funding cuts many professional companies are currently facing, setting up an initiative on the scale of the Attic Collective may seem a risk. With the resources to hand, however, Festival Theatres Trust Chief Executive Duncan Hendry, however, says that in terms of finances it requires “a relatively modest contribution, and doesn't require a huge outlay.”

Hendry had instigated a similar model for a younger age group during his tenure running His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, and recognises the value of the Attic Collective, which will run for a year before the company members move on as others hopefully take their place.

“I think trying to support young actors in this way is a good thing,” he says, “and I also think it's important to develop this sort of work on the larger stages that we can provide.”

This too is making a statement, as is the name of the company.

“We deliberately chose the name to be a collective,” says Sheridan, “because it's about those in the Collective taking ownership and responsibility for what they get out of it. It;s the same with the Attic Collective as a whole. If you're given an opportunity like this in the way we have, you've got to seize it. We're not an educational institution. We want to work at a professional level, but in a way that young actors have a chance to learn skills as they go.

“This first year is an experiment. All the ingredients are there to make it work in this first year, but but it may all go horribly wrong and we find we have to adapt things accordingly, but what we have in our favour is this incredible amount of support and the wonderful safety net that the Festival City Theatre Trust can provide to make it work. Out of that I hope the Attic Collective can be about absolute access, and become an established enough draw that will help it become a long term project that in turn will make it an established draw. At the moment, anything could happen.”

Lysistrata, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27-28; War in America, Former Royal High School, Edinburgh, May 24-27.
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, January 10th 2017

ends

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