Thursday, 10 April 2014

James Alexandrou on why Shakespeare's not that hard

Who wants to know why Shakespeare is hard? 

It's because of a riot in a theatre a couple of hundred years ago. The same riot which directly influenced police in America to carry guns. It's true. Look it up (

But long story short, it used to be in America, as here, plays were the TV of the day, everyone would go and mix, have an argument about the local goings-on (a sort of Question Time) and then shut up and listen to the plays. In fact a lot of people could recite the plays - and when I say a lot of people I mean everyone from the poor and uneducated to the upper classes. Trust me blud. 

James Alexandrou in rehearsal with Annabel Bates (credit: Boris Mitkov)

Along comes 2 actors, one British, one American and both very competitive. They have a public spat over who can perform Shakespeare the best ("I'm better than you", "No, I'm better then you", "I'll get my brother on you" and so on), which ends up with a massive riot during a performance by one the actors of Macbeth between their rival fans at a theatre in New York, which ended with the theatre burning down ('bringing the house down') and the Militia being called in and gunning down the crowd. Serious. This meant that new gun laws were brought in because the local police at the time didn't have death sticks yet, and almost as bad, it led to anyone of the lower social classes being banned from going to see Shakespeare at the theatre!

This meant for a large portion of the last 150 years, the poorer sections of society got to hear about Shakespeare but not to see it. It become more and more rarified and elitist and gained a reputation of being for the upper or at least the more educated class. Then along comes the heady and worthy productions of last century to pound into my little 14-year-old brain that Shakespeare is hard and I don't like it. 

But here's the thing. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a writer.  He obviously lived life, drank, partied and probably smoke weed as well as cocaine amongst other stuff. Don't believe me?

He made plays to sell tickets and make some money and keep the crowds coming back. It just so happens the man seemed to know something universal about humans and snuck a whole chunk of truth into what must have been the HBO dramas of the day. He made them to hit the heart, not the head.

James Alexandrou as Iago (credit: Boris Mitkov)

Grassroots Shakespeare London is a group of actors coming together with no director (another modern invention) and working together to tell the story of Othello. We work as close to Shakespeare's original methods as possible. They would have had a short rehearsal period, so we do too. With 2 weeks rehearsal you can forget any fantasies of an RSC level analysis of each line. You can forget deep research into how people of the day would have done this or that, or how, because a character repeats the word "Angry" 5 times in a passage, that Shakespeare was telling us to imbue some new meaning into each word. No, the man was probably pissed at the time anyway. 

Othello is about people not being who they really are. The black man in a white man's world having to be something he is not to survive, the betrayed friend who still has to act as if every thing is fine - put like this its easier to understand. Shakespeare's not hard. It's just incredibly deep, and all that requires is a bit of courage.

We are a company of actors coming together to discover some truth between ourselves and working at a time when funding is non-existent, we are all working for next to no money, taking time out of our days off to come and promote the show, to tweet, to Facebook and to sell as many tickets as we can in the hope that we get to do this again one day - just like Shakespeare did (minus the social networking). 

And just like Shakespeare we appeal to the heart not the head. Yes, our set is small but our heart is massive. Without exception, everyone member of my wonderful cast has made me cry. Without exception, they've made me laugh and without exception they have made me realise why I do this bloody job.

Get down and see why - Shakespeare's not that hard.

Othello is at Leicester Square until 26th April 2014. Tickets from

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Dying on Stage: Annabel Bates on working with Grassroots

Annabel Bates as Desdemona
The first night was last night and as I sip my cup of coffee trying to come up with something of interest to write, all I can think about it how brilliant and brave the people I'm working with are.

All productions require teamwork, but in this production of Othello, it's on another level. We're all in it together, without a director, working our arses off, and when you work with actors like I've been blessed with, you're inspired to give more and more and more.

The real stars, however, are the production team. From Rhodora, slogging away, sourcing daggers and lanterns; to Rachael and Suzi, pulling all-nighters, clubbing together to sew on buttons and poppers; from Boris papping us so often I'm beginning to think I have a stalker; to Siobhan, tweeting about us so much, she's now got RSI.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona and Emily Jane Kerr as Emilia in rehearsals for Othello

Theatre should be an experience. It's live and there is no way of knowing what will happen on the night. We all have to make ourselves vulnerable, and we all have to do things we wouldn't normally do. People talk about coming to see a piece of theatre to taste the actors' blood, sweat and tears. Well, you actually can in our production of Othello, as the space is incredibly intimate, but when I [spoiler alert!] die at the end of the play, I have a long time lying on a bed, dead (trying not to sneeze), and as I lay there last night, listening to my fellow actors sweating, bleeding and crying, I realised that everyone involved with the creation of this production has 'died' once or twice in order to tell The Tragedy of Othello to our audience in the most engaging way.

It's not that we're always raging against the dying of the light. The comedians out there will know the best clowning comes after just 'dying' on stage too'

We're all scary, funny, ugly, beautiful individuals 'dying' on a daily basis in order to survive and that I think is one thing theatre should be a platform for.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona and James Alexandrou as Iago in rehearsals for Othello

For me, the best thing about theatre is that it's live. We can't control what happens, daggers may fly and we might die on stage, but theatre is like a football match. We've trained hard, we've got our positions and formations, we've got each other's backs, we're playing the game as best we can and we're a team.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona, Emily Jane Kerr as Emilia and Nari Blair-Mangat as Othello in rehearsals

When you go to see a football match or a piece of theatre, you hope you're not going to be let down by your team. You hope they score some goals or take you on a journey. You hope they make you proud or tell a story and give you a golden nugget of an experience to carry around with you forever. It should be like meeting a exciting person you have a real connection with.

I can't say yet that we've achieved that or not, but I know we're aiming to give you an experience to remember and I know we're willing to 'die' for it.

Annabel Bates is playing Desdemona in Grassroots Shakespeare London's Othello at Leicester Square Theatre from 2nd - 26th April. Tickets available from

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Swagger Sticks: Adam Blampied on rehearsing, military style!

Hi folks. It's my turn to tangibly improve your lives with masculine yet tender words, so sit down, put your genitals in the crash position and stop talking for just a second, jeez, while I tell you about what we did yesterday.

Adam Blampied as Roderigo (copyright GSL)

Those of you who aren't going to hell when you die, i.e. people who read the Grassroots Blog, will already know that in order to streamline things (and trim down the amount of actor blood the cleaners are required to mop up at the end of a long day) we nominate a member of the cast to act as play-master. This entails leading warm-ups (difficult), introducing acting exercises (more difficult) and keeping everyone to schedule (hahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHA) and yesterday the task was taken on by John Stanley.

And it was wonderful.

John, having spent a large part of his life in the military, ran a tight ship. “The time is 11.32,” he barked, a swagger stick appearing in his arm from literally nowhere, “we shall commence rehearsing act 5 scene 2 at 11.35!” 

And we actually did. 

He fielded note-giving sessions, barking the name of whoever had their hands up. “I'm going to have to hurry you,” he'd say if the note had started to ramble, “Right, you've got your point across. Now James! Go!”

One of the main upsides to working a play the Grassroots way is that everybody has a chance to have their opinions heard. This of the main downsides on the other hand is that everybody has a chance to have their opinions heard and, if not properly kept in check, note-giving can spiral out of control somewhat, four or five people debating the merits of their own personal taste for many, many minutes. This is all valuable work, no doubt, but can leave less time for getting stuff on its feet that might be allowed under a more dictatorial regime. 

The perfect compromise? 

John Stanley.

Extending the military theme of the day, John also led us in a tiny version of an Air Force boot camp, teaching us the correct posture, standing at ease and attention, marching etc, all the while delivered in the aggressive bellow of a drill sergeant. 

John: What the f*** was that?! Where the f*** did you go to school?

Me: A posh school, sir!

John: I CAN F***ING TELL. Squad, drop and give me 5!

Finally, he played us a verbatim performance of an inspirational eve-of-battle speech, delivered by Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins to British troops about to be deployed in Iraq. After fighting to suppress giggles during the boot camp, this left respectful silence in its wake, driving home just what is expected of a soldier; to be ever-aware of honour, of family and, of course, of death.

“Right, now the time is 3.48. 2 minutes and then we return to the floor! Understood?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

I don't really have an overarching point about today's rehearsals, other than perhaps:

(1) what a company of actors sorely needs is a bit of military discipline and a large man ready to impose a timetable upon you with the blunt end of a swagger stick.

And (2) we're having a lot of fun rehearsing this play, and I think that will be in evidence when we perform it. I think this is going to be good, you guys. 

You should come.

The show runs from 2nd - 26th April at Leicester Square Theatre. Tickets available from

Monday, 24 March 2014

Cadbury's buttons and the Venetian palazzo: James Law on GSL rehearsals

James Law as the Duke of Venice (copyright: GSL)

Ah, blogs.

Always a nice idea I think - I quite enjoy reading other people’s – until, that is, you’re asked to write one yourself and literally can’t think of anything to say. Why don’t I write one in character I thought? So here I am, cup of tea to the left, bag of Cadbury's Giant Buttons to the right, The Great Escape on the telly. Maybe not the right surroundings for the Duke of Venice but the budget doesn’t stretch to a palazzo yet…alright, let’s scrap that idea.

It’s hard to believe that we only officially started rehearsing a little over a week ago. The first official day of rehearsal is intriguing for all sorts of reasons. From a human and acting perspective it’s always fascinating.

Most actors I know have a easy familiarity about them – they’re often being put in challenging situations so it helps to have that. When you actually land a part then that familiarity, by necessity, has to evolve into a slightly deeper relationship with your fellow cast members.

I don’t mean to wax lyrical about the acting process (or in the words of a fellow cast member, ”I don’t wanna get all South Bank Show about it…”) but it’s hard to think of many other professions where your fellow workers are expected to make themselves emotionally available and vulnerable within minutes, hours or days of meeting each other.

Everyone works at his or her own pace. It’s clear on the first day that some  people are quite far advanced.  Unfortunately, I’m not in that group and go home and have a mini crisis. An inevitable part of the process.

Having just ended the week with a rough stagger through of the whole play it might be useful to say something about the rehearsal process so far.

I’m new to the Grassroots way of working. In case you haven’t been reading these blogs (why not?!?) then the company prides itself on a collaborative process that doesn’t involve a director. A recipe for chaos in the rehearsal room one might think but funnily enough, not so far.

People have been respectful, generous and willing to listen to comments and take them on board. Well, it’s only week one, I’m sure that’ll change…

Part of the process involves electing a daily ‘Master of the Play’ to give a rough agenda to the day’s proceedings. I had this dubious pleasure on Thursday afternoon when we looked at Act Five. The experience is as challenging as it is rewarding. And quite a smart move too. It’s nice to feel that you may have a small say in the overall shape of the play as well as contributing with your own part.

It also makes for quite an intense experience as you can and indeed are expected to contribute frequently. Personally, I’ve found it a good lesson in realizing that the less you worry about your own personal contribution and the more you concentrate on the whole, the more rewarding the experience can be. Easy for me to say as I have a relatively small part but I’ve noticed that the actors with the larger roles are equally generous with their time.

And how to deal with the inevitable rising of tensions as opening night approaches? Well, next week we eagerly await the introduction of ‘Manuka moments’.

Manuka moments? You, alone with a jar of honey? Well, if that’s your thing… 

They actually involve giving every member of the company in turn a chance to air their thoughts honestly, whether it be a gripe with somebody or something. A good way to deal with potential flashpoints as they arise. The next blog I’m sure is bound to contain something  about one of these moments…

All in all, so far I think we’ve got to an incredible place. The quality of some of the work so far has been great and it’s wonderful to watch words and scenes you’ve heard and seen multiple times suddenly spring into life due to one person’s suggestion. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but the direction of travel is definitely forward and I’m very excited about next week.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Helena Doughty on rehearsing, Grassroots style

Helena Doughty as Bianca in Othello (copyright: GSL)

Grassroots’s process requires input from all, a fair democracy in which everybody involved shapes the play, on set, period, costumes…well everything!  There is no director; no one to say whether it is “right” or “wrong”, to keep us in check, to time keep. We are completely alone. This is incredibly daunting especially for an actor, like myself who craves the attention and assurance from a person of authority. They also say too many cooks spoil the broth, which I usually find to be true. So I was rightly nervous to start rehearsals with Grassroots but if you don’t challenge yourself when will you grow?!
Before my first day to be honest I was trying not to worry about the chaos that was bound to ensue once we started working….Surely it will be manic….I won’t be able to get a word in…What if we offend each other with suggestions?....My mind raced as having been in similar “let’s all be equal and work together” situations before they all turned a little Lord of the Flies; dominant characters prevailing and the more reserved getting side-lined. I was intrigued to see how quickly we would revert to have one all presiding leader, because I was near sure of it.

Rehearsal fun! Helena (Bianca), Emily (Emilia), Nari (Othello) &
John (Lodovico)

What I wasn’t aware of when I was preconceiving ideas about how this strange process would work is that we would have what Grassroots call a “Playmaker”. This is a nominated person on the day, they have no control over what is decided but their main objective is to hear everybody and keep order. Kind of like a Speaker of the House in Parliament refereeing between parties/ideas just the difference is we probably achieve a lot more in a day. This allows us freedom to play and ponder because one person is dedicated to keeping to the schedule and the peace (not that we are particularly violent).

With this we can really have fun, it allows for a wide range of diverse and brilliant ideas as nothing is rejected. It is a warm, nurturing environment which lends itself to new & exciting takes on old, familiar text, I also love that we are developing the play just as they would have in Shakespeare time. I like that this is ours, we have full ownership and we are a Company in the truest sense of the word. I have thrown off my need for acceptance and praise, which is liberating and it definitely makes me think…What on earth was I worrying about in the first place?!
Helena and Adam (Roderigo) 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Pink Highlighters and Coffee: Emily Jane Kerr on starting Othello rehearsals

As we approach the start of rehearsals for Othello, we thought we would catch up with the lovely Emily Jane Kerr who will be playing Emilia at the Leicester Square Theatre (2nd - 26th April 2014), on coffee, pink highlighters and working with 'Des'.

Emily Jane Kerr as Emilia (copyright: GSL)

As I write this I am sat in the foyer of the National Theatre with my Othello script, note book, a pink highlighter and, most importantly, a cup of coffee. I don't think I could be any more of a cliché of an actor than I am currently, so this feels like the perfect time for the first Grassroots Othello blog.

Today has been very exciting: I had a catch up with Annabel (Desdemona - or Des as I think I shall be calling her). We spent a couple of hours chatting ideas, whether for the production as a whole or just character bits. There's nothing better than collaboration in my opinion and I can't wait to get together with the rest of the cast and start throwing brilliant and bizarre ideas into the ether. Both Annabel and I came with similar ideas, especially when it came to character relationships, so I think that's a great place to start.

We did, however, both reveal that we feel like we just don't know Othello (the play) that well. We'd both read, and re-read, the play numerous times; both done research; both read essays: we still felt like we didn't know the play. I haven't been in that position for a very long time and it did scare me for a little bit. However after chatting about it this morning, I now think it's a brilliant position to be in. I have no preconceived idea about what the show will be like. I can enter into rehearsals with a clear mind and fresh ideas, and still have loads of exciting things to discover in rehearsals. I can't wait to learn from the other actors and create a raw and honest performance as a group. Bring on the rehearsal process!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll just grab my beret and go back to being a cliché.