Review: Actor Awareness Best of Scratch 2017

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks two years ago to fight for more equality, diversity and working class talent in the arts, has continued to go from strength to strength this year. Alongside regular scratch nights and the return of their annual new writing festival, the team have also found time to make an award-winning documentary, The Acting Class, which features the likes of Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston and Julie Hesmondhalgh. Needless to say, they have a lot to look back on as the year comes to an end, and they chose to mark the occasion by revisiting four of the best new plays performed at Actor Awareness scratch nights during 2017, in a best of evening hosted by actor and singer Stephanie Houtman.

The first of the four plays, selected from the Women’s Night back in March, was Come Die With Me by Vicki Connerty, directed by Shaadi Rad. Newly widowed Helen (Stella Ross) has decided to get her husband embalmed and keep him in her living room until the funeral, much to the dismay of daughter Rachel (Charlotte East) and morbid fascination of son David (Jack Spencer). This thoroughly enjoyable extract from the now 60-minute play is laugh-out-loud funny but somehow still feels very grounded in reality, touching on the fears and worries that all of us face when we lose a loved one.

Next was the altogether more sinister 2022, a dystopian drama written and directed by Colleen Prendergast, about a post-Brexit British Muslim ban.  Selected from the Race, Religion and Culture night, the play sees young mother Selwa (Lauren Santana) trying to convince border guards Colquhoun (Deborah Wastell) and Gower (Richard Innocent) to let her and her baby cross – before events take an unforeseen turn. It’s a very timely piece that, given recent events here and in the States, feels frighteningly probable and challenges us to question our own assumptions. That said, the play is also very funny – Richard Innocent and his ever more depressed facial expressions are particularly fun to watch.

Assumptions are also challenged in the pick from Political Night, Stephanie Silver’s Our Big Love Story, a tale of four teenagers (Holly Ashman, Maria Kolandawel, Alex Britt and Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and a teacher (Arjun Bhullar) affected by the 2005 London bombings. Directed by Calum Robshaw, the play explores various themes including faith, prejudice, love and the radicalisation of young people – which is a lot to try and squeeze into a fifteen-minute extract. The full-length piece is set for a run at The Hope Theatre next March, and it will be interesting to see how all the different stories and ideas come together given more time.

Last but by no means least Michelle Payne’s Full Circle, which was first performed at the Mental Health Night, presents a movingly honest account of living with depression. Nicole (Elicia Moon Murphy) starts a peer support group in the hope of making some friends, but gets a little more – or should that be less – than she bargained for when just two people show up: Amy (Kate Kelly), who’s always angry, and Skye (Lucy Gape), who treats everything as a big joke. The play combines humour and tragedy as the three very different women begin to build a tentative friendship, with each sharing her own unique experience with depression – a useful reminder that mental illness can affect everyone differently, and that it isn’t always obvious to the outside world.

The four plays were sandwiched between two new comedy sketches from Brittle Britain by Tom Stocks, which takes a sharply satirical swipe at the sorry state of our nation. From a general election campaign featuring the WGAF party (I’ll let you figure that one out) to playing the Immigration Game to avoid deportation, it’s all quite surreal but – depressingly – very much inspired by actual events.

The fact that most, if not all, of the plays showcased during the evening have gone on to be developed into full-length work and performed elsewhere is a good indication of the quality on display. This evening of strong performances and thought-provoking writing is a fitting round-up of a successful year for Actor Awareness; I look forward to seeing what 2018 has in store.

To find out more, visit the Actor Awareness website or follow @actorawareness.

Interview: Michelle Payne, The Staff Room

They’re teaching our children, but are they teaching the right things…?

Michelle Payne’s The Staff Room started life as a 15-minute piece, written for an Actor Awareness scratch night. Now a one-act play, the show is all set for its first Edinburgh preview tomorrow at The Bunker, followed by a second at Barons Court Theatre on Saturday, before heading to the Fringe.

The Staff Room follows three young teachers on their breaks through an academic year,” Michelle explains. “You can expect to see a slice of life; an insight into what our teachers get up to in state schools.”

The play was inspired by Michelle’s own experience as a freelance dance teacher. “I was working in a lot of different schools for a really long time, so I sat in a lot of staff rooms,” she says. “I found the dynamics really interesting, and often very comical. I wanted to praise our hard working, state school teachers and give them an up to date voice in the theatre!”

While the play is a must for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the staffroom door (which, let’s be honest, is all of us when we were at school), Michelle hopes it’ll also be enjoyed by those within the profession: “Definitely teachers! And I also hope it appeals to young, working class people. Hopefully it’ll make our audiences laugh, and provoke discussion about political topics.”

Joining The Staff Room‘s all female creative team are cast members Faye Derham, Hilary Murnane and Craig Webb – who audiences might recognise from a recent high-profile TV appearance. Michelle explains, “Craig, who plays our Geography teacher Hugo, was a finalist singing with Neon Panda on Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine on BBC One. Which was very exciting for us – seeing him on the telly!”

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks, has played a key role in the play’s development. “I wrote the first draft of the play especially for an Actor Awareness health themed scratch night,” says Michelle. “This was chosen and performed at Theatre N16 last year. From this we were offered a full show at N16 if I could extend the play to one act for the summer. So Actor Awareness definitely supplied me with that initial opportunity!”

Following the show’s two London previews, Michelle and the team will be heading north for a run at Edinburgh’s theSpace @ Surgeons Hall from 21st-26th August. “I’ve visited the Fringe every year for the past six years and have supported friends’ shows, so I’m glad it’s finally my turn to have a show up there!” she says. “We’re looking forward to getting some feedback and hopefully making people laugh.”

Catch The Staff Room at The Bunker on 18th July, Barons Court Theatre on 22nd July or in Edinburgh at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 21st-26th August.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Actor Awareness

Stephanie Silver is a London-based actor and producer at Actor Awareness, a campaign fighting for equality and diversity within the arts set up by Tom Stocks in 2015. The campaign’s come a long way since then, and the team are now preparing for their second New Writing Festival, a showcase of original work taking place from July 17th-22nd at London’s Barons Court Theatre.

“Actor Awareness is about trying to create a level playing field,” explains Stephanie. “‘All the world’s, a stage and all the men and women players’, right? Well, it doesn’t seem like it in the acting world. We have a long way to come on many levels, but fundamentally Actor Awareness is a campaign to make a fairer industry, so on stage and screen there is a diversity in roles as well as the actual stories being told to audiences.

“As we’re a small campaign with minimal financial resources, we do what we can. We started out with scratch nights – as an actor it’s more important to be the driver behind your career and to create opportunities, a massive ethos here at Actor Awareness, so the scratch nights were a natural step. Our first few scratch nights we got like four submissions and even sometimes had to write the odd play to fill in the spaces! Now we get nearly 100 submissions; we get more and more every call out.

“We’re now sponsored by Spotlight for the scratch nights and we are the only scratch in London that pays – we’re pretty proud of that. The event also adds a credit to any actor’s CV, which helps their Spotlight submission, and it’s also in the heart of the West End, a casting melting pot so an ideal place for agents or CDs to come. We’ve had quite a few people signed from the events, we had producers come down to check out plays and many people have gone on to write more of their show and take it elsewhere. It’s also just a great night to meet like-minded people and have a pint.

“We started film nights at Spotlight, where we choose short films and do a screening. This is a new venture and one we hope to continue. Tom also works extensively behind the scenes doing loads of admin stuff and talking with Equity, Spotlight, Labour MPs and other industry professionals. Now Actor Awareness are the patron of a new drama school, North 8 – a school designed to help people who can’t afford the ‘typical’ three-year £40,000 BAs! So we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Stephanie got involved with Actor Awareness in 2015 after responding to a request for someone to do a blog. “And then because I’m a busy body I started helping out more as the campaign grew,” she adds. “Tom and I are good friends now, we get on – he’s hilarious and we trust each other. When the campaign grew Tom asked me to take on the scratch nights; new writing is something I have a real passion for so I jumped at the chance and I’ve been doing them for a for a while now!

“I love reading everyone’s submissions. It’s something I really look forward to and it’s helped me grow as a writer myself, constantly reading plays makes you sharpen your own tools, so it’s a win win. I always remember plays too, so sometimes I might message someone if I remember a play and want them to re-submit, or I think it has potential so I’ll email them to ask if they have more. Other times if I have the time I’ll provide some feedback, which they can take or leave, no offence taken. I’m also producing the New Writing Festival in July; I can’t wait. I like to organise, so just call me Tom’s organiser!!”

Stephanie’s passion for the campaign and its goals is clear to see. “I truly believe in it, because it gave me a real sense of purpose and drive to really make something happen, for myself and helping others,” she says. “The message of equality is one that should be shared in every walk of life, not just theatre. I think art is inherently important for growth on a human and social level, therefore no matter what your class or finances you should have access to it. We get a lot of people come to us disheartened and sometimes bitter with the industry, and it’s nice to give people an energy and focus and watch them do something they love and remember, ah yeah, I actually love doing this, finding that spark and passion to go out there and be noticed. We’re giving people confidence in themselves or the knowledge of where to go, who to speak to, what grants to look at or theatre to talk to, and enabling people to make some sort of pathway or step towards their next goal.”

Among many favourite moments, the scratch nights stand out as particular highlights: “To be honest every scratch night just gets better and better, the talent just seems to blow us away every time! There’s a few shows that have really grabbed both me and Tom. There was Injuries of Class by Paul McMahon which was stellar, and I got to show a short play of mine called Our Father, it got a standing ovation which really made my entire life!

“I also enjoyed our workshop in Manchester, that felt really good moving outside of London and reaching people out of the London hub. I’d love to do workshops like that all over the country. We got teams together and people who didn’t even think they could write had short plays by the end of the workshop. That felt very good.”

Next month’s New Writing Festival follows a successful first event last August at Theatre N16 in Balham. “We invited six of our most popular shows that had come through our scratch nights and asked them to write one hour of material to showcase,” Stephanie explains. “They all rose to the challenge and it was a success. One of the plays – The Staffroom by Michelle Payne – is going to Edinburgh this year and is also having a run at Queens Hornchurch Theatre. The new writing weeks are a chance for us to invite back really promising plays to get audience feedback. This year I want to make it bigger and better, so I’ve invented the ‘Press Pass’, a magical pass for any industry professionals, artistic directors, producers and reviewers to have access to all shows all week, to try and get more feedback for our artists.”

And it sounds like there’s plenty for us to look forward to. “Ah we have so much! I’m so excited for everyone. We have a real mix of comedy and drama and real contemporary issues and some proper working class themes. I selected them on their writing merit first and foremost. I chose pieces that I’d seen and knew went down well on the scratch nights – we normally have a pint at the pub after scratch nights and you get a good buzz about what plays really went down a storm. I also, like any night or event I do, try and create a varied programme.

Worsooz is a play that was shortlisted for the Papatango award in 2016, very excited about this one. C’est La Vie won an international open submission in Australia and was produced out there after being one of Actor Awareness’ first ever scratch pieces way back in 2015, so pretty excited about that too. 2022 is a hard hitting contemporary piece about a Muslim ban, this is set to be fab. Submission is a spoken word piece that had Tom welling up at the last scratch, about being gay and Muslim. We have several fab comedies: Come Die with Me, which British Theatre rated 5 stars, and Speciman.

“I’m really excited about Walk of Shame, which is a very brave play about consent. It showcased at our women’s scratch night; I was asked to direct it and I just fell in love with the story and the character. After working on it as a director I got my writing hat twitching and went away and wrote some material which I presented to the original writer of the piece. We then decided to write the play together and I’m stoked to show people what we have hashed together in such a short space of time! We also have The Staffroom returning to perform their Ed fringe preview at the end of the week!”

Looking further ahead, there’s plenty more to come from Actor Awareness: “Firstly we have open submissions for our next scratch night, which is on a political theme – submissions can be sent to stephaniefrancescap@hotmail.com. We also have the Actor Awareness documentary coming out soon! It has many actors – people such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh – talking about the class ceiling in the acting industry. It’s a real eye opener and something Actor Awareness has been working on for a while.”

Finally, what can the rest of us do to support Actor Awareness in their campaign? “The shows are a great place to mingle and Spotlight members go FREE so it’s a pretty sweet deal,” says Stephanie. “But you can also connect with us via social media. We do a lot of this as it’s a free tool and reaches widely – we’re on Facebook and Twitter (@actorawareness) which is where we post all castings and any upcoming events. We keep it this basic so anyone can join in, hear about us, and no one pays anything either – actors have enough to pay for! We sometimes join up with companies like CCP and do competitions. We’re pretty chilled, you can write to us anytime and we can chat. Tom and I are pretty open, so just holla.”

Find out more about the Actor Awareness New Writing Festival (17th-22nd July) or follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter for news and updates.

Review: Actor Awareness scratch night

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about Actor Awareness. Run by Tom Stocks, the campaign was set up two years ago to fight for equality and diversity in the arts, regardless of background. Last Monday, Actor Awareness presented their first scratch night, featuring six new short plays all based around the theme of working class. I bought my ticket because a friend had written one of the plays, and it was a really enjoyable evening, with a fascinating selection of plays and some brilliant performances.

The scratch night took place at the Canal Cafe Theatre, an intimate setting perfect for this kind of event. After each play, the audience were invited to give feedback – good or bad – to help the actors, writers and directors going forward. This had the potential to be a bit awkward, particularly if the feedback wasn’t all good, but it was all very constructive, and all the comments were taken in the spirit in which they were intended.

One of the most interesting aspects of the night was how varied the submissions were; if I hadn’t known in advance what the common theme was, I’d never have guessed. And they also covered the whole spectrum of emotions – from laugh out loud comedies like R(ex)ception and Netflix and Chill with Bae, to heartbreaking dramas C’est la Vie and 9 Cans and a Quarter Bottle.

We began with R(ex)ception, a short but very funny piece written by Francesca Mepham and directed by Adam Morley, about two co-workers, who also just happen to be exes. Naturally, hilarious awkwardness ensues as they try to work out their differences, in a very public forum. In addition, the play makes clever use of a third actor to separate the scenes and involve the audience in the story. My only complaint was that it was over too soon; the banter between the two exes was brilliant and I wanted to see more.

R(ex)ception by Fran Mepham
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Next was Garnet and Gordon, an intense and powerful play written by Francesca Wright and directed by Gaz Wilson. This is one I think we can all relate to; we’ve all had someone we’d rather avoid sit down next to us at the station or bus stop. But what’s interesting about this piece is how both the main characters clearly have more going on than initially meets the eye. I’d love to see the story developed further and get to the bottom of how both men found themselves sitting on that bench.

C’est la Vie, written and directed by Stephanie Perry, is an extract from a longer play about three couples (though we only saw two in this excerpt). The piece examines love through the eyes of each couple, and follows them through the ups and downs of their relationships, until a tragic set of circumstances brings them together. This play was really well acted, but just seeing an excerpt meant it was hard to properly get into it or know at what point of the story we’d come in. I’d love to see the full play, though, as it was clearly heading in an interesting direction.

C'est la Vie by Stephanie Perry
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Act 2 opened with 9 Cans and a Quarter Bottle, written and directed by Seamus Mcnamara. Along with a few other members of the audience, I didn’t completely follow what was going on with this one until the writer explained, at which point a lot of things suddenly made sense. Nonetheless, it’s still a very hard-hitting and moving piece, which was constructed from real accounts of living with drug addiction. The play’s an interesting mix of emotional, hilarious and just plain odd; I’d love to watch it again now, having had some insight into what it’s all about.

Family Estate, written and directed by Lawrence Crane, is a snapshot of life for a couple struggling to make ends meet – again, something many people can relate to. As he prepares to go out on a risky job (details of which remain unclear), she tries to talk him out of it. The back and forth argument is clearly one they’ve had many times before, and there’s a sense of things escalating. This play, too, feels like the beginning of a longer piece; it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving the audience eager to know what happens next.

And finally, Netflix and Chill with Bae, written and directed by the show’s organiser, Tom Stocks. After some pretty heavy material, it was great to end the evening on a lighter note; this play is very funny because it’s totally real. We’ve all been on bad dates, and we’ve all experienced that inner monologue analysing every detail of what’s going right or wrong. What’s great about this play is that its characters are instantly likeable, and by the end you’re really rooting for them to get together, even though on paper they seem totally mismatched.

Netflix and Chill with Bae by Tom Stocks
Photo credit: Alishia Love

The next Actor Awareness scratch night has already been announced for February, and the theme is ‘Women’s night‘. So if you’re a female writer or director and fancy sending in a play on that theme that’s under 15 minutes long, this is your chance… Visit the Actor Awareness website for more details.

Also, a quick plug for my friend Fran Mepham’s play, R(ex)ception, which is going to be performed again at the Bread and Roses Theatre on April 3rd, so look out for more details on that.