Just So Busy!

A little attempt to excuse my absence from the blog and an update on what’s been going on!

My deepest apologies, to myself first and foremost, and then to anyone who might be reading. It’s been two months since I last blogged. When I began this I promised myself I would strive to write an entry at least once a month. As June and July came and went there were times when I thought to myself “Must write something before the month is out”, but something else always managed to pop up and demand my attention.

 

The other problem is the agony of choice. Deciding what to blog about has proved to be a task in itself. This entry is a little attempt at breaking the cycle and giving a general update as to what’s been going on and what is to come!

 

Acting wise, rehearsals for Sodbury Players’ production of ‘The Audience’ by Peter Morgan have been going very well indeed, with just over a month until opening night. We believe we may be the first amateur group in the UK to put on this production and it has already been attracting high ticket sales. I strongly urge anyone who’s looking to see this production not to wait too long before securing your tickets! I’ve also been kept busy with rehearsals for our rendition of ‘George and the Dragon’, a piece of street theatre we put on for the Sodbury 800 celebrations. This was an enjoyable piece, a mini-pantomime as it were, with plenty of slapstick and mildly suggestive humour! I’ve also been writing a One Act play, though this is very much in the early stages.

 

Speaking of writing, work on the second installment of ‘The Figment Wars’ continues apace. There was a point where it could be a coin toss that decided which I was going to proof read on a given night, the One Act or the manuscript. I have been greatly touched by all the enquiries as to when this second installment will be published, and rest assured that as soon as I know, you all will!

 

My marketing endeavours have been revamped, with new leaflets advertising my school workshops on the way. I’ve also put in an order for custom made stickers, to be used at various events. If there’s one thing that several years of working with children has taught me, it’s that everyone loves a sticker!

 

Many events are on the horizon, the most recently announced is Em Con Derby, where I’ll be at table 21 selling and signing copies of ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’. This event will represent the furthest afield I’ve been so far to sell and promote my book. Having done an Em Con before, I am greatly looking forward to this one!

 

All in all, I have been very busy striving to bring ‘The Figment Wars’ to new readers. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little blog, this little attempt to make excuses for my absence. Hopefully next time it will be a great deal more focused!

‘Private Peaceful’ by Michael Morpurgo: An Actor’s Review

A review of Sodbury Player’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’

It hardly feels like a week since the curtain fell for the final time on Sodbury Player’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’. Several members of the cast, including myself, have expressed a deep sense of loss after finishing this show that goes beyond the normal ‘post-show blues’. Be advised, this review contains spoilers.

 

‘Private Peaceful’ is a novel by Michael Morpurgo, author of ‘War Horse’. He tells the story of two brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, and how their lives are torn apart by the outbreak of war. Having both fallen in love with their childhood friend, Molly, their relationship is put to the test when Molly becomes pregnant with Charlie’s child. When the recruiting sergeant comes to town, Tommo lies about his age and joins up along with Charlie. From there, the horrors of the Western Front push them closer together again, until the tragic conclusion of their story.

 

The stage play for an ensemble was adapted by Simon Reade, and the task of directing our production was taken up by the wonderfully talented duo that is Ross Brown and Maggie Allsopp. The cast itself consisted of over thirty performers, with several people (myself included) taking on multiple roles. Lots of rapid costumes changes were involved! The set was minimal and lighting was used to incredible effect, along with many dramatic sequences placed into the play by the directors to ease transitions between scenes.

 

The play starts with Tommo (played by Sam Frankcom in his stunning debut leading a show) in a cell. Tommo acts as a kind of narrator, taking the audience through memories of his childhood in Devon all the way up to the events in 1916 which led to the death of his brother, Charlie (powerfully played by Ross Arnott). Each scene is almost self contained, acting as an individual memory. It was the inspired imagination of our directors that allowed the scenes to flow into each other to create the overall story. The story, as I’ll soon make clear, was central to all our efforts as a company.

 

Michael Morpurgo has never been one to shy away from the aspects of history that some would rather not discuss. The fact that the British army shot more of their own men than any other nation during the First World War, for example. These men were executed by firing squad for perceived cowardice, desertion and some for simply sleeping at their posts. The term that was coined after the war was ‘shell shock’, but let me be blunt. These men were traumatised. Over the last hundred years we have slowly come to recognise this, the British government only granting these men posthumous pardons in 2006. Overwhelmed by a horrific conflict, the scale of which had never been seen before at that time, these men should have received support and care. Instead, the seemingly obvious course of action for the time was to brand them cowards and have them shot.

 

This was a mentality that I had to do my utmost to get across onstage. In the first act I had three different roles, but after the interval I only had one to contend with. Sergeant ‘Horrible’ Hanley. We first see him during Tommo and Charlie’s basic training, where the Sergeant takes a dislike to Charlie for his apparent lack of discipline and proceeds to make an example of him, shouting and bawling at every opportunity. He also attempts to get to Charlie through Tommo, punishing Tommo with laps around the parade ground. When Tommo collapses and Charlie rushes to help his brother, Hanley loses it big time and has Charlie tied to the wheel of a gun carriage. As you can no doubt tell, Hanley is not a pleasant person.

 

In discussing the character of Hanley, it was clear to myself and the directors that he was a professional soldier of the time. Many soldiers would have resented the necessity of bringing in raw recruits, men and indeed boys who otherwise would not have been suited to army life. We decided that in his view, Hanley was being tough on these new recruits in an attempt to toughen them up, for he knew better than most just what kind of horrors were ahead of them. I took the view that while these were Hanley’s motives, he attached no sentimentality to these new recruits. He was a soldier and a soldier can die at any moment. That was his reality. A soldier also obeys orders, and to be faced with a soldier who disobeyed orders flew in the face of Hanley’s reality.

 

We now get to the crux of the story. During an attack, Tommo is badly injured. Charlie manages to pull him into a crater, where one of their friends, Pete, another soldier and Sergeant Hanley are taking shelter. When the signal comes to advance and press the attack, Hanley jumps to his feet, expecting the others to follow. When they do not, he is infuriated. When Charlie Peaceful pipes up and explains that he will not leave his brother behind, Hanley is apoplectic. He makes it clear to Charlie that failure to obey his orders will mean death by firing squad, but when this fails to motivate Charlie, Hanley contemplates shooting Charlie himself. In our production, I actually point my rifle at young Ross Arnott, and the looks of fear on Ross and Sam’s faces are gripping. This, however, is not the end.

 

Hanley leaves them in the crater, where Charlie stays to look after his brother and makes him promise to look after Molly should the worst happen. Hanley survives the attack and returns to the crater to take Charlie into custody. The scene smoothly transitions back to the cell, only now it’s Charlie’s cell. The audience has been led to believe that it is Tommo facing the firing squad, when all along he has been contemplating the fate of his beloved brother. There is an intense scene between the two as they have their final conversation, superbly acted by both Sam and Ross.

 

In the original script, an unnamed guard comes to take Charlie away offstage, gives the order and gunshots are heard, all offstage. Our directors were having none of that. Firstly they had Hanley be the one to lead Charlie away and take him to a post at the centre of the stage. I have no shame in admitting that from technical rehearsal onwards, having to physically wrench Charlie and Tommo away from each other broke my heart, so powerful were Sam and Ross’ performances. However, my character had to remain stone-hearted. For him, this was another day at the office. Another coward who needed to be made an example of.

 

We staged the entire execution there onstage. I offer Charlie a blindfold, then shrug when he refuses. I then pin a white square of fabric to his shirt. A target over his heart. I then march away and await my cue to give the order. “Present. Ready. Aim. Fire”. Four words. Four little words that, for me, were harder to deliver onstage than any lengthy monologue. These would have been the last words these men heard.

 

At the end, every member of the cast joins us onstage. As we turn to face Charlie, the Last Post is played. Then, ever so slowly, poppies begin to fall from the ceiling. The feedback we had from the audience every night was overwhelming, and every last bit of praise for our cast and team was well deserved. We truly bonded during this production, coming together to tell a powerful story that needed to be told.

 

I am aware that it is overwhelmingly easy to look back and judge the mentality of the past. Issues such as mental health and trauma simply weren’t discussed. It wasn’t part of the national identity. However, the fact remains that we, as a nation, shot over 300 men and then effectively dismissed their deaths for decades afterwards. As I said, these men were traumatised. Beyond horrified by weapons, conditions and methods of warfare that had never been seen before. Technology advanced too quickly to meet a conflict that happened simply because tensions had reached a breaking point in Europe. Nations squared up to each other and formed teams, all ready for a scrap that would be over by Christmas. A scrap that lasted four years and cost millions of lives.

 

We honour the fallen and rightly so, and I am grateful for the fact that we now acknowledge and honour the men who fell at our own hands.

Em Con Worcester 2018

A quick review of my day selling and signing at Em Con Worcester

Slightly belated, I’ll admit, but here’s a nice quick blog reflecting on a brilliant day selling and signing at Em Con Worcester!

 

First of all, it’s always a joy to return to Worcester. It was where I studied to become a teacher and I have many fond memories of the city. I also have some hazy memories of my first year, mostly Fresher’s Week I believe. Truth be told, on returning to Worcester I found it wonderfully eerie to walk those familiar streets and feel as though I’d only been away for a weekend, whereas in reality it has been several years.

 

Now, to the convention itself!

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I arrived with about forty minutes to spare before the doors opened, which was fine given that I only had a certain amount of things to set up. Barring a minor disaster transferring my books from car to stall (I’m never trusting collapsible boxes again), I was rather pleased with how my stall was looking. The roller banner saw its first event, and although it made the table look a bit uneven all there on its own, I’m confident it will soon be joined by another banner.

 

The definite highlight of the set up was John Rhys Davies, coming around to every stall before the event opened with a word of greeting. I’ve not yet done many of these events from this side of the trader table, but I can certainly say that this was a great surprise. John Rhys Davies is a true gentleman, making time for everyone at these events.

 

The doors were flung open and the crowds let in. Over the course of the day I talked to some lovely people, handed out many business cards and, of course, sold a few books. I even had a repeat customer from another event enquiring as to when the sequel will be out! Rest assured, as soon as I know, you will all know! Suffice to say I left the event with considerably fewer copies of ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’ than I came with (which is just as well, considering my storage box broke on the way in).

 

All in all, this was a very good event. A strong start for Em Con in Worcester and I sincerely hope that it will become a regular occurrence.

Review: ‘Take Back the Skies’

My review of ‘Take Back the Skies’ by Lucy Saxon.

This is not the usual story of ‘girl disguises as boy to make it in a man’s world’. This is something altogether much bigger.

 

*Be warned, some mild spoilers ahead!*

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is the first novel in the Tellus series by Lucy Saxon and was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. The second and third installments are currently available. I’ve decided to start at the beginning of the series for my first book review because, not only is the beginning a very good place to start, but this book grabbed me firmly by the insides and twisted (in a good way!).

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is the story of Catherine Hunter, later known simply as ‘Cat’. The daughter of a high ranking government official, Cat is seemingly destined for a forced and miserable marriage. She decides to take matters into her own hands, disguising herself as a boy and stowing away on a skyship, the appropriately named Stormdancer. She is soon discovered by the crew and is accepted, but her adventures lead to a dark discovery at the very heart of the government.

 

One of the first things that really grabbed my attention about this story is just how early Cat’s disguise as a girl is discovered. I’ve no wish to go into too much detail about the circumstances for fear of spoiling it, but the reveal comes relatively early. This struck me as very refreshing, as it meant that everything Cat does afterwards is as a young woman. Her ideas, her passion and her abilities are accepted by the other characters when they know the truth. This flies in the face of the usual story of girls having to pretend to be men to get ahead and accomplish great things, to then reveal themselves at the end. This was a surprising and welcome departure from such devices.

 

The creation of the skyships, the only means of transport across the storm ravaged seas that lie between the islands that make up the world of Tellus, is a truly brilliant idea. They invoke images of classic adventuring, combining the pioneer spirit with traces of modern technology. The Stormdancer is superbly described, making you feel very much at home as you follow on Cat’s journey.

 

The crew of the Stormdancer consists of the captain, his wife and three young men. As supporting characters they do just that, support Cat in her adventures, yet they are each of them a unique creation that come together to invoke feelings of comradery and family. The antagonist of the story is just as brilliantly created, stoking feelings of revulsion and intense hatred. I won’t go any further into the identity of the villain of this piece for fear of bigger spoilers!

 

Now we come to the gut twisting moment. Without giving too much away, Cat stumbles upon a government plot that involves young children. It is established early on that the Anglyan government has been forcibly recruiting thirteen-year-old children to fight in an ongoing war, but the truth is even more terrible. Cat discovers this truth for herself, and the passages that describe the details were the ones that got to the very core of my being. Without descending to gore, Lucy Saxon creates a situation that is utterly horrifying both for the heroine and the reader. I can honestly say that these are the sort of subtle yet sharp images that make their way into your nightmares. However, I wouldn’t have passed up reading it for the world!

 

‘Take Back the Skies’ is certainly no fairy tale. It has moments of harsh reality that strike the characters hard and fast. Such is life. I always appreciate an author that is prepared to put their characters through such hardships. One of the first rules of story writing is to almost never give your characters what they want. Giving them precisely the opposite is the best way to ensure that your reader is hooked, and Lucy Saxon has achieved that in abundance.

 

Lucy Saxon is a full time author living in Hertfordshire. She is a keen cosplayer and can often be seen on the convention circuit either signing books, displaying her latest costume creation, but usually she does both! I fully recommend ‘Take Back the Skies’, a gripping adventure full of unexpected and gut-punching turns!

 

Check out Lucy Saxon’s website here!

 

 

World Book Day 2018

My thoughts for World Book Day this year!

It’s that time of year again! World Book Day is almost upon us. That one day we set aside to appreciate the books we enjoy. Though frankly that should be the sort of thing we do on the other 364 days of the year too. That’s my prevailing opinion, but it certainly doesn’t mean I eschew the idea of World Book Day. Let me clarify a few thoughts.

 

Having one day declared a day for books does not mean that we have to ignore these wonderful little collections of words bound to paper for the rest of the year. Indeed, schools all across the world regularly look to children’s books for inspiration in their lesson and activity planning. Almost any book can act as a link across the curriculum. Reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle with a young class not only encourages counting but links into minibeast hunts, life cycles as well as learning about fruit. At the older end of the spectrum, I recall in-depth discussions on the subject of racism, past and present, brought on by our class reading ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’ by Mildred D. Taylor.  Stories bring all sorts of subjects into the classroom and act as a catalyst for further learning whatever the time of year.

 

That being said, I still believe in the importance of World Book Day. Used properly it can be a vital tool for the promotion of reading for enjoyment to children. A day of fun activities where children can bring in, read and discuss their favourite book is something to build up and look forward to. It was first marked and celebrated in 1995, and even I vaguely recall the introduction of free book tokens being introduced at that time. It didn’t take long for the idea of dressing up as book characters to come around, but by the time it had caught on in Primary schools I was firmly in Secondary school. It wasn’t really until I started my training as a Primary school teacher in 2005 that I became fully aware of the excitement it generated.

 

The cosplayer in me fully embraces the notion of dressing up as your favourite character. However, this year it has become abundantly clear that high streets shops are offering ready made fancy dress costumes designed for World Book Day. I can’t help but feel a little uneasy at what looks very much like the commercialisation of World Book Day, but then it could be argued that that’s how the economy works. Books themselves aren’t given out for free at the shops.

 

I appreciate that not everyone will have the time or resources to put together a costume from scratch, but I do feel that planning a costume with your child and working on it together must be a more fulfilling experience than simply buying one. That, of course, links in to a raging debate in the cosplay community regarding whether costumes that are bought count as cosplay (it is my opinion that they certainly count). Steering back to World Book Day, what is most important is that it is fun for the children.

 

Whether their costume is bought or homemade, to have fun as their favourite character and to engage with books is paramount. We read as adults because we enjoy it, and the excitement of World Book Day can help to create a lasting impression in children’s minds. A single, simple truth that will set them on a path of discovery and enlightenment.

 

Reading is fun.

 

Have a fantastic World Book Day, whatever your plans are!

Research: Into the Minds of Tyrants

My view on how best to manage your approach to research for a new writing project.

Research is something professional writers do. I know, I’ve heard them say so. Trouble is, we don’t all have hours upon hours to pour over endless reams of material. This is why research takes time, and new writers should not be put off by the thought of it.

 

I recently decided to start putting together a new project, something entirely separate from ‘The Figment Wars’. It’s another fantasy, certainly, and some might ask why does a fantasy novel require research? Surely you just use your imagination? That, after all, was the main basis for ‘The Figment Wars’. An entire world populated by figments of human imagination, where the rules are entirely subject to my whim as a writer. The best fantasies, however, have roots in the real world.

 

This new project currently revolves around a key character. A tyrant. A despotic ruler loved by his supporters, loathed by his enemies, feared by both. I wanted to delve into what makes a tyrant. My specific focus at this early stage is how they come to be a tyrant. How they rise to power, how they keep it, and how they usually lose it. It’s a dynamic that has always fascinated me, so before putting finger to keyboard and actually starting this new story, I’ve been busying myself with research.

 

Research isn’t easy when working a full time job, but it can be done. Ultimately it depends on how you learn best. How you absorb information that’s presented to you. This is where my teacher training kicks in and we look briefly at the three main learning styles;

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic

In a nutshell, it’s what it says on the tin. Visual learners learn best by watching, auditory learners through listening, and kinesthetic learners through doing.

 

I can almost hear my past lecturers and colleagues yelling “It’s not as simple as that, David!” They’d be right, of course. These learning styles often crossover in many people in various combinations, and ultimately everybody takes in information in their own way. It’s rare that anybody favours one learning style entirely above the others. Knowing how you as an individual learn best can be a great tool when it comes to your approach to research.

 

I began my research by finding documentaries on YouTube and iPlayer that pertain to the individuals I wished to learn about. Making time to watch/listen to them isn’t as difficult as you may think. I found I took in a great deal from having them play while I was dealing with a mountain of ironing, or indeed relaxing in the bath. Doing the washing up is another good time to have them on, as it can be surprising what useful nuggets of information seep in while you’re focused on a daily task.

 

Obviously this is not a substitute for more extensive research, but it is a good way to manage your time effectively and help you decide what to focus on. If it hadn’t been for the documentaries I’d listened to while scrubbing lasagna remnants from my plate, I might never have decided to purchase a copy of ‘The Prince’ by Niccolò Machiavelli as my first text of choice on the subject of power. This gradual and well managed approach to research has allowed me to focus better rather than just diving in blindly to a text book that may prove to be of little or no use.

 

In this particular case, researching the origins of various tyrants warrants caution and moderation. I’ve been dipping into the mindsets and actions of the likes of Caligula, Gengis Kahn and Stalin so far, and at this point dipping is all that’s recommended. Dive in the deep end too quickly and you may not be able to come up for air.

 

So, there you have it folks. My little guide to managing your research time. I do hope it’s proved useful. Now, do please excuse me, I’m off to muse on the pursuit of power as seen by a 16th century Italian diplomat considered by many to be the personification of evil.

 

Wish me luck!

 

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 the  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.