Julie Hewlett as Antonio, John Cockerill as Ariel in The Tempest

A Younger Theatre managed to catch Amaka Okafor and John Cockerill between performances of The Tempest at the Unicorn Theatre to get the inside scoop of what it is like being part of the Unicorn Theatre’s Ensemble. Both Amaka and John are currently performing in The Tempest as Miranda and Ariel, as well a being part of the Unicorns permanent ensemble company within the theatre.

Find out about what the Unicorn Ensemble is, what it means for performances, and how children’s theatre isn’t all it seems:

Can you explain what the ensemble is?

John: It’s a resident company that lives in the Unicorn Theatre for each year. 9 months of it the Unicorn does several shows and  the other time there are lots of other things that the ensemble are involved in. But primarily it is about putting shows on.

How did you both get involved?

Amaka: Mine was audition based. I hadn’t really had any connection with the Unicorn before this. It was my agent who first sent me an email with the briefing of the Ensemble and I filled out the application myself and sent it off.

J: You had to apply by yourself, you couldn’t get your agent to do it. It seems like they wanted people who really wanted to be involved, rather than being pushed into it by their agent. I did a play here in 2006, called Journey to the River Sea, it was a co-production between Theatre Centre and The Unicorn.  The show came back the following Christmas as it did quite well. I was then on tour when they were auditioning for the ensemble, and fortunately the dates worked out that I could get to one of the auditions.

What is it like performing in shows that are generally aimed at young people? Is there a real difference between performing for adults to young people?

A: It depends where you work. Most of the work I have done has been with young people, and then coming here it is different because it is good theatre. I’ve done the most in-depth character work here, than anywhere else. The plays are the deepest I’ve gone to before. I think if the story is clear, then it is for anyone. It’s a debate that Tony Graham, the director has been speaking about; if the term ‘Childrens Theatre’ is actually helpful or not.

J: It certainly has a stigma about it. If you say ‘Childrens Theatre’ people think of dancing animals or maybe actors on ice skates. One of the important things at The Unicorn is to not to undermine children, to patronise or talk down to them. You can see it in the building. It is a place where children can access theatre and come and see things without being patronised. Your aim is still the same, to make good theatre, that is the most important thing. Although of course it does need to be assessable for young people, otherwise we aren’t serving our audience!

A: Children are very good critics too, they are harsh.

J: You can hear them on stage, because they are reacting to you.

Does that give you a drive then, if you can hear their reactions? Does it make you want to change what you are doing?

A: It definitely makes me question what is happening in the scene. and what notes we might not be hitting. I think sometimes there is a danger if people laugh at one thing one night, and not the next night. You always want to be sensitive without pushing it further to get a reaction.

What does the affect of a constant ensemble bring and add to each production?

A: At the beginning of each job when you start rehearsals, the first week you still have your inhibitions, you’re still not sure who these people really are. You feel nervous about putting yourself out there. If it is a short rehearsal period, the show is already up and running before you have a chance to really get the interesting things out. With the ensemble each production you learn to trust. With Cinderella we were working easier with each other, then with the London Eye Mystery it was even more so. When we got to The Tempest I felt a lot freer than before. You know the people are there and they aren’t going to let you fall, everyone wants you to be the best that you can be.

J: You don’t feel judge, if you are reading a script with a group of actors  you don’t know you feel like you are being judged from day one. With the ensemble there is none of that. It is really easy to ask each other questions.

A: I think to myself, what am I going to do different this time, because you know that the people in the ensemble have seen you in other shows. As well as challenging yourself you want to show the other people something that they might not have seen before.

J: We might be talking about one character, and we all might put input in because we know each other and it doesn’t become offensive. “Have you thought about doing this?”, and sometimes you haven’t. It’s hard to be objective sometimes with a character so it is really useful. Of course there is the other issue then of having 6 people all talking and it can slow us down. You then have to be able to say “no, this is my decision, I’ll go this way.” But to hear their ideas is really useful.
There is something in the way that the audience sees us too. People that come and see the shows and see us again and again, they feel like they know us. It makes a difference to them coming back and returning. Feeling a sense of ownership of the building and of us.

A: I’ve notice it with The Tempest, especially as we are talking to the audience at the beginning. You get people going, “I saw you in Cinderella, You’re Kat!, Come over here, What’s Ted playing?” They see you as the character before, it’s nice!

How is this version of The Tempest accessible for younger people?

J: We’ve made sure it is not just people standing on the stage talking because that can be very difficult with Shakespeare. There are lots of things happening to keep you engaged. It’s an edited version, and we have gotten rid of things that aren’t driving the play.

A: We’ve kept the essential parts of the story. It is my first Shakespeare, and at first I was worried that I wouldn’t understand it, but with Carl Miller’s version, I do understand. I think it is really clear. The way it is staged there is lots of interesting things happening.

J: What Carl had in mind when editing was the story of the young people. It focuses on the two young lovers, and Ariel too, along with Caliban. They are all seen as young people. It seems to be focused on those, rather than the other people.

How would you describe the style of the show?

A: Tony likes to think of it as quite Japanese, it is quite bare. Everything is on the stage because we use it.

J: During rehearsals Tony kept cutting back on things that we didn’t need, with costume and props, so it became very simple. We’ve got a great sound system in the auditorium at the moment, it’s very cinematic. The sound is also a big part of the production.

Amaka do you think you can draw parrelles between Cinderella and Miranda?

A: Cinderella was an emotional person but it was very deep set emotion, she had a lot of responsibility so it was hidden a lot of the time. Mindras emotions are out all the time, she has no restraint apart from when her father makes her stop.

What it like playing someone so young Amaka?

A: It is really fun! You have to question yourself sometimes to make sure that you’re doing what a 14 year old would be thinking.

John, how do you learn your lines?

J: Everyone thinks that learning lines are the most difficult of things to do, but when something is written, one thought will lead on to another. It is about building the thought process, “this makes me think of that, and that makes me think of this”. Then when you are on stage, your not trying to remember your lines, you’re just letting one thought lead onto another.

10 Words About Your Experience at the Unicorn:

A: I love working at the Unicorn because it is fun!

You can catch both Amaka and John performing in the The Tempest at the Unicorn Theatre until 19th June, for more information and to book, see the Unicorn Theatre’s website. Image by Alastair Muir.