Always putting on a play

SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.
SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.

A Writer ventures back into theatre.

I WAS one of those children for whom the world of theatrics was the most sought-after form of play. Whether it was reciting poems for my assembled grandparents, or recruiting the local kids into an impromptu christmas play, I was the keenest, bossiest, most theatrical of them all.

This had more to do with boredom than any great desire for a career in the theatre. Without plays, there seemed to be nothing to do.

To fill in the endless daylight-saving hours on our farm, the shearing shed became a playhouse; whiling away the tedium of school, the annual plays were islands of creativity; and during access visits to my Dad’s place, where none of the adults present seemed to comprehend the finer points of parenting, I made my own fun creating embryonic theatre pieces.

One of these was my adaptation of Saint George and the Dragonet, an iconic 1950s radio play which I dutifully typed-up from the vinyl 45 into a bona fide script.

Back in the relative stability of my home town, I pitched the production to our headmaster, who willingly gave-over the school hall and an assembly session for my production. It may well remain the easiest production I ever got-up.

Friends took on the roles of the Dragon, Damsel in Distress, and Saint George’s sardonic boss. I, of course, slipped easily into the lead role and those of director, writer and designer. Really, I’ve being filling all of the above in various forms ever since.

At high school the entire community got involved in the annual musicals, but by the time school was over I was left to my own devices – for most people, plays were just pretend. A theatrical career was a complete anathema.

Two drama schools drummed the processes of play production into me, but it was boredom, again, which saw me return to the theatre while working in the creative drought of corporate production.

A small advertisement in The Stage newspaper caught my eye, since it was placed by a new company – GIN Theatre – operating in South London. They wanted a director to adapt a Grimm Brothers fairy tale for a children’s Christmas show.

Now this was something right up my alley.

I chose the tale I’d adapt based on its evocative title – The Girl Without Hands – a classic rite of passage which I suggested we transpose into Victorian England to cement the Christmas feel.

To my surprise, amidst the waves of rejection that year, GIN chose my idea. We auditioned for a cast of actors, went into rehearsal and production at The Studio, a small performing arts centre in Beckenham.

RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from the story by the Brothers Grimm, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).
RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).

All of us were recent drama school graduates, eager for experience and opportunity. Together, we created a beautifully detailed production, rich in theatricality and full of the wonder that the story requires, following as it does the journey of an innocent drawn into the deepest tragedy, eventually restored by faith.

The core group survived the disappearance of some cast after day one (it always happens), and ultimately the lack of bums on seats (it always happens) despite all the hard work, and a small tour to Bromley’s performing arts centre down the road.

The following year I was recruited as Assistant Director on a production of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, staged at The Steiner Theatre in Regent’s Park. This was an altogether much ‘cooler’ outfit, although I missed the camaraderie of GIN.

On day one the director roped the entire cast and crew into an exercise centred-on saying “yes” to everything, aimed at removing blocks and helping us get to know one another. I took part – I had to in the terrible role of Assistant Director, an entity which nobody likes or trusts, and who usually does the lion’s share of the work smoothing actor’s egos and overseeing the graft of rehearsals.

The next day the producer called me with the news that the director had resigned (it often happens) and asking would I take over? Having had “yes” drummed into me, I said that very word, and found myself aged 25 in a life I barely understood directing a play I comprehended even less.

But I was a great actor. The deeply closeted can go to great lengths keeping everyone off the scent, preventing all the wrong questions from being asked.

I duly mimicked the best tools I’d been exposed to at drama school and stumbled through with the more experienced, and therefore more jaded (they often are) actors from north of the Thames.

We got the production to the stage, with some heavy symbolism masking the great gaps in my grasp of Hare’s masterful exploration of relationships in this play.

Another year later more familiar territory revealed itself with the opportunity to design a production of Chekhov’s One Act Plays (adapted by Michael Frayn) at the Tristan Bates Theatre right in the heart of London’s West End.

Five years since washing my hands of theatre design, in one of the most design-friendly theatre capitals in the world, and completely on my own terms, I reveled in bringing this production to life. We got plenty of bums on seats too (it sometimes happens).

By that time I’d left London for good, for the frozen plains of Suffolk. A visit to a castle somewhere in East Anglia, on the same day that a troupe of actors took over the inner keep, set up a simple stage and unfurled some coloured banners, drawing a crowd of hundreds with a raucous energy that could not be ignored, taught me that it matters not where you put on a play.

An audience of less souls than those on the stage, in a ‘proper’ theatre in a ‘proper’ city … or engaged, thrilled crowds before a couple of actors on an old barrel in a castle keep? I know which side my theatrical sensibility falls on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Always putting on a play”

  1. Hi Sally, I used to have some photos of TGWH but have had to move around so much I’ve mislaid them! It was a lot of fun to create – seems like forever ago. Glad to see you’re still in the business!

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