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My Year Out Drama

A BLOG BY RELI HARRIS-JOHNSTONE

Leaving sixth-form I had no clue what I wanted to do. I didn’t understand how my friends applying to Uni were so relaxed about committing to one subject for the next 3 years! The plans of my other friends doing gap years of ski seasons and South America didn’t appeal to me at all. In that difficult position of lacking direction, but also wanting a purpose and to be productive, I found the perfect solution and blessing – Year Out Drama.

Looking back on my experience of Year Out Drama is reflecting on a whirlwind of excitement, hard work, and experiences that I will never forget. In September 2021 I would never have foreseen that this company would have achieved the sheer amount we did, that I would have made the friends I have, and that I have grown so much as a person along the way.

Right from the get-go all members of the company were plunged head-first into the Year Out Drama experience. On the first day we all moved into Stratford and had our first gathering as a company. Looking round the Headquarters I was immediately hit with how every part of the building was drenched with personality, from the first sign when you walk into the building; “Hello Sweetings”, (One of Deborah’s iconic catchphrases), to the innumerable posters and photos from previous shows, I immediately felt at home and knew that I was somewhere very special.

And so, the YOD experience began. The first few weeks flew by, from the first warm up with Debs where we learnt “bobbling” – a skill which requires time and effort to truly master! To working with visiting director Adam Fotheringham focusing on trust and team-building, we had soon finished our first projects; Greek monologues which we wrote ourselves. Continuing the Greek theme, this was closely followed by Greek tales which we devised into performances in small groups and ending with a showcase of our work at the end. These projects in small groups gave us the time to gel, get to know each other and gain an understanding of how the other members of the company worked. This also prepared us for our first show directed by Deborah Moody herself; As You Like It (But Not As You Know It)!

This show involved heavy amounts of multi-rolling and we were cutting and swapping lines even down to the word. This was a challenge we fully embraced in tackling Shakespeare’s already notoriously difficult writing. Ensemble and solo singing directed by the talented Joe Atkins was included, as were dance numbers directed by our creative and innovative dance teacher Kath Waters. As with every Year Out Drama show, but especially this; the extremely ensemble-based nature of the play, with all of us swapping between both male and female roles, meant that by the end of the show we truly felt like a tightly-knit performance group. Added to this, the fact that we were both living and working together, by the final performance we had truly become not only great friends, but a cohesive company. However, the term hadn’t finished after the final show, and we were met with a quick two weeks of rehearsing our Snowflake dance routine, and rehearsing Christmas carols which we performed around pubs and areas of Stratford (including outside Shakespeare’s birthplace). We ended the term on a high, feeling festive and united as a company.

The new year saw us working with the extremely personable and inspiring visiting director Greg Banks, where we spent two weeks rehearsing Blood Wedding by Lorca. As a director, Greg is involved and passionate with creative staging ideas. In this production all actors were onstage sat in a semi-circle of chairs throughout the whole show, an interesting concept and reminded us of the importance of focus and concentration.

Sad to wave goodbye to Greg we were quickly faced with our most ambitious project yet. My personal favourite, and I’m sure many other 21/22 company members would agree with me this show trumps anything I’ve ever done previously, and it will take something very special to top it; The Threepenny Opera.

Alastair was the director for this show and we were fortunate enough to have Joe Atkins as musical director. Looking back at this 5-week whirlwind of learning characterisation, songs, lines and dance routines I can’t believe how much we packed into that short space of time. We all learnt so much under Al’s direction, before even thinking about learning lines we spent time at the start of the process doing movement and speech exercises to get to know our characters. This meant that we all grew a special affinity with our characters, and by the first dress run this groundwork at the beginning of the process was noticeable as we were all so confident and familiar with our roles. I was fortunate enough to take on the role of assistant Musical Director, and under the guidance of Joe was able to try new skills to improve my musicality such as leading vocal warmups and assisting individuals with harmonies.  When we had time to reflect at the end of this project, we knew we had created something truly special.

The summer term saw the incredible opportunity to work with first-time visiting director Rupert Hands. Working with Rupert gave us insight into the professional world, and our production of Spring Awakening performed in the round was immersive and distorted traditional ideas of how theatre is performed, this experience taught us lots.

And then the final show came around all too quickly, once again we were thrilled to be under the musical direction of the wonderful Joseph Atkins, and he had arranged a range of music to form a Cabaret show; My Summer Fling. This show featured text written by Debs and dance choreographed by Kath. These elements combined with Joes eclectic mix of musically challenging arrangements ranging from The Wurzels to Kate Bush meant that we truly did go out with a bang! Standing on stage for the reprise, dancing and singing with my closest friends who I had spent the past year growing to know and love, will be a memory that I will never forget.

From Greek tragedy to circus skills to Morris dancing there has never been a dull day at Year Out Drama. I reflect on this experience as holding some of the happiest memories of my life, and I will forever be completely jealous of those who are still yet to do it! Year Out Drama will always have a special place in my heart, and I will always think of that little corner in Stratford-Upon-Avon as home.

Reli Harris-Johnstone.