Community Panto Addiction

I live on a small estate in the east oxford area called Florence Park. It was built in the 1930s, largely to accommodate the workers at the British Leyland factory in Cowley. My grandparents were one of the original families to live here, my mum was born and my grandfather died in a house just down the road from me. I spent some of my childhood weekends here, running around the park and then as an adult have watched my own children doing the very same thing. This is their home and despite having only lived here for 10 years I have roots here that run deeper.

Last year saw the estate celebrating it’s 80th birthday and as part of the celebrationsI suggested that we put on a Pantomime at our newly reclaimed community centre.”I could direct it” I offered, despite being insanely busy. This was not, however a purely selfless offer, having lived here for over a decade we still knew only a handful of neighbours. We had already committed to a primary school other than the very local Larkrise Primary when we moved here so I missed out on meeting the other local parents on the school run and both myself and my other half were out at work most of the time. Having grown up in a village I have missed the sense of community and reassurance that one acquires from knowing the folk around you. Performing is something that I know about so I was really creating a opportunity for me to offer my skills.

So, last September three of us sat and read Jack and the Beanstalk scripts until our eyes burned, we chose a script, a small group then rewrote bits of it, we made it relevant to our area and embarked on rehearsals. What a roller coaster journey that has been! Rehearsals in a room too small to swing a cat in, schedules designed around ever changing arrangements balanced against an overwhelming amount of talent, enthusiasm and dedication. The later has produced not only some of the finest comedy characters I have seen in years but also a backdrop, music, lighting, programmes, posters …the whole kit n kabbodle.

So, why am I writing this now? It’s not to sell tickets, all three performances sold out in a jiffy. I guess it’s partly as way of a thanks to everyone that jumped aboard the ship and sailed it with me. It’s also an attempt to marry in my head the relationship between community and professional theatre. There is a lot of snobbery attached to ‘art’. It drives me crazy. Theatre’s hierarchy has community theatre (am-dram, non professional) T.I.E (theatre in education), musical theatre near the bottom of the pile right up to Shakespeare, Opera and Ballet at the top. Sure there is a distinction to be made between amateur and professional theatre in the sense that professionals are trained (often) and paid (sometimes) but it should rest there rather than become a judgement. They both have their places and serve different roles, those roles are neither more or less important or influential.
Yesterday, I spent the day at Central School of Speech and Drama where I’m studying for an MA in movement direction. We were analysing, happening by happening the events in Macbeth, picking out moments where the physiology, physicality, environment, relationship of a character changed in order to accumulate moments where we could apply movement direction to a production. It was fascinating, interesting, exciting and inspiring (and excruciating) all at the same time. The script opened up in a way that I would have only guessed or stumbled upon before. How privileged to be learning how to see at the grand old age of 45 ! After this I bumbled home on the x90 and popped briefly into the community centre where the PANTO cast were running through the rougher moments in my absence. It was such a beautiful contrast and yet the similarities are also glaring. The stakes are none the less for the amateur performers than a professional. Their curiosity with the script is without bounds ” why, where when…” Their commitment to getting it right is boundless. Just like professionals they carry each other when they need to, they work around mistakes and exhaust themselves in their quest for “better”. The fact that the audience have only paid a fiver for their ticket is irrelevant, the audience will consist of people we pass on the school run, bump into in the corner shop or eat our Christmas dinner with. The fear of being shamed in your local community is as real as getting a bad review for these guys!

We are performing this weekend in our small shack of a venue, with beautifully designed flats that are carefully balanced hiding glass light fittings, with ramshackle chairs pushed up too close to each other to fit everyone in and with a communal heart that is beating to the rhythm of a community bought together by a work of art.
So thanks to the musicians, actors, costume makers, painters, designers, lighters, marketeers, producer and supporters one and all.

Jack and the. Beanstalk is presented at the Florence Park Community Centre tomorrow and Saturday.

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photo by Hugh Warwick

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One Two Wonder (pre)

Back in November I filled in a proposal for this years MOVING WITH THE TIMES. It’s the evening in Dancin’ oxford ( dance festival) when local dancers get to show /strut their stuff.

Ive performed in the last two and was going to give this year’s a miss. I mean, I’m in London two days a week at college, researching academia on my journeys/weekends/ evenings, teaching primary school classes, over 50’s dance classes arranging childcare AND being a mum… I’m saying I have a lot on my plate right now, so much so that it would be a tad foolish to take on anything else. Wouldn’t it?

So, on the day of the deadline for proposals I was filled with a sinking feeling that I was going to miss something this year, something that is always a springboard for bigger ideas for me. It Is also a link with the amazing organisation that is Oxford Dance Forum who have really supported my journey back into this world a great deal. I’m very keen not to lose that link with the dance community here. My lessons finished and I ran to the library to sit and think about my proposal, here is a summary of my thoughts at this time:

“I MUST BE CRAZY IMUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZYWHAT ABOUT THE CHILDCARE I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I WANT TO MAKE SOMETHINGI MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRAZY I MUST BE CRA…”

You get the picture. But there was a nugget in there. I cant resist a nugget. Nuggets eat your brain. It was the thought of having to arrange any more childcare which was driving me mad so why not make a piece with my daughter? Then she would be with me and all would be well.

My proposal, fitting with the theme of ‘Moving with the Times’ was one that used the biological clock as a theme a link. It outlined how the piece would explore spatially how we have endless options to go wherever (literally and in more abstract terms) and that after a child was born our space was confined, our options closed. It sounds a bit cynical I know, but you are talking to a woman who is doing her dream MA, and has her kids and is aware that she is mightily lucky. I promise.

Anyway, the point is this, the piece HASN’T ended up that way. During rehearsal and through spending time with my pretty amazing daughter, the structure has flipped. I now travel on a given path and am thrown into play, delight, new space and exhaustion by my offspring. It’s been a process of beauty and I can only hope that the performance will reflect it. Its been a total joy working with her. We’ve had the amazing Erika Montenegro working with us, guiding Edie and challenging us both.

Photo taken by Erika Montenegro at January’s Scratch performance at Pegasus Theatre
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If I can’t dance…

A few years ago, when I decided to go back to the world of performing and creating I found myself stepping back into the world of dance. It felt slightly ironic as I was at least 10 years past the ‘traditional’ age at which dancers retire… And yet there I was. I thought I had better get myself back to classes, to challenge my vocabulary, my habits, strengthen my muscle sand frame again. It was then that I realised a terrible thing, something that we will all feel from time to time, I realised that when in classes of 18-25 year olds I felt OLD. I’m not telling you this because I want your reassurance but because it explains the next step.

I got to thinking that if I felt old attending class in my early 40s then how would this all pan out? Where were the classes that I could attend later on in life? And what about everyone else who wanted to dance but was no long in their 20s ( or 30s even). And so my over 50s class was formed. The Pegasus Theatre kindly offered me space to try and set up the group, Each week myself and a few slightly older people would arrive at the Pegasus and play for an hour. When I say a few I mean 3. Or sometimes 2. I have to say that it took its time building up and at times was soul destroying. Then Age Concern UK came on board and publicised it, numbers picked up a little bit. a local councillor funded us, paying for the space for two terms. Word of mouth did its job and now, well now our class is almost full.

Week after week I am joined by around 16 people aged 50+ and we create sequences together. It doesn’t sound particularly amazing I know. It’s just a dance class. But it IS something different. It’s not a chair based class, it’s not aerobics (both great if that’s what you are looking for). It is creative, social and explorative dance which challenges the brain and promotes flexibility, fitness and safety. I’d like to show you a photo or video of the group but I promised I wouldn’t. The group don’t want to perform, they want to develop, play, conquer. And here’s something else. I’ve spent a lot of my career advocating the use of performing arts with the young as not only training for a career but also for life. Now I’m looking at this amazing group of older people and truly understanding that the qualities the the arts promote and develop in younger people are relevant throughout our lives. That confidence, social awareness, fitness, creativity are not goals you achieve and keep, they fluctuate with life’s ups and downs.

As a teacher this is the highlight of my week. I thought that I was starting something that would be good for them but its a two way road. These women persuaded me to do my MA at Central, have given me parenting advice and in short, become firm friends. They are joyous. They are political activists, editors, teachers, mothers, artists, crafters. Their heaps of life experience is awe inspiring and teaching them has made me question our outlook on ageing even more than before. Next month 28 of us (the group plus their friends) are going to the theatre to see Rambert’s version of Rooster- we did our own attempt a few terms ago, I think we set the bar quite high.

I’ll leave you with this. My daughter has been unwell lately and spent a couple of hours sitting in the studio while I taught these classes. Last time she remarked on the way home;
“Your dance group aren’t what you expect when you think of old ladies, they are really cool, and they really go for it in the dances! I love their style, they look so great!”.
All young people should get the opportunity to experience some inter-generational play, or at least see older people in action. What fabulous role models for my daughter, and for me too. I thank my lucky stars.

The Dance for the Over 50’s group takes place at Pegasus Theatre, Magdalen Road, East Oxford every Wednesday ( term time) 12-1 pm. Please email emmafranceswebb@gmail.com if interested in joining us.

If you would like to support me by helping me pay for my MA costs you can find details of my fundraising efforts here: http://www.gofundme.com/3btq1o

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That Was the Summer that Was

As one starts a new venture it often prompts reflection upon our current/ previous situation. This has certainly been the case for me… And though these reflections have mainly been cast at 6 am as I sit on the X90 bus to London they have been fairly clear! I surprise myself!

I have had a fantastically busy summer holiday. I was involved with two performing projects; The Bureau of Silly Sports (BOSS) and BOUND. BOSS was utter silliness, delightful in its playfulness and in its determination to involve members of the public in truly silly, 1950’s style sports. It was joyous to play Dotty Withers, a rather chatty woman with a tendency to overstep the innuendo mark and an interest in all things gossip. My hips, thighs and calves were worked out through games of broom hockey, silly walks, on the ground tightrope walking and human table football. We had some beautiful, sporting audiences but one of the most memorable audiences visited us in a shopping centre next to City Hall inLondon. A fantastically enthusiastic group of men with special needs put us all to shame as they delighted in being free and able to take part in these largely noncompetitive games. An environment where a lack of inhibition was an advantage.
All sports were followed by a call for crumpets as the (wonderful) team leapt off .

I also had the immense privilege of working with a group of young people / adults with varying degrees of difficulties, some physical, some learning based, some purely social. Myself and musician Emily Marshall ran a summer school for the Oxford based organisation PARASOL in conjunction with the Pegasus theatre. In five days an extraordinary collection of young people spent their mornings creating a set and props before heading to the studio to create a show. The script went out of the window on day one when we discovered our cast. Together we created a performance of 20 minutes that somehow played to as many bizarre and wonderful strengths as you can imagine. It was a most moving and most worthwhile project, one that reinforces the already deep knowledge that the ARTS ARE KEY. (Are you listening Mr Gove?).

When not engaging in Silly sports or teaching amazing young people, I was rehearsing for BOUND. A show about human trafficking. It was intense and stressful as devised work usually is… But the outcome was great. Of course the show could have done with a bit of extra time, it’s the nature of work made by artists who also have to work in restaurants, schools and theatre box offices. BUT, it was incredibly well received.
You can read a review here;

http://oxforddancewriters.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/justice-in-motion-in-bound-at-the-pegasus/

So, having finished Bound on the 5th October I spent the 6th cooking meals that I could freeze in preparation of the tornado about to hit our family.
On Monday 7th October, with my clown partner going away on tour, I left Oxford and headed to my first day of drama school. Logistically it’s a bit of a nightmare, 2 kids..partner on tour….lack of funding… Travelling at 6 am to get to London in time BUT and this is a big BUT something incredible happened. I discovered 28 year old me. Full of joy, enthusiasm and my sense of humour made a slight return! I’m not going to hark on too much about this but something happens to (some) women when they have children, it’s a loss of identity thing… I’m no psychologist..though having spoken to many mums over the years it seems to be quite common. Possibly because we grow up,rightly, believing that we can be something other than a mum, we spend years forging out our lives with ( whatever we have decided to become ) defining us, it is a bizarre moment when the ” it’s a boy” balloons deflate and you realise you are almost invisible compared with your beautiful baby. Plus, it’s almost impossible to continue being the person you have created in FULL anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mum as well… But it’s different.

Anyway, the point of this is that I rediscovered some long buried bit of Emma. I’m knitting for Britain on the bus, I’m talking to my partner for hours on end, I’m feeling as if I have something to say, at last! I’m working on bits of homework until 11 at night instead of being asleep on the sofa at 9. I’m thinking about bodies, about theatre, about teaching about how I can be better at all of the above.

Mostly I’m thinking about how lucky I am. How lucky to be going to drama school after wanting to go since I was 16. How lucky that I waited until now and didn’t go when I was 16. How lucky that I have my beautiful family to come home to and a wonderfully supportive partner to pick up my tired bones at the end of the week.

If you would like to help with my funding logistics just a £6.00 donation gets me to class in the morning. You can donate here. I’d be ever so grateful!
http://www.gofundme.com/3btq1o

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STRAPPED IN….

…And ready to roll. Just completed day one of the production week for BOUND. It’s a jolly little show about human trafficking, actually, despite some fairly horrid scenes of abuse there are lighter, comedic moments. not to make light of a serious subject, but to brighten an otherwise fairly dark experience for the audience. We have been drip feed working on the project for four months now and it’s joyous to be in the space, for a whole week. We enjoy coffee breaks together without having the think about the time we have in the studio running out, we re run scenes until they are truly in our heads and we are dying of exhaustion. We are happy together.
This is a one week climb uphill on a roller coaster. I’ve clicked my seat belt in… At the end of this week I’ll have one day recovering in order to prepare for the ride that will be term one of drama school. Clown partner left for tour this morning. It. All feels wild and unstoppable, hence the roller coaster analogy…(So far said analogy has taken me through childbirth and auditioning for drama school).

If you want to come and see the show… I think I’d recommend it to you (as long as you are over 14) DO! It’s beginning its performance life at the Pegasus Theatre Oxford . ThisFriday and Saturday, 4th and 5th October at 7.30 pm.

Be lovely to see you there.

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If you would like to help me fulfil my drama school dreams you. Could fund a single trip to London for just £6. You can do so here…
MA Funding page

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PRE SCHOOL

Yesterday, as the beginning of my new term in my life approaches I did what is ( for me) the unthinkable. I did some forward planning. I did the trip to London at commuter time and then tried walking to college in order to see if I could get there by 9.

I left half an hour later than intended. The bus was quiet at 7 am, inhabited mainly by superhero esque characters, clad in their day job suits but having left their heroic eye masks on after a hard night of destroying baddies. Or maybe they were ordinary folk who, like me, had experienced a night on the tiles and needed a few hours extra kip on the bus.

I had received ample warnings about the crap traffic. In all my years of catching the bus to London I’ve maybe had two bad experiences. However, this was going to push the percentage up by 50%. As we neared London at 8.15 a report came over the tannoy that there were some ” traffic lights out of sequence”. We finally pulled into Baker Street at 9.15. I would be 15 minutes late for my lesson at this point. Oh dear.

Free from the bus I began my walk to Swiss Cottage. I’m incredibly naive when it comes to London, the only thing I know is that I know nothing. I can’t tell you which underground line the grey one is, where any of the stations are and I nod politely when people tell me which area of London they live in. I had looked up the route on the Internet but had little idea of distance. My attempts to try to get from one place to another generally fill me with a strange de ja vu and memories of Bristol Zoos Reptile House circa 1978 ( primary School trip, high speed train, zoo, SS Great Britain, whole class of children waiting for Emma to be found before embarking on journey home). I should probably see a therapist about that.

20130909-093412.jpgStill, this time I headed through Regents Park. It was lovely. A beautiful sunny day. I had my PJ Harvey on my head phones and I actually managed to navigate my way all the way to Swiss Cottage in 40 minutes. I reckon if I take my bike it’ll be a 20 minute cycle.

20130909-093432.jpg On arrival at Swiss Cottage my eyes fell upon Central School of Speech and Drama and my heart flipped. I couldn’t help but smile. There is it was, the home to my studies for the next two years as I embark on my MA Movement Studies.
It won’t always look like this of course, even now I suspect that it’s got the traditional back to school grey weather surrounding it, but really it’s what is going to happen inside the building and myself that excites me. Can’t wait to verify and collate 20 years of teaching and performing, of hopping between theatre and dance worlds. Can’t wait to meet new collaborators, new ideas and old muscles that I have forgotten existed.

I feel like a 5 year old off to school, an 11 year old off to secondary school, an 18 year old off to uni or indeed a 43year old finally off to drama school.

P.S – If you would like to support me in my quest you can sponsor me here. Every gift is incredibly welcome and moving. A fiver gets me to the capital.

http://www.gofundme.com/3btq1o

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Audition Jitters

Wednesday

After many years of wanting to I have finally applied for an MA.

At Central School of Speech and Drama.

My application was late.

My statement was hurried.

My essay was rushed.

I talked too much…

I could go on about how the interview and application process went but hey, I think you might be getting the gist already. It was a week ago. They said I would know within two weeks whether my application was successful. I’m playing the waiting game. The longer I wait the more sure I am that I didn’t do a good enough job. This would be manageable if my desire to getting didn’t grow every day I don’t know. I feel like a love struck teenager waiting for the call. Had I followed the more traditional performing arts route of auditions galore, I would, no doubt, be a bit more used to this… As it is I feel awful.I’m not enjoying the wait one little bit.

I’m back, just had to check my emails for the 37th time today.

Sorry.

It’s fairly normal for artists to be a bit bonkers, I’m aware that I fall into this category and that it can be a bit tough on the nearest and dearest. Life is a roller coaster baby….one just has to develop a thick skin.

Thursday

Jitters continue.

My brain can’t accept that there will not be an email sent at 4 am. That Central School of Speech and Drama will not be staffed at this hour of the morning. The admissions department are just not feeling the same as me about this information.

At 9am the temptation to call and yell” Just tell me if I got a place ! ” is diluted by the fact that I’m getting ready to say goodbye to the family as they whisk off to cousins in Dorset for the day. I’m staying here. I have a class to teach this afternoon and then a free taster workshop at …yes, you’ve guessed it, Central, this afternoon.

They depart.

The house rattles me and my jitters around like beans in a maracas. I don’t call Central. I prepare food for when the gang will return this evening. I check my emails… again and again. The post arrives. I tidy the back room, plan my class for this afternoon, have a coffee (wise move with these jitters? I think not) I go to have a shower up the stairs, past the big white envelope sitting on the doormat. The big white Central School of Speech and Drama post marked envelope on the doormat. The even though I’m six stairs up I’m going to thunder back down to get you envelope. Now, I’m on my own. No moral support, no one to get excited, nervous, terrified, or jubilant with me. Is now a good time to open it? ARE YOU KIDDING ME……..?

I can’t believe I was accepted. Somebody just pressed GO on the roller coaster ride.

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