Blog Posts

Why volunteer with the National Trust?

My account of why volunteering with the National Trust is a great experience for everyone!

Time is a precious commodity, and all too often we never seem quite sure of how to use it. The demands we make on ourselves, as well as those made by others, strip away the hours until that deadline you were so determined to make came and went without even so much as a “By your leave”.

 

Managing your creative time can be even more difficult. Time is set aside but if the Muse fails to pay you a visit, you end up with very little to show for what feels like more wasted time. I’d like to take a moment to propose a rather radical remedy for these bouts of writer’s block. It has certainly done wonders for me this past year.

Volunteer at a local National Trust property!

Now do spare me a moment of your time, time that I have already acknowledged to be most precious, and let me explain why giving just a smidgeon of your time a week can be such a tonic.

 

First and foremost, you’ll be helping to support an organisation that works tirelessly to preserve much of our cultural heritage. In many cases there are properties that would not exist in the state they do today without the efforts of the National Trust. Take Dyrham Park, for example.

 

Dyrham
Dyrham Park, photo taken by David R Lord.

By the 1950s, the last owner of Dyrham Park was prepared to strip the house of its contents and demolish the house. Luckily it was instead entrusted to the government, with the National Trust taking over the property in 1961. Since then, extensive renovation work has been underway to restore and maintain the house. Most recently the roof has undergone a significant amount of work.

 

Dyrham Park is the ancestral home of the Blathwayts, built by William Blathwayt from 1692 to 1704. Mr. Blathwayt was a very influential man of his time, holding various positions most notably under King William III. Mr. Blathwayt’s ability to speak fluent Dutch made him a great asset to the King, and Dyrham Park was built mainly while Mr. Blathwayt was away accompanying the King on various matters of state.

 

The house contains an extensive collection of Dutch paintings and Delft china. Indeed, the entire house was so decorated as to impress William III on his much anticipated visit to Dyrham Park. A visit that, sadly, never happened. The story goes that after William III’s unexpected death, Mr. Blathwayt hoped that Queen Anne would instead be making a visit to Dyrham Park. Alas, the Queen allegedly so despised her predecessor that all his favourites were shunned, including Mr. Blathwayt. He retired quietly to Dyrham Park where he died in 1717.

 

By and large, Mr. Blathwayt was forgotten by history. It wasn’t really until the National Trust acquired Dyrham Park and after some extensive research that it became clear just how instrumental Mr. Blathwayt had been in reforming the structure of government and theĀ  civil service in England. This, for the moment, concludes why the National Trust is such a vital organisation that needs our support.

 

Now for the slightly more selfish reasons for volunteering. It is a fantastic source of personal inspiration on so many fronts. You get to work in a beautiful setting, learning as you go. You receive induction training, of course, but the true fountain of knowledge comes from your fellow volunteers. People that you may have never known otherwise, sharing their experiences of life in general and their stories about the property. You are altogether surrounded by sources of inspiration, so long as your senses are open to them.

 

Volunteering at Dyrham Park also greatly appealed to the actor in me, or rather the storyteller. What else is an actor if not a storyteller? Learning so much about the history of a place and the people who lived there brings you into contact with stories that you might struggle to find on the GCSE History syllabus. Not grand events on the world stage, but stories of everyday life, of small events that meant big things for the property. Telling these stories to fresh audiences, potentially every few minutes, made me think a great deal about how I go about telling a story.

 

Considering that my partner and I only first visited Dyrham Park early in 2017, I can honestly say that the place has had a significant impact on my life. We received an e-mail about a Volunteer Open Day and out of sheer curiosity I went along. Before I knew it I had signed up for an interview, soon to be followed by induction sessions and was then allowed to monitor rooms in the house all by myself. Interacting with the public, giving them information about the house and it’s history.

 

In short, volunteering with the National Trust is an altogether unique experience. I recommend it to people of all ages. Even if it is something you only do for a short period, I am convinced it will be worth your time.

Alternative Triple Threat?

Reviewing all my creative endeavours of the last month!

Firstly, apologies for the lateness of this blog. November started off fabulously, carried on spectacularly, but then ended with a lousy bout of flu. My intention has always been to write at least one a month, so hopefully I’ll be able to catch up.

 

Now, to the matter at hand. November. Always an exciting month for me as my birthday happens to fall just short of the end of it. Truth be told, I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of excitement for said birthday this year. Maybe it’s one of the pitfalls of passing the 30 year mark, but I’m choosing to believe it was simply because I had so much on last month that my own birthday had to take a back seat.

 

Yes, last month was a whirlwind of creative activity for me. Writing, acting and even directing. I’m calling it the ‘alternative triple threat’, because the traditional definition does not apply to me. I have yet to come across the singing coach that has the patience to tackle my voice and sheer state of tone deafness. Plus, being as tall as I am, keeping my balance when walking is hard enough let alone while trying to dance.

 

November began with the Sodbury Player’s fringe event, ‘One Night Stand’, an evening of comedy sketches performed at Old Sodbury Hall. This was a marvelous event and a great deal of fun for all involved. When it was first proposed, I immediately submitted some comedy sketches that I had written myself for consideration. Discussions for established sketches were already well underway, but I have to admit, the chance to premiere my own attempts at comedic writing was too tempting to resist.

 

Class
Rob Creer, Tim Ball and myself in our rendition of ‘The Class Sketch’.

As I’ve said before, handing your own creative work over to someone else can be scary. It can be ten times as scary when that work is intended to be humorous. What makes one person laugh so hard they’re physically sick may only make another person chuckle. Worst of all for a writer is having a joke or a line fall flat on its face entirely. However, I submitted my sketch anyway. A short, two page deal involving two people. A classic ‘shopkeeper and customer’ set up. The focus of the sketch? The fact that the customer’s pumpkin was not a cucumber.

 

I was extremely glad to enlist Lin Bowden and Nicky Shipton, two wonderful actresses within Sodbury Players, to take on this sketch. Their wealth of performing experience brought the sketch to life, along with some directorial input from Rob Creer, Sodbury Player’s chairperson. We rehearsed the relatively short sketch a few times, I provided basic props (chief of which being the pumpkin) and we were ready to go.

 

Rather absurdly, when the time came on the night for the sketch, I was in the makeshift backstage area of Old Sodbury Hall, also known as the kitchen. It hadn’t quite dawned on me that the rest of the cast were out behind the audience, watching the show. I was out of sight, running over my lines of another sketch while also preparing to host the Improv section of the show (more on that later). Only myself and Mr. Grant McCotter were in the kitchen. Luckily I could hear precisely how our pumpkin sketch was going. A few titters here and there on some lines, but the final kicker at the end delivered mighty guffaws from the audience. As Grant will attest, I was punching the air in celebration backstage. I remain immensely grateful to Lin and Nicky for their hard work and brilliant delivery of my sketch.

 

That’s the writing aspect of the alternative triple threat covered, but let us go off on the promised tangent regarding Improv. The role of hosting the improv games in the second act was pretty much dumped in my lap a few hours before the show was due to start. Making things up as I go along has never been my strong point. I knew I wouldn’t be expected to perform in any of the games, but acting as a host requires making observational banter and jokes. How our wonderful compere for the entire evening, Mr. James Murden (who gave my sketch a lovely introduction) does it is beyond me. I managed to work out an opening joke, something about the points system for the games being akin to Donald Trump’s presidency, then hoped that everything would flow from there. Turns out, it did!

 

It seems that hosting is a performance all in itself. You’re playing yourself, only bigger, more direct. As someone who has chiefly relied on script and rehearsals in the past, it was quite refreshing to discover that I could make a go of hosting even to a small degree. Perhaps that can be added to the alternative triple threat, making it an alternative 3.5 threat? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

 

So, as November progressed after a hilarious night of comedy, I began another first for me. Directing. The third prong in the alternative triple threat. I am currently directing the Sodbury Player’s entry for the Bristol One Act Drama Festival next February. With the support of our amazing group I am slowly discovering what it takes to steer a cast. It certainly isn’t about throwing your weight around, trying to make out you know everything. The message I’m getting loud and clear is that a good director works with their actors, discussing the characters and situations with them. A good director is willing to try new things, taking on board the suggestions of the actors. There are times, of course, when the director has to make a decision or two, but only when it benefits the production as a whole. I have a fantastic cast and rehearsals are going very well indeed!

 

Let us now return, in a roundabout way, to the second prong of the alternative triple threat. Acting. Taking on a character myself and interacting with others is always a great joy. In my opinion acting is very much like sex, the more people that are involved, the more fun it is.

 

Thanks to Rob Creer and Melody Lewis, I had two opportunities to take on two comedic roles very close to my heart. The first being Private Pike from ‘Dad’s Army’, a show I’ve loved ever since I was six. The second, Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo Allo’.

 

 

Dad's Army
Julian Hinton as Corporal Jones, myself as Private Pike, Tim Ball as Captain Mainwaring and Simon Carney as Sergeant Wilson. Photo courtesy of Stage Style Costumes.

 

I was asked many months ago if I’d consider playing these two roles at a pair of 1940’s themed events. After a few rehearsals at the pub and a costume fitting, I was as ready to join this brilliant group as I’d ever be. I’ve been watching ‘Dad’s Army’ for years, yet still found that taking on a character I thought I knew so well wasn’t going to be easy.

“Make the voice higher, David …more whiny.”

However, I am certainly an actor that can take direction. I felt more at home playing Pike than I did Crabtree, mainly because Pike was allowed to be more expressive. Lines such as “Good moaning” and “I was pissing the coffee” have to be delivered completely dead-pan or they lose their impact. Both of these events were tremendous fun, and it is my sincere hope that we’ll be booked to do more in the future!

 

Allo Allo
Roisin Hall as Yvette, Julian Hinton as Rene, myself as Crabtree and Melody Lewis as Edith. Photo courtesy of Stage Style Costumes.

 

All of these events, both singular an ongoing, came together to make November a truly special month for me. Never before have I been able to combine so many things that I love doing, nor indeed do so with such a talented group. I have learnt and continue to learn a great deal about writing, acting and directing. That’s what life is all about, really. Being willing to accept that there is always more for you to learn.

 

To expand and to grow. That is what makes it all worthwhile.

The only thing we have to fear …

It’s that time of year! All Hallow’s Eve is upon us. That glorious holiday when fully grown adults go all out on spooky costumes, and cosplayers like myself moan that we have nothing to wear. In all seriousness, I enjoy Halloween more than Christmas. Sure, Christmas makes you feel all warm and fuzzy but at its core, Halloween acknowledges something vital.

 

Fear.

 

It’s a primal necessity hard-wired into our very beings. A natural response to finding yourself in peril. It gets the heart beating and the adrenaline pumping. There’s the fun kind of fear such as the moment you leap out of your seat during a horror movie, then there’s the not-so-fun kind.

 

The fear of the unknown. The fear of what might happen. Not just to ourselves but to our friends and loved ones. That’s why we have things like Christmas, to celebrate what time we have together and to stave off those fears of unforeseen dangers that could overwhelm us on a daily basis given half the chance. For many people those fears come to pass, which makes the bonds of family and friendship all the more vital. We cherish each other in the good times, support each other through the bad. That’s what being a decent human being is, and it’s how we conquer those fears.

 

Then there is another, sub-section of fear that is to be conquered. The kind of fear that holds us back. I touched upon it briefly in my last blog, concerning how frightening it is to hand your creative work over to someone else. It is tempting to keep our creations to ourselves, to hide them away from any criticism, but if everyone did that the world would be poorer for it.

 

The first thing to acknowledge when you create anything, be it a song, a story, a painting, is that not everyone is going to like it. Some will be well versed in the art of constructive criticism, giving you helpful advise on how you can improve your work while drawing attention to what you’ve done well. That being said, there are also those who will just seek to take a big dump on what you’ve done. Nothing constructive, no insight, just a deliberate effort to tear someone down. In this day and age it is usually done anonymously, hiding behind a username and an avatar.

 

Sadly we are never going to live in a world where people don’t do such things. There are those who say that if you can’t take criticism of any kind, you shouldn’t put your work out there in the first place. Don’t go to that audition, the director will hate what you do and tell you so. Don’t submit that story, nobody wants to read it and if they do they’ll hate it. That’s the fear talking.

 

We can encourage people to be kinder by all means, but the truth is there will always be people who just want to tear others down for various reasons. The trick to getting over the fear of criticism is not to silence the critics, but to filter it. Find the constructive and take it on board. Seek out your fellow creatives and share what you have so that we may all grow. Take pride in the courage it took to share your work with the world.

 

Now, that being all said and done, let’s all go eat candy until we’re sick.

 

Happy Halloween!

 

 

“The author’s on set …”

“Which of your characters is your favourite?”

The question I dread being asked the most. It’s very much akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child. Now I know I don’t have children but that’s not the point. The point is that characters spend a long time forming in the mind of the author, often long before any writing has begun. Even then, the characters are growing and changing as the author sets to work. A character is moulded into an individual, with their own wants, drives and fears. You put in a lot of hard work to make them what they are, for better or worse, yet sometimes they seem to take on a life of their own. Very much like being a parent.

 

So, let us skip ahead. The story is written, the characters are all formed, everything is done. It’s scary enough when you hand your work over to someone else to read. All these characters, these scenarios, these twists and surprises have been confined to your mind up until this point. Now you send them off into the wide world hoping people will like them. Again, very much like being a parent.

 

Everyone has their own view of any given character. The words on the page give us guidelines, but even the most intricately crafted character is open to interpretation. How does it feel then, as an author, when you hand over your character to someone for them to actually embody? For them to portray on screen or stage for others to see? I got my first taste of this sensation this past summer, with the creation of the promotional trailer for ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’.

It came about after a conversation with Mr. Rob Creer, the current chairman of Sodbury Players, a fine group that I joined earlier this year. We decided which parts of the book to adapt, cast it and filmed it over two sunny days in Yate and Chipping Sodbury. I was entirely in charge of casting, being happy to leave the intricacies of filming in the capable hands of Mr. Creer.

 

Now of course it’s quite unusual for an author to be given such direct control over who gets to play the characters they created. When books get made into massive, big-budget films, casting ultimately gets put in the hands of various producers. The joy and challenge of doing this adaptation on a smaller scale was having the freedom to cast the piece myself.

 

First of all, it’s worth noting that at no point did I ever plan to take on any particular character myself. I cannot imagine just how blurred the lines between character and creator would become if I had decided to do that. Having nursed these characters in my head for so long, to physically step into their shoes might just cause me to go mad. Nope, better ultimately to trust my creations in the hands of others.

 

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The three main characters, Thomas Llewellyn, his brother Isaac, and their cousin Emily Reed were actually among the last to be cast. Thomas, the story’s main protagonist, was played by Kirk Clifford, while Isaac was played George Pugh. Both are members of the Sodbury Players Youth Section (known as SPYS) and I’d seen them in the SPYS production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ just a few weeks before filming. Particularly with George, watching him on stage I felt an almost otherworldly sense, a voice in my head saying “This kid is your Isaac.” Seeing the way that he and Kirk interacted as a pair of squabbling brothers fighting over a phone (above), I knew that voice was right. Instinct, or divine intervention?

 

Speaking of faith, I took a leap of the same when it came to casting Molly Coventry as Emily, the Llewellyn’s book-loving younger cousin. The character is nine years old so finding someone to play her was always going to be tricky. Initially the plan might have been to cast one of the younger looking girls in the SPYS and suspend disbelief. Then, as chance would have it, I got a message saying that the granddaughter of Stan Ward (who was cast as the Bogeyman) was interested. I’d signed a copy of the book for young Molly some time before at Stan’s request. I cast her quite blindly, schedules being what they were, I wouldn’t be able to meet with her until the second day of the shoot. Considering her lack of experience with filming, she did extremely well and as it turned out, had both read and thoroughly enjoyed the book. She knew the character inside out, bringing across the level-headed demeanour that had always been my intention for Emily.

 

All in all, I could not have asked for a better trio to play these vital characters.

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Now we come to the more unusual characters, and they don’t get more unusual than a Bogeyman. Stan and I had only just recently appeared in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ together. Despite not working together on stage, we spent a great deal of time chatting in the changing room. A vastly experienced actor, he himself did the make up around his eyes after I said the Bogeyman should have a ‘sunken eye’ kind of look. I helped apply the baby lotion to give his face a wet and slimy look.

 

He certainly looked the part, but even more so when the cameras started to roll. He had taken on board what I said about the voice of the Bogeyman being raspy and had ran with it. This vaguely human-like creature, this particular interpretation of the classic Bogeyman, had leapt from my mind and was standing before me. All down to the hard work of one actor taking direction from me, the author. As this was the scene that we filmed first, this was my first taste of how it felt to create a character for a fellow actor to inhabit. That strange but good feeling of sharing something so personal was only to get stronger.

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I entrusted the portrayal of two of the most important and fanciful characters to a pair of actors I’d worked with directly on stage. Simon Carney was to take on the part of Belactacus, a manifestation of organized thoughts and the Librarian to the Library that holds all books.

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Whereas the part of Torvik, a member of the Council of Reality, was to go to Grant McCotter. Both Grant and Simon have a great deal of experience both on stage and in front of a camera, yet to have these great actors turning to me to help get the finer points of the characters across was a feeling unlike any other.

 

We’re always taught that it’s good to share, and it really is. To share something that you’ve created can take a lot of courage. We face possible ridicule and rejection, yet the risk can offer up so many fantastic rewards. This collaboration on those two sunny days was one of the greatest rewards I’ve had so far ever since the book itself was published. To not only see my characters brought to life but to be so closely consulted at every step was an experience not many authors get.

 

Ultimately whenever an adaptation is made from stage to screen, some elements may be changed. Having the author on set might be a nightmare scenario where this is concerned, but not in this case. As an actor I appreciate that film is an entirely different animal to books. The written word may, arguably, allow for more descriptive detail, but on film you have to actually make it happen.

 

Working on this trailer with such a wonderful group of friends was, without a doubt, a fantastic experience. They’ve all been told it often enough, but I’ll say it again now. Everyone involved in this is bursting with talent and I could not be more grateful that they gave their time to this project. A big thank you to you all!

 

The video can be seen and shared on YouTube here.

Facebook page for Ello Dave Media, who filmed the trailer, here.

 

 

First blog post …here we go!

No turning back now!

Well, I’d been threatening to do it for long enough, so here it is! A blog.

I’ll be touching on various topics to do with writing, maybe a dash of acting thrown in here and there as they’re both very close to my heart. They form a symbiotic relationship as far as I’m concerned. One compliments the other.

Although maybe that’s just me.