Hamburg Players' Directing Workshop with Phil Clark (10-12 August 2018)

The Hamburg Players hosted their second directing workshop involving leading professionals from the UK in early August. This time it was Welsh director and painter Phil Clark who led a workshop attended by 16 theatre enthusiasts from the Hamburg Players, the Hamburg Improv scene and the University Players, Hamburg. We were all blown away by Phil’s creativity and his lateral thinking approach to theatre, which will continue to resonate with the attendees.

Below, Niels Hamdorf, a long-standing Hamburg Player, shares his impressions of the weekend:

Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed Phil’s directing workshop last weekend. And I’m probably speaking on behalf of most participants when I say that we left the clubhouse on Sunday afternoon with a feeling of an extremely rich experience. Thanks for organising the workshop which, I think, is likely to increase the pool of members willing to have a go at directing…

Phil had a great way of making this a truly interactive workshop where most of the ideas were generated by the Ensemble rather than by himself. He is a great believer in elliciting from the ensemble the ideas that “are in the room”. “It’s all there” he would say and proved his point several times over while we worked on Harold Pinter’s play “Black and White”: By first having us go through a brain-storming session on what everyone thought was its central theme and then having us draw (yes, with pen and paper!) the “shape, line, colour and texture” of the play we arrived at an almost overwhelming number of interpretations.

During the entire workshop Phil kept emphasizing how important the subtexts of a play can be, the inner voices, the things that are not said, the pauses. He also made it clear how beneficial it can be to involve the people in charge of costumes, the stage designer and props right from the start so that they are part of the joint effort of bringing the play to life. We discussed the role of the director, too, and how he needs to reconcile the need to be in charge with a great openness to suggestions from the cast.

Phil insisted that you cannot make mistakes in approaching a play. He regards the process starting with the choice of the play, the casting, the first read-throughs and then the actual rehearsals as a learning curve where inevitably certain alleys will be pursued and then given up again thus eventually guiding the ensemble to “the truth of the play”. But he also offered a wealth of brick-and-mortar stuff such as warm-ups (always to be specifically chosen for each rehearsal), diction and projection exercises and sprinkled this liberally with examples from his ample directing experience.

The workshop was very intense in the best sense of the word and kept its pace over the full course of the approximately 14 hours in total. In addition to the things mentioned above, this is what we managed to get through: We read a short excerpt from a modern play with strong language (I forget who the author is) in dozens of different ways, enacted a scene from Under Milkwood in two different versions plus the final chorus from Shakespeare’s Henry V in small groups of four or five people. All of this by way of preparing for Harold Pinter’s “Black and White” which we ended up staging (with props and all!) in four groups of three people each, one being the director and the other two the actors. You bet they came out very different, but they were all equally believable and received great praise from the "audience" and Phil.

Phil is a great facilitator and was very likeable in the way he conducted the workshop. I can only recommend you join in next time he honours us with his presence in Hamburg…

Thank you, Antwerp! A look back on FEATS 2018

 Not to give anything away - but this photo shows an award-winning group of theatre people!

Not to give anything away - but this photo shows an award-winning group of theatre people!

The long weekend around Whitsunday and -monday is traditionally the time for FEATS. For those of you not in the know, the Festival of European Anglophone Theatrical Societies is an annual theatre event bringing together English-speaking amateur theatre groups from all over Europe for friendly competition and lots of socializing under the guise of watching (and occasionally performing) a row of short plays each evening.

You may remember it from when we hosted it in Hamburg in the Altonaer Theater in 2015. The Hamburg Players have a history of competing successfully in the event, so we arrived in Antwerp, this year’s FEATS location, in high spirits. We took part in the festival with “The Hunchback Variations” by Mickle Maher, directed by Rebecca Garron.

How to pass the time before you're on

As our play wasn’t on until the third evening, we had two nights to check out the competition and reunite with old FEATS friends. All in all, the Hamburg Players came to Belgium with a congregation of nearly twenty people. Those included the cast and crew, as well as a number of spectators who came to cheer for our play, give moral support and simply have a good time in Antwerp watching theatre.

 Beautiful Antwerp

Beautiful Antwerp

Being such a big group meant we didn’t necessarily spend all of the day together. Some people went sightseeing in the beautiful city of Antwerp, some watched the Fringe, the out-of-competition afternoon programme at FEATS, some kept themselves otherwise occupied. Watching the Royal Wedding that happened that weekend was also high on some to-do lists. But in the evenings, everyone came together in the theatre for the plays and the following adjudication.

Dress rehearsal and last-minute solutions

Two days passed in this way, but by Sunday, it got serious. The day of our performance, we got a two-hour rehearsal period in the theatre. This is part of the FEATS process. Every group can use that rehearsal time however they please, but typically it’s used to arrange the set and test lights and sounds. I originally came to Antwerp only as a spectator but was allowed to join the crew last minute and take part in the rehearsal. It gave me a tiny little sneak peek into our play which already at this point promised to be good. Every last-minute problem that arose was solved, the most creative one being the replacement of our Quasimodo’s carefully prepared hump with a handbag, because it simply looked better.

 Quasimodo and the the magical handbag

Quasimodo and the the magical handbag

In the end, we were so effective that we finished our rehearsal half an hour early – something I’m sure must be unheard of in FEATS history. If you ask me, we should have been given the stage management award just for that. After all, it provided the hosting crew from BATS a longer break before the next group came in. (We didn’t win that, though. Turns out there are other considerations…)

There was some time to kill before the evening’s performance. After having lunch with all cast and crew, everyone fell back to their own methods to quell those pre-performance nerves. Taking a rest. Going for a run. Having an ice-cream. Whatever helps.

Finally, the evening had arrived. One minute into the play, it was already clear it would be a success. Audiences were laughing long before our two brilliant actors, Martin John Mills and Harald Djürken, even uttered their first lines. And they didn’t stop until the curtain closed after about 45 minutes of hilariously absurd theatre. The adjudicator, Ben Humphrey, had nothing but praise for our performance, both during his public adjudication in the evening and the private one with just our group the next morning.

And two awards go to...

After this, the hard part for us was over and we got to enjoy one last sunny day in Antwerp before the last three plays and of course the award ceremony on Monday night. While the first few awards went away to other groups for their great performances, our big moment started when it was time for the best actor award. Both Martin and Harald received a nomination, with Harald Djürken taking home the price!

 Harald Djürken receiving the award for best actor

Harald Djürken receiving the award for best actor

This was only topped when “The Hunchback Variations” was awarded the Founder’s Trophy for best play! A well-deserved achievement by the two actors, director Rebecca Garron and everyone else included in the production.

 Martin Mills (playing Ludwig van Beethoven opposite Harald's Quasimodo) with the award for best production at FEATS 2018

Martin Mills (playing Ludwig van Beethoven opposite Harald's Quasimodo) with the award for best production at FEATS 2018

 Martin and Harald - Beethoven and Quasimodo - with the two trophies for "The Hunchback Variations"

Martin and Harald - Beethoven and Quasimodo - with the two trophies for "The Hunchback Variations"

We spent the rest of the night like every self-respecting theatre group would do after such a success: celebrating at the theatre bar until late in the night. It was well into the early hours before everyone finally said goodbye to all their FEATS friends. Until we see them again next year in Munich, for FEATS 2019!

Nele Giese

Four weeks to go until premiere night!

Peeking into the rehearsal room, the actors are doing their acting, the director his directing, and those allowed to watch their fair share of laughing – “The Ladykillers” is a comedy, after all. Everyone involved in this production is more than a little busy at this point during the run-up to the premiere on 6 June. Aside from those onstage, about 15 people are on-board as crew members as of now. They have agreed to work backstage, on the set, on costumes, lights, props etc. A whole lot more help will be needed with the set building, so if you feel like joining the crew, let us know!

 Rehearsal for "The Ladykillers"

Rehearsal for "The Ladykillers"

With roughly four weeks to go to opening night, this seems like the perfect opportunity to chat with someone who has an overview of how the production is going: Lexi von Hoffmann, the producer of “The Ladykillers”. (Like all other parts at an amateur theatre group like the Hamburg Players, producing a play is a voluntary job and will change from production to production.)

What is the biggest challenge awaiting the production between now and the premiere?
Lexi: “We have a complicated set and a lot of things need to be built – and so sturdily that they will survive some rough-housing. Oh, and I have to find a way to make killing someone onstage with a very visible knife in the head look real. Anyone with ideas, get in touch! But that’s just the technical side of things. For the actors, the challenges are of course different. One of them has to learn to play the cello! And all of them are involved in intricate physical comedy that has to look real, and natural, and easy, while being entirely safe for the actors.”

For those who might not be in the know: what exactly does the job of a producer at the HPs entail? Are you the boss of the director?!
Lexi: “Ooooh, no, most certainly not! Producing is an organisational job designed to free the director to do the artistic, creative work without having to worry about the nuts and bolts of the production. It is the producer’s job sometimes, however, to tell the director that something that he or she would like to get, build or do is simply not possible from a financial, technical, or logistical point of view. Setting limits here may look like meddling in the creative process – but it’s really more of a reality check, in terms of what the Hamburg Players can do, than trying to influence artistic decisions.”

What is your favourite thing about this HP production of "The Ladykillers"?
Lexi: “Can I only name one? The genius criminal derailed by a little old lady! The prize-fighter who struggles with the cello! The cross-dressing colonel! The assassin who is scared of old ladies! The bank robber with a cleaning fetish! The incredibly ugly parrot! The scarf! The constable who can’t see the wood for the trees!”

More about "The Ladykillers" here.