“IT’S Thursday party night!” Douglas Rintoul announces to a packed hall of whoops and cheers. It is week five of rehearsals for As You Like It, a community theatre production run by the National Theatre’s Public Acts programme and its partners, and Rintoul, its director, is clearly adored by his 120-strong cast. Everyone seems to be rising to the “party” spirit, despite most of them having come directly from their day jobs.
Putting on a Shakespearean comedy during the summer might not seem a particularly radical idea: theatres, country houses, and churches across the country are paying homage to the Bard this season, and many of them profess to be offering something “different”.
But this version might just live up to that claim. First, it is a musical, with a score written by Shaina Taub, an American writer and composer. Last autumn, her adaptation of Twelfth Night was staged at the Young Vic, in London, featuring a community chorus made up of members of the public.
This production goes even further. Rather than a professional leading cast with a supporting community chorus, just five professional actors make up an ensemble of approximately 120, and key roles are played by both professional and non-professional cast members.
There are also cameo performances from three east-London-based groups: the London School of Lucha Libre (professional wrestling originating in Mexico); Dhol Academy (a Punjabi dhol-drum group); and the CommUnity Gospel Choir. At points in the production, there can be 200 people on stage at once. The creatives are mostly professional, and have been sourced largely by the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, where the production will be performed.
THIS fusion of trained and untrained artists is key to the National Theatre’s aims for this project.
“Putting people who’ve never done it before alongside people who are trained professionals at the top of their game creates a very aspirational and exciting dynamic, which goes both ways,” its director of Public Acts, Emily Lim, says. “We want to represent the full spectrum of artistry, and the concept that everyone has a birth right as an artist as much as they do a birth right as a citizen.”
Certainly, when I visit, the rehearsal room is buzzing with a “We’re all in this together” attitude. When the choreographer Sundeep Saini starts to lead a warm-up, everyone — including visitors like me — is expected to join in, and the cast greet each other warmly with hugs and high fives.
The words “Open, Generous, Brave” are emblazoned on the walls, as a reminder of the project’s ethos. Next to this, pictures of famous faces, including Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Sussex, William Shakespeare, and Greta Thunberg, have been tacked, serving as an imaginary “audience”. Other signs around the hall explain the plot of the play, and tape on the floor marks out different parts of the stage. Everything has been put in place to make the process as user-friendly as possible for those without previous theatrical experience.
PUBLIC Acts was set up last year by the National Theatre. Its objective was to make theatre more accessible, and bring different communities together. “It’s about celebrating theatre as a form of community action,” Ms Lim says. “We want to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community. And the starting point for that is a belief that theatre can be a really meaningful tool for social change.”
Last year, she directed Pericles, Public Acts’ first production, at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre. As You Like It will mark the culmination of the two-year London programme, before Public Acts begins its next project in Doncaster, in partnership with the theatre CAST.
Public Acts has “a deep-rooted belief in partnerships”, Ms Lim says. “Our aim was to try and find organisations who shared our belief in the power of theatre and the arts to create the conditions for using theatre as a galvanising force for bringing people of all different beliefs, identities, backgrounds, and life experiences to come and share a common purpose and a common experience that feels — when we get it right — life-affirming and inspiring.”
One these partners, the Faith and Belief Forum, was a natural fit. Its mission, its programmes co-ordinator, Fiona Ranford, says, is “to be able to appreciate difference, even if you don’t understand, or even if you disagree, but being able to hold a space where those differences are valued”.
Ms Ranford, who, besides co-ordinating the Faith and Belief Forum’s involvement in the production, is also one of the performers, says that the Forum has had a “shift in focus” towards using the arts as a means of creating valuable interfaith communities. “It does something other models can’t do,” she says.
THE process of creating As You Like It began by first building a creative community through “Pizza and Plays” workshops. Public Acts ran these writing and performance workshops in conjunction with the Faith and Belief Forum and its other partners: Body & Soul; Bromley by Bow Centre; Coram; DABD; Havering Asian Social Welfare Association; Open Age; Queen’s Community Group; and Thames Reach.
Writing was an opportunity for people to get to know each other and to express themselves. All those involved were invited to start the rehearsal process for As You Like It, which will be performed over the August Bank Holiday. Ms Lim says that Public Acts chose this play because of its iconic status: “It’s really exciting and magical to reimagine these epic sweeping stories of life and love with such an amazingly representative and wide-ranging company.
“Because it’s a mythical story, everybody is given space to read and receive it on their own terms, and to see themselves in in any way they choose, which is one of the things that allows for many different opinions in the room. There’s a story that unites us, but we all come to that story with very different interpretations.”
This will be the European première of Laurie Woolery and Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of the play. It has been performed in New York as part of Public Theater’s Public Works programme, one of the inspirations for the National Theatre’s own programme.
“The play has at its heart this recurring idea of love taking so many different forms and being embraced in so many different ways,” Ms Lim says.
“There’s a really powerful lyric in the play, which is about how healing together will heal our wounds. And the idea that we can find healing through togetherness is what the project aspires to root itself in. The whole thing, for us, is about learning from our community partners, and learning from our amazing company members.”
NADEGE RENE, a cast member who became involved through the Faith and Belief Forum, agrees that the project has been a great learning opportunity.
“I hadn’t realised how little I knew about other faiths,” she says. “And I realised that it’s just being and hearing things and learning to understand something. . . It kind of applies to other situations.”
The writing part of the workshops was something that helped to build trust between different cast members before they embarked on rehearsals; many revealed their personal stories through their writing.
Rachel Harris, a civil servant and another cast member, says of the writing workshops: “We just created this amazing, safe space where there was lots of interfaith sharing. It created this really lovely culture of understanding and bonding, and we shared lots of our writing and our thoughts and our feelings.
“I think, sometimes, you listen to things but you can’t take things in; so it was amazing to hear about other people’s life experiences, and hear about what they wanted to create.”
Having attended a Jewish school while growing up, she says, “it’s just so interesting to see the juxtaposition between different religions and faiths and how interlinked they are. Whatever our cultures and backgrounds and beliefs, we can all come together to create this amazing fit.
“Sometimes, representation can be a bit of a tick-box exercise, but [this project] is not just about the representation: it’s actually everybody feeling like they have a have a part. We’re all producing this piece of art together as one company. Once we start rehearsing, we’re the As You Like It Company.”
FROM just watching a snippet of a rehearsal of As You Like It, the unity that Harris talks of is palpable. Phones are banned in the rehearsal room, and there is a sense that, for just a few hours, these people are completely detached from the outside world, focusing only on which note to hit or what step comes next.
When Ms Saini says “Company, we’re going to be kind to you,” she is specifically referring to the fact that she has slowed down one of the dance routines. Yet I get the impression that “We’re going to be kind to you” is an ethos that does not stop with steps-to-beats ratios: it permeates this project.
As You Like It runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, in east London, from 24 to 27 August. For tickets, visit the website www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whats-on/show/as-you-like-it, or phone 01708 443333.