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They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - Citizens Theatre Community Company

People Are The Ultimate Spectacle. So read the tag-line of Sidney Pollack’s 1970 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Set in Hollywood during the depression hit 1930s, this adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel charted the fortunes of a group of contestants in a dance marathon, a public spectacle cum freak-show whereby those who could keep their feet in motion for weeks at a time would win a $1000 dollar prize. Some were movie star wannabes hoping to be spotted by any passing big-shot director. Elsewhere on the floor were circuit regulars, old timers who’d long since lost sight of their dreams and were addicted to the rush of the spotlight. Others were just grateful for a free meal.

Almost 40 years on, things haven’t changed much. The biggest draws on prime time TV are reality shows populated by people desperate to be somebody. In the Citizens Theatre’s rehearsal room too, there’s a real sense of do or die in the air.

A week before the theatre’s Community Company opens its production of the film’s stage version, the cast of almost forty disparate performers are moving around the makeshift dance-floor as if their lives depended on it. It’s the first day they’ve been working with the live band who’ll accompany them onstage, and things are slowly starting to gel, as would-be starlets and old hacks alike go through their paces.

“The Community Company is such an integral thing in the Citizens now,” director Neil Packham observes of a group pulled together from a set of organisations who deal holistically with young offenders and recovering addicts. “If someone was doing a dissertation and asked a definition of community, this would be it. There are people of all ages and with different financial positions. Some are in more secure positions while some have more chaotic lifestyles. That whole mix of people in such an intense environment is really invigorating. It would be easy to suggest that some people doing the play might be down on their luck. It’s in there, and all the characters are looking for their little moment of glory, but I don’t want on play on that.”

George Drennan is the only professional actor in the show. He plays Rocky, the fast-talking MC of the competition and a role which won Gig Young an Oscar. Mixing up professional and community casts can often end up with a central core of full-timers taking all the lead roles with an army of volunteers left as a glorified chorus. Drennan, though, blends in with an ensemble who tackle major roles on an equal footing. Given that some have never been on a stage in their lives, taking on roles originally played by real life Hollywood icons including Jane Fonda, Susannah York and Bruce Dern must be especially nerve-wracking. There are, however, no passengers on board here.

This time last year, Scott Sharp was in Shotts prison. Now he’s playing a Sheriff. Scott was brought along to a workshop thinking it was a confidence building exercise, and was initially overwhelmed by the experience. Now, although it’s his first show, he’s become a key member of the company. It’s opened up a new world for him, he says.

Debbie Findlay is playing Alice, the prissy would-be actress played in the film by Susannah York. Findlay came to the Citz via a group for vulnerable young women, and onstage is a vibrant, focussed actress who holds her own with more experienced members of the cast. She’s never acted before in her life.

Debbie is the mother of four kids. Early mornings before rehearsals, she’s up at dawn working as a cleaner, then back doing the rounds of city centre offices again in the evening. When she was a little girl she loved to dance, and if things had taken a different course, who knows?

“I never had a lot of confidence due to a past relationship,” she says, “and I’ve had addiction issues as well. But doing this has really given me a lot of confidence. I love it,” she sparkles. “I feel like a wee girl again.”

For Frances Rose Kelly, the Community Company was literally a life-saver. Five years ago she’d lost her second set of twins, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. She lives across the street from the Citizens’, but had never been in the building. A friend suggested she audition for a show. She got the main part. Since then she’s appeared in 26 productions.

“Not being me for that moment was amazing,” Frances says of her first experience as an actor. “With an illness like mine, this is the only thing I’ve ever done that’s ever actually worked. As soon as I go back home and there’s no shows, I’m back to my bed, but doing this keeps me going.”

Since being part of the Company, Frances has appeared in the award winning feature film, Red Road, and took a supporting role in the Citz’s professional production of
Desire Under The Elms. She’s written her own scripts as well, which have been studied by local colleges.

“It’s an achievement,” she says. “I’ve been immortalised now, and they can’t take that away from me.”

Despite such stories, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? isn’t social work. Where some community companies put the emphasis on taking part, at the Citz, as much time and energy are put into Community Company shows as they are with full professional outings. Production values are high, and everyone is working hard to get it right. Part of this is down to the circumstances of the group. Because of their circumstances, Packham and Goodman have the luxury of having a full cast in the rehearsal room all day and every day. Some parts may be bigger than others, but unlike some professional set-ups even, every walk-on part and every line is valued by those delivering them.

“It gives people a sense of purpose,” assistant director Elly Goodman points out. “Even the discipline of being on time every day is important, but people want to make it good as well. No-one wants to go onstage and not know what they’re doing.”

While real life occasionally has to take precedence, there’s no danger of that. As afternoon rehearsals reconvene, the room is buzzing with life. As soon as it’s time to start work, everyone gets into position. As the cast stagger through the entire show for the first time with the band, people adjust themselves accordingly to the fresh nuances the live sound adds.

The make-believe dance-floor the play occupies becomes becomes both battlefield and stage, as the characters limber up for solos to keep the audience happy and earn a few extra cents. While Frances’ Nurse watches the scene with her beady eye lest anyone collapse, John MacNeil, the actor playing war veteran Sailor, does a soft-shoe routine to die for. As Alice, Debbie does a duologue from Private Lives, as the ultimate spectacle goes on.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Wed-Sat
http://www.citz.co.uk/

The Herald - Mon 7 April 2008

ends

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