Shadow: From Bencher to High Priestess: A truly inclusive drama group!

‘You ought to go along to Shadow of the Tor’s next rehearsal!’ my friend told me, some time in late February. ‘Francis and Brad, the guys who run it, are lovely!’

I must confess, I felt very uncertain when I walked into the back room of the King Arthur pub back in early March. Looking round the room and seeing the colourful, mainly young, people, I feared I’d be deemed too old, too conventional, too plump. Not helped by the fact that, frazzled and wilting from a day’s teaching, I was – most unusually for me – dressed formally and, in my own mind, resembled a stern Headmistress rather than the ageing rebel I feel myself to be!

Scarred also by blatant ageism and looks-related casting decisions made in groups I’d joined in the past, I was extremely wary about pushing myself forward in any way lest I be laughed to scorn or rejected out of hand. For I have few illusions about myself: I know I am good on stage, but I also am well aware that I am neither youthful nor pretty!

Two months have passed since then – and I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions and fears. Shadow of the Tor is an amazing inclusive opportunity for anyone who wants to join in and act or sing or help backstage or write or direct. You do not have to be conventionally anything! Being at the wrong end of my fifties was no bar. Nor was being recently-divorced, anxious, new to the area and prone to mournful moments held against me.

There is a level of tolerance, of acceptance, of cohesion in the group which I have not met in previous drama clubs. The unspoken rule is that respect and kindness should be extended to all – which is part of my philosophy anyway – and that prejudice based on gender, race, creed or colour is unacceptable. Respect for other people’s differences is something I always emphasised as a teacher, and is part of who I am as a person. As I said in a recent Facebook status (the details of which I shall not divulge as the ensuing comments were intensely private and, in some cases, extremely brave) people are people and I either warm to them or I don’t.

But this whole lovely experience has made me realise anew the extent to which we, as human beings, judge others on the basis of their physical appearance, life decisions, body issues and so-called deviation from the illusory norm. It appals me in the world of Glastonbury as much as it did when I taught full time and does in the world as a whole. I say this because what is prejudice if not large-group-sanctioned bullying of often-vulnerable minorities? Prejudice is disrespect – and worse, far worse – practised by those who think that, because of who and what they are, they can get away with unacceptable behaviour and, even more worryingly, be lauded by others for their egregious actions. I have seen the effects of this on the lives of some of my new friends (and old), acquaintances and fellow actors – and I find it deeply sad, and rage-making, that our ‘civilisation’ still perpetrates this kind of crass and destructive insensitivity on a daily basis; that acceptance of the divine spark in all of us still has to be tempered by the ridiculous conditions laid, by societal decree, upon our differences; that acceptance of our basic humanity and connection one to another is not automatic.

My eyes have been opened, my own little concerns very much put into perspective shall we say!

But also I have been given roles! Wow! This has been so exciting and rewarding. As the play was well underway when I joined, I was not expecting a part and would happily have volunteered to get involved in some other capacity. So, to be given Human 4 and a Bencher was wonderful beyond my wildest dreams, the subsequent offer of High Priestess in the Beltane ritual drama a real boost to my shattered confidence.

I was nervous. I did worry that I would be the Weakest Link, that my age would tell against me, that I would disgrace myself by tripping over the Abbey or cannoning into the Tor (and knocking Brad, who was narrating behind it, into the middle of next week!); I will confess now that I did buy, and consume half of, a strengthening bottle of beer prior to the opening!

One of my closest friends from Wrington drove up to see me in action. God, that was so reassuring, so lovely. I have a huge bond with this person and his presence (for I spotted him as soon as he arrived!) was comforting. He and I have been in many a production together. He knows what I am like, on stage and off it! His support was incredibly welcome.

I was, I think, adequate but pretty unmemorable as Human 4, funny in a loud and vulgar way as the Bencher – and, overall, didn’t let the side down too drastically! I haven’t yet seen any film footage of my High Priestess moment (though there are photos aplenty) and, because I was in a kind of trance during the event, I have no idea how I came across to the assembled masses. But, in a sense, that really doesn’t matter: I was part of a team and, as far as I could see, we worked cooperatively one with another. There was no main role; we were all equally important – and that, to me, seems like a very good definition of Shadow of the Tor’s central ethos.

But the light behind the clouds of time and nerve-related constraints has been the sheer fun and levels of bonding. Like minstrels and theatres of old, we have roamed far and wide, rehearsing in car parks, gardens, pub rooms, people’s living rooms. We have laughed until we ached! We have shared chocolate and camaraderie, biscuits and banter, wine and, when needed, whining, tears and tenderness.

It has been, in every sense, a life-affirming time. I have come out of my shell, made friends, started the process of integration in Glastonian life. I have felt included and positively wanted. I have had enormous fun and laughed raucously, such a relief after so many months of sadness, fear and tension.

Although I have only been in town for just over four months, I can already see that Brad and Francis have breathed new life and vitality into the Avalonian creative scene; that they are catalysts for revival and freshness and a more truly cohesive approach to amateur drama.

I await Shadow of the Tor‘s next initiative with great enthusiasm and excitement! Go, Lads!

Photos show most of the cast, plus writer and director, of ‘In the Shadow of the Tor’ rehearsing in my back garden!


Shadow of the Tor: Learning my Lines!

Yesterday was a quiet one, mostly spent indoors nursing my sore muscles and feeling under the weather.

In the late afternoon, and after a little sleep, I got out the script and had a go at learning my lines.

For what? You may well ask – and I shall tell you. A month ago, a friend told me about a new drama group, started by two local young men (both, I believe, in their twenties – or young enough to be my sons, to put it another way!), which was looking for actors and rehearsed in the back room of a local pub, the King Arthur.

The name of the group – Shadow of the Tor – entranced me immediately, as did the mention of an Arthurian Watering Hole and people who, according to my pal, were lovely.

Glastonbury has a reputation for airy-fairy-ness, amongst other things, for happy hippies (to misquote a line from the recent pantomime!) – and the shadow reference in the group’s name represents a timely reminder of the darker side of my new home town. But also, to my mind, shows the necessary polarity in and on our landscape: Shadows are essential as protection and as contrast to the brightness of light. You cannot have one without the other.

One Monday afternoon – fresh, as it happened, from my first stint at a local-ish school – I arrived, late, to my first rehearsal, walking into a room full of colourful, mainly young, people. Brad Crowley and Francis Oliver (both of whom I have mentioned before in connection with the Glastonbury Town Players’ pantomime), long-haired and delightfully reminiscent of male students when I was at university in the seventies, stood up on the stage – and were, as my friend had intimated, lovely.

We started the session by singing Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in its entirety – and I knew, at that point, that these were my sort of people! Never mind the thirty odd year age gap between me and most of ’em!

To my surprise and delight, I was given a small part in their forthcoming production – ‘In the Shadow of the Tor’  – and had great fun at the session, though I had to leave early to deal with Jumble (who had been alone since 7.30 that morning).

For various reasons, I have only been to one rehearsal since then – and was aware, yesterday, that Time’s Winged Chariot was drawing ever nearer to Beltane (the play is going to be a part of the Beltane Celebrations weekend here and will be performed, in the afternoon of the 29th April, after the Dragon Conference events) and I only knew one word of my, admittedly small, bunch of lines!

Before I go any further, let me just indulge myself in a whimsy of remembrance. Three years ago this month, I discovered that I had to learn the lines for Veta-Louise Simmons (Elwood P. Dowd’s sister in ‘Harvey’) at the proverbial last minute. The woman picked for the part had lost her voice – and, long story short, we ended up sharing the role on alternate nights.

Thanks to help from a close friend also in the cast, I ended up learning the whole lot in three weeks – and, although not word-perfect, made no more mistakes than any other cast member!

But, with doubt having been cast on my mind and memory since those halcyon days, I was anxious about learning the few lines I had – and had, I now think, been putting it off for that very reason.

I did what I always do: Paced up and down, declaiming with attitude, bunging in the cues where possible, until I felt I could go script-free.

To my relief, the ability to remember, to set each line in a cement of pronunciation and emphasis, came back almost immediately – and, although not as speedy as I was in my late teens and early twenties, I am pleased that the ability to learn has not deserted me in my late fifties!

I shall practise again today, and tomorrow, and will, with luck, be pretty much word-perfect by Monday!

Lovely to be in such a vibrant drama group, however, and I am now really looking forward to the Beltane performance of the play.

Me as Veta-Louise Simmons in late May 2014 – a fine figure of several women! Look at those chins!