All I had achieved by the end of my first term at Bristol University was gaining 15 pounds and losing £1,500. I knew I had let myself go in more ways than one due to three things. 1) I had run out of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, 2) I found myself considering re-watching the entirety of Gossip Girl for a 4th time and 3) The most creative piece of work to date was a homemade fridge, involving a bungie, a Tesco carrier bag and my window ledge. It was time to do something constructive.
I didn’t realise how much I needed Faye’s call until it happened and when she asked if I would join her new Theatre company “Elvin Acting” as Assistant Director to two shows, I immediately said yes.
I knew we worked well together because the previous year we’d directed and choreographed 40 unwilling children in “Swallows and Amazons”, only firing 2 cast members for their lack of energy as pirates number 4 and 5. This was going to be a far bigger project with a professional cast and much grittier topic matters than Captain Flint’s missing trunk.
After reading both plays, I was even more excited. Well, as appropriately excited as one should be for shows involving abortion, a boy uncovering his brother’s suicide and cat with AIDS. So not too excited, but yes, appropriately, respectfully excited.
The themes across the two plays were not for the faint hearted. They covered mental health issues around sexuality, identity and grief, focusing on the pressures on both men and women in today’s society. I’d come across some of these topic matters myself, for example being a woman. I, myself am a woman. I felt confident with this topic matter. Others, I knew less about but was keen to explore and understand. But anyway, yes, super easy topics. Even easier to do justice on stage.
The rehearsal space and the energy of the company was vital in the making of these two productions. The rehearsals weren’t just about blocking scenes and learning lines but involved detailed discussions and debates. Faye and Frazer have mastered the art of fostering a comfortable space in which everyone was encouraged to open up about their own experiences. Whether someone was discussing that morning’s bowel movements or their own mental health problems, we were all met with open ears and no closed judgements. At times, the rehearsals more resembled open-group counselling sessions. I believe it was the connections we made between the topic matters of the plays and the real life-experiences of the company members that made the final performances so authentic and thus, at times, so difficult to watch.
But while rehearsing the plays had created a space in which we could all openly talk to each other, how would it be received by the audience? When the opening night arrived some of my closest male friends came to watch. To be honest, more to support me than having any real interest in the play. They aren’t particularly theatrical, but I told them I’d buy them a round if they showed face and to my surprise all four arrived. I should have employed this tactic when they refused to turn up to any of the school plays I was in.
At the end of the performance they came out unusually silent, I presumed because they’d hated it and were miffed I’d dragged them all the way to Bristol for an hour of depressing theatre (which I had). However, outside, with an overpriced G+T in hand, they began to share how it had affected them. I had known these boys since they were 7 and now at the age of 20, I was hearing them talk to each other about moments that jarred, upset and unsettled them. The regular standing ovations were pleasing but nothing was a satisfying as hearing my closest male friends open up to each other about some of their struggles with anxiety and depression. One has even started a movement to remove the stigma around men’s mental health issues called “Lift the Stereotype”. If an hour’s worth of entertainment can prompt a reaction like that, every single bit of hard work was worth it.
I am waffling a bit, but I think the main point I am trying to get at is that Faye’s company is more than just a random selection of talented actors putting on a memorable and thought-provoking show. This debut season was just the start for Faye and what she has in store for this company. Alongside plans for entering the Bristol Playwright Festival and producing two new shows, this company is planning a devised project and potential tour. The education department of Elvin Acting are developing three modules designed for working with young people, called “Mind, Body and Voice”. This will focus on mental health, devising physical theatre and accessing Shakespearean texts.
Follow this blog for spoilers on Grey Anatomy, but mainly updates on where this company is going next.
(see you at The Globe).