Spotlight On: Chapterhouse Theatre Company

Chapterhouse Theatre Company launched in 1999 with the aim of bringing some of theatre and literature’s most loved works to audiences across the UK and Ireland. This would be ambitious enough without the troupe staging their summer season exclusively outdoors, despite our country having such famously bad weather that residents would happily dispute claims that Britain doesn’t make the world’s top ten rainiest.

With a repertoire that spans Shakespeare through to adaptations of Jane Austen and the company’s own children friendly productions, Chapterhouse prides itself on providing something for everyone, everywhere. The company now tours in 140 different locations including castles, estate grounds and fields, and though an umbrella and several layers are always advisable, their twitter page (@chapterhouse_co) stands testament to over ten years of success. Young actresses Grace Scott and Maria Lovelady are currently touring with Chapterhouse and reveal more about life on the road, landing principal roles and the challenges of the great outdoors.

Grace, you play Lydia Bennet and Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, as well as Harriet Smith in Emma. How does it feel to be part of such a huge tour?

GS: It’s great to have the chance to perform to different audiences all around the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The tour itself is just over three months long but it’s going unbelievably quickly. The length of the tour means that we can all get comfortable with the shows, which makes us brave enough to try out different things with our characters.

ML: I really enjoy touring as you visit places you would never normally get the chance to go. However, the pressure of being away from home, family and friends for so long is hard at times as you miss out on things you wouldn’t do if you had a ‘normal’ 9-5 job. I missed my sister’s 21st last month and that was difficult because we are very close.

Touring can be tiring and claustrophobic as you have very little time for yourself and even less personal space. You have to be able to maintain a positive outlook when things don’t seem to be going the way you want them to and also be understanding of other people’s moods and views. But if the group dynamic works, you meet and become really close to people who have similar interests to you and so touring can be the time of your life.

Tell me about the rehearsal process. Does it differ from rehearsing for an indoor show?

GS: At first, there is really no difference from rehearsing for an indoor show. After about two weeks of blocking we move outdoors which is when things start to get difficult. We have to work on preparing our voices for an audience of 500 plus who could potentially be sitting in an open field with little or no acoustic.

We did huge amounts of vocal exercises until projecting became second nature to us. Rehearsing outdoors also demonstrates the impact weather conditions will have on our performances. Windy weather is particularly hard to perform in as it can feel like your voice is just being blown away from the audience. Once we’ve got more used to it, we go over the blocking again to refresh our memories and start to add more intricate details. Then it’s just a matter of running the plays back to back to get confident with them.

Maria, you’ve worked with Chapterhouse before. What drew you back this season?

ML: Working with Chapterhouse was my first job out of drama school so I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. I had an amazing first experience as the play, Sense and Sensibility, is adapted from one of my favourite books so it was a real treat for me to perform in it. I also loved the atmosphere and company feel of working for Chapterhouse as everyone, no matter what age, experience or size of part is treated equally. It was a really great way of learning more about the profession and all the things you can’t experience in the classroom at drama school.

You’re playing the part of Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this summer. How have you handled every girl’s dream role?

ML: When I was asked back to play Juliet I didn’t need to think twice about accepting the role. I was delighted to work for Chapterhouse again, particularly as the summer season is outdoors which was really exciting for me. At first I was pretty scared about taking on such a well known part. There are many clichéd lines in the play and Juliet has a lot of them, the most famous being “Romeo Romeo wherefore art…” – everyone knows the rest. Lines like that can be awkward for an actor because you know everyone in the audience has heard it a hundred times before. I was very overwhelmed at the start of rehearsals and doubted myself as to whether I would be able to pull it off, but I found that if you approach the role with the same attitude you would any other you find a fresh look to the character by drawing on your own personal experiences and outlooks.

I found the thing I enjoyed most when exploring Juliet is how she grows as a woman throughout such a short space of time. I think most audiences are aware of her as a romantic young girl but not as the strong woman she is at the end of the play.

Lydia, your characters in Pride and Prejudice are hugely diverse: Lydia is young and flighty whereas Caroline is cold and snobbish. How do you deal with the challenge of interchanging such different roles?

GS: I wanted to make the characters as vocally and physically different as I possibly could so I wouldn’t find myself slipping into the other role. After one show I spoke to an audience member who hadn’t realised I’d played both characters, so that was a great compliment. It’s nice to get the opportunity to perform such different characters and they are both a joy to play. Out of the two, I feel Lydia Bennet makes the biggest impact to the storyline and her final scene when she returns home as a married woman is probably my favourite scene to act in.

ML: The scope of every seasons’ productions combined with the fact you have to double is not only really great fun, but a fantastic way of building up your C.V. as a young actor and gaining new experiences fast.

What are the challenges and rewards of performing open-air?

ML: Open air is a new experience for me and the main challenge of it is definitely being heard against the sounds of the outdoor elements without straining or damaging your voice. You also can’t be very subtle when performing outside which makes it difficult to portray internal emotions, but at the same time you don’t want to be too over the top and make the whole thing embarrassingly overdramatic.

I have really enjoyed the challenge and I think that it’s the most enjoyable way to perform Shakespeare, as he would have written his plays in the knowledge that they would have been performed either entirely or partly in the open air. The locations we have visited are beautiful and so add to the backdrop of the production. No two days are the same for us, which helps to keep the play fresh and energised.

What does Chapterhouse offer young actors?

GS: Chapterhouse gives you the opportunity to play parts that you might not usually get a chance to at this stage. As it’s normally a cast of around eight, you find yourself having to double with another character as well as your main one. It shows a lot more of your range and ability which, as a young actor/actress, you might not get straight away in your career. I think that’s definitely a bonus when working with Chapterhouse as we all know that in this industry it’s hard to break out of type casting. It’s also a chance to get your name known up and down the country.

ML: As an actor the plays Chapterhouse choose are perfect. They contain all the roles that you dream of playing when you first set out to be an actor. And you know that from an audience perspective, Chapterhouse have six plays touring the country at the moment so there is always something for everyone to enjoy.

Chapterhouse is performing at open-air sites across the UK until 2 September. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are on tour until 27 August, Emma and Pride and Prejudice until 2 September and The Importance of Being Earnest and Sleeping Beauty until 31 August. For more information, visit their website. Tickets for most performances available from See Tickets. Follow the company on Twitter here.

Image 1: Emma by Lewis Payne

Image 2: Romeo and Juliet, Chapterhouse Theatre Company