I’ve known Natalie McGrath for eight years now, since she taught me AS-Level Film Studies, and have always admired the passion and enthusiasm she brings to any project. So last summer, when she first told me about Dreadnought South West, and asked me if I’d like to be involved, I immediately, and very excitedly, said YES.
Since then, I’ve played a small role in helping to promote Dreadnought via social media but, due to issues regarding my disability and care, I’ve been unable to take part in the 'bigger picture'. That is, until last Friday, when I was invited to a rehearsal of Oxygen at Exeter Phoenix.
I’ve not been to a theatrical rehearsal since my long-ago days of studying Drama and, as I opened the door to the Phoenix’s Auditorium, I was hit with the most amazing sense of nostalgia for a medium I’d found so therapeutic; along with a strong whiff of stale beer – nothing to do with Dreadnought! Two of the cast, Rachel Rose Reid and Carolyn Tomkinson, were rehearsing one of the three songs featured in Oxygen, with the Musical Director, Claire Ingleheart, while playwright Natalie proudly watched over them from the sidelines.
Natalie introduced me, and my enabler Ally, to the cast and Claire, all of whom were very lovely and welcoming, and we then settled in to watch the brilliance of Oxygen and its performers. The morning was largely made up of song rehearsals. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, or musical theatre, probably because I haven't had much exposure to it, but hearing the girls’ voices live, particularly when they came together as a harmony, genuinely gave me goosebumps. I ended up with the songs well and truly stuck in my head for at least the next 48 hours and, when I saw my enabler yesterday, she said that, like me, she was still singing them!
Following a few run-throughs of each song, and in the last 20 minutes before we took a lunch break, Claire asked the actors to read the scene immediately before one of the songs known as 'Lament', so that she could get a sense of its voice, and how it fitted into the emotion of the play. This scene, performed by Michelle Ridings and Carolyn, involved Carolyn's character; a suffragist, trying to persuade Michelle's character; her lover, trapped in an abusive marriage, to join her on the pilgrimage. Just reading the words on the page is moving enough, but watching them perform really was amazing. Particularly as, from where I sat, I could see that Carolyn was becoming increasingly emotional as she read the scene – whether this was intentional or not, I'm unsure – but, like yawning, crying can be contagious, and by the time the cast began singing the 'Lament', most of us were weeping! I tend to judge things on whether they can reduce me to tears, as I think it's the mark of great writing and acting to be able to influence and change a spectator's mood – especially when said spectator is quite hardcore! Moreover, when an actor is so visibly moved by the script, not only is it a sign of great writing, but of incredible acting talent too; the ability to shut out the real world, and completely lose yourself within what’s ultimately a fantasy, while believing in that world and the characters in it, takes a lot of skill and imagination. So, basically, it bodes well that Oxygen made me sob!
After a 'working' lunch with Natalie, director Josie Sutcliffe and Waymarker artist Nicci Wonnacott, it was back to rehearsals, this time upstairs in one of the Phoenix's drama studios. Beginning with a couple of warm-up exercises – including running around as cats and 'mouses' (cue more student nostalgia) – the cast recording themselves singing the songs that they had practised throughout the morning; nobody cried this time. This was followed by a read-through of some of the 'Newsies’; the suffragettes would take to the road (it was illegal for them to stand on the pavement) to sell newspapers with stories of their cause. It was really interesting to listen to these; like taking a step back 100 years in history.
Unfortunately, this is where my time at the Phoenix had to end, although I could easily have stayed all day, and come back again the next; and for every rehearsal after that! I'm really excited to see Oxygen when it's finished, and am already planning on which performance(s) to go and see. I haven't stopped talking about my day last Friday to everyone I've spoken to since, as well as on twitter, and was really pleased when Natalie asked me to write a blog post about it, so that I could share what a brilliant day I had and, hopefully, give you all a sense of the magic that is Oxygen.
Katie Newstead / 30th May 2013