To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer, I think not in this case. This question along with the following was no doubt troubling the minds of all the production directors. Are we destined to star on Stratford’s stage?
With the coveted prize to perform at Stratford-upon-Avon, amateur groups were enticed out of the concealed crevasses of the country towards the bright lights of the professional stage to show off the talent so often kept under wraps.
William Shakespeare famously declared ‘All the world’s a stage’ and Manchester took to the boards to play its part with Contact on Oxford Road the North West region’s curtain raiser.
As part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad, Contact teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to present a festival of Shakespeare and Shakespearean-inspired productions from a variety of the North West’s amateur companies.
Over the past six months a range of amateur groups were mentored by Contact and RSC professionals to produce innovative productions that were showcased this month as part of the RSC Open Stages.
Contact was appointed the parent theatre for the North West region by the RSC who funded 10 key partner theatres up and down the country.
Abi Wilcox, Contact’s creative arts director, said: “It was great for Contact to be part of something that is usually outside of our remit.
“We don’t often do Shakespeare and if we do it’s often with a twist.”
And with a twist it was. Twelve companies emerged from the hidden world of amateur production to grasp the festival with both hands and deliver 20 minute long creative adaptations of the bard’s works embracing performances like Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
RSC artistic director Michael Boyd said that the RSC wanted to bridge the gap between the professional and amateur sector through the Open Stages project.
He said: “We want to celebrate its rich traditions, open our doors to new work and collaborate with our regional partners to create a significant legacy.”
Amateur groups were encouraged to sign up to the World Shakespeare Festival by the RSC and then invited by Contact to go through a bidding process where they had to pitch their extract to a panel.
Miss Wilcox said: “We wanted to showcase as many people as we could as we know what the experience means to them.”
The four evenings crammed full of Shakespearean drama were bursting at the seams with talent, humour and blood-thirsty battles with actors young and old showcasing their skills and understanding of iambic pentameters, nuances and patterns of speech.
Hilary Egan, Director of the Macbeth Production performed by Chester Theatre Club, said that it is a breakthrough for the RSC to have acknowledged amateur work.
She said: “It offered an enormous chance for amateur groups across the North West to have a good entertaining evening at the theatre.
“Amateur theatre is very much alive and well in the North West,” she said. “I’m sure Shakespeare would applaud.”
Many of the amateur groups who took part had not performed on a professional stage before and what this festival offers is a huge opportunity to fulfil a dream.
Director of the Riverside Drama Company’s ‘The Pocket Dream’ production, a condensed version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Fleur Hebditch said: “The workshops with the Open Stages project were brilliant and working and talking to professional actors, directors and stage technicians has been invaluable for us.”
The RSC selected the Nottingham-based Riverside Drama Company as the North West’s regional production to perform in Stratford.
Lizzie O’Hara who played Puck, the stage manager and Hermia in ‘The Pocket Dream’ said she never dreamt the group would make it to Stratford-upon-Avon.
She said: “We always knew we had something special with this play, but never in our wildest dreams did we think we’d be on stage at the RSC!”
Under the compass of amateur theatre the majority of actors enjoy acting as a hobby outside of their daily nine to five jobs. Ms O’Hara is a full-time primary school teacher and found out that she would be starring alongside her cast members at the RSC whilst in the classroom.
She said: “My class were asking me why I was jumping up and down and shaking like a leaf!”
This festival boosted the awareness of the talent that is cultivated through amateur productions and as many directors have said it is the recognition that amateur theatre has long been waiting for.
Fear not fellow Shakespeare fans and thespians as the festival is not over. The Open Stages culminates at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in July from 13 - 22. Plus, many of the other acts that performed at Contact will be performing at RSC’s open air theatre The Dell.