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THE HISTORY OF OXFORD THEATRE GUILD

Ursula Mullard recalls her experience of the Guild over the years

The fifty years since Daphne Levens’ production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1955) have been turbulent in the theatre and perhaps what we are celebrating is the Guild’s resilience and adaptability to changing conditions and changing audience expectations. It has not stuck at any particular fashion but has accepted new styles of acting and production, new stage technology and has reached out to new people and new audiences. Quite an achievement and one that we should celebrate. By the time I joined the Guild it already had a fine reputation. I had been concerned in many school productions and became deeply interested in directing. One thing I was sure about was that to be a director who had not only to love live theatre but you had to know as much as possible about all the activities that support an actor.

The Guild – especially Jenny Bostock – were very welcoming and I soon had my first job. This was to lie on the floor, off-stage, on my stomach in Josca’s theatre and blow dry ice on the stage in the last part of Tom Stoppard’s Real Inspector Hound (1973). “Blow”, I said “with a bellows – or perhaps a fan – or even a hairdryer?” “TOO NOISY” they said, “JUST BLOW!” The result was not spectacular, but I continue to the end of the run, convinced that the audience thought someone was smoking back-stage. The summer Shakespeare came round. It was Jenny Bostock’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1974) in Merton garden. “If I liked,” they said, “I could sit in the lighting-box and see how the control board worked. That is, if you don’t mind looking after Moon’s dog at the same time.” It was an accommodating square animal belonging to the producer and was content to slumber in the bushes when not on stage. I enjoyed every minute of it. My experience of lighting had b6 Patt 23s in a large space. My instructor was brilliant at using them and I often looked back to the effects he produced seemingly effortlessly. If you are not so brilliant, I discovered you need more lights, and these the Guild had.

Peter Hunter a student at Magdalen College School, was the lighting designer. The first night he left the lighting plot in the school boarding house. “Stay here”, he said, rapidly running his fingers over the control board, “and if it gets dark put the grey switch uto 10”. “OK” I quavered, “but be quick!” It was a long wait as the boarding house was locked. It did get rather dark and I did put the grey switch up to 10. And I was entranced with the depth and magic the lights conjured up on stage. Peter went on to qualify as a lighting designer at LAMDA and over the years has been a good friento the Guild. It was he who advised and organised the buying of much of the new Guild equipment – at a discount. My next job was thrust upon me suddenly. I was meant to be an ASM in Val Lucas’ production of Ring around the Moon (1976). I arrived back the day before the Tech from a ski-ing holiday with a scraped and ugly face where I had fallen on an icy slope. In the letterbox was the prompt copy with a scribbled note from Tim Gallie the SM. “Had to go to Paris – take over at the Playhouse.”

What was going to happen? I dreaded to think about it overnight. But, as ever, the Playhouse staff were understanding. They showed me the prompt desk and hovered for the first act of the first night. After that I was oblivious to the outside world. There was much prompting to do in that production and, in fact, Val had to take over from of the actors after two days. But it was a delightful production of a delightful play and I shall always remember how the whole cast quietly appeared in the wings to watch Anita Wright do a tango with Ron Creber. What does one do when the audience won’t stop clapping? I had no idea. “Don’t hurry them” I thought, and then decided we must get on with the play. Thereafter with great delight I stage managed many more of the Playhouse productions and learnt much about the technical side of the theatre – sometimes the hard way. Inevitably there came a night when a flat with a door in it was flown in. I had not arranged for anyone to unlock it. Only Freddie Madden could have saved the situation. He tried the door several times, banged on it imperiously, and said in a loud voice, “Please get one of the servants to open this door.”

Eventually there was nothing for it. I had to direct an outdoor Shakespeare. I offered to do Coriolanus (1978), a play that had haunted me for many years. The committee were supportive but uncomprehending. Why Coriolanus? But they let me go ahead. I suggested we tried for Queen’s College because of the magnificent front of the Cockerell Library which overlooked the Provost’s garden. I had a contact in the college and Peter Esnouf was his usual persuasive self. The Provost at the time was Lord Blake (historian of the Tory Party) and he agreed. Little did I realise in the triumph of getting the site I dreamed of, what a nagging problem “the Provost’s rosebeds” were going to be. They stretched right across the stage about 10 feet from the bottom of the steps that ran in front of the library with a 10 feet gap in the middle, making it almost impossible to choreograph the Aufidius/Coriolanus fight without using diagonal fight-lines. In those days the director of the summer Shakespeare was very much alone. Costumes, make-up, music, publicity, posters, lighting design, props, clamoured for attention. Fortunately my daughter, fresh from Webber-Douglas offered to choreograph. The play required a large cast; the main protagonists cast themselves and I was lucky, but when it came to Roman soldiery, the Volscans, the Roman mob,and the senate, it was daunting. It was in this production that Pat Sellwood and John Pill joined the Guild and were stalwarts for many subsequent productions. Pat Sellwood was a “find”. He had been in the Navy and had been taught to fight with a cutlass. AND he knew how to do a dead-march. David Podd was cajoled into composing the music. He didn’t turn a hair when I asked him for 45 seconds of rapine and murder behind the walls of Corioli! Finally towards the end of the rehearsal period Coriolanus decided he couldn’t fight in glasses and it was dangerous to fight without. Impasse. Would the production pay for contact lenses? We made an agreement and rehearsed the fight. As if become more furious there was a wail “My contact lenses have fallen out!” Down on our hands and knees in the roses we all went, and found them. Fair enough, it was the first time, but it happened every night and the “lens hunt” became a routine as soon as most of the audience retired for their mulled wine. Three of us with a torch crawled around until the torch shone on the lens. The whole production for me was magical. Yes it was amateur, yes the fights were not up to modern standards, but the acting had moments worth of Stratford. Some weeks later I had a letter from a family friend in the U.S. She had come to the production and on the plan home sat next to an American who had “done” Oxford. The highlight of the visit, he told her, was a performance of Coriolanus in one of the colleges. He had never seen anything so moving. Nor had I. They were a wonderful cast, and fell under the spell of the play.

The next year at the end of the Playhouse production, Bob Booth the Chairman at the time said as we finally swept the stage before leaving, “No-one has offered to do the summer production. How do you feel?” I looked at him leaning nonchalantly on the broom and suddenly saw a Petruchio. “I’ll do you a Shrew (1979)”, I said. It was in Keble Garden before the new buildings filled the space. I was pig-headed about doing the whole play – which nearly nobody does now - and had the idea that Christopher Sly should gradually become Grumio. Dick Russell who was an obvious Grumio was bemused by this but he did what I wanted to the last look of bewilderment as he woke up centre stage and became Christopher Sly again. By this means we kept the “play with a play”, and with the permission of a very accommodating Bursar the cast was able to arrive on stage in Bob Booth’s large van, and drive around the garden. Later the same accommodating Bursar allowed us to admit a horse as part of the cast. He was a fine horse and he came from Port Meadow including an owner who dressed in appropriate costume. As Petruchio snatched up Katharina after the wedding he leapt on the horse’s back (from behind) and galloped away into the trees. Later as the play ended Petruchio, Katerina and the horse led the cast away up a grassy bank and out of sight, leaving Grumio centre stage to change into his working clothes. The horse behaved impeccably until the last matinee when he decided he did not like being jumped on from behind. With not a hesitation Bob ran after him and holding his bride across the saddle walked off as usual. I think the Guild has used dogs and a kestrel in its productions but I think it was the only time we had had a horse on stage.

Outdoor Shakespeare is exciting, demanding and when all goes well a deeply satisfying experience for actors and audience alike. There are problems. Extraneous noise is the worst – emergency sirens, helicopters, church bells, motor bikes, summer conferences in the host college, and wind. This has to be fought against so that, however insistent the director has been all through rehearsals, the dress rehearsal can lead to despair and a sudden disastrous disappearance of subtlety. The ACTORS CAN’T BE HEARD! In a small garden where the angle of the seating can’t be adjusted to enclose the acting space, the difficulty can kill the production. The Guild now has voice coaches to help inexperienced actors, but this wasn’t in the budget twenty years ago, and it was an acute worry. The weather can be unkind: I remember having to abandon the last scene of The Winter’s Tale (1983) because lightning was very close and Peter Esnouf was worried about the earthing of the stands. I felt we had kept the audience safe but had deprived them of understanding the play. Not many of them accepted tickets for another night. A party of tourists were in Oxford for one night only. Finally for an amateur company the end of July and the rehearsal weeks leading up to it are a difficult time – holidays, school public exams, visitors and a hundred other commitments make casting a lottery and the rehearsal schedule a nightmare.

For other reasons as well as these I had always wanted to do a bare bones indoor Shakespeare and the idea of Othello (1981) in the round had haunted me for several years. It was a mad Guild year; we did six productions for the first time ever but I was allowed to try, in the Clarendon Building in Walton Street. There were eight actors and I was lucky in that Bob Booth agreed to try Othello, Adrian Bullock Iago, and Andy Badenoch, Cassio. As support I had three of the Guild’s best Shakespeareans: Brian Jackson, Peter Malin and David Howarth. We erected an oblong stage on the floor, with a ramp either side. Props? Well we had a bed and huge ecclesiastical candlestick from Wolvercote Church – and a handkerchief. Mike Clarke, who was with the Guild only too short a time, dreamed up a striking lighting plot. I was euphoric, the Press was kind and we only had one night when a youn couple nearly on stage giggled as Othello killed Desdemona. There were imperfections but not one of the cast failed to find for the audience the extraordinary power and beauty of the play’s verse. We did, of course, use the Clarendon for what is was used for at the beginning of the century. Jenny Bostock and Dick Russell were the leading lights and we always had a full house. Alas, the Music Hall was not everyone’s favourite in the Guild and the tradition gradually faded. Dick, the one and only Chairman, moved from Oxford to another job for some years and in 19 Jenny Bostock died. The Clarendon Institute is now the Faculty of Oriental Studies.

I came late to Music Hall and knew nothing of its traditions until I saw a Guild version. Thereafter I happily sat in the lighting gallery at the show and became addicted. We had a hired follow-spot which was past its sell-by date. It swung wildly until we found a not onion bag and two 2lb bags of sugar to keep it steady. A series of musicians joined in …. : Humphrey Carpenter who when bored with the drums played the radiator, or anything else within reach; David Podd with each fingertip wrapped in elastoplast so whole-heartedly did he thump the piano, and David Moss – who took every disaster in his stride. When the portrait of Queen Victoria fell off the hall wall into the laps of a section of the audience, he shouted above his own music, “Never trust an old queen!” The audience roared. Just as they roared at Keith Taylor’s rendition of Thora, a sentimental Victorian ballad. Keith ha fine tenor voice and came on stage dressed in immaculate evening dress. As line followed line, accompanied by suitable expansive gestures, there were a few titters, then more, until people realized his arms were getting longer and longer. By the time he rubbed the back of his left hand with his right arm while still standing the audience was beside itself. This and Jan Russell’s “marrow song” became the trademark of the Guild Music Hall. It was a sad day when Keith Taylor announced he had sent his special suit with double sleeves to the cleaners for the last time.

Lighting the Music Hall was just plain good fun. More exacting and more exciting was lighting the Playhouse and the summer productions. Of course the Guild now has an impressive stock of up-to-date lighting and sound equipment, but when I first lit Daphne’s Pericles (1977) in New College it was quite difficult to find enough variety of lanterns to give cover, as Daphne put it, to the “Cook’s tour of the middle east”. Her Two Gentlemen of Verona was more confined and therefore easier except for the hogweed. Daphne did not like giant hogweed in the middle of her stage; the college gardener was adamant it had to stay. I saw his point; I too like giant hogweed. At the tech I erected a lantern on a stand beaming low side light on the offending plant. I heard no more complaints. I consider myself lucky to have been the only person in the Guild for several years who was willing to design the Playhouse lighting. The first time was for Val Lucas’ production of Blithe Spirit (1982). It was of course in the days when the control board was manual, a huge installation above the Gallery. There’ll be someone around I thought if I’m in trouble. I was introduced to the board and was helped to match lanterns to channels. The Playhouse designer lurked during the first act and then I was on my own. By the last night the panic had subsided and as I turned the houselights up for the last time I knew I wanted to go on doing it. It was the last skill I realized a director must have to use light to set the mood of a play and to focus the action. Technical advances have now gone so far that I haven’t a hope of following them, but I still love to manipulate light to help the actors shape the play.

Most of all, the history of Oxford Theatre Guild is the long list of the shows it has produced. Visit previous productions to see the whole list, and pictures and reviews where available.

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