Monday, 20 February 2017

A review of our NT Connections performance of Three by Toni Stephenson

There are few better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than a good Rom Com; Love Actually, Bridget Jones, and anything starring Colin Firth or Hugh Grant. Watching the Connections cast perform Three was essentially a live version of my favourite weekend pass time (made even better by the simple fact that it was Yew Tree).

The humbling story of six teenagers becoming three couples was made engaging and comical by the presence of their "inner voices" played by different actors. This made for interesting viewing, watching a pair of actors play the same character in slightly different ways; one more revealing than their counterpart, as none of the other characters could hear what they said. An example of this was Emily and Eve playing Lena, where Eve, portraying Lena's inner thoughts, was more harsh to her love interest Jamie for being unpopular, whereas Emily's version only expressed Lena's reluctance through her actions, which revealed to the audience something about Lena's insecurity, rather than seeming rude, which is what might be assumed by the audience without having heard her thoughts. Similarly, Jacob and John's partnership comically personified the conflicts that people often have in their minds during an awkward situation; in this case a failing blind date.

The narrator played by Dec was a treat and the small interactions with the audience throughout the play were part of what made the stories so accessible and relatable.

Something also commendable was each actors ability to look through the inner voices as though they were not there but only in their heads. I imagine it would be difficult as an actor having a conversation with someone who is not supposed to be a physical being, since a lot is based on action and reaction. However, cast did this brilliantly.

One final thing which deserves a shout out is the set which created a much needed hint of summer in February (a small reference for the Dan Stevens fans out there). They were neat, simple and efficient. It really felt as though a small garden had been created with the green rugs and miniature fence. Similarly, a canal side bench was transformed into a hotel room with a single throw and some cushions. All was smoothly arranged by the cast ensemble in a way that gave the play the personalised Yew Tree stamp.

All that is left to say is that the hard work of everyone involved payed off. Each of the three storylines were performed in a way that gripped the audience. The cast made us laugh with the characters, cringe with them and root for them all to find a happy ending with one another... Thank goodness Katie X was a diva and late on stage at the concert!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

John a valued and excellent member of our cast of "Three"

It's often suggested that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it - that is, should you want to learn French, move to Par-ee and parlez Francais. The idea roughly extends to just about any hobby; for example, after a week locked in a room with nothing but a guitar, I should imagine you'd be able to ring out a vaguely tuneful Smoke on the Water. There doesn't, however, appear to be a means of becoming an actor via immersion. Locking yourself in a room and maintaining character for a week sounds more like a horrific psychology experiment than a means of learning. The closest reasonable analogue for an amateur actor then, would be something along the lines of Connections week. Every year, the National Theatre takes scripts from established writers and distributes them to youth theatre groups up and down the UK, in a scheme called Connections. At Yew Tree, once we have one of these scripts in hand, we will hash out a rough version of our show in preparation for a week of intensive rehearsal in the February half-term - more snappily known as Connections week. Serving almost as a boot camp in preparation for our local performances, lines learned and scenes blocked, we polish and obsess, and practise and revise, and emerge as young actors at the top of our game. The beauty of this practice is not in the end show, beautiful as it may be. In the sense laid down by JFK, it is less a matter of what the actors do for the show, but what this show does for the actors. I write this the night before our performance of Three by Harriet Braun. In roughly 20 hours, I will be stepping off stage (to applause, hopefully) and going for some fresh air. This does mark some personal significance, incidentally. It was after the performance of Hacktivists in 2015 that a few friends and I, on a whim, asked Sarah if we could join Yew Tree. Tomorrow therefore marks my rough two-year anniversary of deciding to try my hand at acting, and if I may, I'd like to use this to segue into a slightly more personal take on the whole experience. Some people collect coins, others fancy philately, but I like to think of myself as collecting hobbies. There are countless instruments, half-finished paintings, watercolours, acrylics, sketching sets, electronic components and notebooks that I can see littered around my room from where I write this. Most of my hobbies get left by the wayside after a few weeks of obsessive interest in them. Since I started acting, however, I've not passed up a single opportunity to do so. The following, to the best of my understanding, is why. The reason there is no way to learn to act by immersion, and the reason I keep finding myself coming back to it, is because acting does not reward the obsessive, or the perfectionist - it punishes them. Try to improve by rehearsing excessively, and become overrehearsed and lack spontaneity. Rehearse the bare minimum to preserve spontaneity; you will miss a great many dramatic possibilities. Analyse the script all you may, but if you intellectualise too much you will lose emotion, but act without thought and you'll lack understanding. You may throw yourself at this brick wall until you are at the brink of walking out, cursing nitpicky directors, bad writing and impossible characters but the barrier to a better performance is, and always will be, psychological. If you want to be a better actor, the answer lies at least in part within your psyche. Therein lies why I love acting. Two years ago I found the creative outlet I needed, and which has shaped me. No other pursuit has forced me to so closely examine who I am, or to be more self-aware. This week has demanded I allow myself to experiment, that I overcome a fear of falling flat to find interpretations of scenes that I hadn't considered. I have been dragged out of my own head, asked to consciously be unconscious of my thoughts and opinions and react in real time to what happens in front of me, to give greater credence to my intuition and emotion in a way that I could not do before. Intelligence and empathy, analysis and emotion, confidence and self-criticism are all required in equal measure to act. Qualities we all hope to possess have been earned, through hard work, by actors, and pursuing them is surely a constructive way of spending a half term. To summarise in a pleasantly smart manner: acting builds character. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to pursue a passing interest in acting to this point. I am fortunate that institutions like the National Theatre run schemes like Connections, and fortunate that groups like Yew Tree exist for people like me on weeks like this. This string of good fortune can be traced back directly to deciding on a whim to see Hacktivists that day. And so, should you happen to come across a show near where you live, I advise you to go see it. You never know where it'll take you.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

We've had a lovely weekend here at YTYT - Gordon - one of our visitors gives an insight into why...

Last August a group of 20 amateur theatre enthusiasts from all around the country gathered in Coventry as part of the NODA (National Operatic and Dramatic Association) Summer School ‘Directing Drama’ course run by Sarah Osborne.

During this course the embryo of an idea was conceived to have a ‘mini-summer-school’ reunion up in the Wakefield area in January 2017  - 5 months later 8 intrepid people from Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Kent, Cumbria and County Durham descended on the (somewhat chilly) city of Wakefield to experience a series of workshops over this weekend. All with one purpose in mind – to immerse ourselves in workshopping and improvisation – Yew Tree Theatre style.
Friday evening these 8 theatre aficionado’s arrived at the West Yorkshire Dance studio to observe the Gold company rehearsal in action. I personally imagined what it must be like for a tight knit group of talented young performers to see their rehearsal space ‘invaded’ by a group of strangers. They could so easily have become very introvert at such an invasion of their personal space. Nothing was further from the truth as none were fazed as they, with openness, accepted our group as welcome visitors.
The Saturday saw us reconvene at the Hepworth studio for a workshop on improvisation – again several of the youngsters from the previous evening such as Tom, Jacob, Ellie, Beth and Lucy joined us, accepted us as equals and before long we shared the common language of theatre. A Saturday evening rehearsal back at the dance studio and our group were seeing, now familiar, faces once again with a mutual respect during their workshop rehearsing of ‘Three’ (a piece I would pay good money to watch when performed).
Sometimes youngsters get bad press – well that press should have seen what 8 would be directors from across the country saw – commitment, talent and self discipline. Whilst credit must be attributed to the calm un-flappable force that is ‘Sarah’ the companies of Yew tree should give themselves a massive pat on the back for their un-swerving effort and aptitude.
On Sunday afternoon the eight visitors made their ways back to their respective corners of the country after a 5 hours workshopping of different directorial techniques but will leave behind a re-born respect for all the skills shown by Yew Tree and their generosity of spirit. Hence a personal thank you from myself and my fellow travellers to all at YT for allowing us to share for a brief moment the abundance of talent in this small corner of Yorkshire that is Yew Tree.

Gordon Richardson

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

YTYT Highlights of 2016

There has certainly been a lot to say about 2016 and lots of it hasn’t been the happiest.  Reassuringly however the YTYT year has been packed with enough highlights to keep it’s status as a place to retreat to, a place to escape the uncertainty, disappointments and loss of the world outside…this blog serves as a record of my greatest highlights…

The first event in the YTYT year to qualify as a highlight has got to be our NT Connections performance, “Eclipse/The Darkness in the Light,” which had it’s local performances in February and the regional performances in Kendal in May.  It was the second time I had directed this Simon Armitage poetic play but this production was very different to my initial go at it.  It classes as a highlight for lots of reasons including the sheer scale of the production – a cast of over 20 creating a partner piece and 3 versions of the same play.  It also classes as a highlight due to the quality of the performances and writing it inspired from the casts and my final reason for it achieving the highlight status is how delighted I was with the final scene – the power of the poetry in the writing, the physical and vocal commitment of the actors and the unity of the actors created something unforgettable.

Second in the highlight list is, “Maybe this Time,” as a director who famously assiduously avoids any musical theatre I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying every moment of directing this play which involved not just acting and singing but dancing as well – surely the very definition of musical theatre.  Ossett Town Hall provided the perfect setting for this tale of gangsters, true love and aspirations and the performers were an absolute class act…

Third in this pick of the pops is, “Remember the Oaks,” if I had to describe this project in one word it would be honour.  To be commissioned to create a play by the NUM to remember the men and boys that perished in a mining disaster – to make history come to life and to do this with an entirely committed and talented cast was off the scale rewarding.  This reward and honour was amplified significantly by the wonderful audience we performed to…all in all a powerful and poignant thing to be part of…

The final flourish in this flashback of fantasticity has to be of course the Christmas shows.  It’s absolutely the best way to finish every year…a perfect mixture of nostalgia and newness – watching the performances of each company and seeing how far each actor has come whilst remembering how they were the year before…whilst celebrating the contribution of each new member we’ve picked up along the way…it’s the nicest Christmas gift available to a youth theatre director.

Just in case you were worried we already have a number of potential highlights lined up for 2017 – February will see us performing our NT Connections play – “Three.”  In March we’ll perform it at the Crucible in Sheffield.  In June Black Company will perform Macbeth at The Calder – a gallery of The Hepworth, Wakefield…and those are just the ones we know about now…keep your eye on us you never know what’s around the corner…so for now let us say thank you to everyone who has been a part of our 2016 –we appreciate each and every one of you and all you give and do and we hope you enjoyed your YTYT year as much as we did…
Lucy is our guest blogger!

Well I never thought that after 3 years I would be back at Yew Tree but here I am! I came to Yew Tree for 5 years from 2008 to 2013 and it completely shaped the person I am today. Yew Tree was where I discovered my love of acting and because of that I did a BTEC in acting at college and went on to study a degree in drama at university... For 3 months. I left uni after finding out I was pregnant. One year and one baby later I found myself really missing the stage when I happened to stumble across a post on Facebook asking for actors to come and be a part of Macbeth and I couldn't resist.
The thought of coming back after such a long time was a daunting one, would I be welcome? Would I fit into this new generation of black company? But I had absolutely nothing to worry about. Everyone was so welcoming and it didn't feel like I was starting in a new place like I though it would, it felt like coming home. 

I got to do my first bit of acting in over a year and played games I haven't played since I was 18, and though I may be a bit rusty I'm sure I'll be back on top form again in no time! And what better way to get back on the stage than by throwing yourself into a full length Shakespeare play? Go hard or go home I guess!

The faces may have changed but Yew Tree certainly hasn't and I can't think of a more supportive place. 

Thank you Sarah and Black company for making my transition back into Yew Tree such an easy one. It's good to be back.

Monday, 7 November 2016

This is an additional blog - the narrative of Scarlet Company's physical theatre piece for the Christmas shows...I was inspired and thought they might like to see their story in print...scroll down for my mainstream blog of this week - readiness...

She knew it wasn’t going to be easy – committing to a career in dance was infamously difficult – she knew there were no short cuts…that every inch of progression was only achievable through hard work…but she was prepared to do it…prepared to work as hard as she could because of how dancing felt when she was truly absorbed by it…when she allowed herself to be entirely enslaved to it…

To move, to leap, to fly, to glide, to dance,
To connect with every living soul.
No feeling like it, all thought entranced.
Perfect placement, yet within the control
Such freedom unfettered, beyond compare.
Alive from finger tips to the ends of feet,
Ev’ry nerve, ev’ry sinew, entirely aware,
Knowing in that moment you are complete.
A gift to be taken, vital to teach,
To dance as if no one is watching you,
You’re alone in a place out of reach
And a deepened self-knowledge ensues
What you are, what you’ve been, what you will be
Awake to ev’ry possibility

It was only when she thought about what her friends were able to do…about the freedom they had that she felt any regret…while she grafted and sweated it out in the rehearsal room knowing her grades at school were suffering she knew they were at the cinema, out in town…with friends…carefree…they didn’t have to worry about the next exam, the next show, the next competition…it was all she had time to care about it…

At least Julian understood – he would wait for her to finish class and then walk her home – a few stolen moments of company, of freedom from responsibility…time for her mind and body to rest and her heart to be restored…somehow he seemed to understand that her priority would always be dance…she was lucky to have found him…

That night though she had shrugged him off – hardly noticed as he walked off sad and bewildered…as soon as she picked up the red shoes she had known that nothing in the world was more important than putting them on…

There was a voice in her asked her, "What do you want?"
"To dance," she replied
"And what will you give?"

As soon as she answered a darkness descended upon her in the form of the spirits of all the dancers that the red shoes had danced to their death…they began to impel her to dance - slowly at first – beautiful fleeting duets – she felt the grace and beauty of her partners and was inspired by it…then the dancing became more frenetic – she wanted to stop but she was powerless…nothing she did could stop the momentum…she was spun and twisted and turned…the shoes had a life of their own…their was no escape…after what felt like an eternity she was lifted into the air and then dropped to the ground – the spirits were about to consume her…when all of a sudden they were gone and in their place stood Julian…he had come back to her…chased the spirits away with his care and selflessness - he removed the shoes and took her hand…she was safe…


Today’s blog is inspired by Alice…who has blogged twice for YTYT at the tender age of 7 and who I spotted at the start of yesterday’s run of Aladdin, when most members of the cast were still chattering and settling, stood perfectly poised and entirely ready…she made me catch my breath such was her level of maturity and concentration.  She also made me think that readiness was a very useful thing to blog about…

I talk a lot about being ready in my workshops – in my school work I talk about being ready to learn…in my work with professional organisations about being ready to take on new ideas, to see things from a new perspective and in my drama workshops and rehearsals about being ready to work wholeheartedly and creatively…that actors should be ready to give themselves over to the process of making theatre…

It is of course like so many things easier said than done but it makes a big difference when readiness is present – whatever the context – it means that the people in the room are present…entirely in the room and in the moment…there is a level of focus, of openness of generosity that makes working together a great experience and in turn productivity goes through the roof…it means really listening…not taking in edited highlights…it means all distractions are evicted and everyone has a common goal.

The wonderful thing is that readiness can be learnt – it’s not something you have to be born with and if you can get good at it you’ll be a pleasure to work with and have such wonderful pleasure in return…just like Alice…