Post written by: Erin Walcon
Bicycle Face: Acting Out, Birmingham
Two weeks ago, I journeyed up to Birmingham to spend the evening with Acting Out – a LGBT amateur dramatics group which has been in existence since they changed their name from GAPP Theatre (Gay and Performing Proudly) in 2003. The Wellington Hotel (their rehearsal and performance space) was a buzzing hive of activity as the group was preparing for next week’s LGBT History Month celebrations, preparing 4 different sketches for performance. The entire pub was taken over – from the script-reading happening out in the front by the bar, all the way to the back room, where a tiny stage has clearly played host to a wide variety of Acting Out performances.
I sat in on the rehearsal of Bicycle Face – a Victorian melodrama involving a lesbian couple named Beatrice and Ethel, two bicycles, a conniving servant named Edgar with around 42 children, a wicked father, and ultimately… a tragic ending involving a barn fire and some rose bushes. Director Suzie moved back and forth between demonstrating the role of Ethel to a new cast member and giving notes to the company – whilst checking the time of each short scene to see if the piece would be under the 10 minute requirements. The piece was partly-devised, partly-scripted, and the company improvised around the script under Suzie’s encouragement, amping up the farcical melodrama and searching for new innuendos that hadn’t been used already.
As soon as the Bicycle Face group had finished their run-through, another sketch moved into the theatre space, and we shifted back out into the front pub area for a chat and some directorial notes. It’s here where I really got a chance to chat with Alex, who is the society secretary and former social organiser. Alex told me, ‘We usually do about 3 productions a year, but then stuff like this comes up, and we do that too.’ I sat with the Bicycle Face group, listening to them chat about their Saturday rehearsal at the LGBT community centre, and trying to find another evening where the group could rehearse this week. All members of the group work full-time, and the company is clearly used to working around these constraints.
Amidst orders from the bar, and a few rounds on the gaming machine, the company looked through several bags of costumes, jewelry and props that member Noisy had brought in for tonight’s session. Victorian garb was pulled out for the Bicycle Face scene – Alex ended up with a top hat – and Beatrice’s bonnet was passed round and worn by several members of the group for the rest of the evening. ‘Noisy?’ I asked Alex. ‘Oh, his real name is Richard, but there are several people called Richard, and he’s loud, so we just call him Noisy. It just stuck.’ Nicknames are clearly a common occurrence with the Acting Out crew, as another Richard, the technician, who is regularly referred to as ‘Sat Nav’ went round and checked off everyone’s lighting cue requirements for the show. I was told that Sat Nav earned his name by through his skill as a human Sat Nav on various group outings. He is also regularly involved in organising walks for the LGBT group Rainbow Rambles.
Later, I watched as company chairwoman Rachel led an efficient meeting which brought all the groups together in the back room space, asking who could make the 6:30 PM call-time on Tuesday. Adjustments were made for those who had to come straight from work – Suzie explained she was going to be picked up from work at 6:30 PM, and would bring the props with her. ‘That’s all right,’ Rachel said, crossing it off her list, ‘Your bit isn’t until the end anyway.’ A group of 29 people (plus me) had gathered together for this final meeting, largely emptying the front of the pub, and despite the half-full pints and hard work of the last 2 hours, it was a focused and professional atmosphere as the group worked through the details for next week’s festivities.
The ending time of 9 PM came and went, as Alex asked how many members wanted to go and see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and checked off 16 names from his list. Several other members mentioned shows that were upcoming – both amateur and professional – and it’s clear that the group is used to going to the theatre regularly to see work of both sorts. Rachel adjourned the session, but many stayed to chat – or to move along to another pub down the road for a more social session. Rachel stopped one group member to discuss the delayed plans for Romeo and Juliet – their show intended to start rehearsals in March for a July performance. Ed, the previous chair of Acting Out, is directing the show. Finding a Romeo is becoming an issue, and they discussed the options… ‘I’ll just send an email out, begging, pleading and bullying to see if we can find someone.’ Alex told me with a grin that he’s been cast to play the Nurse.
As everyone filtered off into the evening, some headed home, some to the pub, I said goodbye to Alex and Rachel. ‘Come back up and see the new writing group,’ Alex encouraged me. ‘They’ve just started. Some of our more experienced writers are teaching the rest of us who haven’t written before.’
I'm headed up today to see this writing session - absolutely can't wait.