Introducing Graeae’s Ensemble Artists

We are thrilled to welcome our Ensemble Artists to Graeae. We asked each of them to say a little bit about themselves and why they wanted to be part of the Ensemble.

Jamal Ajala

Headshot of Jamal Ajala. A black and white photo.

Jamal Ajala. Photo by Becky Bailey.

I am Jamal Ajala. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and left Nigeria for England with my family when I was 7 for a better life. When I was 16 I joined Deafinitely Youth Theatre and I have been part of Deafinitely Theatre Hub since I was 18. The Project Manager at Deafinitely Theatre encouraged me to apply to National Youth Theatre. I auditioned and later had an email from NYT that I was accepted! I have decided to pursue my acting career and I hope to get a place at drama school next year.

Kellan Frankland

Headshot of Kellan Frankland.

Kellan Frankland. Photo by Becky Bailey

My name is Kellan Frankland. I have wanted to be an actor since I was 4 years old when I saw a carnival style float promoting a local production of Oliver. The energy and the absolute joy surrounding everyone performing was captivating and I realised that I didn’t want to do anything else. I love creating characters and find out what makes a character tick as well as the adrenalin of being on stage.

I am also interested in writing and politics, which is linked in with my love of acting. I really wanted to become part of Graeae’s Ensemble so that I could have the opportunity to gain a wider variety of skills in order to be an actor.

Poppy Hammond

headshot of Poppy Hammond

Poppy Hammond. Photo by Becky Bailey

Hello my name is Poppy Hammond. I first met Graeae through the Orpheus Centre and I did work experience with Graeae two years ago. One of my tutors at Orpheus e-mailed me about the Ensemble programme and I auditioned in September.

I love being on the stage and I have always thought about taking it further. I am really looking forward to doing more training in movement and Shakespeare and I can’t wait for the performances.

Joshua King

Headshot of Joshua King

Joshua King. Photo by Becky Bailey

My name is Joshua King and I have always wanted to be an actor. When I was a child I used to watch a lot of films and that is where I first found my interest in acting. Although many pathways are blocked for disabled artists, I was accepted on the Ensemble programme. I am an artist within a cast of other Ensemble artists in this programme and am privileged enough to be taught by some of the most experience tutors in the field.

I will learn the skills that I need to become a successful actor and work with some very talented cast members. My hopes from the programme are to improve my acting skills and take in as much knowledge as I can. I also hope that one day I can make my contribution to the arts – I have always tried to push the boundaries of what I can do as a disabled person and will continue to do so, and now too with the help of Graeae.

Vanessa Smith

Headshot of Vanessa Smith

Vanessa Smith. Photo by Becky Bailey

Hi my name is Vanessa and if people were to describe my acting they would say, intense funny and silencing. I am registered blind but I never allow it to hold me back. I do not think of myself as a blind actress but merely an actress who happens to be blind. I have done a variety of projects including working with the Youth Theatre in Liverpool Collective Encounters and this has allowed me to be skilled in my acting. I have a good ear for different accents and this improves my acting as it means that if I have to play a role involving different accents I can learn them more quickly.

Dave Young

Headshot of Dave Young

Dave Young. Photo by Becky Bailey

I am Dave, I am a poet and am in training to be a theatre maker. I feel that everybody should have a right to communicate and share their ideas, thoughts and feelings. I have been involved with theatre from the age of 11 with a youth company called ‘The Remix’ with Diverse City. I performed at the Olympic Opening Ceremony for the Weymouth sailing events in 2012.

I call myself the Shouting Mute. I am non-verbal and I use an eye gaze computer system to speak. I am a wheelchair user most of the time but I use a walking frame for sport and drama.

I applied to be part of Ensemble with Graeae because I want to expand my knowledge about the performing arts and I want to write plays; so I can make my own wonderful worlds in the future.

Group shot of the Ensemble against a black wall with white lines chalked on it. They are all smiling and have their arms around each other

The Ensemble. Photo by Becky Bailey

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Introducing our new Write to Play writers…

Write to Play has headed to the North-East in its third year ­where Graeae and our brilliant partner organisations (West Yorkshire Playhouse, Hull Truck Theatre and Live Theatre Newcastle) are about to start working with four exciting new writers based in the North-east.

To get to know them a little better, we asked them what book, record and play they would take to a desert island. Here’s what they had to say…

Sarah Gonnet

Sarah Gonnet

Sarah Gonnet

BOOK: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor

Even though The Last Asylum only came out last year I have had to buy a second copy as I wore the first one out (I carry it around everywhere in my bag and regularly re-read it). There are many layers to the book that seem relevant to my life and have helped me through difficult periods; especially where Barbara Taylor discusses the relationship between writing and mental health. The book also inspired me to begin studying to be a therapist, something that is proving useful to my playwriting as both involve understanding and interpreting human behaviour.

RECORD: High Violet by The National

I have a very varied taste in music and I always have something on whilst I’m writing; however I repeatedly come back to this album. The lyrics to the songs are beautiful and have so many different possible meanings that the music has many lives.

PLAY PRODUCTION: Cleansed by Sarah Kane and directed by Katie Mitchell (National Theatre)

It hasn’t happened yet but I am very excited about the National Theatre announcing that they will be putting on Cleansed and have it directed by Katie Mitchell next season. I love the imagery of Sarah Kane (as well as the mental health themes) and the multi-media aspects of Katie Mitchell’s work so seeing them both together is something I am very much looking forward too. Many of my own plays are multi-media.

Sharon Wilson

Sharon Wilson

Sharon Wilson

A stranding on a desert island requires tried and tested art – no room here for passing fads. Curtis Mayfield is the man to lift any castaway above the mizzling blues – if it can only be one track, it has to be Move On Up. Its relentless optimism would infect even the most mosquito-ravaged with the will to carry on.

Great Expectations is my go to book for character and entertainment – a writer who knew that fortunes can flip with the tide. Rich, complex and packed with social detail. An epic distraction.

A Streetcar Named Desire never fails to engage – no monochrome characters, no singularity of blame. A pressure cooker of sexual tension and snobbery that has the audience swing one-way in the blame game and then the other. Food for thought to accompany the bananas and coconuts.

Rick Poppa

Rick Poppa

Rick Poppa

Ok, so this Desert Island? It’s not full of spiders and snakes Is it? Hate them. Early morning walks along a deserted beach sound good though so I’m in.

Which Book to take? To be fair, the books on my shelf are mainly about Photography (My other passion.) So I’d take one of those with me. “Street Photography Now” by Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren is probably the one book that teaches me the most. It inspires me to go out with my camera and do new things. I would like to explore the genre of Street  Photography more as I like the rawness of it.

Record? Not CD then yeah? … Ok, I only have a few Vinyl’s (how old school!) and I guess the one I would take would have to be The Kids from Fame album . I used to be hooked on Fame as a kid, Guess I always knew where my heart wanted to be. Who didn’t dream of being at that school with Leroy, Bruno and co.? (Minus the legwarmers I guess) The track … Hard choice to make but .. Star maker.. as It is inspiring (If not a bit cheesy. )

A play… again REALLY hard.. Do I go for a classic or a new piece? Ok, I will take with me Jonathan Harvey’s masterpiece of a play Beautiful Thing. Was lucky enough to  go see this earlier this year. It’s timeless, moving, brilliant and although it was written over 20 years ago, It is still as relevant now as It was then. It was first brought to the stage in 1993, one year after homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in Britain. Seeing It this year made me realise things, not least that in 77 countries It’s still illegal to be gay. That’s the power of a great play, It makes you think.

Rebekah Bowsher

Rebekah Bowsher

Rebekah Bowsher

Books… I love them, hate them, hide them in the cupboard when they get too sad. I’m trying to cut down my paper trail at the moment so I think I’d pick something from my digital collection and go for … argh this is hard. I’d go for the Book of the Pellinor by Alison Croggon – the feminist, fantasy epic would keep me going a couple of days anyway.

I put off writing this post for ages because I couldn’t think of a record. I like music, but generally as a backing track and I certainly don’t have many I could listen to on repeat. And then I remembered! Something I listen to repeatedly, boogie too, sing along too (obviously the single most important thing for a record) and marvel at Tim Minchin’s hilarious lyrics. Matilda the Musical – an absolutely inspiring album.

The production I’d like (and its definitely the whole production not the script) is Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride. I only saw it once, but I could watch it again and again. There’s so many elements to love; music, dance, comedy, a strong story, interesting uses of staging and character and the ‘magic of theatre at its fullest’. Everything I love about theatre.

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Sugar Water goes to Edinburgh

By Arthur Hughes 

Actor Arthur Hughes smiling, with Genevieve Barr in the background

Arthur Hughes in The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Plymouth is but a distant dreamy memory. Edinburgh looms, and I couldn’t be more excited.

The preview run of The Solid Life of Sugar Water at Theatre Royal Plymouth’s Drum space was a tough week, a test of focus and will, and in my opinion a great success.

Following a very successful (and ahead of schedule) technical run, we managed to even slip in an extra dress rehearsal. As the opening night loomed, Gen and I were gagging for an audience. The audience is the missing third character in this play, and we were very much looking forward to meeting them each night.

The nature of the show is a tricky one, dealing with quite raw and delicate subject matter, often confronted in a brutal and powerful way. Therefore it was interesting to gauge audience reaction, and hone our performance each night to which type of audience we had.

The first few moments as the play starts are crucial in determining this, as it would inform us what kind of audience we were dealing with, whether we need to put the brakes on and not push as hard, or let Jack’s writing canter along and take them with it.

Theatre Royal Plymouth were such a fantastic and accommodating team, so supportive and helpful. I think I speak for all when I say that we felt very welcome in The Drum, and that we had done a good job in their wonderful space.

And now, this week we are back at Graeae in Hoxton (London). Two days of catch up rehearsal, a few runs of the play, countless cups of coffee, and then up to Scotland on Sunday for a start on Monday.

It has been an absolute treat to be back on the Sugar Water trail after a 6 week hiatus. Personally, I have missed the gang, the play, the everything immensely. It has felt very familiar throwing ourselves back into the story and the characters, and the ArthurGenAmit dynamic is spinning its turbines again and we are taxiing to the runway, taking off next Wednesday at the Pleasance QueenDome.

It being my very first time at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I am giddy young pup, salivating at the prospect of seeing many different shows, performing to (hopefully) thousands, and exploring a wonderful arts festival for an entire month. It will be all hands on deck once we arrive I am told, and I’m sure lovely Gen will be filling you in next week about that.

See you in Edinburgh! 4pm, Pleasance QueenDome (venue 23), 5 – 30 August.

For more information and to book tickets, click here

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Sugar Water Rehearsal Diary: Week 4

By Genevieve Barr

“Yes it’s coming….AAAAHHH.”

Having never given birth myself, it’s probably not an equitable comparison to the insurmountable task of putting together ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’. But after many hours of…labour (sorry), we are now in Plymouth where the days counting down to Opening Night are in the single digits.

Deep breaths.

This week is “Tech Week” – where the set design, lighting, music, choreography and – of course – the acting, all come together. The days are long and the process arduous but for Arthur and I (or maybe just I) it is like hurtling through space through a post office queue, a cinema, a bridge on the Thames and crashing onto earth in a hospital bed. Monday is looming.

“It’s there…AAAHHH.”

Genevieve and Arthur in rehearsal

Genevieve and Arthur in rehearsal

It has an incredible privilege and experience working on this show, there’s been ribaldry, tears and hissy fits (but only one), and the extraordinary efforts that has gone into building this bed on a wall is truly remarkable. I have no doubt that the audience are coming to come into the auditorium and gasp with awe, and hopefully will continue to revel with the help of my masterful acting skills.

And if not mine, then certainly Arthur’s.

The challenges of tech week have brought about a new experience for me – that of having an interpreter. Being deaf and growing up in a hearing family, I’ve always been very well adapted to finding coping mechanisms when there has been lots of people talking or sitting around a bonfire in the dark or listening to music. But having the support here this week when a million different sounds, lights and movements have been thrown in my face on stage, it’s been really helpful.

Though people do seem to forget that I’m not very good at sign language. And so sometimes, I’m left even more clueless than when I started!

The other challenge has been really pulling together all those different elements to the character I’m playing to make one cohesive whole.

The number of people who have lost children whom I have spoken to since starting this play have given me a very stark realisation of the pain and grief that such a tragedy can bring and for me, the responsibility of conveying that has been very hard to shoulder. On top of that, so much of this play is comedy – a hilarity and playfulness that makes the entire ensemble smack of pathos.  This is a play about the love that two people share for one another through the good times and the hard times. This is a rollercoaster like one I have never been on before – steep summits and plummets, twists and turns and we will take you, the audience, with us on this journey from start to finish.

So savour the moments we give you and cherish them with us. Live through our pain and our joy and bear with us sometimes – it’s a difficult journey to share. Although there are moments of abject terror and a brace of nerves, we can’t wait to start ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ next Monday. And if we don’t see you here in Plymouth, we hope you’ll catch us in Edinburgh!

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Sugar Water Rehearsal Diary: Week 3

By Arthur Hughes, cast member

And so, we are in Plymouth!

I am writing the 3rd instalment of our Sugar Water blog from the top floor of the charming Plymouth townhouse Genevieve and I are staying in for our sojourn down in the South West.

Opening night looms just over a week away, and we are ready for our intense 7 days ahead to get the show ready.

arthur in rehearsals smiling at genevieve who we can see the outline of in the foregroundThe past week has been a rigorous one. Rehearsals were moved from Graeae HQ in Hoxton, to the Half Moon Theatre in Limehouse.

This was an interesting test for Genevieve and I, to rehearse in an unfamiliar space and to bring the quality of the work we had been doing in the weeks prior to somewhere new. Great practice for when we move into the Drum in Plymouth!

Our focus on this week was understanding the full shape of the play, and tuning and tweaking what we had rehearsed to the next level, (and the next, and the next…). With a piece such as this, there is always more to be found, and the more we delved into the characters and what each scene meant, the clearer the journey became for Phil and Alice, and also for the audience watching them.

Amit was keen for us to discover the love between the two in the play. With the writing sometimes being quite graphic, and stark, it was sometimes easy to forget that, but with such a complex arc for our characters to ride, it was imperative to remember throughout; they are in love!

Moments where Phil attempts to sign ‘I like you’ to Alice, and fails miserably, or the scene where they both dance to Dire Straits were opportunities to really discover the love in the relationship.

The run up to Plymouth has been an intense one. We had our first run at the end of the week, and both Genevieve and I were physically and emotionally spent by the end. We took this as a good sign.

This week in Plymouth before we open will be one to get to know the space we are working. I for one am very excited to see the set, and to get up and have a play on it! With our trusty crew we will embark on a 3 day tech session to perfect all our lights, sounds, cues, and any other issues in the space. We have 2 days at TR2, Theatre Royal’s secondary rehearsal and production space, then come Wednesday we will be in the Drum for the rest of our time.

Bring it on.

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Sugar Water Rehearsal Diary: Week 2

By Genevieve Barr, cast member

Genevieve in rehearsals at Graeae. She sits cross legged on the floor of the rehearsal room with script and pencil laid out in front of her. She is wearing leggings and hoodie.

Genevieve in rehearsals at Graea

Exploding boxes, pyjamas, licking necks and lots and lots of baked beans.

After six months overseas, I returned to the UK last month to start rehearsals for a brand new play written by Jack Thorne, ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’. I play the part of ‘Alice’. My wonderful counterpart, Arthur, plays my husband ‘Phil’. And that’s it. There’s two of us. And sixty-six pages of script staring at us.

A tumultuous journey so far, we are finally reaching the end of the second week and gasping for a few days off – but there will be no resting on our laurels. Next week is the last week at Graeae before we take the production to Plymouth, and a dawning of dread is already starting to swirl around my ankles.

So let’s not talk about that.

I am fortunate to have some very supportive friends, whom this week, have kept me in reality check. For when asked about my day, the other day, I said:

“This morning I was experiencing the beginnings of foreplay in bed, this afternoon I went to the cinema, an art gallery and had a kiss on a bridge. I don’t know which one – the text doesn’t say.”

Bless them, because rather than get bogged down the details, they turned to me and said:

“Gen, what on earth are you talking about?”

And that’s the real struggle as you get more and more immersed in this beautiful play, you start to go slightly insane. Acting isn’t about playing the role, it’s about becoming the role. And so, every day ‘Alice’ becomes more Genevieve and Genevieve becomes more ‘Alice’. You might as well start calling us ‘Genalice’.

Thank goodness my character’s name is not ‘Tilda’.

(Try taking the first two syllables of my first name, and the first syllable of ‘Tilda’ and see if you get what I mean)…

Probably not that funny. Sorry.

When I first read the play, two things became immediately transparent to me:

1) This would be one of the toughest roles I’ve had the fortune to play.

2) My granny was definitely, firmly, assertively NOT allowed to come and see it. Our relationship would never recover.

To pinch some of Jack Thorne’s words when he was talking about the play the other day, it is a story about recovery. The couple are trying to deal with a very traumatic event – with the death of a newborn baby and through their grief, their relationship has deteriorated. They have to rediscover why they loved each other in the first place and deal with having sex for the first time since it happened. We will take you through a journey of our relationship – flashing back into the past, but also trying to have sex- an uncomfortable experience both textually and literally.

At least for me – I can’t speak for Arthur!

For while Phil and Alice have been married for a few years, Arthur and Genevieve have only known each other a couple of weeks. The trust and amount you have to give each other in a very short period of time is immense. It isn’t always easy – but we are getting there.

Amit, our director, does a great job of keeping me sane (ironically, for those who know him). He understands which buttons to push with me.

At the start of the week, I was really grappling with with the physical aspects of the play – the movement on the bed (for the bed is upright against the wall, so when we are lying down, we are standing up and when we are standing up, we are lying down)…the mind just boggles. There are a lot of technical aspects to figure out – for the play jumps back and forward, in fact it just hops all over the place. During all of this, I have been trying to understand who my character is and why she feeling the way she is – in every word, sentence, paragraph of the play.

We are getting there – and I am proud of the amount of progress we have made – though there is still a way to go. So it is with excitement, tremulation and slight trepidation that I look ahead to next week and what it brings.

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Sugar Water Rehearsal Diary: Week 1

By Arthur Hughes, cast member

Black and white picture of arthur in rehearsals. In the background there is a blackboard covered with pictures and drawings. Arthur is in the foreground smiling, he is wearing a flowery shirt

Arthur in rehearsals at Graeae

This blog begins the first of many following Graeae’s exciting new production of Jack Thorne’s new play ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’.

I have the pleasure and privilege of playing ‘Phil’ in this play alongside my fellow cast member Genevieve Barr who is playing ‘Alice’.

Rehearsals began last week on the Monday 11th May. I have to admit that before we began rehearsals proper I was rather terrified. Genevieve, Amit Sharma (our wise-cracking director), and I had had 2 research and development days about 3 weeks prior to get the ball rolling, however with a play as complex, delicate and beautiful as this one, the lead up to the first day was a period of excitement, trepidation and, yes, some anxiety.

How marvellous to be writing from the end of the first week with anxiety replaced by hunger and drive!

This week has been an intense, focused and fascinating journey into the play.

One of the main directives of the week has been the three of us combing through the text to decipher all we can about the characters. Cue large A1 size sheets and colourful marker pens on the floor as we detailed all we knew about Alice and Phil.

These large reminders and discoveries are now tiled across the rehearsal room for our reference.

Another vital exercise was assigning each line in the script an active verb to play with the text. In order to realise the full potential of each verb we chose, Genevieve and I physically explored each verb to understand the range we have when playing each line in the script.

Due to the intimate nature of the play, with a lot of action taking place in the bedroom, in the bed; our set is a brilliant concept to make the most of this. With a full size bed vertically lining the back of the set, the actors will stand with backs to the mattress, giving the audience a birds eye view of the couple in bed.

It was therefore imperative that myself and Gen started to become physically literate with what this would entail. Following a session with our movement director Cathy, we began to experiment with different sleeping positions one adopts, and how to use tension and speed with our bodies to fully give the impression of moving around in bed. A lot more exhausting than simply lying in bed I assure you!

One of the most important things this week for me has been solidifying the working relationships with my colleagues. As the play features a cast of only two, each decision and discovery is informed by each other, and our director Amit. I feel at the end of this week that the three of us have forged a malleable, easy, but determined working relationship that has been incredibly fruitful so far. With such a great team around me in all aspects of the production, I am confident in the critical success and potential of the show, and look forward to diving further in over the next 3 weeks before our first preview in Plymouth. Goodness gracious!

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