Meet the New Presidents of LUU’s Theatre Group and Open Theatre

Views Editor Ed Barnes talks new projects and daunting audition processes with Theatre Group‘s Katie Austin and Open Theatre‘s Eve Walton

So first of all, to any readers who haven’t heard of your societies, what is it that you do?

EVE: So Open Theatre (OT) is an experimental theatre society. We like to try new types of theatre and new pieces of writing. A lot of the time it’s written by students who’ve never written anything before. We’ve had puppetry, immersive design shows and chances to play with all the different aspects of theatre.

KATIE: Where Theatre Group (TG) differs from Open Theatre is that we put on existing shows so people can pitch plays to us and we fund them. We’re celebrating our one-hundred-year anniversary this year so we have quite a lot going on. Each year we take two plays to the Edinburgh Fringe.

EVE: We’ve just started taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe too, which is both terrifying and rewarding.

What plays were those this year?

KATIE: So this year, we have ‘When You Kill Me’ by Jack Thorne and a piece of new writing that was called ‘The Insignificant Life and Death of Colin McKenzie’ and they both did really well.

EVE: Ours was a piece I wrote called ‘Bag for Life’.

Given that there are several theatre societies operating in the Union, what would you say makes you stand out?

KATIE: I think for TG it’s because we are one of the longest-running theatre societies, so we’re pretty well-established, and have a lot of alumni and connections. We have a lot of funding which means we can provide more sets, props, and costumes. One thing we’re wanting to work towards this year is providing more opportunities for people to do lighting and sound.

EVE: We’re only a baby, ten this year. With a lot of shows at University, there is this pressure to be mainstream and commercially liked. We offer a chance to do something that is risky and hope it pays off – which it quite often does.

What projects have you got lined up this year that you’re most looking forward to performing?

KATIE: I like all of our shows this year, I can’t pick one. Our first show that we’ve got auditions for this week is ‘Othello’, and for that we have a huge cast of eighteen people, which is unheard of for a TG show. The week after we have auditions for ‘No Exit’, a different kind of dark comedy, and then later in the semester we have ‘Doctor Faustus’ and ‘Proof’. We’ll also be having Christmas drinks and an alumni event this year to celebrate, so it’s going to be an exciting year.

EVE: There’s so much. We have three pieces of new writing. We have one called ‘The Right Here Right Now Show’ that is set up like the audience is invited to the set of a talk show but things go wrong. It will be interesting to play on that format. We then have the dystopian ‘Jellyfish’, and one we’re really looking forward to is called ‘Shut Up, Helen’ – it’s our first venture into musical theatre. Amy Cross, who wrote it, has characters playing the guitar, the ukulele and she wrote all the music as well. It’s the first time we’ve had to find a musical director and a live band, so it will be interesting to see how it will play out. Right at the end of the semester, we’re also doing a biography of Tommy Cooper’s life that is going to be in cabaret, which will be a lot of fun.

Are there any ways you’d change how the societies are run from previous years? What are you doing to make the societies run better?

EVE: I think one of the things OT has been striving for this year and last is getting rid of any ‘this is how it’s done’ attitude, and we’ll continue to do so. We used to say we’d only do four shows and that was it, but last year we decided to take on a fifth show. We were then able to negotiate with the Union to set up a pop-up gallery event that happened over four weeks. It was an exhibition of UFOs and wings, and then we built it up to a two-night performance. It was a step away from what we usually do as it was more live-art, but it was nice to open up new opportunities. Let’s forget about programming and do what we can.

KATIE: I think something that TG is doing differently this year in regard to Edinburgh is we are changing our venue, hoping to go a bit bigger. This will provide more opportunities to see how a different venue runs and to meet new people. Also, one thing that we found is that some members felt if they were not part of a show, they were not part of the society. We hold regular socials now as well as meetings to ecouage members who are not part of any show to be included in the society. We also have our shadowing scheme; this year we have opened up from two shadowing positions to six, and we are now offering opportunities to shadow lighting, sound, costume and set. Theatre isn’t just about the acting, directing, and producing; there’s so much more that goes on.

EVE: We do a lot of design-based shows that aren’t necessarily based around the actors. We’re starting a design team so each of the four shows this semester has a lead designer. They will all come together to help each other, so anyone who doesn’t have as much experience but wants to be involved – and learn more – can help out. They don’t have to commit to one show, so they can just assist and get the experience if they want to become a lead designer themselves.

KATIE: Yeah definitely, then it is more of a way for people like Freshers to be part of it in a small way and create a path for them to take on larger roles with more experience. I think TG wants to have more of a community feel this year.

Obviously, Drama students will have the upper hand in the audition process as they study the subject. What would you do to make the society more equal, particularly to help those with talent but little experience auditioning?

KATIE: This year is a strong point for TG. Half of our committee don’t study Drama, and that shows that people from other courses can get involved. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel intimidated; we’ve got people on our committee who don’t study it and are still involved.

EVE: We’re doing our GIAG session on 7th October, just before our last couple of sets of auditions, and that is going to be an audition workshop. We’ll take these students through examples of games, read a couple of scripts, and be in an environment where they can riff off each other and not be judged. They can see then what it will be like. It’s a good way of meeting new people too. The form that you sign with your contact details for the production team used to include what course you did at Uni, and we thought that, by putting that in, people are going to feel that there’s loads of theatre students auditioning. By getting rid of that, it just becomes a blind process.

Is there a possibility that, because you might have seen drama students or friends perform before, they might have an upper hand over people who are new?

KATIE: Not at all. Pre-casting is not a thing.

EVE: It goes against everything that we stand for.

KATIE: I think the most exciting thing about being on an audition panel is that people turn up who you haven’t seen before. It’s a fresh new face and potentially a different take on things.

EVE: It also helps that not all of the production team study Drama. We have a director who studies Maths, and that will mean they do not know those people, allowing them to offer an alternative voice if they think someone else was better.

KATIE: That’s why we have recalls as well as it’s a chance to see people again.

Some students have mentioned that they never received advice on how to improve in the future after they didn’t get a part, even after being called back. Do you feel it would be good to offer support or advice to students who fail to make call-backs or roles, so that they have a better chance in the future? Particularly because non-theatre students might not have as much experience.

KATIE: After auditions, we always ask our production teams to send out offers for feedback. We tell them to make as many notes as possible, so you can always offer constructive advice.

EVE: It is difficult sometimes as well, because you will have a brilliant actor, but they are just not right for any of the parts and you can’t tell them they did anything wrong. We feel like that’s a mirror of what happens in the industry too. Sometimes though we‘ve run with it (when someone comes up with something original), as that’s not actually a bad thing, and we‘re getting a much more positive response because of it.

KATIE: For auditions you really do have to go in with an open mind, see who’s talented, and try not to say “I want this.”

Some students have described audition processes as “daunting”, “non-inclusive” and elitist. What do you have to say to this?

KATIE: We are so open, and it really upsets me that some people feel that way. I would never want that.

EVE: I am just as nervous as anybody else. I remember my first audition, and the thing that made it so much easier for me was going in and seeing someone that I knew. That’s what we are trying to do by going to Welcome Lectures, being at the Fresher’s Fair, and welcome drinks. The first 15-20 minutes of auditions are literally just games, usually Splat or Zip-Zap-Boing.

KATIE: Yeah, just trying to relax and settle nerves.

EVE: There’s none of this bring anything in advance, bring headshots, bring a show reel. We’re just trying to get people involved.

KATIE: Societies are about having fun, we want you to join. We all join theatre societies because we’re all likeminded individuals who all like theatre.

EVE: There’s a misconception about us being elitist, but even the people like us on the committees have been members since we started, are still auditioning and trying to do shows. We get knocked back as much as anyone else, as it’s all about who is the best in the room.

KATIE: I think as well, we have half the committee who were freshers last year and they’ll be hyperaware of these new people coming in, and make sure it’s open and very much a community.

EVE: I have had so much fun both auditioning and being part of a production. The two people I live with this year are in different years, do different courses and I wouldn’t have anything else in common unless I had met them at the audition.

Finally, what would you say to any student wanting to join your society? When are your Give-It-A-Gos?

KATIE: It is an opportunity to meet people, have fun, do a couple of drama games and be someone else for a bit. Our Give-It-A-Go is on the 30th October at 4 till 5:30 in Stage at Leeds and you can mess around with some tech stuff, speak to some directors, producers, see if you want to propose a show yourself.

EVE: We have another set of auditions from the 1st-3rd October and 3rd-5th October in the afternoons and the evenings. Our Give-It-A-Go is on the 7th. We really want to see some new faces.

KATIE: TG has been going for over 100 years, we need some fresh faces!

EVE: Just go for it! What have you got to lose.

Image Courtesy of the Bella Rose Arts Centre