Interview with David Longford - Creative Learning Manager - at Nottingham Theatre Royal.
As the historic Nottingham Theatre Royal celebrates 150 years of theatrical existence Phil Lowe visited David Longford -former professional actor – now Creative Learning Manager and director of the theatre's community theatre group's (The Royal Company) recent acclaimed production of The School For Scandal. David was keen to promote the theatre and especially the hard work and non-professional local talents that made the promenade show such a huge success with Nottingham's theatre going public in September 2015.
The School For Scandal performance echoed Sheridan's day in terms of text and costume but also the students of Nottingham Trent University's Theatre Design degree course had huge input with their cross referenced costume and wig designs that combined the fashions of the mid 1800s but added in very modern touches with wigs made from modern day gossip magazines. The props of the piece included mobile phones and contemporary branded shopping bags to carry the play's messages across to a modern day audience. The whole combination worked extremely well and was backed up with periodic pop music tracks that introduced the characters at points during the show.
David Longford director and the show's narrator picked up on how the show worked and on the history of recent amateur community shows that have had and, benefited from, professional input throughout the rehearsal processes.
“I started here in 2001 and there was no educational community role whatsoever in the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall. It was a brand new job and I had previously worked at the Mansfield Palace theatre as their education officer. Before that I was a freelance actor and director mainly working in young people's theatre. TIE has a real appeal for me. In the Nottingham Theatre Royal job I was lucky enough, in July 2001, to be employed full -time and to build everything up from scratch. My brief was, and still is, to work with all the visiting companies and to make the venue much more 'open' and publicly accessible and to get the community involved in our work. So, one of my first decisions was based on the thought that I wanted to set up a community theatre company so that we could engage with the public directly and within the spaces in the Theatre Royal and, as it turns out, also around the city of Nottingham.”
“The aim was for every one of the community projects to be a real 'in depth' process. Not just learning the lines but treating it with the seriousness and passion of a pro theatre project with as much professional input as chances would allow. I wanted to totally engage the participants by bringing in external practitioners in order to learn from them and bring a professional approach and discipline to the essentially 'amateur' actors experience and make them feel and grow from being really challenged. I always say to people as we go through the audition process – 'This is a big commitment – I will be asking a lot of you but I want to challenge you and I also want you to have some fun too.' We did a production here of the Government Inspector in 2002 and that was a promenade piece too. However it was not as extensive as The School For Scandal. We mainly used the foyer spaces. Our theatrical statement was that we wanted to do things differently and with local people involved. That went down extremely well and so The Royal Company was born.”
“My job includes working with Northern Ballet and Opera North (regular visitors to our theatre) and within my role with The Royal Company we often work alongside other venues such as when we did Fahrenheit 451 where we combined with the local amateur arts venue - Nottingham Arts Theatre. In 2005 The Royal Company show was held at Nottingham Castle and we rehearsed and performed Tony Harrison's version of The Mysteries, in a huge marquee, a very gritty and very northern piece. This version was originally done by the National Theatre in the 1970s and is all about working class folk putting together a passionate piece about the last days of Jesus Christ.”
“We have also done three productions on the Theatre Royal stage. One especially memorable one being Oliver Twist (2004) where we really used the Victorian interior of the Theatre Royal to best advantage with narrators in the boxes and the Nottingham Trent University Theatre Design course students who brought in their amazing talents. The shows we have done on the main stage have done extremely well, This is mainly because we have chosen sell-able titles and therefore they become commercially good sellers, but at the same time they still offer the all important challenges for the participants.”
“In 2006 we did our most successful production to date – 101 Dalmatians. We had one professional actress in that. This was Toyah Wilcox as Cruella DeVille. Toyah came into our rehearsals two weeks before the show opened and she was incredible. She had no qualms whatsoever working with a talented amateur cast. In fact the whole cast's theatrical outlook and performance level went up several notches with Toyah's presence. It makes me quite emotional thinking about the commitment those non-professionals put into the show to make it a piece to be hugely proud of. Once again there was a real physical theatre challenge about how do we create a world of dogs without having 101 people in cute doggy outfits!”
“Sometimes, I find when people ask what is the difference with working with professional and amateur community performers, and I think some of the performances in 'Scandal' were extraordinary high, I believe it is that confidence to 'play' within the rehearsal room to build on the role and its place within the play itself.”
“Generally, The Royal Company is an amateur company that is based at Nottingham Theatre Royal but doesn't limit itself to purely performing solely at the venue. We have even done schools tours in the past and some of our talented members have gone on to engage in professional theatre school training with the emphasis on a career in the theatre arts. Plus, we have encouraged the art of story-telling in a dramatic medium and our actors have gone out into the community to develop and show off their skills.”
“With the 150th Anniversary of Nottingham Theatre Royal we felt that we needed to do the obvious production that was the inaugural production way back in 1865 – Sheridan's The School For Scandal'. It was cast by starting from a clean slate. We extensively advertised the opportunity to be involved through various local and national media and everyone, even people we had used before, had to audition with a single audition piece. Then we did group auditions and whittled it down. We had a lot of ladies audition so the production evolved with many of the male roles being played by women. This was so successful in creating a diverse, interesting and sexually charged piece that I almost considered having the whole cast as women! I loved the fact that Joseph and Charles were both played by young women and this was echoed through audience feedback too.”
“A practitioner called Gerry Flanagan came into the rehearsal process and helped with important clowning and physical theatre aspects of the play. Gerry is very thorough in his workshops and he really did push them. Interestingly we had three drop outs along the way but that doesn’t surprise me because in every single community show that I have done we have had a similar amount of drop outs. Sometimes people don't realise the hard nature of the commitment and sometimes they drop out for unfortunate personal reasons that no-one can predict. We just have to re-adjust and consider how to move on within the scenes. Each production is different and there were some extra pressures with this show because of the 150th Anniversary and the promenade aspects. I kept saying to everybody that when we are moving the audience around the theatre to each different place – that is still part of the performance. Overall, I truly believe that all the potential playfulness of Sheridan's comical play encouraged all creative aspects of the final piece and brought out really professional performances from a talented group of non-professional or amateur performers. I can't wait for the next project but I am so busy with the Nottingham Theatre Royal's 150th Anniversary celebrations that presently I have no idea what that might be.”
All production images are from The School For Scandal copyright Alan Fletcher.
All other images copyright author Phil Lowe.
For Phil Lowe's review of The School For Scandal click HERE.
For Phil Lowe's review of The School For Scandal click HERE.