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ONE STEP BEYOND! No.2 – Miller Centre Theatre Company

ONE STEP BEYOND! No.2 – Miller Centre Theatre Company

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The Pen is Mightier Than the S-Word

by Keith Orton

The Miller Centre Theatre in Caterham, Surrey

Coming out of our third lockdown feels like a good time to reflect upon some of the positive things that have come out of this pandemic for amateur theatre and specifically the Miller Centre Theatre Company. The S-word in the title refers to the shutdown. Like most Little Theatre Groups, we had to shut our doors in March last year, forcing us to look for ways of keeping morale and momentum up for our actors and our audiences. I found myself as part of this ‘want’ to keep going.

After leaving full-time employment as a senior lecturer at Central School of Speech and Drama in 2011 I was able to consider aspects of my theatre profile that had, as yet, been unfulfilled. One of these aspects was playwriting. I had dabbled years ago but gave it up to pursue theatre design as my career. Then, sometime around 2011 I stumbled across the Miller Centre Theatre [Caterham, Surrey] and became a member. Initially this was to carry on with my design work and to tread the boards again, but I also began to rediscover my interest in writing. This was nurtured through attending several courses at City Lit in Central London. Keen to share my experience and to develop new writing within the company we set up a small playwriting group which met twice a month. It had started to develop nicely and we were beginning to test some of our writing through play-readings, both within our little group and by casting our actors in more open readings. No-one knew what was on the horizon for the theatre, or how important this group was about to become.

As soon as the first lockdown was announced theatre members quickly agreed to the idea of writing and filming their own monologues. These would be open to all members whether they had previous writing experience or not. I put myself forward to lead this; helping members develop their writing, providing feedback, casting and organising post-production work to get the monologues ready for release. At the time this was full of unknowns. Would there be a decent take-up? Would our actors be able to direct and film themselves using a variety of home devices such as phones and laptops? Would any be worth publishing?

An email went out and scripts started to come in. First a few, mainly from the writing group, then more people caught on to the idea that they could write something and the concept snowballed. We started publishing them on our website and our YouTube channel in the middle of April 2020 and they went out every three days till the end of June. Fifty monologues on the theme of ‘Keeping in Touch’. I know on a personal level, this was what got me through the isolation of lockdown. I think for a lot of people it was cathartic; either a way to release inner feelings or as a form of escapism. Most importantly, it raised the profile of the Miller Centre Theatre. More of the local community got to know who we are and an ever-increasing numbers of members became interested in writing.

There was a follow-up series that ran from August to January when another forty pieces of new writing were made under the heading of Miller Shorts. This time around, as social distancing rules changed over last summer, we encouraged members to write duologues as well as monologues. Most of the duologues were recorded as Zoom pieces, whilst some took the opportunity of using exterior locations. Although most were still single-actor pieces, the editing and locations became more creative as we became more proficient with equipment and what we could achieve. There would have been more in this series but the third lockdown made the recording of several quite impossible.

Like a lot of amateur theatres we were left with an almost finished set on our stage and the strong possibility that this might have to be dismantled and stored for future use. There had been a huge amount of effort put into the build and painting and we were keen to enable it to be utilised in case the production had to be completely cancelled. So, the idea of writing pieces that could use the set as the stimulus came about. These were penned just before we were given the green light to open up in November last year. We were all geared up to film these pieces that month, but unfortunately only managed the one before we were once again shutdown.

Looking to the future, we are hoping to recommence productions. This would include finally staging The Beauty Queen of Leenane in June (sorry Chichester) on the set that now has genuine dust to add to the aesthetics of the piece. We will also finish filming the new writing pieces for that set to be published after the production has been on. After that, we are making plans for a full season starting in September provided all goes well with us all coming out of lockdown.

What has been overwhelming is the quality and scope of the writing that has been produced and, with new pieces in the pipeline we will soon pass the total of one hundred! As we move back to running the playwriting group, we are looking forward to a growing membership. Alongside the physical meetings we are looking to run a Zoom version for those writers who aren’t so local or mobile. We are also going to play with filming as a means of testing new writing in its development rather than as a final product. So our new filming skills will be re-employed.

As part of the theatre’s commitment to new writing on 17 July we are holding our first ‘New Writing Night’ in the main theatre with an invited audience. Three new works have been chosen. With directors and casts found, discussions with writers and rehearsals are due to start in June. Nights like these will give the writers the opportunity to hear their work and provide aid and encouragement in their play’s development.

It would be great to think that other amateur theatres up and down the country can consider themselves as homes for new writing and I’m sure some already do or are considering this. In these approaching cash-strapped times it will become increasingly hard for professional productions to find the money and backing for new untested work. We, in amateur theatre, have the talent and the facilities to enable us to take up that challenge and become recognised for the role we can play in the post-pandemic world of theatre.