CONTINUING OUR SERIES OF INTERVIEWS WITH FIRST-TIME DIRECTORS IN OXFORDSHIRE
In December 2016, after over twenty years in amateur theatre, I appeared in my first panto - Aladdin for Dorchester Amateur Dramatics Society (DADS). But I was not the only one doing a 'first'. Ann Winslet, another long-time performer, was making her debut as a director. It was a fun production to take part in, and one of the main reasons for that was having Ann at the helm. However, I wanted to find out a little bit more about her own experience in her new role, so we met over a coffee in Ann's home in Dorchester, which she shares with her husband and fellow DADS member Richard.
How did she come to be the director, I asked. 'Well I had my arm severely twisted, perhaps!' she laughed. 'No, in fact, I think they [DADS] were desperate to get people to come along and direct, and Rachel [Ann's daughter] and I said “we could give that a go, couldn't we?” and she got a play and I got the pantomime.'
So had she had a long background in theatre – had she done much drama before? 'I've always done acting, right from school all the way through, on and off,' she tells me. After Ann and her family had moved to Oxfordshire, Rachel, who had already become a member of DADS, heard they were looking for a prompt and persuaded her mother to volunteer. So she prompted several plays for the group.
After a while, someone suggested she turn to acting. The first show she performed in was 'Fiddler on the Roof'. She was in Australia on holiday at the time and received an email saying, 'we hear you're interested in doing it!' and she landed the role of Golda. 'I'm not a singer, but I did get the part, and it was lovely. I really enjoyed it. And I've been in and out since then.'
First-time directors will often have a mentor. Was that the case here? 'Well, I was supposed to have a mentor, and the two weeks I was away on holiday, she filled in for me. Other than that, I think I asked her the odd thing. But I pretty much followed my own course.'
Ann confided to me that she didn't initially have a vision for the play at the beginning of rehearsals, but she developed this as she went through. The whole directing thing presented quite a challenge. 'Never having done it before, I really struggled at the beginning. Not having a musical director, I had to find the music, the songs, and sort all that out. Russell, thank God, was brilliant as the pianist. So I had that all to do, and I had a hand in the costumes as well to begin with.'
We talked about her working relationship with the cast. She was aware of her own lack of directing experience. 'I didn't want to appear bossy or unco-operative, and I wanted to be able to hear what they had to say, and maybe not take up every suggestion, but try if I could.'
What were the most difficult aspects that she had to grapple with? 'We had to go over and over certain bits, particularly the sand dance towards the end, we really had to get to grips with that one. That was really tricky. It was good fun though.' The sand dance referred to was the classic fez and nightshirt routine made famous by Wilson, Keppel and Betty, that also incorporated a bit of stage magic too. It turned out to be the hit of the show, so the hours of hard work paid off.
'Getting a crew together was quite a challenge, because although the producer's supposed to do that, as the director, you've got to know that you can do it to start with, and getting the crew together is vital. I had a good crew, I was lucky I had a brilliant producer, Richard, if he's listening [Ann's husband Richard was out of earshot]! And that makes a huge difference. I'm not a singer and I'm not a dancer, but I had to choreograph everything as well, and although there wasn't that much, you have to put it all together. I was standing in my kitchen, putting bits together, thinking “will that work?” We got there in the end, but it was tricky. It was a challenge, but people have said it will go down in DADS history and, touch wood, I think it will.'
At the end of the production, what did she get out of it? 'I was thrilled that I'd actually done it. Great satisfaction, really.'
I asked Ann if she had any advice for budding directors. Her reply was forthright: 'Don't do it!!' she laughed. But then she revealed that she will, in fact, be directing the DADS Christmas show, The Slipper and the Rose, in November 2018. Any other tips? 'Look into it first, really go into it and realise what you're getting into, because it is not easy.' Maybe so, but the experience has taught Ann a lot, and I have a feeling that everyone will notice the difference with her second show.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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