Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Siobhan's Guest Blog for West End Frame!

Our Artistic Director & Exec Producer, Siobhan Daly, was recently thrilled to be asked to be the first ever guest blogger for the theatre site, West End Frame!

Here it is just for you!

Guest Blog: A Summer of Love with Grassroots Shakespeare London

Siobhan Daly
I recently read that although Shakespeare spent most of his life working, acting and writing in London, we really only associate him with Stratford-upon-Avon, a place where he spent relatively little time. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that as a Londoner, I established Grassroots Shakespeare London in my home town and capital city with a fun and vibrant ensemble of top young classical actors to bring his works to life in a fresh and exciting new way.

I’ve always been compelled by the beauty of his language and the emotion of his plays. I remember being at school and studying Oberon’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows….”, and being completely stunned by the depth of the imagery, how instantly you could picture exactly what he was describing, the sights, the smells, the atmosphere.

This wonder never left me, but as I grew up, I was confused to realise that many people didn’t share my enthusiasm. As I asked why, I found that it wasn’t that they didn’t like Shakespeare, but that they felt it was somehow for other people, those with university degrees perhaps, or a special innate knowledge into the mysterious workings of The Bard; a bit like an elite club for people who spoke in booming, deep voices and about things like ‘iambic pentametres’, as though it was a secret password into attending the theatre, which of course, it isn’t at all. You don’t need any of these things. Yes of course, they can deepen your knowledge and help the actors, but most of all, and most importantly, Shakespeare was written to be performed and enjoyed. He wanted people to engage with the stories, to laugh, to cry, to leave the theatre thinking about what they’d just seen, to share in the experience.

To try and get back to basics, Grassroots is an Original Practices company. This means that as much as possible, we try to follow the rehearsal and production methods of Shakespeare and his actors, so we work without a director as they would have. We cast gender-blind and collaborate to devise a show that is full of imagination and excitement rather than fitting into a director’s concept of what the show should be. This creates a production that is accessible and intelligible; we have twelve imaginations instead of one.

And it seems that people like it. We performed our first show in August 2011 and by 2012, we had launched the More London Free Festival during The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, headed up to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to perform Much Ado About Nothing as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, got nominated for two Off West End Awards for Best Ensemble and Best Production, and produced a Five Star, sell-out Christmas rep season where we were having to turn people away as we just couldn’t fit them in.

This year we’re performing a six week Summer of Love rep at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington of the heart-breaking classic Romeo and Juliet and the romantic comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost with one talented cast. This is a brilliant opportunity for Shakespeare on the London Fringe as most runs are only four weeks, so we’re hoping to bring these great works to as many people as possible.

I’m also passionate about identifying and nurturing the top young classical actors and giving them an opportunity to showcase their outstanding talents. Our Assistant Artistic Director is Boris Mitkov, a 22 year old Arts Ed graduate who is also a writer, professional photographer and director. He has already had a play translated, supported by the British Council, and it is currently playing in rep in Sofia. He has also taken his own plays up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where they have received five star reviews. Boris is playing Romeo and Costard in our current season and has been leading the rehearsal process for both shows. He’s a great all-round talent including on our multimedia, script editing, lighting shows or building set! Or there’s Matthew Cavendish, a recent graduate from LAMDA who was a finalist in the prestigious Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year competition and who is playing Lord Capulet/ Apothecary and Moth/ Mercade this summer; or Christien Bart-Gittens, a 20 year old who I auditioned last year and have subsequently seen go from strength to strength. He has just finished his Foundation Year at East 15 and is auditioning for drama school. The future of theatre is very bright with actors like these.

Apart from their great talent and your ability to see them now before they’re off to Hollywood, is the fact that they can truly communicate the story. Part of setting up Grassroots was to help break down any elitist barriers to appreciating Shakespeare’s work but also to present intelligent, textually rigorous productions. We’ve all seen boring productions of Shakespeare where the actors have just learned their lines and not really understood a thing they’re saying. Good actors don’t let this happen. They want to communicate with you and they do. It’s a whole different experience.

We try and keep our shows as affordable as possible and we’ve kept our prices this year to the same as they were in 2012. We’re also hoping to keep running a free summer show at Victoria Embankment Gardens under Grassroots Offshoots, an ensemble of actors who are at Foundation degree or drama school audition stage. This year, Christien Bart-Gittens is leading a production of As You Like It for us in early August. We love nothing more than people stopping by to enjoy the show and then surprising themselves when they realise it’s Shakespeare!

Grassroots is fun, exciting, experimental, ground-breaking, passionate and bursting full of talent. I hope you can join us for our Summer of Love.

Siobhan Daly

Siobhan Daly is the Artistic Director and Executive Producer of Grassroots Shakespeare London. She is a RADA graduate and SOLT/ TMA Stage One West End Producer where she worked on the 2012 Olivier Award winning ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ (tour and West End), ‘The 39 Steps’ (tour and West End) and ‘The Ladykillers’ (Tour and West End). She is the Associate Producer for Theatre Royal Haymarket Productions which is currently co-producing Lee Evans and Sheila Hancock in ‘Barking in Essex’.

Grassroots Shakespeare London will be performing Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost in repertory as part of a Summer of Love at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington.

Tuesday 18th June – Saturday 27th July 2013 at 7.30pm. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets: £15/ £12 conc. (booking fee applies to online and phone bookings)
Booking line: 0844 412 4307

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Introducing our first guest blogger....Joe Staton!

Budding young actor Joe Staton impressed us here at Grassroots Towers when he emailed us to say he'd heard about us through a teacher and was coming all the way from Spain just to see our Christmas performances! We were delighted to meet such a passionate and committed student, so when he asked to interview us, we said yes. Joe wrote up his experiences for his school magazine and we're delighted to share his impressions with you.

Please give a warm Grassroots welcome to our first guest blogger, Joe Staton!

Arranging the interview

Facebook is truly a wonderful tool for every actor. Why? Because in this industry, contacts is everything. And what better way to build your contacts than by simply adding them onto Facebook?

During my many visits to London, I was adamant that I wanted to see a Shakespeare play performed. My A Level Drama and Theatre Studies teacher told me of Grassroots Shakespeare London, a group of actors who had begun in London by performing Shakespeare in public areas. Needless to say, my interest was sparked and I immediately sought them out on Facebook and booked a ticket to see, to my utter delight, their performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

By this time, I hadn't learnt the importance of Facebook. Fate must have intervened as I commented on one of their photos and almost immediately received a reply! After summoning up some much-needed courage, I was then able to arrange an interview with actress and founder of the Grassroots Shakespeare London, Siobhan Daly.

So on the night of the show, I headed down to the theatre and was delighted by the completely unique and wonderful performances of two of Shakespeare’s most wonderful comedies.

A quick review of the shows

This is the first time I have ever seen a Shakespeare on the stage. I can honestly say, I wasn’t disappointed!

One of the greatest things about the Bard’s works is the fact that there are very little stage directions. Why? Because that opens up opportunities for a wide range of interpretations! In the case of Grassroots, I was intrigued to learn that the group does not contain a director, instead working as a team to create their performances. That also means that when one goes to see Shakespeare on stage, no one can truly guess what to expect. 

The show was entertaining and if anyone was worried that they would not understand that big, complex and elevated diction that Shakespeare annoyingly utilized in his writing, they soon forgot these fears. The group worked tirelessly, each one emitting sparks of explosive energy that grasped the audience throughout both pieces. 
Max Wilson as Caliban in The Tempest

The time it would take to describe in detail how awesome each actor in their characters were would require at least another fifty pages, therefore I am unfortunately forced to be brief. Siobhan Daly was astounding in her role as Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Nights Dream and Sebastian in The Tempest, highlighting her unbeatable talent! Max Wilson performed a brilliant portrayal of Caliban in The Tempest, adopting a Gollum like posture and a croaky voice.  Emily Jane Kerr was possibly the funniest Puck I have ever seen, completely blowing Stanley Tucci from Michael Hoffman’s film version of the show, completely out of the water! Her energy and commitment to the role was exactly 100% and her costume was sublime. I think my special mention however will have to go to Adam Blampied who, living up to the context of the Renaissance period in which women were forbidden to act on the stage, humourously portrayed the gorgeous Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and during his portrayal of Ariel in The Tempest, decided to adopt an extremely masculine voice and dress up as Batman (as I said, you never know what to expect at the theatre!).
Siobhan Daly as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream

All in all, a most enjoyable first experience of a live Shakespeare performance! 

The group has now begun rehearsal for a production of Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Book your ticket now and don’t miss them!

Interview with Grassroots Actors Siobhan Daly (Titania/Hippolyta and Sebastian) and Matthew Walker (Nick Bottom and Prospero)

The meeting took place after the actors had changed and the audience departed. Meeting up at the theatre itself, they were able to provide me with some of their own back stories, a history of Grassroots, and the challenge of performing Shakespeare.
Matthew Walker as Bottom and Siobhan Daly as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream

So I guess my first question would be, where did you guys start out?

Matthew: Well, my mother was concerned that I was shy as a child so she sent me to drama lessons outside school and from about 11 onwards, that was it! I just loved it! So I very fortunately landed a few roles in TV between the age of 16 and 20, and then work kind off tried up so I went to drama school from the age of 22 to 25 and I've now been out for about three years. I've done a lot more theatre work since.

Siobhan: How did I start out? I probably started out at primary school when I wanted to star in nativity plays! I was one of those kids who enjoyed singing and dancing! I used to put on performances for the local kids and get them all involved, which is funny because it’s what I do now! So I kept acting, I studied at RADA, then I set up Grassroots and it’s been going for about 18 months now!

Do you prefer theatre?

Matthew: A healthy mix, I think. When you’re doing one you want to do the other!

Siobhan: I think I prefer stage. I think Matt said the really good answer! But I like stage more because it’s more immediate and every night’s different! Also, T.V and film can be quite hard because you've got to hit a mark and look a certain way. I like the freedom of the stage.

I never know what to expect when I see a play and what you guys did was definitely unexpected! What inspired the idea behind Ariel dressing up as Batman?

Siobhan: The actor himself came up with it. We don’t have a director and one of the things I love about it is that it gives the actors the room for creativity and freedom to come up with these ideas! Because otherwise you’re working under somebody else’s concept. I'm not trying to put directors out of work, but the freedom and creativity encourages actors and gives them the license to be themselves and play a little. I always say to people that it’s like being a kid again! You've got a dressing up box and Adam said, “Can I be Batman?” and everyone agreed!

So Grassroots started up as street performances?

Siobhan: Yeah! When we first started up our first performance was A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hyde Park. Our idea was to make Shakespeare accessible so we decided to do it on the band stand and people would walk past and think “What’s going on?” and then stop, engage and then realize we’re doing Shakespeare and think “Oh my God! This is so funny! And it’s Shakespeare?!” So I see us as a sort of access point. I used to work in opera and I think it’s like that: if you get people to see the easier things first then they’re more willing to engage in the harder bits! This is our way of helping people enjoy live theatre!

What advice would you give to anyone who struggles to understand and enjoy Shakespeare?

Matthew: It’s daunting because it’s foreign to some people and people think they won’t understand it. They are exactly the sorts of people who we want to come and see Grassroots because they think they will struggle; they don’t think Batman will be in it. A lot of the themes Shakespeare talks about - love, honour, dishonour- they’re all relevant in modern times. It’s just about breaking people’s stereotypes towards it.

Siobhan: I totally agree with Matt! Shakespeare wrote about the human story, the human experience! As Matt says, the themes are universal. It doesn't really matter that it’s written in old English because people still fall in love, they’re still ambitious, still murderous, still vengeful. I think a lot of the time it’s in the playing of Shakespeare. When you get actors who know what they’re saying, who understand what they’re saying, then you can actually understand what’s happening on stage and you can relate it to your own experiences. One of the things we always say at Grassroots is that often people feel they have to speak like Lawrence Olivier with a big actor’s voice-

Matt: Which I do!

Siobhan: I was thinking when Matt was doing his Bottom as Pyramus, people often feel that’s how Shakespeare should be played all the time but really you should understand what your saying as if it was modern English as Shakespeare himself wrote in a language that was common to the people and his plays were for the people. I think that Shakespeare was a man that wrote about things close to his life and wanted people to understand that!
Matthew Walker as Prospero in The Tempest

Matt: I think people have this impression of him as well. He was actually just a man, a highly intelligent man. He was actually arrested outside the Globe for assault! I love that! He was just an ordinary bloke. There is a reason why his plays lasted for 500 years; the language is beautiful and so well written. There’s a reason why they will stand the test of time. I’m sure that in a hundred years it will still be performed.

Do you find it challenging publicising Shakespeare to the masses?

Siobhan: Yes and no. I think that now because we engage a lot in social media and by using that we can appeal to young people who use Facebook or Twitter. So that’s one of the ways we can engage with people. Of course there is also the highly theatre going crowd who bring their friends as well. But one of the most difficult things is, where does one spend their money? If you go to the West End, it can cost you up to 90 pounds per ticket! Plus you have to get the train in which can cost you 30 pounds, and you also want to eat as well, one can easily spend 150 pounds on a day out! So I think that by offering tickets for 10 pounds, with the promise of highly experienced and trained actors with great talent- it is a West End worthy performance for 10 pounds! Which is fantastic! We also do free shows during the summer. Like all theatre companies, we need to keep our funding and pay our actors. There are always things to be paid for down to Triple A batteries! You wouldn’t believe some of the things needed to make a production happen! We also don’t use a very complicated set which is very much the Grassroots ethic- it’s not needed! Without a director’s concept and a set designer’s vision, with only the actor’s devising you don’t need much to tell the story! You only need the actors!

Matt: The nice thing with devising is that it’s not planned, it just grows! Someone brings in a hat, another brings in a pair of boots and we just decide how it will go!

Well, thank you so much for your time. I loved the show and I love what you’re doing! I will most definitely make an effort to come back!

Joe Staton - young actor and Grassroots' first guest blogger!