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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