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  • Jan Palmer Sayer

How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world. . .

What awful times we are living through. Our own local theatres, The Company of Players in Hertford and The Barn in Welwyn Garden City (which many of our members will remember from their Selection Weekend), have this week, both been dramatically lit in support of the nationwide Light it in Red project. The Barn looked eerily beautiful against the night sky, but remains empty for now and devoid of life, save a ghost light burning in the auditorium.

I expect we all are feeling the vacuum in our lives, so much is theatre a part of what we are and what we do and, more importantly, what we share. From my own point of view, all my engagements this year were cancelled – one even at the eleventh hour. On March 14th (I remember it vividly!) I was packed and heading off to bed in good time for my early start the next day en route to Gibraltar. At 10pm, the organiser finally got through to me on the house phone, having frantically tried to ring my mobile which by now, was recharging in time for the journey ahead. In a heartbeat, Gibraltar had effectively closed down and the festival (even by then had been modified to go ahead with me as the solitary audience member) was entirely cancelled. Half of me was disappointed, and the other half was relieved, knowing that really difficult decisions had been taken from me. Following that, each festival, whilst hanging on by its crampons until the last possible minute, cancelled. Like many of you this year, I haven’t worked at all during 2020..

Even now, the light at the end of the tunnel is still hard to spot. When will it all be over, and when will we return to something that resembles “normal” life? As each day passes, it becomes clear that whatever the future for theatre is, we are going to have to be creative about it. For amateur theatre, not always so severely bound by financial constraints as our colleagues in the professional theatre, that future seems a little more realisable. And the seeds of regeneration are beginning. Through adversity, new ideas can be born and I have been so delighted to hear about some really imaginative alternatives to what we recognise as live theatre.

Spelthorne and Runnymede Festival, one of the oldest one-act drama festivals in the south east has abandoned any idea of staging its normal in-house arrangements and instead, is holding a virtual festival this October, inviting entrants to submit a video of anything up to 10 minutes in length which can feature a limitless number of cast members. The piece can be a monologue or duologue; it can be mime, puppetry or a piece of stop-motion animation. It can be a poetry reading and almost anything will be considered. Full details are available: entry@spelthornerunnymededramafestival.co.uk on this link, and if you can, please support it. I have offered something that will be too long for their requirements, but they will let me know if we can be accommodated. It is just wonderful to hear about this positive and wonderful alternative.

In the Isle of Man, alongside the famous Easter Festival of Full-Length Plays, the island hold a Young Actor of Mann competition, finalists having been chosen by a GoDA adjudicator during the One-Act Festival held earlier in the year. The Easter Festival, sadly, didn’t go ahead, but finalists were filmed, with a very select audience and sent to the adjudicator, Robert Meadows, who, in turn, filmed his response to and comments on the pieces. The finalists were gathered (socially-distanced of course) and performed their solo pieces to a small audience. They then watched Robert’s comments on film before the Chairman of the association opened the envelope and announced the winners.

The Willow Globe, near Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, has, earlier this month, staged an outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors, presented by touring company The Wet Mariners. Usually playing to sell-out houses, this year, audiences had to be social-distanced and denied the usual tea and cakes at the interval, but - it’s live theatre! At the Minack (outdoor) Theatre in Cornwall, they have eschewed their usual amateur (and often big cast groups) and assembled some professional productions of two-handers or solo performers. Audiences will be suitably socially-distanced and spread throughout the auditorium. My husband and I are travelling down to see all this in action – our own production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, scheduled for Minack 2021, has now been bounced to 2022, but we were drawn to see just what seems to be possible in these current circumstances.

My own theatre company, Shattered Windscreen is hungrily creative and eager to embrace any opportunity, although we are an itinerant company with no premises of our own. Not be daunted, we have already Zoom-staged the 2020 winner of NDFA’s Derek Jacobi Award, A Matter of Life and Death, with some degree of success (and a lot of personal satisfaction) and we are now busily engaged in rehearsals for the 2015 winner of the same New Play prize Girl Walks Into a Bar. That one is scheduled for a Zoom performance on 10th and 11th of September at 7pm and I will send you an invitation if you would care to join us for either performance. As an aside, I would say, that in all my years of adjudicating, Girl Walks Into a Bar by Matthew Wilkie is the best original one act play that I have ever had the pleasure of reading and adjudicating (at Woking Festival in 2015). Just sayin’ ;)!

Even as I finish this article, I was heartened to read in the Times, today, quite out of the blue, the announcement from the government that theatres and performance spaces, along with sports venues are to reopen, with rules that limit audiences and enforce social distancing on stage. Hurrah, and thrice hurrah! Andrew Lloyd Webber, bless him, is also pictured in the Times today, acting as guinea pig in the British effort to develop a vaccine against the dreaded Covid-19. The vaccine, reportedly is now in ‘late stage’ clinical trials in Britain in tandem with international trials in S Africa and Brazil.

Life is not hopeless. And whilst it is undoubtedly enormously difficult at the moment, I do think it is incumbent on those of us who can make a response, to make that response. People need theatre – in whatever form that currently it has to take - and more than anything, they need the sort of theatre that lifts up, that excites, that stimulates and extends horizons. I have a feeling (and this is, of course, my own view) that perhaps what we don’t need is theatre that is too challenging or too grounded in our current troubles. Do we really want, at this moment, theatre that explores gritty social issues, or exposes political mistakes or reminds us just how difficult life actually is? Personally, what I want is theatre in any form, but the more cheerful, the better!

I look forward to seeing as many of you as is possible, at our Zoom AGM, and calling notices are coming out next week. Please join in, no matter how unfamiliar you are with Zoom. After 3 years in office, I will be hanging up my size 8s, but that won’t stop me from wishing the Guild and its new Chairman well as we face this next so very challenging year or three. Until then, keep safe, and keep cheerful.

Jan Palmer Sayer

Chairman, Guild of Drama Adjudicators

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