Monday, 24 April 2017

Getting Ready for Summer with Quarantine and Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Quarantine present 'Summer. Spring. Autumn. Winter.' at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival - May 13th and May 14th, The Space, Roundtree Way, Norwich.

I have always loved May. And not just because when I was working full-time it meant two Bank Holiday Mondays. In fact, as anyone who works in pharmacy will tell you, we end up doing exactly the same amount of work in those weeks, but in one day less and with twice the stress. No, the reason I love May is that it truly acknowledges that Summer is on its way. The days are longer, the air is warmer and life somehow just seems more wholesome and special.

Four years ago I walked out on my job as manager of a community pharmacy, and for the first three or four months I simply concentrated on getting my head together. Then, at a friend's suggestion, I decided to volunteer to become a part of the 120 strong stewarding team that assembles each year to assist the smooth running of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (NNF). It is an annual arts extravaganza that can trace its beginnings way back to 1772 when it was suggested as a fund-raiser for the original Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. It is now one of the largest annual arts festivals in the country.

During that first year, what I thought would be a standard stewarding and signposting duty turned into an almost life-changing experience. Not only did I throw myself enthusiastically into every shift that I was initially offered, but I ended up doing extra shifts, and attending as many of the shows and performances as possible. It sowed the seeds not only for my return in future years, but for other festival duties, and led to my becoming an all-year-round member of the volunteer front-of-house team at Norwich Arts Centre, and also a writer for Outline, the local listing and review publication. How I ever found time to hold down a full-time job is now a mystery to me.

Whilst many of the volunteer team at NNF are happy to work behind the scenes as driver or runners, or to watch the performances from the sidelines whilst doubling up as stewards, I am always on the look out for opportunities to become more involved with the shows and projects themselves. In my first year, back in 2014, I helped out with the construction of a giant model of St Peter Mancroft church tower made entirely out of cardboard boxes. 'The People's Tower', designed by French artist Olivier Grossetete, was finally assembled underneath the canopy of The Forum in Millenium Plain, before being ceremoniously demolished in front of a huge audience.

2014 - The People's Tower

In 2015 I became a 'firefighter' in theatre company Periplum's outdoor interpretation of the Ray Bradbury book Fahrenheit 451, a spectacular show complete with music and pyrotechnics and performed by the river on a redevelopment site behind St James Court.  I also helped create chaos on the streets of Norwich as part of French company X-TNT's 'De-Driving Code', a slightly anarchic interpretation of our own Highway Code as well as an antidote to rules in general.

2015 - Fahrenheit 451

2015 - 'The De-Driving Code'

Last year, 2016, did not throw any opportunities in my direction to participate in productions, so I threw myself instead into seeing as many shows as possible, in between my stewarding duties. The highlight was undoubtedly festival director William Galinsky's production of William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', performed in the historic Hippodrome Circus at Great Yarmouth, a show which I was able to see not once, but twice, having been charged with escorting audiences in coaches on the trip from Norwich.

2016 - The Tempest

And so to 2017. The volunteer rotas have been released, and I am really excited about being programmed to steward a selection of events, including Theatre Fragile's 'We Meet In Paradise'; IOU's 'Rear View', a moving (literally) show which is part-viewed from the back of a specially-converted double decker bus; and the jazz concert at St Andrews Hall from the Brad Mehldau Trio. I will also be present for both days of the free 'Garden Party' entertainment which is once again taking place in Chapelfield Gardens. 

And I have made sure of my place at the unique chance to see musical legends Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson on stage together at the Theatre Royal. Yes, I have actually bought a ticket for that one! Wild horses were not going to drag me away from the chance of seeing two of my all-time musical heroes perform live in Norwich.

And then there was the small matter of  'Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.' This is an epic 7-hour production from acclaimed Manchester theatre group Quarantine. Performed as a quartet of four seasons, it looks in turn at Life in the now, reflections on Life, preparation for Death itself, and finally the potential of New Life. The call-out for 50 volunteers to come forward and participate in 'Summer' was accompanied by a search for 15 willing women in the various stages of pregnancy prepared to be involved in 'Spring'. Obviously I was ruled out of the latter, but being on stage with a whole bunch of strangers for an hour and a half during 'Summer', without any idea of what to expect, kind of appealed to me, so I threw my name into the hat.

We had our first proper rehearsal on Saturday morning. Just as the shops in Castle Mall were beginning to buzz with customers, the volunteer cast members for 'Summer' were assembling in an empty shop unit within the mall. A couple of people I recognised from previous NNF campaigns, but the rest were, to me, completely new faces. Not that I needed to worry. Richard Gregory and Renny O'Shea, Quarantine's two artistic directors, together with Sonia and Kate from the company, and Tanner and Becky from the festival team, made us all feel very welcome and, once the formal introductions were completed, we all began the important process of the rest of us getting to know one another.

And that seems to be an important factor in being part of the cast for 'Summer'. For the production to work successfully we will, over the next couple of weeks, need to learn about each other in a way that will allow us to function as a cohesive unit, yet leave us with the freedom to behave and perform as individuals. Part of this familiarisation process involves us just chatting informally, including over food - each rehearsal provides the chance for us all to eat together. Richard then leads us in a series of basic non-verbal floor routines that begin to get us accustomed to behaving as a team - one in particular reminded me of the manner in which a murmuration of starlings will form, and change leader, direction, and shape as they amass and swarm in the evening sky.

We have another three rehearsals this week, and then another three in Castle Mall before heading over to The Space, in Roundtree Way for final preparations and then performances on May 10th, 13th and 14th. I do believe that, as I write this, it may still not be too late to apply to join the cast of either 'Spring' or 'Summer'. Anybody interested should get in contact 'asap' with rose@nnfestival.org.uk. Otherwise, put the dates in your diary and buy a ticket to come and see what will surely be an extraordinary piece of work about living, dying and our relationship with time.

To buy tickets go to http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/festival/performance/summer.-autumn.-winter.-spring , or telephone the box office on 01603 766400.

'Summer' - photo from The Stage