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Romeo and Juliet - July 2000

With its sheer beauty, power and symmetry, "Romeo and Juliet" is rightly regarded as one of the world's great dramas. Rarely though do we see it in a setting that not only compliments it but at the same time adds to its impact. I believe I found it in the grounds of Parham House in deepest Sussex, or rather it found me. A glorious open-air site already used for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" two years earlier.

A natural tree-ringed (more of those later) grass amphitheatre sloping down to the head of a sprawling, tranquil lake. A heart-rending tale in a beautiful setting, what more could anyone want?

As I've implied, 'The Dream Theatre Company' was born a few years ago as an extension of the local 'Storrington Dramatic Society' whose July production was cancelled so that its rehearsal venue could be used by its precocious offspring. That arrangement was to be repeated for this project, much to my relief. These are Director's notes, but a brief explanation of finances is in order. Beautiful as it is, the site has no facilities whatsoever, so everything was to be brought in, from lights to portaloos and that means real money, and that means sponsorship. This is a long, disaster-prone process with no guarantee of success at the outset. Dream Theatre saw that coming and introduced a policy of ordering what it could afford at the time. Safety first! But it didn't make individual budgets any easier to control. Although they were continually updated, expenditure still had to be within the limits at any given moment. My budget was principally for rehearsal expenses which were relatively easy to control as the area is well endowed with small halls and community centres, costing anywhere from £7 to £13 a night.

The whole exercise got under way and while harassed-looking committee members wandered off looking for money, I set about arranging site visits with various interested parties, including prospective cast, the professional sound and lights company pencilled in for the show and the Head Gardener, arguably the most important of our contacts. It was he who would tell us when we could move around the site - after the flowering cycle of some very rare flora. Also at this time sight lines had to be gauged with particular emphasis on the tree foliage.

And so the summer passed and as the nights began to close in I set to work on set plans, blocking and the thing I feared most - the cut! Nearly 30% of the play had to be cut to achieve the required two hours and for many evenings I 'ran through mud' in my efforts to do so. Until it was suggested that the cut should be in favour of action and from that moment I was on my way. With such a large acting area in such a setting I could allow few static passages. Armed with this formula the task became relatively straightforward.

By now, both Dream Theatre and SDS had begun advertising among the acting fraternity around a wide area which culminated in two audition evenings in a hall just a stone's throw from the Parham gates. Roughly fifty people from many parts of Sussex attended the two sessions, giving me my first clue to the quality this production could achieve. During Christmas Eve invitation letters were dropping through the letterboxes of those had read, selfishly timing it so that "Romeo and Juliet" would be on their minds during the festivities.

Early February: A get-together for the cast and crew. A bonding evening to introduce each other, to talk about the site, to give them an idea of the technical and administrative back-up and to have a bit of fun before the real work began. Two evenings later rehearsals began in earnest, mostly two a week and in a variety of halls. Of course, because of the episodic nature of the text, I was able to rehearse small numbers at a time, which enabled some cast members to complete their commitments to other productions.

The most important task for me in the early stages was to achieve and maintain a strong 'family' feel among the cast. Naturally with a large cast this is more difficult, but by and large I think we cracked it. There was one actor who questioned everything loudly and often. Normally this is good, it keeps us on our toes, but this was something else. Something more to do with him than anything I was doing. However, he was a very competent actor and so 'an understanding' was eventually reached which thankfully, though often tested, lasted until after the last performance.

March: Rehearsals were progressing very well and despite problems to come, would continue to do so. This month was notable for two things. The introduction of a professional fight arranger to assess individual abilities and the first music rushes. The music was to be composed and arranged by a London University student who would eventually perform her material live with seven other musicians. The brief was inter-scene links with one or two 'specials' such as a fanfare for the Prince and a 'yawning' clarinet for Romeo's first entrance. The computer-generated 'samples' were exciting.. the omens were still looking good.

April: The fencing and fight rehearsals got underway. I don't think there was a male member of the cast who didn't want to take part, including me, but unfortunately it had to be restricted to the necessary characters. I still marvel at how quickly and how well they picked it up. Around this time our regular admin. meetings were being told that sponsorship was slow and that maybe some of the facilities would have to be restricted for the performances. Naturally not all of this was relayed to the cast, but for some of us April turned into May with a certain amount of dejection. A shame because it was in stark contrast to morale at rehearsals which was maintaining a very satisfying upward curve.

My first headache though was about to happen. The young man playing Romeo had missed several rehearsals without explanation, nor it seemed was he contactable, until finally he announced that he was moving to Amsterdam! Of all the characters to lose I could least afford to lose Romeo. Luckily during those missed rehearsals I had given the possibility some thought and we now approached an even younger man, originally cast as Balthasar and very much a beginner. He was definitely 'up for it', so with crossed fingers and much holding of breath we went for it. I now had a fifteen year old Juliet and a Romeo only a couple of years older. Ideal grouping, but would he come through? My luck was in. There was instant stage chemistry between the two and his was an incredible learning curve. While I'm aware that the steepest curve is from zero, it still took my breath away.

By now rehearsals were being visited by other interested parties - wardrobe, publicity, box office etc. The costumes for our traditionally set show would be a combination of homemade and hired and would eventually prove to be one of the productions major assets. Oh, by the way, there was one other problem at this time. The actor playing old Capulet bowed out due to poor health. After exhausting all remaining contacts, there was only one other choice .. me! Luckily I learn lines quickly, especially in a text I was already heavily involved with, and so it came about.

It's June: I'm delighted with rehearsals and in particular the 'one-to-ones' with Juliet and our new Romeo. They were genuinely rewarding. Young children were now brought into add a speciality dance feature to the feast scene, rehearsals for which took longer than any other, including the fight sequences. My wife who was acting as my admin. assistant had long before completed the complicated task of obtaining licences for the children with the necessary chaperone arrangements.

Towards the end of the month, the occasional cast site visits turned into full-scale rehearsals giving them the chance to face the absolute need to project. During 'Dream' two years earlier one of the most difficult problems to overcome was the wind in the trees. Nor did it have to be wind; just a slight zephyr could cause havoc with the voices. We were keeping our fingers crossed that the same sound company had ironed-out the problem for this production.

July and the week of the production. We were due to perform from Wednesday to Saturday with dress rehearsal on the Tuesday before. Some of the cast, committee members and myself spent the last weekend erecting two lighting towers and building the only set piece of scenery - yes, the balcony! With an old stone balustrade at the back of a 45' x 75' acting area I decided to let the setting speak for itself, except for the balcony! This was a substantial structure positioned on the steep bank stage left and in such a way that the lovers stood below a spreading oak tree while they were against the parapet. It would finally be decorated with wisteria and ivy. The picture of Juliet as she stood on the balcony against the setting sun will always stay with me.

You may wonder how the sponsorship was going at this late stage. The necessary funds had arrived. A huge and very silent (thank God!) compressor, half a dozen portaloos, the sound and lights engineers and two very large marquees which would be erected discretely behind trees stage left and right. By now the production team were camping near the site to maintain a presence as the final props were moved in; tables for the feast, the coffin etc.

Dress rehearsal day was spent on site 'titivating' until…. towards the end of the afternoon the heavens opened. Nearby Worthing and Horsham were flooded, but we weren't. However we had to switch the dress venue to the SDS hall leaving us so short of time and space that as a dress rehearsal it was a washout - sorry! On top of this the orchestra were making their first appearance. Although we didn't actually hold prayers, we all went home with grave foreboding.

The Day dawned. The weather didn't look bad but I spent the day on site and hardly dared look up, but I needn't have worried, it stayed fine. Naturally I buzzed around trying to find a problem to fuss about, but there weren't any. The audience were arriving, bringing their chairs, tables and picnics, enjoying themselves before they even sat down.

Suddenly Sampson and Gregory were bounding down the bank, and we were running. The performance went without a hitch and I was anticipating the final scene. Slowly servants brought on Juliet's body on a slab carried across 2 poles and gently laid it on the waiting coffin. The lights had lowered and flaming torches picked out individual features… and all around us, darkness, apart from would you believe it - the moon over the lake, behind the actors. Magical!

That is until after the last 'curtain' call. Romeo had fallen on the glass vial dropped by Juliet during her false death scene. He was immediately taken to hospital and yes - he had broken his knee! I had to work the next day, but the Producer spent all day on the phone. Finally at the eleventh hour a young man was found who was prepared to play Benvolio if the more experienced actor playing that character could move up to Romeo. Half an hour before the Thurs day performance was due to start, the replacement arrived and the cast were told of the change. Even though the two guys would obviously have to read their parts, it would still be a recipe for disaster to allow the show to go ahead as normal. It would have to be a rehearsal. As they came in the audience were updated with the situation and assured that their tickets would be good for either of the remaining two nights. Amazingly many of them came in anyway which threw me completely for a few minutes. I knew I had to hold a rehearsal concentrating on the scenes with Romeo and Benvolio, but on the other hand it had to be interesting and comprehensible enough to hold the audience's attention. The decision was obvious - I had to run it as a workshop, acting as narrator for the audience, filling in the gaps in the story which didn't include those two actors. Much to everyone's surprise it worked. The two actors read as though they were born to it while the rest of the cast picked up the mood and meshed with ease. We stood open-mouthed as we heard box office recount comments from the audience as they left. The overwhelming majority had thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Friday, the third night, went far more smoothly than we had a right to expect. Romeo and Benvolio were so adept at reading that many of those watching admitted not noticing after a while.

So to the last night. A particularly large and attentive crowd greeted the actors as they took the 'stage'. Juliet was hoping that for at least one night the ducks further down the lake wouldn't interrupt her balcony speech, as they had for the last two performances and in exactly the same place - they did of course. The final scene was the climax of the whole project as far as I'm concerned. It had all the emotive power I had been trying for all those months. One last moment, after the curtain call, we brought on the previous Romeo complete in costume and plaster cast. He had been heart-broken, but in some way this made up for his disappointment.

Theatrically speaking I don't think I have enjoyed myself more, had more satisfaction than with 'Romeo and Juliet' This would not have been the case without the skills, commitment and sheer hard work of the cast, crews and administrative personnel.

Ralph Wigg

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