Monday, 4 June 2012

The Incredible Musings of a Biscuit Maker!

When I was asked, in August of last year, if I would write something to celebrate the 650th anniversary of the founding of the magistracy by King Edward 111, my initial reaction was, ‘…?’. 
However, a challenge is a challenge.  And, after a few weeks of in-depth research - Which chiefly consisted of badgering friends, relations and (as time moved on and I became increasingly desperate) total strangers, to pass on any information they might have about life in South-East Wales in 1361.  There were some sensible and printable answers and some not so sensible and definitely not printable.  With one member of the BLT executive committee, who shall remain nameless (Huw Rosser), actually suggesting that 1361 might be shorthand for one-minute-past-two!

“How’s the new play coming on?” asked Neil Maidman one day in mid September.  “Fine” I said (not a word written!). 
“Good”, he said.  “We have a two free dates the 14th and 15th of next month.  We’ll put it on then and we’ll enter it in next year’s One-act Festival.  What’s it called?” 
“Haven’t thought of a title yet,” I managed to gulp.
“Well you’d better think of one hadn’t you?” he said; suspicion written all over his face.  “Bring the script next week  ”.

And so Biscuits was born: in three days and nights of desperation and sleepless panic.

The first reading went well - I’m told.  I was in an exhausted stupor and in no state to judge.  A small amount of judicious cutting brought the running time down to within the 50-minute deadline required for competition (though I personally saw nothing wrong with the original 2 hours and ten minutes!) and we were away.

Rehearsals with Neil in charge are always a fairly easy-going and highly enjoyable affair and Biscuits proved to be no different.  His choice of cast proved to be inspired.  Apart from the fact that he does have a disconcerting habit of casting a certain young, talented and still-rather-good-looking-in-a-certain-light poet, actor and playwright as a disgusting old man!  But with the rest of the cast including such BLT stalwarts as Vic Mills; Huw Rosser; Gareth Baskerville; Trevor Howlett and Yve Price there was always a feeling that the play was in safe hands. 
Our two October performances went down a treat with both an audience of magistrates and with our regular patrons. 

“Great!”  We thought.  “We’re all set for the Gwent One-Acts.”  Not so!  The lovely Rhiannon Rees, who had worked so hard and had played the part of Gwen so remarkably well, was forced, by work and family commitments, to pull out.  Disaster?  It could have been, but not with the wonderfully talented Gwen Livingstone ready to step into the breach!   
The lines were learnt and the moves perfected in double quick time.  Her cooking scenes in particular quickly became the talk of the theatre: the things that woman can do with a bowl of cake mixture and a wooden spoon could make your eyes water!
And so to the Gwent One-Acts: Best Actor: Vic Mills; Best director: Neil Maidman: Best Play: Biscuits; Festival Winner: Biscuits; Adjudicator’s award: Gwen Livingstone (That spoon again!).  Biscuits through to the Wales Final.
And the Icing on the cake?  The wonderful Godfather Death by Vic Mills was also placed in the final.  Two plays in the Wales Final for BLT.  Well, if that doesn’t take the biscuit!
Graham J

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Wales Final 2012.....a tale of two plays.

A note about our Wales Final exploits for 2012.  We entered competition for the first time (in the current era) in 2004, and have been to every Wales Final since.  I have been fortunate to be involved in every production as either an actor or director.  This year - I am lucky to be doing a bit of both.  Much has been documented about Godfather Death on this blog and on various social media sites.  Am very proud of our exploits in Canada and will be giving it my all at the Wales Final, but it's not the only play we have at the final this year!  Biscuits - lets not forget, won the Gwent Festival in April and is equally worthy of some publicity and blogging!

Written by Graham J. Evans, it is set in Monmouthshire in 1361 (or as Huw Rosser said - 'just after two o'clock then'? ) It is essentially a bawdy comedy. I don't know if that is what Graham had in mind as a theme, but its certainly what it is now!  It has some great moments in the play and has the most experienced  BLT cast that I have every worked in competition with.  Having Huw Rosser and Gareth Baskerville playing Owen and Nigel, with Yve Price as Mad Nerys, Vic Mills as the lascivious Monk, Trevor Howlett as Henry of Grosmont, Graham J as William and Gwen Livingstone as the flame haired temptress Gwen - it makes my job as a director an absolute joy.  Rehearsals started in August last year, in readiness for the local Magistrates  evening in October, for whom the play was originally commissioned.  We decided that it should be one of our entries to the Gwent Festival in 2012.


Having had a great response in October, we came back to rehearsals in February.  Unfortunately, we were unable (due to scheduling) to have Rhiannon Rees return to us as Gwen, and her namesake then stepped into the breach.    The Gwent Festival went really well, with very little (if anything) remarked upon by the adjudicator.  Vic won best actor, Gwen picked up the adjudicators award, I was named as best director and the play won the festival!  A great performance by a super cast, who all know each other really well.  I think that has a positive effect on a production, if all the actors know each other, and understand how to play off one another.  It would be some exercise for Ann James, (but I am sure that she is up to it) to see how many times the likes of Trev and Vic have played together or Gareth and Huw etc.  Many, many times, I would wager - and it has made this bunch of talented actors gel very quickly as team.  Theatre is a great team event - with each actor totally relying on each other to ensure that the play is told effectively and in such a way that the audience is engaged and entertained.  Competition theatre is all that and more - with added pressures of not running over 50 minutes, precision moves and the nerve wracking feedback of the adjudication.   A huge team effort is required, at every performance - and I am lucky to have such a talented and committed cast - as well as the  unwavering support of Peter and Nye backstage.

 Since 2004, BLT have been honing their competitive skills and making sure that we always give a good account of ourselves.  Win or lose (and in the Wales Finals - we have lost a lot!) it matters to me and to everyone at BLT, that we always give that good account.  Standards need to be maintained (as Ray Davenport would often say) and that is what we always aim for - and to push those standards higher every year.

I am very pleased with Biscuits and proud of the team involved.  Fingers crossed that we can give a good account again next weekend.  That goes for both plays.

We are having an  open dress rehearsal on Tuesday 5th  June at BLT.  7pm - all are welcome.  We would also love the support at the Wales Final, on Friday 8th (Godfather Death) and Saturday 9th (Biscuits).  Tickets are available from the Congress Theatre - hope to see some of you there.



Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Story of Tristram, Tango and Titles

The last post on this blog talked about the amazing experience that, the team of ten of us, had in Nova Scotia.....and what a time it was. I, for one, didn't think that the excitement of Nova Scotia would be replicated quite so soon. Boy, was I wrong. Last Tango in Blackwood has been amazing and we are now Wales Champions, and will go on to the British Final in a few weeks time. A number of people have asked me, how it came about - choosing the play and the choices, in terms of production. Well, this is the story of Tango - so goes on a does the author and director!! I would get a cup of tea and settle down to read this one!

We have competed in the Gwent Festival and been lucky enough to be Wales finalists on four consecutive occasions, prior to 2008. Again this year, we won the Gwent Festival - which is five years on the trot....something to be very proud of. We also made it through to the Wales final for the fifth consecutive year...again, something not to be sniffed at. The difference this year, was that we weren't doing a Vic Mills' play but something quite different. The choice of Last Tango in Little Grimley, came about due to my attendance at the Guild of Drama Adjudicators Conference in September last year. Here I listened to (and met) the playwright David Tristram (the writer of Last Tango), and heard others speak passionately about the most performed one act play in the UK......which I had heard of in passing, but had never seen. He was a very reserved man who spoke with much modesty about his work. After the conference, I resolved to read the play that so many people had raved about in Worcester. I promptly did my usual with such a resolution - nothing! As some of you know, we were going to do a Jim Sweeney play called Danny's Wake - a black comedy, which is a two hander. We were assured of the rights to perform by a third party, and that we were free to cut the required 20 minutes out of it - for competition purposes. In January, I heard that Jim Sweeney had retained the rights and that, whilst he might not oppose the cuts, he would have to approve them - which I quite understand....the trouble that I had, was time. I was about to complete the Panto and then move into casting and rehearsing the play....I had about two weeks left to make a decision - either go with the cuts to Danny's Wake and risk not being approved, and then not having a play at all to do.....or, drop that play in favour of another. What to do.....well, on reflection the first option seemed too risky - so I decided that we needed to do another play (s) - but what? I then recalled my resolution to read Last Tango....and called Teresa at the DAW offices in Cardiff for a copy. It arrived at BLT the next day and I read it within 20 minutes....and thought that it was very funny and that we should do it. However, there was something as a director, that bothered me. I couldn't put my finger on it, but knew that before casting and rehearsals, I would need to resolve this problem. More of that in a bit. I would also need to have another play alongside Tango - but what?? In my research I came across David Tristram's Website where I got more of an idea of what the man was about and also viewed a 10 minute preview of his latest work - Late Entry. This, I found to be hilarious, and a real challenge for me as a director. So, without reading it - I chose that play to run alongside Last Tango ( make think that not reading a play is madness...and yes I would concur with this - however, it is not without precedent at BLT....the director of Neville's Island - that highly imaginative production, some years ago, had only read the 1st act when it was chosen - yes, okay that was me too).

So with the plays chosen, it was on to casting. A reading was held, just after the Panto, and was very well attended....and I had a bit of a job casting the plays - as the choice I had, especially amongst the ladies, made it very difficult. For Last Tango, I had made my mind up pretty quickly....Mr Rosser as Bernard, Mrs Price as Margaret, Ms Collins as Joyce and El Presidente as hindsight that was easy, though there were some difficult choices to make - especially amongst the chaps. Late Entry, I was able to cast Graham J. Evans as the adjudicator and, after another reading / audition, I gave the part of the actress to a BLT newcomer - Claire Williams. Rehearsals started and progressed nicely for both plays. But what of the problem that I had with Last Tango, I hear you cry?? Well, it hit me on my 2nd reading of the play ....there were a few flaws in writing - not in terms of dialogue, but with the flow of the piece. Those who have seen our production, will understand that the pace of the play is one of it's key components to success. It has to flow, in my opinion, from prior to a word being spoken to the last lighting cue.....and there was the crux of my problem...the stage directions were a barrier to this. There are four scenes in Last Tango and three scene was here that I started the process of directing the play....not with any of the characters or the text, but with the staging. The staging, was the foundation of the entire piece. The idea of the cast moving the furniture came first, then that they should set the scene at the beginning followed, and perhaps the most important feature, the music, came last. Once I had these component parts sorted I knew that, with the cast and tech crew that I am blessed with, Last Tango could be a very funny play (the major hurdle that I then had was convincing my cast, that I wasn't bonkers).

Alongside all of these thought processes, I was directing Late Entry, which was an absolute joy. The two actors I had were very different, in terms of experience, but they worked so well together. Even though I have had many plaudits this year, in terms of Sheep and Tango, one of my proudest moments was seeing a newcomer to our stage (and a newcomer to 'straight' theatre') - Claire Williams, performing the huge role of the actress, with such passion and conviction. To see her grow through the rehearsal process as an actress was fantastic, and as much as Tango has achieved this year, I am very proud of Graham and Claire and what they did with Late Entry.

The Gwent Festival happened in March @ BLT, with David Hedley Williams adjudicating. This was the second festival of the Wales competition - there were 6 others. Having been involved as the host venue for a number of years, it was nice to be in the thick of it by organising the festival with Richard Williams of the Congress and Lynn Phillips of the Dolman. We managed to have a great 3 night festival, which was reasonably attended, and were lucky to have Josie D'Arby and Ken Caswell there on the Saturday night for the awards. Both plays performed very well - with Late Entry on the Thursday and Last Tango in Blackwood closing the festival on Saturday. As an aside, David Tristram allows all groups to change the name and certain lines within the play - to localize it....thus the change from Little Grimley to Blackwood. The adjudication for Late Entry was very good, and David H-W came up with some useful suggestions - which were later incorporated into the play run in April. The performance of Last Tango that Saturday and the adjudication that followed it was outstanding. The way in which the cast attacked the whole thing,was just as I had wanted it....brilliant. The audience loved it - with some people nearly apoplectic in the audience, with laughter. David H-W concluded that he had seen this play many times before, and had even adjudicated one the week before at another festival. I won't say too much on what was said, for modesty purposes, and also that it might spoil people's enjoyment of future performances.....lets just say that it was excellent, and that I (and the rest of the team) were very pleased.

The results of the Gwent were then announced and, we had won again! As I mentioned earlier, this was the 5th year on the trot and I was very proud to pick up Best Director again. Late Entry wasn't among the prize winners - which I thought was a real shame, due to the enormous amount of work that Claire and Graham J. had put in. It was a great production, of which I am enormously proud.

As is the case with this competition, you have no idea who you are up against in other areas, and even though you had won your own festival, if you would progress to the Wales Final. Well, I found out by sending a text message at 630am Nova Scotia time to Gary Thomas at DAW offices in Cardiff - who then rang me back!! That 5 minute call cost me a small fortune! Anyway, it was confirmed that we had got through to the Wales Final - which I was also helping to organise, as it was to be held at the Blackwood Miners Institute on June 6th and 7th. Rehearsals for Tango were difficult - as we had already started Frost and that one member of the cast and myself were in Canada. I am grateful to Jerry Grummitt for helping out whilst I was away. The cast prepared themselves in the run up to the Wales Final and I worked on some additional detail, that I thought about during the original performances. I also decided that the ending was weak - so we worked on a change to that.

The day of the performance, we had our tech hour - which went well, apart from the lighting board failing for 10 minutes! Yve had work committments - so Peta stood in, so that we could run the techy bits of the show.....we decided to keep the action to exactly the same dimensions as in BLT...a wise move, that comes from some learning at previous finals and whilst taking Sheep to Canada. We were last to perform on the Friday night....the cast were nervous and had a 'line rehearsal' in the dressing room just before going on. After they had completed this, I was able to tell them that Rose had won best supporting actor, for Brassed Off and in Improbable Fiction. So they went on stage with some good news and a smile on their faces. The performance was amazing, as they worked so well together as a team. Lines were faultless and the pace / attack was just brilliant. The audience were with them from the start and gave them all a huge ovation at the end. I was, and am, so proud of them - including Nye - who came up with such a simple but effective lighting design.

At a Wales Final you are up against the top 6 productions from all over the Principality - so its tough. I was also acutely aware that the play I had chosen was a popular one - but, in essence, was too popular. I had a feeling that due to this, and as good the production is, we didn't stand a chance of winning the title. What the team did though, was give their all, and I couldn't have asked more of them....they were superb.

Paul Fowler was the adjudicator at the Wales Final and had spent a long time on his adjudication for Telstars and New Tabs. My thoughts of winning faded very quickly, when he started our adjuication by announcing that he had seen this play over 30 times, and that when he had the list through of finalists, his heart sank at the prospect of seeing it again. What was to follow though changed my mind - that is that, we might have a chance.....he spoke for 15 minutes on Last Tango and came up with only one minor suggestion. The rest, was a quarter of an hour of how much he had enjoyed it and that how the choices made in the production, had not only covered the holes in writing (see earlier comments up the page by me), but had eradicated them. Well, at the end of that, I was chuffed....and so were the rest of the team.

The Saturday night was a bit of a blur - watching 3 excellent productions from North Wales. We then had the adjudications, followed by the awards themselves. All the confidence, that we might just win had left me by this point....even though, none of the adjudications were as positive as ours. To cut to the chase, there are only three awards at the Wales Final.....Best performance, Best Presentation and The Maynard Cup - The Wales Title. Once all the speeches were done, I was sitting on stage, as I have done on two previous occasions, trying to look relaxed and casual about all of this (those that know me well, will understand that I am not a competitive person in most senses - Cardiff City lose, I can get over it quickly - but this title, is something that I have been passionate about for 5 years...and winning it for BLT means the world to me).....I was trying to do what they do in the Oscars - smile sweetly in the face of defeat!!! The first award announced was that of best performer - both Trev and Huw were nominated, but the award went to an actor from North Wales, who gave a great performance in a Tennesse Williams play, that evening. The next award was Best Presentation - and we had won! Well, you would think that I would be pleased - and I was, especially for Nye and Pete who had worked so hard on this aspect of Last Tango.....but I wasn't....why??? Well, this prize can be seen as 2nd I thought thats it - pipped again! Paul Fowler then told us what we were all there to hear - the winner of the Wales Title......and when he started his announcment with "and I never thought that I would ever say this' I knew that we had won. 'The winner of the Wales One Act Theatre Festival is Last Tango in Blackwood'. It's difficult to describe what that was like.....I felt elation but moreover, a sense of pride for the cast and crew of all the productions that we had taken to the Wales Finals over the past five years. Well, all hell broke loose and I had Peta crying on my shoulder....and lots of phone calls and texts bouncing around. As I write this, a week later, it has finally sunken in that we are Wales Champions!!

The next step is to do it all again at the British Final on July 4th in Swansea. It will be another great day for BLT in a year of great adventures for the best little theatre in the world! Well done to all at the theatre, I am proud to be a part of such a great team. I hope that this long winded explanation of Last Tango hasn't bored you too much....come along to Swansea on 4th July to see for yourselves what all the fuss is about.


Monday, 19 May 2008

Oh What a Night

I am just about to leave my host's (Rob and Sonya) home for the final time - they, and the rest of the billetts in Nova Scotia have been superb, and so, so will be a wrench to leave our new friends.

Briefly - what happened last night??? Well the evening started with a play called Solitary by Syria - performed in Arabic. Within 5 minutes, I knew that we were looking at the winner of the festival.....they were brilliant - couldn't understand a word......but their interpretation of a harrowing story was amazing......and win they did! However, we didn't leave empty handed. I am proud to say that Vic won the best new writing award - much deserved (we then sold out of the 20 plays that we brought with us....Maidman doing his retailing bit). The other award goes to Peta for Outstanding Supporting Actress. This, and I don't quite know how, is her first ever award for acting. As her director, I was very and am very proud and pleased for her. As her husband, I shed a tear....and am quite full up typing this now! So 2 of the 10 awards are coming home to Wales in a couple of days. The awards are great, really well deserved...but what I will take away from this trip is, that not only can we perform and compete with the best in the World, but also we have raised the profile of BLT, theatre in Wales and everyone knows about the Principality too. Perhaps, the greatest of all things that I will remember is TEAM BLT - for that is what we have been....a big, happy family & team. We have achieved so much, due to being a team - which is only a small part of the big BLT team - everyone, and I mean everyone (wives, families, all our friends and patrons) who have made this trip not only possible, but what it has been - a huge success.

I am amazed at the opportunities that have been presented to us from around the World, that we can (at somepoint) take advantage of.

Thank you Liverpool....Wales and BLT will never forget you. And well done & thank you to all at BLT - here and back home.

See you soon


Sunday, 18 May 2008

Weekend in Nova Scotia

A short note from Sunny Nova Scotia.
We have had a great a great time here - the hospitality has been amazing.....yesterday, we watched the match a house just outside of Liverpool. Vic is staying with Debbie and Blair Raddell - who have opened their homes to us mad watch the Bluebirds lose to Pompey. There are lots of photos that I will be posting up soon, from this day - which consisted of a party, based around lobster.....lots of lobster.....huge amounts of fresh lobster. We also had a couple of drinks too....some more than others (though for legal reasons I cannot say who.....but it wasn't Huw). We then sang a few songs and will be singing again tonight at the Gala Event after the awards....we thought that it would be good to do the folk song 'The Leaving of Liverpool'....and will rehearse for 10 minutes beforehand - as usual!!
We have seen some really interesting pieces of theatre - from Israel, the US and from Canada. More details when we get back. Off to see the last play by Syria tonight.
All BLT personnel are fine - missing their wives, partners, family and animals, but have represented BLT in fine fashion. I am really proud of each of them - we have made some new friends from all over the world, Vic has sold loads of copies of Sheep and the US have shown a great interest in producing it in Maryland in the next year....another trip perhaps....if not - they will film it for us!! Liverpool certainly knows that Wales is here....and Miss Morgan has been our cheerleader, party queen and everyone has fallen in love with her and her sunny disposition....We have been laughing everyday, not just with Shelley but with the new friends that we have made.
What will the awards hold ??????- well, we dont care really....its always subjective and you can never tell what is going to happen. If we come away with an award of some sort, that would be great....but we have networked so much, that the biggest prize of all is that BLT is now a global theatre.....people from all over the world have complemented our work and have been stunned by the quality of the writing and performance/production. This has been hard work, although not like being in work, and we are a very together team. I am very proud of all them - and watching us singing the anthem on Youtube brings a lump to my throat. Have a look at the video on the main website pages.
We leave on Monday morning for Halifax and will wind down there at our Hotel. Pete Musto and I want to visit some of the Titanic museums - to relive past glories on stage - no doubt! I will try to upload some more on here before we arrive back - if I can.
Liverpool NS is a wonderful place, the pace of life here is amazing and its scenery is breathtaking. Their biggest asset is their people, who are out of this world. If we could be half as open and hospitable as them - Wales would be a much better place. I, for one, will be back - maybe not on a theatre trip, but I will certainly be back.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Coffee Critique

Thats a longer version of an adjudication with interaction with the adjudicator. Well, folks this happened for us yesterday (fri) at the MerseyHouse in front of a packed 9am.

Well let me go back a the night before and the best recieved performance of "Sheep" that we have ever done. The worry that I had was that they (the Canadians etc) wouldnt get the language or the premise of the story.....well that lasted about 35 seconds into the play...when they started laughing at Pete Musto. The laughs came thick and fast - putting nearly 3 minutes on to the time of the play! Then, something magical happened for the cast - they had a spontaneous and complete standing ovation - which seemed to last ages. The cast and I were totally overwhelmed. A small , but very positive adjudication then followed by Martha Irving. We then went to the Curling club where we found that non English speaking performers also understood it - so much for someone (of note) saying to me at the Wales Final in 2007 - that it wouldnt travel well - HA!

The adjudication in the morning was so very positive for all of us - but especially for Nye - who got a huge round of applause for his tech work....not something that he is able to get....but richly deserved....the lighting for our production was brilliant - on limited resources and time.
There is a chap here from Nepal - who was very taken by Sheep, and to my absolute surprise by my direction....he was so positive towards our play, I thought that he was going to cry - he spoke very movingly. He then invited me to his theatre school to carry out some directing workshops with his students - in Nepal.....gobsmacked is not the word. Later in the day we, as a group we invited to take part in another festival in Stuttgart in November! Sheep seems to have really taken us all to places, that we didnt think would happen!

Off to watch Cardiff City in the FA Cup Final at a lobster party. Our hosts are amazing...but more of that later.

One final - but no less important fact to mention. Whilst away we have become finalists in the Wales Final - which is the 5th year on the trot! Well done to the BLT Tango Crew - lets hope that this will be our year.....Jerry make sure that they are rehearsing!!

Ciao for now (there GJ hope that the spelling is correct)


Thursday, 15 May 2008

Tech Day in Nova Scotia

We are all having a great time. We have all made such good friends with the amazing people of Nova Scotia....who have to be the most generous on the planet. We went looking for a liquor store tescos buy some beer for our hosts....and were walking in, what we thought, was the correct direction. We were wrong - and Vic asked an off duty fireman the way....he told us that it was about two miles out of town - and then promptly offered to take the 4 of us there. We were amazed to find that he waited for us - and took us back to where we came from -----amazing!! You don't get that in Cwmtillery!

Last night was the opening ceremony and the parade of flags - lead by Vic holding our flag. We entered the theatre singing the Welsh anthem - we were very proud and sang our hearts out for Wales - twice (extra chorus that we werent expecting). They had the RCMP there - or the Mounties and Shelley was very taken with them both.....we will have a job getting her home!! Shelley, Peta and Joan all wore the wonderful Welsh outfits and the men all wore the special shirts - we really made an effort, which was noticed by all the audience and participants alike!

Today was tech and later is the first international performance of 'Sheep'. It went really well and Nye worked wonders - as usual....some of the visuals even stunned me. All the gang are a little nervous, we are told that the theatre is really full tonight - about 400 there, but they are all really looking forward to giving the best performance possible.

Am hoping to upload some rehearsal footage to the website later - so that all can see our Sheep rehearsal from yesterday at the Curling Club. We are really looking forward to it - be great to get it done and then on to the schools tomorrow...for more mirth and merriment!

See ya later