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(I think in this particular title I am talking myself both a long way up and a long way down, but read on…)

I’m now back in the UK, slowly adjusting, and what’s more back in Liverpool. It was a very busy few days here when I first arrived. After a horrible journey last Friday up the M6 (haven’t missed that drive at all) it was straight into auditions for Into The Woods, even before I’d gone back to my flat.

The main auditions were the day after and we had a full Saturday of watching many very impressive performances. Before we were even halfway through it was obvious we were going to have some very difficult choices to make. The biggest difficulty was reconciling so many talented people with a set of fairly defined characters –  a musical about fairy tales calls more on casting according to type than I’d really considered previously.

I couldn’t help but think what it would be like if I were auditioning. If I had heard that a local theatre company was putting on Into The Woods I’d have been there like a shot, but as auditions went on I realised that all the parts I’d like to play were ones I would never get, for exactly the same reasons as we were applying to the casting process ourselves. I couldn’t then help but be glad to be directing the show as it means I will be heavily involved. I also feel like I’ll be playing all the parts vicariously (I hope I still love this show in 6 months time).

After that first day there were some decisions that were obvious but more that were still very murky indeed. Zoë, Maddie and I had a meeting back at my flat to discuss our thoughts and to call everyone we’d seen. We didn’t agree on everything, which was a good thing. If we had, the calls we made would have been different and the final cast not what it is. We did agree on some things however, and began to make those ‘No’ calls. It’s hard, knowing you’re disappointing people, so it was more pleasant to make the calls to people we wanted to see again, and even more pleasant to give a part outright. Callbacks arranged, we parted and slept on our decisions. Well, I tried to sleep, but a worsening cold and dreams (nightmares) of casting meant I wasn’t as well rested as I’d have liked the next morning.

Sunday was a hard, hard day. Decisions which had seemed nearly foregone the day before were suddenly shaken by new performances, and we revised our ideas over and over. Inspirations to try people for roles they hadn’t initially auditioned for however turned out well and we saw some exciting possibilities. Slowly, as we re-auditioned, the cast materialized in front of us. The only problem was that we wanted more people in the show than there could be room for.

One of the worst things about this whole process was that as well as people I didn’t know too well, or even at all, I saw a lot of my friends auditioning. I did stop and have a little think about how insanely talented the people I know are, but also how harsh it is to be put in a position where it feels like you’re judging them. Well, let’s not pretend – we were judging them. It’s the nature of the beast. It was important to remain professional, however, and remember that it would not be fair on anybody to let anything other than individual merit dictate who we cast.

It was awful, telling people they hadn’t got a part. I felt horrible doing it, having been on the other side of that particular fence. The only saving grace however is that I am very pleased with the cast we’ve chosen. I have every faith in everyone that they will deliver a wonderful performance and look forward very much to working with everybody involved.

After I hurriedly finished my last post (I was well into Daily Powercut Time and running out of laptop juice fast) I kept thinking of all the wonderful shows I’ve seen and how I’d mentioned a lot of plays, as opposed to musicals. I do love a good play, but there will always be a special place in my heart for musicals. Maligned by many, I love them. A lot.

A musical has that added extra (music, probably). I’m sure I wouldn’t cry in half so many films as I do if it weren’t for the sad music. (Doesn’t explain books, but whatever.) It’s the same on stage – a song can pour emotion in a way that only music manages. If I had to be absolutely critical, I would say I am slightly less of a fan of jukebox musicals, or musicals where the songs interrupt the arc, seeming only to be sung for the sake of it – but when they’re integrated and virtually seamless: magic. Through-sung? Perfect.

Sometimes when I look back on my childhood, it seems to have consisted of Heinz spaghetti bolognese and musicals. I’m pretty sure my mother would not describe it so, but at an early age I had the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection committed to memory. Likewise Annie. Grease? I could have recited it word for word. Grease 2? Still can. It took a little longer for me to get into them as a participant. In the school nativity I was always the narrator. Stuck on my own separate side stage, I wished I could be an angel, or a star, or Mary – but those roles were for the pretty girls with blonde hair. No amount of “but you’re the only one who can learn so many words” would mollify me – I knew it was genetics. (It was probably just as well. When I was given the part of a dancing girl, in Princess Jasmine trousers and a yashmak, I gambolled right off the stage.)

I got involved a few years later with a group putting on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in a day. I don’t know what this group was or how I ended up in it just for this one day – I suspect my mum was “keeping me busy” during a school holiday – I remember everyone else knowing each other and me not knowing anyone. I was cast as a brother (not even one of the good ones) and experienced the full circle – I wanted to be the narrator.

I suppose it was in high school that I was really bitten by the bug. We were only allowed to do The Play in Lower 5th or Lower 6th (that’s year 10 and year 12), so as not to interfere with exams. This was before AS and A2s were introduced (I hasten to add it was only one year before – so as not to seem ANCIENT). I was persuaded that I had enough on with hockey and orchestra and choir and swimming and 11 GCSEs (I was quite the little joiner) and didn’t audition for The Play in L5th. I’ve regretted it ever since. So I made up for it in 6th form, by taking an extra class in theatre studies and joining the backstage crew as well as being in The Play – West Side Story.

I LOVED being in West Side Story. Every second of it. It was my first experience of choreography, of proper vocal coaching, of being in a real musical, and a big one at that. I also spent every Friday afternoon a part of the backstage crew, painting, drilling (my favourite), learning about lighting and sound – this is where my love of the business end of putting on a show was born. The year after West Side Story I circumvented the school rules about not being in The Play in U6th by being the stage manager and attending every rehearsal anyway. We did The Crucible that year. I remember being a bit disappointed it wasn’t a musical, but it would have been very hard to sit through rehearsals and not be in it if it had been. Looking back, if I’m totally honest, I put far too much energy into my extra-curricular activities in the theatre and my work suffered (you were right, Mum. Sorry it’s taken so long to admit it). BUT, and it’s a big but, if I’d got the grades I was expected to, I would have gone to medical school straight away, in Newcastle. I never even applied to Liverpool back then. I have no regrets whatsoever.

On arrival at Newcastle University, I sought out the drama society straight away in Freshers Week. That first meeting was very intimidating. I’ve never seen so many people in a room. It seems the whole theatre lark is pretty popular. When I heard that they didn’t really do many musicals though, I joined the Gilbert And Sullivan Society instead. Three years of operetta and then I came to university in Liverpool – to find the medical school drama society, Artefacts, were doing Pirates of Penzance. I couldn’t not.

And so began the path toward  What We Did Next. In my final year, as the curtain came down on the last night of Anything Goes, I cried my eyes out. Not just for a minute or two; ALL NIGHT. I genuinely believed that that was it. I would never be in a play again. I already knew that my work life wasn’t going to fit with joining any amateur theatre companies as I wouldn’t be able to commit. So when I heard about the concept of WWDN, I was excited. As fate would have it, I was always working whenever there was a meeting about it in those early days, so I was beginning to think I’d missed the Getting Involved boat, when I had a very exciting phone call from Jamie, our chairman, asking me to audition for Company. The rest, as they say, is history.

So now I’m off to add another string to my theatre experiences bow. The next time I write, I’ll be back in the motherland, and four and a half thousand miles closer to Into The Woods. See you on the other side.

With the news that What We Did Next’s next show, The Last 5 Years, has been cast (congratulations Natalie and Adrian!), I find myself in mounting excitement for Into The Woods, and thinking about how much I love theatre.

There’s something really special about theatre. I love how it can transport you to a different world more completely than watching a film or even reading a book (and I’ve been known to be quite, quite lost in books before now). I’ve sat in theatres with my heart in my mouth, and laughed like a loon, and cried like I was watching my own life on stage. Sometimes it’s not just the story that moves me. When I went to see The Lion King in London – having rushed to get to the Lyceum on time and finding our seats with moments to go – the curtain came up, the giraffes came on stage, and I burst into tears. I was 26. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way so soon into a film. (OK, I was bawling my eyes out 10 minutes into “Up“, but other than that.) Or that soon into a book either. (Maybe with the exception of “My Sister’s Keeper”, BUT the main character is called Kate and her sister is called Anna (as is mine) and they have a brother (as do we) and their mother’s mouth turns down at the corners when she smiles (as does ours). Only a few pages in I had tears running down my face, and I was on a train. Extremely embarrassing. But other than THAT.)

Sometimes theatre excites in me a childhood memory. Like when I went to see The Sound Of Music at The Palladium. It was probably the first film musical I ever saw as a child and I knew it inside out. Twenty-odd years later, last minute tickets, in the gods – music began, nuns came on stage chanting, I cried.

I don’t really cry all that much. Honestly. I’ve just picked a few unfortunate examples. And I never cry at real life.

Theatre still holds the same magic for me that it did as a child. I recall a terrifying experience where Pinnochio was cut into four pieces, before stepping from the box again, unharmed. Still blows my mind. The fear. I remember seeing my uncle in pantomimes, always the dame, and finally learning the actors were only pretending (but I still forget, on occasion). I recollect seeing a production of The Snow Queen using puppets and shadow-play at Birmingham’s MAC, and recognising the possibilities of theatre.

Further on, at school, I began to understand the importance of the acting, how different actors could put new spins on familiar words. After studying Hamlet we went to see the RSC’s production, in which I discovered a whole new interpretation to the line “did you think I meant country matters?” (the “-ry” was rather long in coming. Act 3, scene 2, if you were wondering about context).

Watching a play, to state the obvious, brings words on a page to life. To glorious, technicolor life. Even the most wooden actor adds some dimensionality, but a good actor takes words and lifts them far, far above their flat paper prison to let them soar.

There is something quite spectacular about watching someone who really knows his craft. A couple of years ago, I saw a play called Elling, which starred John Simm. I’d never heard of it before, didn’t know a thing about it. Watching it, the characters took over, as they should, and it was only a tiny thought at the back of my mind that the guy in front of me was John Simm off the telly – but when the curtain came down and the cast took their bows, I saw a transformation before my eyes. His whole appearance changed, his bearing, manner and even his face became those of the actual John Simm off the telly – we’d spent the last couple of hours watching someone completely different. He literally stepped out of character.

There’s an immediacy about theatre. To state the bleeding obvious again, the actors are right there in front of you. You can’t pause them*, or rewind them, or skip them ahead to get to the good bit.

*Actually, you can pause them, as I am still horrified to recall: on a class trip to see The Merchant Of Venice (RSC again) I had a coughing fit, stuck in the middle of the row, that was so disruptive the actors had to stop and wait for me to finish. The shame.

Apart from all that, there’s the spectacle. The bright lights and dazzle. Who can fail to be wowed? Especially by some of the wondrous creations you can see on stage in set and costume. My enduring memory of watching King Lear (class trip, RSC – did you guess? No surprise if I tell you my school wasn’t far from Stratford I suppose) is the costumes – specifically those worn by Goneril and Regan. I designed my wedding dress from the front row of the circle.

I’ve seen a lot of spectacular sets but one I particularly remember was the set of Baby Doll at Birmingham Rep. I felt like I was in the Deep South as soon as the curtains opened.

It’s beginning to dawn on me that I’ve seen a lot of theatre – the examples above being the tiniest fraction – and yet I always feel that I haven’t seen enough. I suppose that’s the hold that it has. Like any good thing, you always want more.

I want more. I want to be within it. I want to live and breathe it. And that’s why I’m so looking forward to my next theatre venture. If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. I’m clearly in a waffle mood (I’ve written shorter essays). But there’s more to come. Stay tuned for Part 2…

My time here in Uganda is running out alarmingly fast. Sad as I’ll be to leave (the weather, the people, the pace of life), I’m really quite looking forward to getting back to Liverpool (the weather, the people, the pace of life). Right now, getting back to Liverpool means getting into Into The Woods.

Four weeks from now, we’ll have held our  auditions, and cast the show. It’s a daunting task. I’ve never been on the other side of the table before. I’m quite intrigued to see how other people audition, how they’ve prepared. What worries me though, is – if we assume more people will audition than there can possibly be parts for – having to tell those we don’t cast. I don’t like disappointing people. Who would? In fact I try very hard to avoid upsetting people as much as possible. As much as I appreciate it when people are direct and to the point with me, I find it hard sometimes to be as direct myself. I would love it if precisely the right person turned up for each and every part, and nobody else – but that’s not exactly likely.

I’ve deliberately not thought about who we might cast; I don’t want to have any pre-conceptions and I don’t want to miss out on any unexpected gems. I keep jumping ahead and thinking of how the show might be, hoping it will be as I imagine, and fully aware that it won’t be – not least because the cast makes all the difference. Each person has their own nuances which really make a performance special. The other aspect is, of course, that our resources will limit the frankly outrageous set and costume designs I have in my head. As Robin, our set designer, said when I told him what I’d like: “did you forget to add a zero to my budget?”. To quote Jack’s mother, “I wish the walls were full of gold”, but they’re not. That’s not to say the show isn’t going to look good. And, hopefully, a bit different from what people might expect. I’m not going to ruin any surprises though – not at this early stage.

And so it is, that for all my thinking and planning, all I really have at the moment is a handful of dreams and ideas. Hopefully some of these might be a tiny bit closer to coming to fruition when we cast the play and recruit all our backstage crew. I’m really looking forward to it. Mostly.

29th October 2010. A Friday. It had been a long day. I’d been at a seminar in Edinburgh and had rushed back to Liverpool for What We Did Next’s Open Mic Night. The theme, if I remember correctly, was Good vs Evil, and I was just in time to join the Glee Club in singing Defying Gravity, and get very drunk. There was a lot of good singing that night, down in the Vampire Suite on Victoria Street, and I was in a very good mood. So it was, when Maddie and Zoë suggested that we produce a show together, that I agreed without really thinking about it. Sure! I’ll direct a show! Why not?

Why not indeed? Well, I’ve never directed anything before. I woke up the next day thinking “I couldn’t direct traffic down a straight road”. But, not to worry. It was just a drunken idea.

And now, here I am, in May 2011 – with auditions around the corner. There has been a surprising amount of planning since that evening in October. We’ve picked a show – Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods – and pitched it. Our pitch has been accepted, and the dates set: December 14-17 2011. I am currently a teeny bit far from the action in Uganda (only 4188 miles) so my planning is of the artistic kind, ideas relating to blocking and staging, costume and props. Meanwhile, Zoë and Maddie are in Liverpool, being producers par excellence, getting the rights and booking the venue, advertising auditions and producing audition material. All the actual important things. I am looking forward to my return to get hands on in the process. This is, after all, one of my favourite musicals.

I’ve never directed anything before. I might have mentioned that. So this blog is about my attempts to pull off my directorial debut, the show and the people involved. Who they all may be still remains to be seen…