This is the first in a series of articles about the process of engaging with creative projects. The series is designed to encourage the sharing of stories, rather than to provide a definitive guide. Although each community will need to engage with their specific context, some of the experience shared in these articles may become a valuable resource and help to kick-start the process. In this first blog, Mandy Carr talks about the experience of putting on a stage show.
It started with a vision; an idea that took root. It felt as if it was from God because I had no experience of community theatre or amateur dramatics. I wanted to write something that would bring people together and I wanted it to be fun. I also hoped it would be something that would draw in people who were currently on the fringe or in the wider community. I set to work writing.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was ‘in the zone’ and it didn’t matter what time it was. After a few weeks Bible Bites was finished. It was a collection of sketches and monologues giving a modern twist to some of the stories in the Bible. It helped that it was the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible that year. It meant that the show became topical and could be advertised alongside the other events celebrating this anniversary.
Molly Mills as Delilah in ‘Pride Comes Before Her Fall.’
The decision behind doing short pieces was made for practical reasons. First, the Bible is a large collection of writings and in order to provide a variety of stories and to keep the pace going, each piece could not be long. Secondly, it allowed for a larger cast who could then meet in small groups to rehearse one or two pieces each. This gave some of the less experienced actors the chance to be centre stage without overloading them with too much to learn.
The third point was about the recognition that everyone was giving their time and talents for free. They were volunteers and that meant that however committed they were, sometimes other things had to come first. Rehearsals needed to be arranged around work and family commitments and had to be flexible enough to be changed at a moment’s notice. Goodwill is the currency that makes these projects work and the important prerequisites for that are patience and respect. Thankfully having sketches that needed just a few actors meant that, when a cast member couldn’t make a rehearsal, it was easier to reschedule.
The project became a deanery one and so actors were recruited from a number of places; some from churches, some from amateur dramatic groups, and others from pantomime societies. We became the Deanery Players and a Director was appointed.
One of the churches in the deanery had a wide chancel which had been re-ordered leaving a large space that seemed suitable for the show. Borrowing staging from another church and lighting from a local primary school, we were ready to begin.
Although the venue seemed like an excellent choice at first there were two drawbacks that we discovered. One was that it was fine to sit on hard pews for a while but, for some people, it would be challenging for the whole length of the show. The other significant point was that although we could warm the place up when it was cold, the sound of the heating system muffled the voices of the actors. We had a couple of radio microphones to amplify the voices but it wasn’t enough so we had to switch the heating off before the performance started. As it was performed in November, it meant that the second half was decidedly chillier than the first.
Clive Stott and Sarah Woodcock as Cleopas and Naomi in ‘Known in the Breaking of the Bread’
Anyone who is considering putting on a show will need to consider their chosen venue in regard to issues like the acoustics, disabled access (not every hall or church is compliant), a hearing loop and voice amplification, seating, health and safety issues (including capacity for the space), parking, lighting , heating, toilets and any arrangements for an interval, such as providing refreshments or a bar. There are also licences that are required. We ran a bar using wine on sale or return from a contact at the wine merchants and we hired glasses from a local supermarket for free, only being charged for any breakages. As we were going to be selling alcohol on the premises we applied for a Temporary Event Notice (TEN) through the council website. This incurs a small charge but is very straight forward to apply for. A copy of the TEN needs to go to the police before the event and also has to be displayed at the event.
Although there were sound effects in the show, we didn’t have any music. Had we played recorded music we would have needed a music licence (PPL Licence.) It is always worth checking out the legalities of a situation rather than making assumptions. Information about music licences can be found at www.ppluk.com.
The other thing that is worth considering carefully is advertising. It is worth bypassing the church photocopier and getting fliers, programmes and posters professionally printed. Although we did invest in publicity we found sponsors in the local community who funded it in exchange for advertising on the back of the flier, or in the programme. We started with the companies where we had contacts, and those who already advertised in the parish magazine. An IT competent parishioner did the artwork and, for not very much, we had posters and fliers to give out and programmes to sell at the event. (*We will be doing an article later in this series about producing professional publicity). We also wrote press releases for the local papers and I was interviewed on local radio about the project.
One of the things that local community theatre has over professional and semi-professional groups that tour is that it is easier to find an audience. Friends, family and work colleagues will often come to support those involved and this is essential, not only to fill seats and to raise money through ticket sales, but for the missional aspects of the project. Without an outward focus, it is a play put on by the church, for the church, and a wasted opportunity. Doing something different however, does require some energy behind it.
Dorothy Gray plays ‘Disgusted of Capernaum’
Issuing personal invitations is a great form of non-threatening outreach. Had we advertised it as ‘come and spend two hours listening to stories from the Bible’, I suspect we would have had far fewer in the audience. However coming to an entertaining evening with lots of laughter and moving performances challenges pre-conceptions. It may even draw some to think more seriously about faith. If having a missional focus is an important part of putting on a show, then using personal invitations to those in our circle is crucial.
We put on three performances over a weekend and in the following year we did another stage production called The Rule Breaker. The two productions raised about £2500 for the Hospice in the Weald and created a deanery mission fund that was used to enable young people to go on residential youth camps. We had also created a community where people’s gifts could be expressed and valued.
I was hugely grateful for the generosity of the cast and crew and amazed at the impact it had. One person told me that she had overheard someone in the audience say “I haven’t looked at the Bible in years but I think I’ll go and have another look – some of those stories are really incredible and make you think.”
*Title Photograph: Annie Young and Dorothy Gray as Esther and Miriam in “Rise and Shine in Bethany”
*If anyone would like to use the scripts of either Bible Bites or The Rule Breaker please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org