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Monday, 06 July 2015

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Behind the scenes

GREASE is the word at Whitehaven Theatre Group. Next month, a 25-strong cast will make history when they become one of the first amateur groups in the country to take on the iconic musical.

And when the curtain goes up at Whitehaven Civic Hall on opening night on April 30, it will bring to an end months of gruelling rehearsals, tireless fundraising – and no shortage of old-fashioned elbow ‘grease’.

“It’s all worth it,” says Shaun Donald, WTG’s new chairman and Kenickie in the show. “It’s a great rush – something you can’t explain until you’ve performed in front of an audience. But more important than that, it’s about having fun. Nobody would be here if it wasn’t.”

The process of putting on a show normally takes six months – but that timescale has almost been halved for Grease – which brings with it certain “challenges”, admits Shaun.

“We had been due to do Calamity Jane but found we couldn’t cast it. We already had our slot booked at the Civic (April 30 to May 4), and almost immediately Grease became available to amateur groups for the first time. We grabbed it with both hands.”

The group successfully applied for and then bought the rights to the show’s script and music from Theatrical Rights Worldwide. In the meantime, the committee formed a production team – highly-regarded director Cuth Murphy, choreographers Kayleigh Cullen and Kate Johnstone, stage manager Beth Lawrence and musical director Colin Hoodless – and auditions were advertised.

“We got a great response to the auditions,” said Shaun. “We had two dates in January and had 40 people audition for 17 parts; a good mix of outstanding new faces and established local performers. We had six people try for Rizzo, for example, and we have been able to cast a few newcomers in principal roles.”

The auditions follow an X-Factor-style format, in which hopefuls perform an allocated piece – a mix of words and song – in front of a panel of the production team and committee members.

“We hold open auditions,” said Shaun, “so it’s a transparent process; everyone who wants to can sit in and see everyone audition – although not rivals for the same part – to show that the best person for the role gets it.”

Once the cast is set, exhaustive rehearsals get under way at the group’s Esk Avenue base; routines on Mondays, floor rehearsals on Wednesdays, singing on Fridays, and all coming together on Sundays. As showtime gets closer, rehearsals will increase to “every spare minute,” says Rachel Denwood, Rizzo in the show and WTG’s treasurer.

At the same time, costumes are being sourced by choreographer/costume manager Kayleigh and the set being built or hired by stage manager Beth.

“Every show is different,” says Kayleigh, who plays female lead Sandy, alongside Aron Armstrong’s Danny Zucco. “For Grease, the costumes have been fairly minimal. It’s regular clothing rather than elaborate costumes, so it’s been a bit of vintage shopping and adapting things we or other people already had. Other shows have been more challenging, like Hello Dolly which was all period outfits, or Aladdin, which was tough to get an authentic Chinese-style wardrobe.”

A show costs around £14,000 to put on, earned through a mix of ticket sales, fundraising and sponsorship. The panto is always the most successful of WTG’s three annual shows, and the group would not be able to operate without the profit it makes. They do admit however that they’d like a few more through the door for their other shows, and hope Grease will draw the crowds.

Despite all the hard work and time spent on a show, the members say the benefits of being involved in the group make it all worthwhile – with most current members joining having been initially recommended by a friend.

“We are a really social group, always going out, holding events,” said Rachel. “And it’s a really positive hobby to have; many have gone on to star in musical theatre. Doing something locally is great for the CV, but it’s also enjoyable at the same time.”

Lizzie Reddock, playing Patty Simcox, is a newcomer, having moved from London last year.

“I was a dancer in the panto and this is my second show,” said Lizzie, 18. “I am studying performing arts at college and I would recommend local theatre to anyone as a way of building confidence and meeting people with the same interests.”

At the opposite end of the scale, in terms of experience, is Yvonne Chapman. Although not involved with WTG at present, Yvonne spent almost 30 memorable years with the group.

“Cinderella was my first show, in 1982,” said hairdresser Yvonne. “I took my daughter Jayne (Vincent) to the show as she was playing the part of a rabbit, and they asked me if I would help with people’s hair and it just progressed from there.”

As hairdresser, actor and business/publicity manager, Yvonne was involved with almost every show from then on.

“The first meeting of the society took place in 1970 in the home of Norman Clarkson, now a county councillor, with only a few there, including Bill Gidley, Baxter Shaw, Ted Andrews, Nora Priestly, Dr Douglas Jepson and Chris Jepson.

“The group was initially known as Whitehaven and District Arts Council, but soon changed to Whitehaven Theatre Group and their first show was King’s Rhapsody, in the Civic Hall, on June 29, 1970.

“When I joined, we had two wonderful directors in Chris Hinde and Jack Coan, and a talented musical director Ken Phillips, and I’ve been so lucky to work with some fine people down the years.

“It was wonderful for us as a family; my husband Len has a lovely singing voice, and us, our daughter Jayne and her daughters Victoria, Emily and Sophie, have all been involved with the theatre group at one time.

“We enjoyed doing it together as a family – it’s a good social activity – and I do miss being part of it.”

Equally experienced is Cuth Murphy. Grease, of which he is director, is the 89th show he has been involved with.

Born and bred in Cleator Moor, Cuth studied drama for his teaching diploma, and when he returned home from college in 1966, joined Whitehaven Drama Society. He has worked with all the local groups over the years, including WTG, Copeland Amateur Theatrical Society and Rosehill Players.

“My first role as an actor was as Father Schiller in A Letter From a General at Rosehill in 1967, and the first as a director was Agatha Christie’s By Default, also at Rosehill.

“As a director, I look at things from an actor’s point of view; it’s the words and characters that are most important. For Grease, we have a nice young cast who are enthusiastic and that’s showing. Having fun is such a big plus.”

Concerned members admit that the uncertainty over Whitehaven Civic casts a cloud over the group’s future. But on stage, the future’s clearly bright with the next generation of performers coming through, ensuring plenty more “summer days” for Whitehaven Theatre Group.

Have your say

Can't wait for this musical... Hope the people of Whitehaven and surrounding area support the event!

Posted by Bobs Worth on 15 March 2013 at 14:26

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