When I heard that seven new plays had been written in protest against cuts to the public services, to be performed at Southwark Playhouse, I thought it was a wonderful idea. Then I learned that the plays were also donated by their writers for performance on the nineteenth of March all around the UK; it became obvious that we should do them here, in Lancaster. There are a surprising number of theatre folk here, students from both our universities included, so it wasn’t implausible that we’d be able to cast seven plays. More to the point, it’s already obvious that Lancaster, like many places in the North, is going to suffer a lot from the cuts. There’s anger here, and anxiety, surely someone would want to channel that into a theatrical protest.
Someone other than me, obviously. Though maybe there might be a part in one of the plays suitable for a foreign woman, and of course I’d help in any other way I could. I don’t vote in national elections, what right did I have to start something like this? Besides, I’ve never been especially organized, I don’t have a producer’s tact or persistence. Someone should do it, though; that’s what I kept saying, and people kept agreeing. Before I knew it, I had called auditions.
The youth theatre where I work let us use their space for auditions without charge. A playwright friend emailed all the theatre people he knew to tell them about it. Another friend who teaches at Lancaster University told students and friends about it. I imitated the Theatre Uncut logo by taking a picture of a pair of scissors on a red placemat, and used it to put posters up around town, asking people to come audition. I talked to the largest of the local anti-cuts groups, started to get emails from actors. We set up a facebook group. LitFest very kindly gave us the use of the performance space at The Storey Institute for the evening of the nineteenth.
Unlocking the youth theatre for auditions, an optimistic number of script extracts in hand, I had no idea how many people were going to show up. I don’t even mean actors. I was in love with a monologue by Clara Brennan but knew I couldn’t act it, I was desperate to direct it. Another monologue, more political polemic than work of fiction, I reckoned I could perform without a director. That left five plays without directors, and only a handful of promises to consider directing to go around.
In the end, the auditions went better than I could have hoped for. A student director eagerly snapped up one play. I persuaded three actors, one of whom was also a dramaturg, and the playwright, to try their hands at directing, despite demurrals. Exactly the right number of people showed up to fill each part. Before splitting off into little groups to work on the texts we stood in a circle, talking about why we were there. Many were worried about their jobs, some about their children’s education, or their own. Many were indignant at the simple injustice of paying for a disaster they never caused while those who had caused it reaped ever-greater rewards. Many were theatre folk of some skill and experience, some were theatre students, others had never done any theatre before. The atmosphere was passionate, welcoming, everybody seemed so willing to give what time they had, to rub along together in the best way we could find, to make it happen. We left with every play cast, first rehearsals agreed on, even some set and costume needs accounted for.
Of course it was never going to be that easy. It’s one thing to want to do something like this, to believe in it, another thing to actually find the time. Work, parenting, education, health, all take priority. As they should, of course, but still it was a blow when people started measuring their eagerness against the reality of their time. One, then another, then two more had to withdraw or limit their participation. Proof, as if we needed it, of the limits of volunteerism; the implausibility of “The Big Society”. So the begging emails went out again, the facebook postings, the tweets. It was touch and go for a while, but as I write this, we’ve just recast the last part. We’re a good mix, I think. About half of us are theatre professionals, the rest amateurs and students. Rehearsals have started, in people’s houses, in a shop after closing time, at our venue, in a community centre. I’ve sat in on some of them, and they’re going excitingly well. I’ve ended up directing two very different plays, both of which I love. I’ve even managed to set up an eventbrite page for ticketing; we’re not charging an entry fee, but we need to know how many people are coming. I’m beginning to believe there’ll be a lot. I’m also starting to think that I’ve spent too much time organizing and not enough learning the four page monologue I volunteered to perform….
More from Aliki next week. Lancaster Theatre Uncut will be performed synchronously with events around the country on the 19th March. Get your free tickets here. For more information about Theatre Uncut around the UK, visit: Theatre Uncut