Where to begin but the start I suppose. Sept 21st 2017, I arrive at the Wallich HQ on the aptly named Cathedral Road. I entered, but to my surprise, it was very modern inside, but there was still evidence of it's true self in places. I arrived early and found myself killing two hours before the workshop was due to start. That wasn't a good start and what came next didn't help matters.
I get a phone call, stood early in a former house of God in a City I don't know too well, sans car. "Good Morning, you need to pick your son up immediately" School with a problem I couldn't readily resolve, not the best of starts to a day but it did get better, odder, but better.
Not sure what to expect, I see, what I suspect to be the person hosting, what I knew only to be called 'The Chimes' (It was an actors workshop). However I don't have the confidence to say hello, so I sit down and wait, as a what would become familiar sight unfolded. Our host was moving quickly not unlike a bee around the building, on her phone at one point checking with the Wallich staff at another. The latter of which introduced the two of us and so began my working relationship with Judith Roberts.
The production of 'The Chimes' is the brainchild of Judith Roberts, Director, Producer and general master of the arts. She worked with writer David Willis and composer Conor Linehan to produce in my humble opinion a beautiful, piece of theatre that 'chimes' perfectly with the state of Britain today. Based on a Christmas story by Charles Dickens it was written as a scathing attack on the societal structure of the day.
Anyway I digress somewhat. To the 'odder' the others have arrived another folically challenged northerner and a lady who had taken to wearing her sun glasses indoors and what looked like a remarkably warm coat. There was also another lady introduced to us as 'Cath' she was here to observe and see, what? If anything, this process we were about to start did to, or for, those taking part. An entirely worthwhile pursuit I thought, not so Lady in the shades. So back to Lanacshire with you Madam and in to the rehearsal rooms we go, our Motley Crue of two skinheads and a diva. To be joined by another man who I was surprised to learn was staff. Then they were four.
I have not set foot in a theatre or anything related before, or practiced in anyway shape or form rehearsals. Not a problem, we were told how to stand and what posture to take up and then it began, "breath like in like this, out like so... Make this sound, pull this face, imagine this and move your body thus" my insecurities at this point are going crazy, no matter, onwards now "Stand over there and look at the wall and hit it with Mmm Mmm Mmmah Mmmah" Hit it? We begin, before going through random, Consonant and Vowel, combinations. Next, what I thought a risky move by Judith "Just say any word, first that comes into your mind beginning with the sound we're making" I was 12 again and it was like I'd just swallowed the dictionary of profanity. I pushed through and survived with minimal fuss.
Over the coming weeks we would repeat numerous exercises, including those above, followed by reciting and repeating verbatim, initially easier things, I've since forgotten but then Dickens, which I can probably recall the vast majority of.
'The door to Scrooges counting house was open, So he could keep his eye upon his clerk'
'The door to Scrooges counting house was open, So he could keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little room beyond. A sort of tank, was counting letters...'
We would repeat, initially everything Judith lead with, this changed over time as we got it and we would run with it. Until we were quoting the whole of the text for that day. Small fires, comforters, attempted warming by a candle, the threat of the sack and so on.
As the weeks passed we were joined by another, I knew him from a course we had done previously, 'School of Hard Knocks', where we played front row together & he looked every part the prop he was and still sported the top he trained in, as well as a Mohawk. Goodness knows what we all must have looked like in that room, to this slight, sharp minded lady making us shout at walls and/or repeat phrases at one another. Initially the phrases repeated, in as many combinations as we could muster. Until we grasped that the use of silence was probably as important if not moreso than the words spoken. How little I knew it but I was getting an education. If only my school teachers, were that clever.
After thinking about it, Cath was allowed in by 'Lady in glasses' as she still was to me at this point, and I am genuinely thankful that Gabriel, sunglasses now removed, came to that decision. As the weeks passed we went through October learning via different methods, clapping, guns, balls, repetition. Various methods and ways of talking, breathing and walking were drilled home. We moved from the Wallich to rehearsal rooms in Chapter arts Centre where we got to look at the script for the first time.
Then suddenly my world fell apart, a deep depression, unlike any I had experienced before came upon me. It had caught me by surprise with its rapid onset and severity, so much was the impact and so quick the onset Judith and Cath were both noticeably shocked, and, I think, shaken. I'd gone in a week from happy, sharp engaging and able to recall lines as well as prompt others. To withdrawn, sullen, quiet and slow. I had insomnia and was tired my mind had turned on me. Everything fell by the wayside from Rugby to Eating, the weight proceeded to fall off me losing 1.5 stone in under a month, I became a suicidal recluse. Somehow though I managed to get to rehearsals most weeks.
We tried to power on, but there were times my energy or lack of it infected the room and it seemed to suck the life out of those around me. I became conscious of this and tried each week to leave that at the door, I also set myself challenges in relation to this project. 1, be good and don't let the side down 2, Unless one was to tell them, the professionals won't see how bad things are. The standard I set for myself was to not be poor and detract from what the pros are doing, pretty low standard but I hoped for far more. Far more? Goodness me, I was in for a shock.
Into November we meet the ensemble from London as well as the professional cast and we start to work together, I think everyone was in agreement that day, the croquettes we had for lunch were delicious. A room full of strangers yet one wouldn't know it. Clapping game resurfaces and before the day is out Judith has gotten everyone to know each others names, Now considering there is a Fergus a Gruffyd and a Dyffyd, this is no mean feat for a suicidal Englishman but there we go, The lady is scary at times both figuratively due to how quick we learn and literally from the withering glances when you didn't pull your weight or did something silly like play with your phone whilst working.
Working with the script and we have our parts, mine a Master Blarney who is not the nicest of individuals, but what fun to explore. The other Ensemble members have their parts in what I consider a brave move. In fairness though between the workshops with Judith and the experienced tips and guidance from the professional cast members, we were ready to be let loose on the unsuspecting public.
From Chapter we moved in the days preceding opening night to St Johns Church Canton to get a feel for the venue and to start being able to get the running of the show polished, now bearing in mind I am still suffering horrifically with depression, so much so that it nearly took me out. I have my first cross words, following a mix up over a prop change and a stage exit and entrance. Quite simply I care, and considering the fact I have only been learning for two months, granted a very intensive two months with a talented teacher, it is still two months. That didn't stop me taking great offence to the accusation of not being awake and on the ball regarding my line. There was a great deal more to it than that but it alerted me to something which built up and was to be one of my greatest revelations.
Into the running of the show in front of an audience, it's nerve wracking but it is so rewarding. As my character continues develop and the show begins to homogenise it is quickly becoming apparent that I love what I am doing. Comments and compliments from the previous month are starting to feel true and not just nice words. I feel like, I am part of the cast and not just an appendage of some description. I am quite good at this now considering I am incredibly negative and struggle with compliments at the best of time, to admit that to myself is huge.
The week goes well and we are getting some nice reviews, and the compliments keep coming. Most deservedly for the professionals but for me too, I insert a little bit extra into my character. Knowing I can trust Gab, I play against her as she is playing one of the house servants. I'm The Lord and Ladies son I play up the role and it works, she had no idea I was going to do it and she reacted well, thankfully. As we walk out on Saturday for Cardiffs final show, I am relaxed confident and as such, in the songs especially I nail it, I get every note sustain and cue.
To Black, a sigh and a smile, I've got this now and the show is moving on without me. It's a sad moment of realisation that I will not be working with these amazing people again, people that have instilled a confidence in me that no other could. People who accepted me as an equal, when others look down their noses at me. People who got frustrated and angry alongside me, I met some actors, I am leaving behind friends. 'so the cruel world turns'
I am leaving this show not as 'Less than' but as an equal, as a capable performer with a confidence unbecoming of one with the past insecurities brought about by depression, by homelessness, by poverty.
So, Olivia, Lucy, Jo, Matt, Rhys, Gruffyd, Daffyd and Fergus. Thank you for what has truly been life changing, even life saving. I will never ever forget this time nor yourselves
Gab, Ozzy, Mo and Ant the beginning of this year not a clue that one another existed, we leave this year stronger and better for having been in each others company.
Judith, I don't have the words, I simply don't but if your passion has done one thing it has saved a life as well as shining a light on a topic that requires light and hopefully confounded the opinions of those who think we're 'Less than' I do hope you got what you hoped for and more when you set out on this adventure.
Some comments from cast, audience members and snippets from reviews for myself and also the whole ensemble.
Referencing Master Blarney.
'He is a horrible little [Expletive} and he needs a kicking'
'He needs a slap...' '...good hiding' '...knocking out'
'What a pompous [expletive]'
'Not at all likeable'
'I got really angry'
'I don't see you when you are on stage I see Blarney'
From Critics and reviews
'You yourself convinced me you were in charge of 'your space', great skittling!'
I recommend not reading them [actor biogs] til after the performance, so that every actor is accepted as just that, you'll be impressed
The actors, cast in a way which enabled the professional to take the weight of the story, but which ensured each character to be presented fully, meant that I did glance at the programme to ensure my distinctions were correct.
And of the ensemble – Ozzy Aldridge, Gabriel, Anthony Prosser, Mo Sullivan and John Vasey- words seem too little. The performance felt integrated, so I cannot imagine how much strength that would have taken. It may be a dream of so many to perform, but to stand – in traverse - and create a role. This commands respect.
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