Friday, 4 May 2012

The Day The Badger Growled.

I was at a meeting the other day and someone asked about the one moment, the epiphany if you like, that made you fall in love with live Theatre (yes, it was that kind of meeting...). So, naturally, when someone asks you a question like that, you start to think...

In the end, I went for a slightly strange example.

It comes from when I was at school, probably around 13 or 14 years old, and I was taken to see a Panto. Now I need to explain a few things. First off, no 13 or 14 year old in the world wants to go to Panto, or wants to be seen wanting to go to Panto, and I was no different. I was far too old for that baby stuff. The fact that I was going with a group of friends of the same age didn't help - they didn't want to be there either.

On top of this was the fact that we weren't actually seeing a Panto (bear with me). We were going to our local Rep Theatre, the Octagon in Bolton, and the Octagon was far too Right On to put on a Panto. Instead, they had a Family Show, and this particular year it was a version of The Wind In The Willows. Now, if any of you out there know The Octagon, you'll know that it is an excellent theatre with great repertory productions. It also specialised in Theatre In The Round - where the audience sit all around the playing space and are frequently just a nose hair away from the actors. This can make for a wonderfully vivid experience but it can also be an eye-opener...

So, the night came and my friends and I trotted off to the theatre and took our seats. Now, one more thing you should know about 13 or 14 year old boys is that they have extremely smutty minds. Or at least, we had. Panto frequently employs double-entendre for comic effect, but this Family Show didn't. Not that it mattered to us - we just added our own. We giggled in the wrong places; found smut in the most innocuous phrases. I'm not proud of it, but it happened. I'm sure the audience around us noticed.

The actors certainly did.

There came a part during the show, in the first half, where the characters on stage sung a song and invited the audience to join in with the chorus. So they started it up, gave us all the chorus once, and then - well, then the actor playing Badger (who I remember as quite burly and wearing faintly scary make-up) walked straight up to the four of us and loudly announced that we should stand up and sing it for everyone else! I'm sure you could have heard a pin drop. As one, we shrank into our seats and tried to pretend we weren't there. But Ratty joined in now, and got the audience to applaud us, so - shaking, and with very quiet voices - we did as Badger said and sang the chorus.

We were perfect audience members for the rest of the show.

Now I'm sure this story would put the terrors into some people out there and they would vow never to go near a theatre again, but for me it had exactly the opposite effect. Suddenly, I realised what live theatre could do. It could affect you on a very immediate level; yes, it could scare you but deep down (or even quite close to the surface) we knew we were doing wrong. I think we thought that it was like talking in front of the TV. With theatre, however, there could be consequences, for at it's most basic level a performance is a dialogue between the actors and the audience. It's just that, this time, the dialogue was more obvious. And I realised also the power that an actor can have. For not only did Badger quell us, he gave the whole audience a reason to engage with him and to join in a common purpose : showing up those little upstarts who had been spoiling the play for them. Furthermore, he did it without breaking character. And that one act opened up a whole new world to me, full of possibilities and one that I still find surprises in today.

So, that's my epiphany. What's yours? Add your comments below by clicking where it says 'comments'.

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