Monday, 8 September 2014

Category Busy Bees...



Given that there were points last year where our teachers were practically running group therapy sessions with us, it's perhaps unsurprising that the road to our BTEC Performing Arts Final Major Performance (or just 'Final Major', for short) was a long and tense one.

We had warned Miss Smith and Miss Clarke about the dangers of just leaving us to devise a project, given the stress and annoyance it had caused us the previous year. (High School Panto, Mac Ops and our T.I.E. performances had all been devised pieces). The trouble is, allowing at least some free rein for our devising is what often brought out some of the best work in us - Mogadishu, which we had done most recently in front of an audience, was evidence of that.

Miss Smith's suggestion was to devise a "Mogadishu Part 2", which, although there were points where we were all tempted, I am certainly glad now that we stuck to our guns and said we didn't want to do it. We had only done one project since Mogadishu - Auditions For Actors, and the only audience for that had been Miss and Miss themselves.

I think there was an element of not wanting to revisit the show and the characters at that point. I mean, I'd do it now, I think - but at that point, for me personally anyway, I wanted a fresh challenge - a script, preferably - as I wasn't so sure about doing a devised piece - and a new story that gripped me in some way.

We did eventually decide on doing a wholly devised piece.

Not such a good idea...

The trouble with devising so totally from scratch is that you've no idea where to start. You need an idea or a theme, or to know what it is you want your audience to feel when they leave the room. Some of us wanted something really thought-provoking - others wanted something that was just a bit of fun and a good laugh. Although we began to find compromises, our initial ideas - ranging from court room dramas based around domestic abuse, to criminals who represent each of the seven deadly sins and crash land on an island that turns out to be hell (I know - cheery, right?) we eventually had to come to an agreement for a show we could settle on.

We had been back and forth with the aforementioned ideas, but would keep getting stuck at certain points - the former was really hard to sort out the story in a believable way and agree on plot points and characters, and some of us were also just beginning to find the concept really grim. For the latter, while I think the basic premise of doing something based around the Seven Deadly Sins appealed to all of us (especially as there were seven of us), then in terms of devising ideas, once we got to the point of our  characters crashing on this island, we didn't really know where to go from there to get us to the big reveal at the end.

Eventually, aware that time was beginning to run short and we really needed to start rehearsing something, we finally agreed to start looking for and choosing some scripts. The one we eventually settled on was Category B, by Roy Williams.

We weren't strangers to Williams' work - Ahmed, Jhaleel, and Shaq had acted in Fallout as part of the Directors Project the previous year, and the year before Michael, Jhaleel and Ahmed had done Days Of Significance for their GCSE performance.

Donte, Michael, Jhaleel and Ahmed in Roy Williams' Days Of Significance
Jhaleel, Angel & Shaquille in Roy Williams' Fallout

We sat down and read through the script. Category B is named after a certain type of prison in the UK - prisoners being held there don't exactly need maximum security, but escape should still be made difficult. Category prisoners are often in for drugs or violent offences, as is the case in the play.

The characters in Category B included Angela, Andy and David - prison guards, Riz, Rio, Saul and Errol (inmates), and Chandra - Rio's Mum and Errol's ex of some years before.

Apart from Rio - an 18 year-old in for rape (although he denies it), the other prisoners' convictions aren't made entirely clear. Saul is clearly the leader of the pack - he appears to run the prison. Though Angela and Andy are in charge, they turn blind eyes to the occasional thing that Saul does (him and Riz sell drugs to the other prisoners, among other things) and in return he keeps the rest of the prisoners in line. Why it is that the other prisoners seem scared of him, or he appears to have one over on them, isn't made entirely clear in the script.
Errol is clearly one of the toughest inmates and it's implied that he killed a man. Chandra visits him during the course of the play and asks that she look after her son, Rio.
Riz has a weird obsession with films and seems to be mostly there for light relief. He is however, clearly tough enough to hold his own in a fight.
Angela gets on relatively well with the prisoners, but is determined to lay down the law. Andy is a gambling addict and is having an on-off affair with Angela.
David, being the new boy on the job, is obviously keen to work by the book and struggles to get used to Angela and Andy's more unorthodox methods.

We read the script together - alternating characters as we went. The intention was we would read it through and start to get some idea as to the characters we liked and would later audition.

Having read through it, we discussed the characters we wanted to be and who we could see playing the various roles. Ahmed seemed like a very obvious choice for Riz - he played him at points during the readthrough and the character was obviously well suited to him - not to mention Ahmed seemed to enjoy it. Michael was after Errol, Jhaleel was keen on Andy, and Holly was after Angela. Shaquille was off sick at the time but we thought he would probably be quite well-suited to Rio.

That left me and Cathie. The more obvious choices for both of us that people picked up on in the script were Chandra for Cathie and David for me. However, both were considerably smaller parts in the play, with not a lot of meat to them (at least not in comparison to the others), and neither me nor Cathie were particularly keen on the idea of playing them. Cathie wasn't wholly on board with the idea of a prison-based play anyway - she felt it was a little cliché for a school performance. Ashcroft had done prison-related productions before; Cathie had even been in one of them, Blackout, two years earlier for her GCSE performance. She agreed that Chandra was probably the character best suited to her, but it was a much smaller part, and being our Final Major, we naturally all wanted a little chance to shine and  challenge ourselves.

I liked the idea of doing the play, but wasn't keen on playing David - I wanted to try and stretch myself more, and had taken a liking to the character of Saul.
At first, there was a bit of resistance to the idea - Saul is the hard man, the ring leader - and for anyone who knows me personally, let alone the sorts of roles I normally play, they'll know I'm miles away from both.

But I wanted that challenge - I found him much more interesting as a character, and wanted a character with a bigger part - in a lot of the previous productions I'd done with the rest of the group, despite enjoying them, my characters (Barquisha in High School Panto, or MacDuff's Lietennant in Mac Ops, for example) had been smaller parts or sidekicks to one of the main characters. David, coming in as the new boy and learning from Angela, once again fitted this mould.

It was Miss Smith and Michael in particular who stuck their necks out for me, and said I should be given a go, and sure enough, once I auditioned, I did get the part.

Most of the rest of the cast also got what they wanted - for Cathie, we changed Chandra's name to Chloe, and heavily expanded on her character in our devising process. (We made sure to devise new scenes and backstories for the characters, as well as following the script). Chloe was no longer stuck on the sidelines on the outside - it was gradually revealed that there was more to her than meets the eye, and she was pulling the strings to influence certain characters' lives without them even realising it...

We began the rehearsal process, devising and writing new scenes and dialogue as we went, cutting other bits where we felt necessary. David's character was entirely written out, some of the lines being given to Rio (as he was the new inmate), and some of the more tough ones towards the end were given to Andy.

We added many more elements - a physical theatre piece to represent the scene of the rape Rio allegedly took part in, a more abstract choreographed sequence for the prisoners to do prior to visits, and the expansion of Chloe and Andy's characters and backstories.

Tensions were high at points - we would worry about certain scenes working and others not, there were logistics to worry about - how many performances could we do, how many audience members could we fit in the drama studio? How big would the prison cells be, and where should they be placed?

We all desperately wanted it to be the best show it could be, as always - especially as it would be the last one we did at Ashcroft. We had essentially achieved all we needed for our BTECs bar some coursework, but that was besides the point - this was (yet another) end of an era being marked.

True to form, having only just got the whole show together, teched, and essentially finalised with days to spare, we performed, on the 24th June 2014.

The room was packed out - friends and fellow students, current and previous, family and teachers, all came to see us do our last show.

Without wanting to sound immodest, I think we did ourselves proud in the end. The feedback we received was pretty great - people were perhaps surprised to see me as a character like Saul, but I had grown out some stubble, worked on a bit of a cockney accent, and put a lot of work into my performance - as did everyone - and it all went down pretty well.

There were tears all around at the end. Miss Smith and Miss Clarke, having only been with us for that academic year, said a few words and set quite a few of us off.


This was it. After all the arguments, the shows, the laughs, the tensions, the worries and stresses, we'd made it to the end. That was the last show we would ever put on as a group.

Perhaps one of the reasons we sometimes found it so difficult working with each other at points in the ladt two years, is we really are all friends. Friends with big personalities prone to clashing, but friends nonetheless.

Despite all the hard work it took to get there, we produced a hell of a lot of good shows over the past two years. The Director's Project showcase: A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, 'C', Fallout, Mr. Nobody, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, The World's Biggest Diamond.

After that, High School Panto, Mac Ops.
Our two very distinct T.I.E. projects featuring wizards, dragons, school kids and Egyptian Gods (we were nothing if not ambitious!).
The Goodbye devised solo performances and Auditions For Actors showcases, which we only saw ourselves. Penny For Your Thoughts, Mogadishu. Eleven Vests and The Waiting Room in Theatre Studies, and last but not least, Category B.

We went off to Nando's that night - a Performing Arts Dinner with us Performing Arts people (and one of my best non-drama mates, Luciano):

Cathie, Holly and Jhaleel enjoy their dinner
As do Ahmed and Luciano...

And of course, it wouldn't be a Performing Arts dinner without a bunch of actors dramatically staring off into the distance ;)

Thanks for all the memories, guys. 2 years of GCSE. 2 years of BTEC/A Level.
As I said at the time, we've had a lot of ups and downs. These years have been a rollercoaster, but all in all, it has been a pleasure working with you guys - all the very best to you in future. Til we meet again :)

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With thanks to the many, many brilliant teachers we've had in the Performing Arts Department over the years, who had such influence on us in so many ways:

Mrs Smith, Miss Goodall, Miss Beadle, Miss Murphy, Miss Kirton, Miss Cunnigham (Drama), Miss Hickman, Mr. Hawkes, Mr 'Lippy' Lipscombe...

And the wonderful team that came in in Year 13, and saw us through our final year. We've only known them a year, but my goodness, they were brilliant - great to have the Department back on track.
Mr Chadda, Miss Clarke, Miss Smith, Miss Di Bartolo and Mr Nicholls :)

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PART 1 - "The 'Last' Day at Ashcroft...":

PART 3 - "Ashcroft Prom 2014":

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