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Spotlight On: Julie Atherton

Posted on 30 January 2013 by Joe Raynor

julie_atherton_in_rehearsal_as_cinderella_-_photo_by_helen_maybanks__647z240

Actress and West End star Julie Atherton has certainly had a busy career since graduating from drama school in 1999, appearing in shows as varied as Avenue Q, Sister Act The Musical and Mamma Mia! But what sparked her interest in the stage in the first place? Atherton chatted to me during rehearsals for her critically acclaimed performance in the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomime, Cinderella.

“Well, it was basically all I could do! My drama teacher at Sixth Form got me so interested in it. He really fought for me.” Driven by this passion for the stage and her determination to become a professional actress, Atherton decided to apply for drama school and was offered a place at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. She reveals with a laugh, “once I’d got in to Mountview I didn’t turn up to the rest of the auditions because I knew I wanted to be there. There’s just something about it.”

It was at Mountview that Atherton’s talent for acting and singing were nourished. Atherton’s advice for young people who want to appear on the West End stage, as she has? Hard work and want it more than anything else; there’s no escaping the fact that competition will always be fierce.

With a history of West End appearances behind her, as well as two studio albums, what prompted the decision to transfer her skills to pantomime at the Lyric for Christmas 2012? She says of this particular production: “there are no football stars to pull in the audience, it’s simply a really good panto with brilliant people in it and brilliant writing. It’s traditional.” If pantomime’s the theatrical equivalent of Marmite, Atherton’s very atuned to how she feels about its traditions. “I hate audience participation. I’m quite shy really. I know that’s weird when you’re an actress, but when I see something with audience participation I always think, ‘Oh no, please please don’t pick on me’.”

Despite her reticence as an audience member, the process of being actively involved in Cinderella has softened Atherton to the genre as a whole – thanks in great part to the fun the cast had in rehearsals. “We all really get on – a bit too well! It’s hard to keep a straight face on stage; it’s a really fun process.” She was well-prepared for those occasions of audience interaction that might call for some quick-thinking improvisation by herself and the other actors.

So what gets you in the mood for a demanding pantomime performance regime? A high-octane rehearsal routine, of course. Atherton reveals that the cast of Cinderella braved the Insanity Workout challenge as part of their warm-up; Atherton sums up this military-style exercise challenge in one word: “horrendous”. “But,” she continues, “it’s keeping us strong and fit. We don’t have understudies so we have to be well.” Clearly, Director Sean Holmes is aware of the physical and mental strength needed to survive a show that runs for weeks at a time. Although the Insanity Workout may not be for everyone, Atherton has obviously come to appreciate the results of improved stamina on stage.

The Lyric’s Christmas production of Cinderella also featured a young ensemble supporting cast, and there was a real community feel within the production. The Lyric has become known for this kind of inclusivity with its programmes for young and local people, so it seems only natural that its pantomime is a fairytale rooted in modern British culture. Atherton tells me: “She [Cinderella] is a bit more loveable because she’s not just this pretty, pretty Cinderella that will obviously get the prince. She can’t dance and, well, actually she can’t do a lot!”

With comedian Mel Giedroyc on board as the wicked stepmother, comedy, fun and frivolity were the buzz words of Cinderella, but Atherton’s taking on a very different challenge now the new year has dawned, as she stars in new musical LIFT, premiering at the Soho Theatre.

LIFT plays at the Soho Theatre until 24 February 2013. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/lift/.

Cinderella was the Lyric Hammersmith’s 2012 pantomime. For more about the theatre and its current productions, visit www.lyric.co.uk.

Image credit: Cinderella in rehearsals at the Lyric Hammersmit by Helen Maybanks

 

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Belting trio of tales

Posted on 06 August 2012 by Abigail Lewis

“I got a ginger beer,” says Artistic Director Jethro Compton. “Well, I’ve got a ginger beard,” quips Artistic Director number two, Dominic Allen. He does. It’s obvious where the playful nature of Belt Up Theatre’s productions originates.

“Playful, exciting, adventurous,” is how Compton describes Belt Up, and he maintains that although the company is renowned for fluidity, innovation, and change, those three words have applied from the beginning. “We’ve always had a fairly clear idea,” agrees Allen. “We know what makes it a Belt Up show. Of course it changes from project to project, depending on the demands of the play, but at the core is always the same fundamental feeling. We wrote an artistic statement back in the past and it still satisfies what we do now.” Allen, Compton, and their Associate Artist Joe Hufton quote together: “We put the audience at the centre of our wholly encompassing world.”

At a Belt Up show, there is no fourth wall; the audience is expected to interact with the cast, and if this doesn’t happen some of their plays could genuinely fail. The way they encourage this interaction has changed over the years, says Allen: “In our earlier work, the control of the audience was very direct, almost aggressive – you have to do this and if you don’t you’re going to be humiliated. Now we’ve become better at saying, it would be really great if you could do this. Our characters have become so much more sympathetic that the audience almost feels like they have to help because they’d upset the characters if they didn’t. They feel like they’re helping the show. It’s very, very rare to get an audience that in its entirety will refuse to help the show. The play would probably stop if that happened. It’s much easier now that we’re better at appealing to people. There’s nothing worse than the show grinding to a halt.”

“Audiences aren’t scared to come into a Belt Up show the way they were before,” adds Compton. “They’d come in thinking, am I going to be singled out, will I be humiliated, I hope they don’t pick me. Now people relax and enjoy the story.”

“It’s not like that anymore,” agrees Hufton. “We’re clever, we’re more grown up than before. It’s easy to say, I’m going to make you do this, but it’s harder to create a show where you don’t need to do that. I think we’ve found that balance now. So the audience can relax, and we can relax as well.”

Although they have mentioned that their mission is to create an all-encompassing world around their audience, I wonder if they also try to engage with the wider world. Is there anything political in what they do? “That’s not what we set out to do,” affirms Hufton. “Of course, along the way things happen, our opinions come through as we write. But we never set out to do that.”

“We all write, so our plays naturally have a bit of ourselves,” agrees Allen. “Sometimes writers can be mistaken for making points, though. There’s a speech in Outland this year in which [the character] Lewis Carroll talks about his religious beliefs. I’m never sure how the audience takes it. I always wonder if people think that’s my view.” He does concede that the shows contain interesting philosophical points. “This year they’re focused on the importance of stories, and childhood, and people. All the most important things in life can be boiled down to stories. What else can you spend your time doing? If you’re watching the news, gossiping with your friends, reading a book, going to plays or films – that’s all stories. The only reason we go to work is to earn money to spend it on stories. Even all the grand things like religion can be boiled down to stories.”

So what stories will Belt Up tell at the Edinburgh Fringe this year? They are bringing a trio of shows to new venue C nova: The Boy James, Outland and A Little Princess. Compton tells me more about The Boy James: “It’s a simple little piece, but the audience is asked to be involved in a way we’ve never asked before. They’re asked to do something, and the play literally doesn’t work if there is no one in the audience who will do that thing. Unless an audience member steps up everyone will just sit there for eternity!”

“Outland was a response to The Boy James,” says Allen. “We racked our brains for another piece to complement it, and the only obvious person or world to base it on would be Lewis Carroll. The Boy James is all about someone saying goodbye to their inner child, and Outland is the thematic reverse, about a man who is trying to get back his inner child and the inner child of others.”

Hufton tells me about the third show. “A Little Princess came to me as the perfect show to sit with the other two. It’s set in a similar time period to the other two, and it sits nicely in between the simplicity of The Boy James and the completely bonkers nature of Outland. I felt that it would instantly work in our space and has obvious ways to engage the audience.”

Their use of space is one of the ways in which Belt Up has evolved since their first appearance at Fringe in 2008. In the past, they have transformed spaces using more temporary materials, but this year they have built a whole room from the floor up. “The space is the other member of the company you have to work with, who sometimes pisses you off and sometimes does something amazing.”

“It’s like a marriage,” says Compton, “sometimes they’re really useful and we get on really well and sometimes they haven’t done the dishes. What has changed though, is that we’ve become less satisfied with our spaces. We look back at a space we loved in 2008 and we think it’s rubbish. Our expectations of our own creation get higher, it needs to be better every year.”

“This year we’ve gotten so much better at doing it,” Hufton is quick to add. “Things that took a day before now take an hour. We’ve learnt the brilliance of nail guns when we used to tie everything together, which has led to the excessive use of a nail gun even when we don’t need it.”

After a quick interlude where someone notices a poster on a wall advertising the services of a man who would like to feed your pigeons while reciting Spanish poems, we are back on track with a few of Belt Up’s countless anecdotes of audience hilarity – things must be bound to go wrong when you rely on an untrained audience.

“So many times. It happens all the time,” laughs Allen. “We did one show where an audience member was literally invited to perform whatever. Anything they wanted. Someone stood up and said he was a professional stunt man. He did a backwards flip onstage and crashed into the back curtain of this fairly huge room we’d built in the Southwark Playhouse. It was like Caesar’s tent. He rolled through the curtain and off the back of the stage, taking the curtain with him. Then there was the woman who threw up during Lorca Is Dead. She fell asleep almost as soon as she got in. She woke up at one point, threw up into her hand and wiped this biscuit tea sick under her chair and instantly went back to sleep. That was the harshest critic we’ve ever had.”

“We performed The Boy James to schoolchildren in Adelaide,” Compton remembers, “and their school suggested to the parents that the kids go into counseling, as a direct result of our show.” They’ve performed in Adelaide and in London, but hold a special place in their hearts for the fringe scene at Edinburgh. “It’s so difficult to be original in London,” explains Compton. “There are so many people doing something similar to what you’re doing.”

“There’s a community around theatre at Fringe, and it’s not like that in London,” says Hufton. “You don’t get any support in other artists.” The benefit of that community, says Allen, is that “when you’re at Fringe, there’s automatically a vibe where people want to enjoy themselves whereas in London everyone has huge expectations.”

“The festival environment makes you feel so much more worthwhile,” concludes Compton. “In London, you get in, you do your show, you leave and go home and you don’t meet anyone. So how do you know if anyone cares? In Edinburgh, you bump into people who are seeing your shows all the time and they say things. It just makes your day.”

Catch Belt Up Theatre performing at C Venues – C Nova until 27 August. For more information, visit www.edfringe.com or www.beltuptheatre.com.

Image credit: Belt Up Theatre, A Little Princess

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Behind the Scenes: Coney Playday

Posted on 22 May 2012 by Becky Brewis

Coney has a bit of a history of filling the Battersea Arts Centre with bewildered but willing participants. It all started with its 2009 hit, A Small Town Anywhere, which was co-produced by BAC and won Time Out’s Critics’ Choice No. 1 Theatre. It brought audience participation and immersive theatre together with the kind of kookiness you would expect of a company founded on “principles of loveliness, adventure and curiosity”. Since then, Coney has built up an impressive portfolio of wildly varied work. The latest in its current season of open events – a free session billed as a “day of play” –  revisited some familiar territory.

Since its initial success, Coney has been developing A Small Town Anywhere for a tour and a stint at BAC in May. The afternoon of playful experimentation was partly designed to try out some new ideas through a game called A Gossiping Town, a piece they describe as a “game-engine”. It is not Coney’s style to explain much, but I spoke to Ellie Robinson – whose unlikely job title is Coney’s Playful Communications Officer – to find out what she expects from theatre events like these. “Every playday is different, and I always look forward to seeing what imaginative stuff gets dreamt up… Game-engine is a term used to describe a basic game structure in a piece of theatre or performance that facilitates the progression of the narrative. Without the engine of a piece, it wouldn’t run.”

So dawns the day of play. A group of about 30 of us loiter awkwardly in the hall, waiting for instructions. Then the Coney game-master – who doubled up as town crier – assigned us each a parochial, turn of the century profession (publican, constable, butcher etc.) and split us into tribes: the newcomers, recently moved from the big city to the small town, and the the local, born and bred small towners. I was the undertaker.

We each chose someone in the room to help and someone to hinder. Once we had got these bare essentials of normal human interaction sorted we were ready to start gossiping about our neighbours. This meant mingling and chatting to each other in character. We could start rumours, flirt, nurse hunches, pass each other notes and – best of all – give letters to the town crier for public announcement, with gossip ranging from accusations of adultery to what the butcher was putting in her pies. Acts of friendliness and selfishness drove the game forward and created a narrative which culminated in a couple of marriages and an election. If you fancy a good look at the rules, they’re available here.

According to Robinson, “Playdays are open spaces to be playful and to meet others who want to do the same. We use them as a place to experiment with ideas (theatrical, game-based or just generally playful in any way) in a low-pressure, no obligation way.” But taking part in these kind of games can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. There were periods in A Gossiping Town where I felt left out, something which is all part of the process. Inevitably, there are times when your own little narrative (in my case, a ménage à trois with the priest and the curate) get lost as conflicting stories emerge from others in the group. Coney is constantly developing new ways of making the audience take centre stage by putting them in charge of the narrative, but sometimes the mini-narrative you’ve created gets lost on the way. Overall though, it is remarkable to see how a narrative founded on sub-plots does seem to produce fairly coherent stories, with some convincing characters. By the end, you definitely feel you’ve been part of something.

It’s worth pointing out that although hosted by Coney, the day also included a game of cold warfare-cum-tennis by the small company, Venice as a Dolphin. The two games were very different, though as with A Gossiping Town, The Eschaton (by Venice as a Dolphin) created a sense of a world that is familiar, but very different to reality. This time, we were split into small groups that represented countries and states, and we enacted a cold-war scenario. Attacks could be launched by lobbing a tennis ball across the room, and marker cones in primary colours indicated metropolitan centres, military bases and nuclear missile deployment areas, among other things. The continents were roughly marked out with the kind of tape that shows where the goal is in school gyms and we worked tactically in our groups, sending ambassadors on diplomatic missions across the parquet flooring to China. BAC’s large building was a good setting for two games loosely based on how society works.

The only thing Robinson gets nervous about is making sure people have a good time, “although everyone usually says they’ve had loads of fun”. I can imagine that how much fun an event is depends largely on who turns up on the day, something you can’t always predict. At the session I attended there was a good mix of people and certainly not all thespy types. The atmosphere was somewhere between a psychological experiment and Sunday school, and both Coney and Venice as a Dolphin are good at preventing their games from lapsing into feeling like a drama school warm-up session. Even the preliminary games were site-responsive pieces created there and then by participants and practitioners pretty much indistinguishable from each other.

The company’s open events are a natural extension of a gently playful, inclusive digital presence (anyone on Coney’s mailing list will be familiar with the enigmatic, letter-writing Rabbit). In the “Play Around” section of their website it is possible to talk to the moon, walk through a palace of bones using only your ears, and go back to your first day at school. I’d recommend a browse and, if you can’t wait for it to come to a small town near you, a trip to the try-out shows of the newly developed A Small Town Anywhere at BAC in May. What are you waiting for? The games have already begun.

Playdays are part of a series of open events that Coney facilitates which are happening in London and will soon be being held further afield, too. For more information on Coney’s open events, visit the website.

Image credit: A Small Town Anywhere by Coney

Becky Brewis

Becky Brewis

Becky Brewis is Commissioning Editor of AYT. She is a freelance writer and editor and has written for Huffington Post UK and IdeasTap and reviews theatre for Broadway World and One Stop Arts. Sub-editing includes IdeasTap, Nick Hern Books and fashion and art magazines Nowness and Wonderland. She has worked for theatres and arts organisations including the Finborough, the Pleasance, the Southbank Centre, Cecil Sharp House and the Barbican Centre.

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