Thirteen of our Performing Arts students joined a starry cast for the Touring Consortium and Liverpool Everyman’s production of Kes, at the Alhambra Theatre from 10th to 14th November.
The gritty story of Billy Casper escaping his day to day misery of neglect, bullying and a bleak future down the pit by training a kestrel was first told in the 1968 novel A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, which Ken Loach adapted for his award winning film, Kes. This latest stage version, written by Lawrence Till, has been well received by public and critics. The story is set in a South Yorkshire pit village just weeks before Billy leaves school and our students play his schoolmates.
The company had approached Damien O'Keeffe, Bradford College’s Curriculum Team Leader for Media, Music and Performing Arts, during the summer following a recommendation from the Alhambra. But a tight touring schedule meant that the students had a relatively short time to prepare ready for five evening and two matinee performances.
We first caught up with our students and the show’s Producer, Neale Birch, during their third session together in College. The next time they met would be the day of their debut, when they would have costumes fitted, spend a final half hour with the producer before a technical rehearsal with full cast and crew. Then there was only an hour for something to eat before they needed to be back at the theatre to get ready for the first performance.
This was an incredible opportunity to work with a highly regarded professional company and consequently the standards required, even when in College, were those demanded of professional actors. The students had to concentrate intently while rehearsing scenes in the College studios, with all the lines that would later be spoken by professional actors given by Neale, and taking stage directions that would later be translated on to the large Alhambra stage where they would follow cue lights and stage markings. Neale told them “It is difficult now, not seeing it but just feeling it, but you have to be conscious of where the other actors are. Keep your senses open at all times.”
Everyone had some lines, and some students had larger speaking parts, but every scene required real concentration. For instance, for the responses to their names being called from the register in class, the students were expected to listen to each other and improvise according to what was said before. Their physical reactions were stylised and as important as verbal input, giving a feeling of great boredom , great weight and physical drudgery in class to show what a horrible place the school was, followed by an explosion of energy after the assembly, conveying a sense of release and noise. The students were also involved in complex transitions between scenes.
Producer Neale Birch has an exceptionally demanding job. He explained, “Logistically it is very difficult. I have worked with ten groups altogether now; three in Liverpool and seven at different venues. To rehearse all these different groups while producing a touring production is a lot of hard work but very worthwhile. The play requires this and the impact the students bring. We have an ensemble of twelve actors and we add thirteen students to that. They fill out Billy’s world, adding to the authenticity of the story.
The Bradford students are terrific. They are slightly more mature than some of the groups I have worked with and can take things on very quickly. The performing experience they already have means that they understand what is required. I first came here about three weeks ago for the first rehearsal, to introduce then to the story and get to know them so I could select six for larger speaking parts. My job is fun when I get feedback and these students are genuinely excited about working with a professional company.”
Apart from the programme credit, the audience would not have discerned a difference between our students and the other members of the company, as they were so professional. The students featured in Kes were: Lauren Ansell, Zuhayr Chaudry, Cain Connelly, Rebecca Donnison, Liz Hall, Andrew Harney, Sophie Kelly, Adam Mitulinski, Alicia Norfolk, Richard Orange, Beth Oswald, Dominic Scott and Sarah Yates. This experience will enhance their skills and some already impressive portfolios.
Adam gained new focus for his ambitions from appearing in the show. “It was just brilliant to have been in the presence of actors like Daniel Casey, let alone be on stage with them. What we did really set the feel for the play, particularly at first. Everything was very well organised and just came together. I was considering pursuing acting as a career, but after Kes I know that I really want to work in live theatre. Every performance was incredible.”
Beth, who appeared in the Heartbeatfilming at College at Easter this year and has danced and acted in countless performances, was surprised at the time constraints professionals worked under. “Everything I have done with College or the dancing school I attend has involved weeks of rehearsals. For this, we just rehearsed three times and we were on! During the week’s run the actor who played Billy got sick and the understudy had to replace him for the Saturday matinee and evening. It shows you always have to be ready. It was an amazing experience.”
Cain, who also appeared in Heartbeat turned down the chance to dance with Ballet Rambert in London to appear in Kes. “It was a big decision but I had already spent two weeks on a Ballet Rambert summer school this year. I loved it and was really pleased when they invited me back but I thought that Kes was a bigger opportunity.”