Interview: Liverpool Network Theatre Group

As Chair of Liverpool Network Theatre Group I’m obviously heavily involved in their work.

They’re a lovely, welcoming amateur theatre group whose weekly workshops encourage people to pursue drama and regular productions allow their members to showcase their talents. This evening we are opening our summer production As You Like It which will be touring various venues around Liverpool until 14 July.

I had a chat with Director, Frank Kennedy and fellow cast members Stephanie Pitchers, playing Lady Camelia, who has played an integral role in the musical elements of the play, and Terence Conchie, playing Orlando.

Liverpool Network Theatre Group pride themselves on their summer show. Why did you was As You Like It chosen for this year’s showcase and why did you want to be involved?

Frank: It was originally suggested by someone else but I had it in mind as we did it in 2001 and we’ve not done it since. We’ve done Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream twice each and I think As You Like It is up there in terms of the popularity of Shakespeare’s shows, and attracts a general audience, not just those who like their Shakespeare, and who fancy a picnic afternoon out in the sun watching a bit of theatre.

Stephanie: I haven’t actually been in a Network show before so this was a good opportunity for me to get stuck in. I’ve been to a number of workshops and led quite a few workshops but this will be my first Network show.

Terence: I used to live in Bournemouth and I have done a couple of productions with a company down there and it kind of reignited my love of acting that I had in sixth form because rightly or wrongly I’d dropped it for a good eight or nine years and I’ve never actually done Shakespeare, just modern pieces so I was really intrigued to have a crack at Shakespeare. I guess it can be almost like a whole new language and it’s good to challenge myself.

Frank: It’s a comedy; it’s not too heavy, it’s not too long, it’s full of fun characters and there’s a little bit of weightiness, a bit of poetry in it. I was surprised no one had suggested it over the last eighteen years, it’s due another outing. I remember it being fun when we first did it.

Terence: I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been completely different process because I do need to learn it word for word whereas with modern English if you know 80% of what you need to say you can kind of fudge it but with Shakespeare you can’t really do that. One word hangs on another, so it has been a real line learning process but I have enjoyed it and getting to know the fact that if you say it with the right intonation of modern English people will pick up on what you’re saying. I’m quite lucky because I studied English at uni so I did a couple of modules on Shakespeare so I’ve read a lot of his plays so I know kind of what words mean and what they said but I think we sometimes forget that Shakespeare is meant to be seen and not studied from a book so actually getting to see it in the rehearsals is something new to me because I am used to reading it.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies. Are the themes still relevant today? Is it still funny?

Stephanie: Yeah I think the themes are definitely still relevant today and I think it’s hilarious.

L-R: Beth Easton as Rosalind, Terence Conchie as Orlando, Madeline Cole as Celia

Frank: It is still relevant. For one thing it’s the year of the woman and we’ve got Shakespeare’s biggest female role in Rosalind, even bigger than Portia. We actually have a women playing men but originally Shakespeare had boys playing women and it’s amazing to think that a young lad could have come up with all the lines Rosalind has. For quite a lot of the play Rosalind is dressed like a boy and that was considered hilarious by people watching at the time: that a boy playing a girl who was dressed as a boy who was pretending to be loved as if the boy was a woman, so there’s fun and games. The theme of love and how mad people are when they’re smitten is perennial of course and is still very popular in series and films that people watch.

Terence: I think the themes are still relevant because whether we want to admit it or not we do still have a bit of a class challenge in the UK and I think that’s coming out more so now in the current political climate: the Tory leadership race, who is running the country, who has done it in the past and also the Brexit vote. This is a piece on what happens when you take everyone out of the Court and everyone becomes equal status and the comedy around that, I think is something you could put into any time period and it would still be funny because it’s essentially a comedy of manners. The scenes where you have the high status characters and the low status characters interact for instance Corin and Orlando, and Corin and Rosalind, I find that quite funny.

Frank: There is a quite interesting take on politics if you want to look at it that way. The Duke and his Court are exiled because they’ve been booted out by his usurping brother and the forest locals are disaffected and put out when they turn up. The Duke and his Court kind of act as they would do in their own society. They feel they are born to rule and just assume the positions of status and those who are of more humble origins seem to automatically defer to them. Nothing particularly dangerous or nasty happens. A few things are threatened. There’s certainly some nastiness in the Court at the beginning but it being a comedy it dies away quite peacefully and everyone’s happy in the end.

Stephanie: I think one of my favourite moments is when Touchstone and Audrey are told by Hymen that they’ll have a very tempestuous relationship. I think it’s really funny because some people really aren’t suited but they still try and make things work.

Can you tell me a little bit about the story?

Stephanie: I can tell you that there’s a song of about a deer that we sing. I’m in the singing group. I’m one of the Duke’s Lords and Ladies in the forest and we’ve been banished but we’re really just trying to make the most of our time there. One of things that we sing about is how friendship can often be a falsehood but when you’re in the forest you know what’s coming and things are predictable and it’s almost like even the rough weather of the forest isn’t as bad as some people are.

Terence: Then there’s these two other people who are banished from Court. You’ve got Orlando who I play who has fallen victim to his murderous brother out of jealousy and they’ve you’ve got Rosalind who’s banished, again out of jealousy I would say, by her uncle. They both after one quick look fall in love as one is prone to do in Shakespeare. They both decamp to the forest where they encounter each other by chance but Rosalind has taken the guise of Ganymede who’s a boy and drag is in itself always funny whether it’s boy to girl or girl to boy. Rosalind tries to woo Orlando through the guise of this male costume and for reasons best known to himself he falls for it. Whether that means he’s just a bit dim or a bit curious, who knows? But a comedy of errors ensues and then everyone’s happy. Then God literally appears in the form of Hymen.

The play is set in the Forest of Arden. Has the rural setting affected how the characters behave?

Terence: I think the rural setting has affected my performance as it’s a gear change from the beginning of the play in the non-forest scenes. You do have to remember that once you set foot in the forest everybody is of equal status. It’s a free for all and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. So you have to remember that when you encountered characters earlier who you had to defer to or had to show your reverence to, that’s kind of off in the Forest of Arden. You have to play it on an equal playing field and that can be hard to remember. So it changes Orlando’s character when he gets into the forest; becomes a bit more laid back and a bit more free and easy.

Stephanie: Most of my performance is done around a picnic blanket which is a first for me. There’s a lot of sitting down and feeling jolly in the forest but I think it’s quite appropriate for the outdoor settings that we’re mostly performing in as we don’t have to imagine things too far from where we actually are.

Music plays an important part in the show but Network are not traditionally a musical theatre group. What have been the challenges of incorporating these elements?

L-R: TJ Hilton as Amiens, Me as Phebe, Stephanie Pitchers as Lady Camelia, Jess Ashcroft as Mistress Marigold

Frank: Firstly that I’m not a musical director and never intended to be! I sing a bit but I don’t trust my own judgment. I wouldn’t attempt to manage a famous musical. Secondly just getting the grouping right because when you’re not a group of musicians or regular singers who work together I think the blend is difficult.

Stephanie: As we’re not a musical group some of the people involved with the singing have not really done anything like this before. It’s been a lot about learning to listen to each other and really work together in that sense. It’s been a learning curve for a lot of people.

Frank: I think the main thing is to get across that it’s not a choir or a formal cantata set or anything. The singers are the Lords and Ladies who take themselves off to the forest with the exiled Duke and they’re having a bit of fun and they’re entertaining themselves. They’re having fun with some traditional songs, and at least one of the tunes will be familiar to the audience; they’re fun songs. If the audience joins in that’d be great but they’re just part of the action. They were used in Shakespeare’s time to bridge a gap between scenes.

How do you ensure that the music fits into the play without the singers and the people around them losing the characters they are playing?

Terence: That’s an interesting question.

Stephanie: Yes, it’s a good question. We’ve had to write some of the tunes because we didn’t have any that were easy enough to learn. There were some tunes out there but they were very complex and would have taken some time to learn so we tried to simplify things while trying to encompass some of folky rural aspects of the play. I think that by writing our own tunes we’ve been able to incorporate the right feel for the show.

Terence: Obviously I’m not from a musical theatre background and upon first rehearsal of it, it was really hard not to break character. Although I’m playing it where Orlando’s kind of going along with everything that’s going on, having people dance around you is quite an alien concept even if you are in theatre, so trying to remember that is quite challenging but it’s enjoyable.

The play explores themes social class, philosophy and gender issues. Is it important for your audience to connect with these themes while watching the play? Is there anything you particular you would like them to be thinking about after they have seen it?

Stephanie: That’s a huge question. I think it would be good for people to definitely think about class. I think one of the things that the show explores is how someone can be upper class but then put in a position where they’re suddenly the lowest of the low. I think that’s quite a nice contrast.

Terence: The gender issue is one that’s always going to go alongside the class issues. It’s always going to be pertinent no matter when you set this play or whether you modernise it. It’s a story as old as time really. What I want people to take from it, from a gender point of view, is we’ve got Rosalind who’s dressed up as Ganymede and we’ve got Orlando falling head over heels. Whether he realises he’s been had or whether he’s just taken by this person, I suppose it’s just good to remember that love is love and whoever you want to or choose to fall in love with, at whatever time, it can be funny and it’s lighthearted and it’s not something that has to be taken seriously.

Frank: It’s about life and all of human life is in some way in Shakespeare: power, love, ambition, greed, selfishness, friendship and jealousy. I hope people have a good time and find that Shakespeare is accessible after all. While you don’t necessarily follow every individual line, because who does, they actually get what’s going on. And let’s hope the sun has shone as well because most of the performances are outdoors.

Network is one of Liverpool’s best loved amateur drama groups. Are you influenced by other Liverpool based companies? Do you think Liverpool is an interesting city to participate in theatre?

L-R: Eddie O’Hare as Adam, Terence Conchie as Orlando

Frank: If you do anything, musically, culturally or artistically in Liverpool you find loads of other people are doing the same thing which is great because lots of people turn up to audition and lots of people want to be involved.

Terence: This has been my first production in Liverpool but I can’t stress enough how good Liverpool is for the amateur theatre scene. When I was down in Bournemouth and told people I was moving back here the first question was, “are you going to keep with the drama side of things” and I always said yes and then the second point was always “Liverpool is the place to do it if you’re going to do it outside of London”.

Stephanie: Yeah I think that there are lots of local companies that influence me. Tmesis is a big one. I’ve never really been that good at physical theatre so in the last year or so I’ve become more aware of Tmesis’ work and the things that they are doing. I’ve attended a workshop there and I also went to Physical Fest. I’ve got friends who are in Teatro Pomodoro where there’s a lot of the clowning aspect. I know quite a lot of people who are involved with Egg People and in the last year I’ve done lots of workshops with them and learnt about clowning. I think that the arts community in Liverpool is great and it’s a bit like a village where everyone knows everyone. Whenever you meet someone new there’s links to other people that you know. I do think that Liverpool has a real thriving theatre community and we’ve got a lot to offer.

Terence: We’ve got such a rich history of theatre and given birth to some of the greatest actors. Julie Walters trained here, Pete Postlethwaite trained here. You’ve got the Everyman, everything on Hope Street, every bar seems to double up as a venue. I had no idea there were so many theatre companies and I can’t stress how much I love that. You grow up around here your whole life but you have no idea how deep it goes. It’s just such a creative city, it’s lovely.

Frank: In terms of the spirit and willingness and all round ability I think we’ve got a great cast. Network is a great company to work with. People really put themselves out but they’re also having fun. We have some great connections who will hopefully come and see As You Like It. The more who come and enjoy it the better it will be, as the audience always contribute 50% to every show.

As You Like It is having a mini tour around Liverpool this July. What else lies in the future for you and Network?

Frank: Hopefully the company will have a couple of socials and a theatre trip or two in the late summer. We are hopefully doing an autumn play but we’ve not got one fixed, though we have got some potential ones. We’re open to new and established writing. We will also continue with our revue nights and quiz nights.

Terence: I would definitely love to stay with Network and see what performances are coming down the pipeline next. I’ve loved stepping up because in the last few plays I’ve done I’ve always been a supporting character. I’ve loved taking a step up to the male lead as it were and everything that that comes with it. I’ve loved challenging myself. I’m looking forward to seeing what Liverpool has to offer to build my skills in acting and amateur theatre. I do it because I love it. It’s a good way to let my creativity out and to unwind and it’s nice to have something that’s just for me so I’m definitely going to stick with it.

Stephanie: I’ve recently been asked to do some workshops with a group of women who are breast cancer survivors and we’re going to put together a twenty minute piece to be performed at a charity gig in Manchester called Breast Fest. That’s going to be in October. I’ve also recently started meeting with a couple of other mums who are also artists and we’re going to put together an environmental piece for my company Tomorrow’s Theatre that we can take into schools.

What piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to direct and perform a Shakespearean play?

Frank: All the world’s a stage! Read the play first and know what it’s about. I think you’ve got to have a sense of the tone of a particular play and want to do it. I’m not a big fan of the histories so I probably wouldn’t volunteer to direct one of those. Don’t be afraid to cut. There have been some cuts to As You Like It, a lot of them to dialogue which was sometimes very witty for audiences in Shakespeare’s time but not so much today.

Stephanie: I think Network Theatre is really good at getting people involved and giving people the opportunity to have a go so look out for next year’s (hopefully Shakespeare) play and just go for it, get involved. It’s a really fun learning experience for everyone.

Terence: Don’t be scared. It’s not gonna be as scary as you think it is or as dull as you think it is. Remember it’s meant to be watched and not studied so don’t let your past experiences come in between your love of Shakespeare and just go for it, do it, challenge yourself.

Stephanie: In terms of arranging the music for one I’d say it’s probably best if you can find the music before rehearsals start but also it’s good to draw on influences from recognisable things. Obviously no plagiarism but if there are open source tunes out there that fit. A great way to do it is just to read over the words that Shakespeare’s written and see if anything springs to mind. See what the rhythm is and if they fit, if they remind you of anything and then go from there. If nothing fits have a go at writing something new.

Terence: It’ll never be as hard as you think it is and you might just love it.


You can find out more about Liverpool Network Theatre Group on their websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

You can buy tickets for As You Like It here.

Please let me know if you see the show and what you think of it.

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