Post written by: Erin Walcon
On the 5th of March, I again had the pleasure of attending an ‘Acting Out’ rehearsal in Birmingham. This time, the company was holding a writing workshop session, having successfully completed their LGBT History performances last week. Workshop leaders Chris, Kev and Suzanne led the group through a set of writing exercises in the back room of the Wellington Pub.
I met up with society chair Rachel before the rehearsal for a good chat. Rachel has a BA (hons) in Drama, Theatre and Television studies, she tells me the course had a strong focus on community practice. Her day job is in adult education teaching drama and maths. Cuts in arts funding means that at present her only creative outlet is Acting Out. "It's a place where people can have a sense of belonging," She tells me over Chinese food in Birmingham near New Street Station, "we're close knit, kind of like a big dysfunctional family. There have been a series of Acting Out weddings - gay, straight, lesbian - involving flash mobs, period costume and the celebration of love and commitment. Alex and Kev did a reading at my wedding, Suzanne was a bridesmaid. We can take this piss put of each other mercilessly, but its all in love, there's never any malice. And you know if anything ever happened, if you needed someone, there would always be someone there for you."
We talk about the company's focus on devised and original work - these mediums are rare in the other amateur groups we're looking at, but they are common fare with Acting Out. Maybe this is connected to the fact that Rachel isn't the only member of Acting Out with formal drama training. She met Suzanne when she was a trainee teacher and Suzanne was assigned as Rachel's mentor. Alex and Kevin were course mates whilst training as drama and psychology teachers respectively. They all joined the group over 2-3 years, one drawing another into the fold.
But later, when I speak with Andrew, who was chairman of the group for 10 years, it becomes clear that the emphasis on devised and original scripts has been there since the group’s inception, back in 2000, when they were still called GAPP Theatre. Andrew describes several devised shows: Cigarette, which is about a chain-smoking dad with a gay son, and Acceptance, which involved audience interaction and a traverse performance structure. The group obviously has always done original works – and the ongoing writing workshops testify that they plan to continue that aesthetic.
I ask Andrew about the history of the group. ‘We used to perform at Birmingham Rep – well, we performed on the stairs,’ Andrew laughs, as we chat in the front room of the Wellington Pub while the writing workshop goes on next door. ‘We did a show called Friends of Dorothy, rehearsed and performed it on the mezzanine level and the stairs of the Rep. We did quite a variety of performances, many of them inspired by what we saw at the Rep.’ He tells me that the group moved from the Rep to the Wellington Hotel back in 2007. 'We outgrew the Rep and needed a home of our own.’ Andrew is one of the Old Guard – someone who has survived the transition from the group being an all-male gay society, to its current mixed membership. I ask him about the origins of the group – what caused it to first start up?
‘Oh, there’s something in Birmingham called the Fierce Festival,’ Andrew says, ‘And round about 2000, I think there was some funding to do a one-off scratch production around gay culture. So these brothers, Mark Ball and Steve Ball did a show with 6-8 gay men at the MAC (Midlands Arts Centre) over 2-3 weeks. It changed their lives. So then Mike Lowe wanted to keep it going, with no money. I joined in the first year, just heard about it through word of mouth.’
I’m curious about the transition from being all-male to the currently mixed membership.
‘Oh, it was this woman…’ Andrew says, with fond recollection in his eyes, ‘She was called Liz. She came in to direct, was a bit strict with us. Got us to actually learn our lines, cracked the whip a bit. She was brilliant. She brought other women with her, and about two years after she came, we changed our name to Acting Out.’ He describes how some of the original members ‘fell away’ as the group changed membership and title.
‘But you’re still here,’ I say. ‘Yes,’ he smiles, ‘For me it’s important that this is primarily a social group that does theatre, not theatre group that happens to be LGBT. We’ve got a vast age range for a LGBT social group – I’m the oldest and I’m 66, and I think our youngest member is 22. I think we need to hold onto being a company of friends who do theatre, not trying to be a theatre company, we need a sensible committee for that, which we have. And I think we need to keep writing our own stuff, need to be a relaxed space.’ He pauses. ‘And we always have to keep thinking how we will up our game.’
It was a rich and full visit – with many wonderful conversations. I’ll blog a bit more about the writing workshop and my chats with Alex and Ifor in another post.