Sunday, 5 June 2016

Shakespearean Spring Jam: Chris Thomson on partnering with Grassroots

It is not a foolish assumption of mine, I hope, to say that we can all agree that theatre is pretty much a good thing. Personally I would go so far as to say it is a great, exciting and valuable thing, but then, I am an actor. It is rather like Bob the Builder telling you about the joys of scaffolding. Not joyous to all, but indisputably a good and necessary article. 

The Team in Leicester Square for the Shakespeare 400
'Dawn Til Dusk' Launch (L-R: Kit Loyd, Chris Thomson, Siobhán Daly,
Louis Labovitch, Benjamin Bonar, Richard Soames)
During the run of Twelfth Night we experienced an overwhelmingly positive reaction both in and out of the theatre, you need only peruse the Grassroots' Twitter feed to validate such a claim. Never before have I experienced such a consistent enjoyment from an audience on a nightly basis. Standing ovations, repeat visits, raucous laughter, children on the edge of their seats; this last one in particular, for me, is signifier that we were doing something right.

I have generally been pretty lucky with my acting jobs so far in my career; mostly working in friendly, well-intentioned and creative environments, working with Grassroots for the first time was no exception. Notably with this job though, I made a great many advances and breakthroughs in realisations on how I wish to function within this business. For an actor, the ensemble way of working is indeed intense, but forces one to treat the art, and other actors, with dexterity and care; an approach which I hope comes through in their work’s execution.

Chris Thomson in rehearsals for Twelfth Night
Here’s the thing though; as grateful as we are for them, hordes of positive tweets doth butter no parsnips. For all the great press in the world, the cogs of theatre will undoubtedly grind to a halt should they be neglected by the oil of finance. Of course I believe that your support should be given, from my point of view this kind of job is in short supply in terms of creative and educational opportunity for an actor, and I could go on for pages about why I think we should be given a chance ahead of all the other ventures racing towards the bottleneck of theatrical success and longevity. But why should YOU support it? What’s in it for you, the viewer? Well, I have prepared a short listicle (if the internet has taught me nothing else, it’s that we all love a little listicle) of reasons why you might wish to lend us your support.

1.     Original Practices

Grassroots are a company whose hook is that we work with original practices. What does that even mean mate? Well, essentially it means that we have taken inspiration from the way in which a theatre company might have worked 400 years ago, and incorporated it into the structure of the Grassroots work and performance ethic.

Jim Conway, Ellie Nunn & Darrell Davy in
rehearsals for Twelfth Night
For us, as actors, the main curve from the contemporary system is that we are without a director, and therefore shape the work as a collective. This has it benefits as well as its difficulties. Although it perpetuates a lot more debate, it also means that a larger pool of ideas and angles are there to play with. This, so far, has ended in a very carefully crafted and well-rounded product.

Original practice also refers to a return to original intentions. Centuries ago, before theatre was a corporate machine that needed feeding with big names and fancy lights, before it was decided that spectacle was required at the expense of quality content to keep the masses happy, before we started making theatre for the actors and stopped making it for the people, the role of theatre was to entertain and to educate. It was not the reserve of the spangle-dangled gentleman and glitter-knickered madam, it was intended for all to enjoy, from Lord to latrine monitor. Grassroots’ wish is to help create a landscape where good theatre, and indeed Shakespeare, is easy to find and enjoyable to behold. Which bring us to…

2.     Accessibility

We hear a lot about this in entertainment. Are we really sure what this is actually supposed to mean? I suppose it comes down to a combination of things. To our understanding this is what it means:
Tamaryn Payne as Lady Olivia in Twelfth Night

-       Clarity. I know when creating Twelfth Night our biggest priority was to tell the story really, really well. You do this by knowing the text inside out and making every thought absolutely clear. Productions too often get caught up in all the concept and spectacle of a production and forget about the foundation of the art, storytelling. This is a Grassroots core value.

-       Price. As we know, one of the issues in encouraging people into the theatre is price, and in that vein, value for money. A night at the theatre is, in general, expensive and a rare treat. On top of that, if you have just spent a lot of money on something not so great, you are most unlikely to go again and feel like it was money well spent. No wonder so many feel unwelcome. Not only do Grassroots very carefully craft their plays with the audience at the forefront of their thoughts, they will continue to do their very best to ask a reasonable price in return.

-       Welcome. Come one, come all. Young and old, theatre goers and novices. Bring your popcorn (a girl bought some really decent smelling lentil soup in one night, she wouldn’t give me any. Had to settle for a cashew nut biscuit from the lad behind her. It was fine, bit dry), bring your commentary, bring your slippers. Make yourself damn comfortable, we are here for you, not you for us. When you come and see us it should feel as comfortable as if you were in your own living room, come as you are. We want you coming back, we are building…

Siobhán Daly and Emily Jane Kerr promoting Twelfth Night
Up at the O2, 52m above London

3.     Community

There is concerted effort to break down the divide between actor and audience. Grassroots love to encourage communication between their actors, Online and offline. A show is not complete without its audience; you are just as valuable an ingredient as the text, the actors, the music, the costumes, all of it. When you re-visit us in the future we want it to feel as if you are coming back to see and old friend. It is club, but everyone is invited, all are welcome. It all adds to the…

4.     Quality

The care and fierce detail observed in the rehearsal room is top drawer. All in the name of putting the best experience together for the viewer. However, we realise that what we arrive with on opening night is by no means the final product. You, the viewer, are instrumental in rubbing that last sheen of quality on to the theatrical surface. Every laugh you offer, every gasp, every grunt and every silence is important to us; we listen to every one. We are not afraid to grow and change, we hear you. Every reaction helps us to add detail and to produce the finest vintage for you. We are striving…

5.     The best of intentions…

Richard Soames as Feste in Twelfth Night
All of the above points, and all the attributes I have probably missed, fall under the blanket of good intention. This company is built on nothing but love for the work and desire to bring our audiences the best. Capital gain is not how we measure success here, but we do need a little financial support to keep going towards the point at which we might deem ourselves successful. We only wish to be able to sustain the ability to keep bringing the public the best, by being able to hire the best people to do that.

So help us out here chaps. Perhaps you can’t empty your pockets for us, or even toss us a copper right now. At the very least do your best to get the word out. Go forth and slather this article over the internet like Shakespearean Spring Jam over a Bardy Brioche. To paraphrase Grassroots Associate Artist, Emily Kerr, ‘If you like what we are doing, please support us in any way you can. If you don’t… don’t.’ 


If you would like to financially partner with Grassroots Shakespeare London and join our journey, we have a number of campaigns including '10 for £1k', Give What You Can, Legacy Donations and corporate sponsorship to suit fellow adventurers like you! 

Please head over to our website and check out our 'Support' page where you can donate via Paypal, or for larger donations, please email

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