From Zoom to Room & Nostalgia in Bristol

Yesterday I went back in time 44 years to the meeting room in Bristol University Students Union where I first worked on stage management for Bristol Dramsoc. This weekend I was there to sit in a circle with 25 inspiring and aspiring creative practitioners who are determined to make theatre going forward in their lives. Writing, producing, filmmaking, technical and production design, standup, Shakespeare, international work and making people cry were just some of the career paths for these Bristol Uni students. They had been gathered by Dramsoc and the STA (Stage Technicians Association) both of which I was a proud member all those years ago.  

In my day we also invited guests to visit Bristol and share ideas. I brought West End producer John Gale for whom I’d been a tea boy the summer before (No Sex Please We’re British, the works of Terence Rattigan and later director of Chichester Festival Theatre) and Eric Thompson (dad of Emma Thompson, but more importantly the director of many of the orginal West End Alan Ayckbourn plays and the Magic Roundabout) – who better to give a workshop to a company from Dramsoc. I did write to Sir Alec Guinness and got a lovely note back: “Who would be interested in listening to me?” – what a polite way to say No. 

We were then, and are now, sometimes missing a trick. Student societies reach out to the great and the good, but forget the alum of their own society and uni. We may not be famous but we arrive in the building with a sense of joy to be back, and wonder at how little anything has changed. For those interested from my era, the Winston Theatre is exactly the same backstage. Absolutely nothing seems to have changed. The auditorium has had new seats over the last 40 years, but it is still off centre and with the same offset follow spot perches, Good to be back as they were setting up for OpSoc’s Die Fledemaus in the same space we did Marriage of Figaro all those years ago. 

As I was delivering the 2hr workshop picking up on so many great Agenda items they asked to be explored, I was peppering the chat with some of the people I knew who were at Bristol and now worked in particular fields which could be most useful to aspiring next generation makers. I had also been online in the morning checking in with some of my old colleagues, and even getting photographs sent through from that same first show I did with Dramsoc – Beauty and the Beast, where I met Helen playing the Beast with great elegance, and Greg who became a partner in many projects as well as Helen and my best man – quite apart from becoming a globally recognised director. Many faces in the pic I can’t place, but now I will check back the programme and do some google searching. 

So a few recommendations to anyone who has ever been to school, college or university – and to those who are there today. If you have a vocation or already have a career, look back and forwards to those who have something in common with you. Those who know the same playground or studio theatre or city/street as you. We have walked there before you. You will walk different paths and the world is different. But don’t forget that you can reach back and reach forward to give or take a helping hand along the way. 

This morning I connected back by email with the 25 at my session yesterday and I am already getting fascinating updates and great comments, plus some quick questions or requests for pointers. A few of us who are EdFringe festival regulars are thinking of holding a session during August 2022 Festival somewhere in Edinburgh where those who I met yesterday who are bringing shows up, and others from Bristol, can meet a few people producing, playing, programming and just watching shows who were at Bristol before them. The connections we can make between our peers and with those who have had similar experiences are so valuable in support for the future.  

Tomorrow I am in Durham by zoom for a similar workshop. My sixth visit either on the ground or in the cloud to the Theatre societies of the University. The agenda will be different, but the themes will be the same. How do we make stuff happen ? How do we build our own confidence ? Who could/should I talk to and will they actually want to talk to me ? and is theatre/arts and producing a career ? Yes Producing is a Proper Job honest. [As is being a technical manager or a lighting designer or the myriad other jobs which are short of amazing people to fill the roles] 

My tour continues on Zoom for first time visits to Cork and Essex Unis this month. These workshops are always a delight to do – but even better when you can start it with a walk up the street where you lived 40 years ago and finish it with a quiet coffee/pint in the stage door pub which has changed hands but not atmosphere – welcoming as ever. 

If you’d like to join a Producing – Proper Job – Honest workshop then the next open one is 4-6pm Thur 10th March on Zoom – or if you are a Uni / Society or network group with people wondering about career pathways into the business of showbiz then just get in touch and we can try and make a date happen.

Have a great career, and do reach back to offer a helping hand, and reach forward to those who may be doing a proper job already.  They’re also probably still ‘faking it till they make it’ too

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