Adventures in Theatreland by Sandra Horn

The seductive lure of the’s been calling to me ever since I can remember. I used to round up the local kids for ‘shows’ at the end of the cul-de-sac and spent hours threading raffia onto string to make grass skirts for hula-hula dancers, cutting up acres of crepe paper, writing scripts. I wanted to be an opera singer, never mind that I couldn’t produce a single squeak in my audition for the school choir. A ballet dancer, at 5’9”. An actor. I did join the local AmDram group and was offered an audition for the National Youth theatre on the strength of something (I’ve forgotten what) I played – but my ‘A’ levels were coming up and I took the straight and narrow way. I’m glad. I now know that I couldn’t have sustained the life of an actor; it’s simply too tough.
          In more recent years, still under the old spell of glamour and greasepaint, I went for writing rather than performing. I submitted a script for Saturday Sitcom, and professional actors queued up to audition, for no money and paying all their own expenses, to appear in Westminster Library for 20 minutes, presumably in the faint hope that a director or three would be in the audience. It was the same for ‘Little Red Ella and the FGM’, chosen for the Siberianlights/Blue Ash showcase. I put out a call on Actors UK with under 2 weeks to go until the performance, and again with no pay or expenses, there were a good number of takers – young, talented actors, wanting to work. It’s not a profession for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. One of the actors told me that in their profession it was easy to sit around feeling resentful because of the lack of opportunities, so instead, they decided to create their own. Hats off to them!
          For playwrights, there are missed opportunities and plenty of rejections, of course, but you don’t feel quite so nakedly exposed. Mostly. The biggest, scariest problem comes in having to hand over your work to a director. In a short and not exactly distinguished time as a would-be playwright, I’ve had them across the spectrum from clueless to weird to utterly brilliant.
          Clueless was the lad who had not a single clue what my play ‘Lost’ was about and didn’t ask. I didn’t see it until the performance. I have no idea what the audience made of it; it didn’t even make sense to me.
          Weird was a professional director who transformed my light-hearted sitcom ‘The Sweete Sisters’ into a Beckettian nightmare with all the props in a box onstage and the cast having to move chairs around to change the ‘scenery.’ I did sit in with him at rehearsals but was not permitted to have a voice.
          On the other hand, there have been some great times. I hadn’t been contacted by the director in advance of the first performance of ‘Little Red Ella and the FGM’, but she did a very good job. Natalie, the director for the second performance (for Siberianlights) was outstanding. Not only did she bring the play to sparkling life, she auditioned, cast and rehearsed it while I did nothing. I was wafting about in the sunshine listening to music and paddling in the sea (not simultaneously) in Swanage while she worked. For nothing, I say again, and she wouldn’t even accept expenses.
          Then there was ‘Six Characters’, selected by The Maskers as part of the RSC’s challenge to amateur groups to up their game and do something related to Shakespeare. They wanted a 10-minute curtain-raiser for Charlotte Jones' 'Humble Boy', using the same characters and linking the play back to Hamlet. The Maskers are a local group with their own studio theatre, wardrobe, armoury and workshop. Many of them have backgrounds in the professional theatre. Fran, the director, invited me to rehearsals and we made some adjustments to the script as needed, as we went along. It was a terrific experience and I learned a lot. The performance was spellbinding. I could hardly believe I’d written it. My words transformed by the actors - pace, pauses, inflections, movement - and clever use of props, into something other. Something magical. The old glamour I’d always been craving.
          Would I do it again? Like a shot (I have just sent off another script...) even knowing that I will be handing over my work to someone who might be anything from clueless to deluded to brilliant. It’s worth a go for the chance of working with another Natalie or Fran and watching them work the magic.


JO said…
Well done Sandra - this must have been so exciting!!
Umberto Tosi said…
What fun! Great post. You've whet my appetite to try same stateside. Many thanks!
Bill Kirton said…
Excellent post, Sandra (although you've anticipated some of what I'd planned to say for my next 'writing for performance' blog). I couldn't agree more with you, writing for the stage is everything from embarrassing to exhilarating and when it works, there's no other feeling like it. I've done plenty of directing and acting as well as writing, and each has its own, very different, satisfactions. And they all work best when everyone acknowledges that the way forward is through teamwork. A dictatorial director, ego-heavy actor or precious writer can undermine precisely what's most valuable about the whole experience.
I'm a bit worried by the 'no pay, no expenses' thing. I suppose it's OK when nobody at all is being paid, and even the premises are given for free, but I trust the RSC paid the going rate for the ten minute curtain raiser! I've had one appalling director who put me off professional theatre for years. He bullied everyone, cast, theatre staff, me. I still meet actors who were in that production and we reminisce about huddling in the loo, weeping.(I was very young. Wouldn't put up with it now.) But at least we were getting paid. Most new writing theatres insist on the writer being there for a good part of the time and won't make changes without them - which is as it should be. I've had one director who wanted me there for the whole rehearsal period. I learned a lot, and got paid something for attendance, but it was a huge commitment. Most directors want you there beginning, middle and end but are happy if you leave them to it for some of the time. I don't do theatre these days, mostly because of the lack of cash, sadly.
glitter noir said…
Great post, Sandra. One that's got me thinking: the last I was in a theater was a life and a country ago--yes, in Canada. Not that I didn't enjoy it...but I drifted. You've rekindled an old spark. I think I may return at last when...the stage version of Magic Mike comes around?

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