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My first theatre trip of 2012 was to the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre to see the endlessly inventive, creative, heart-stoppingly beautiful, Slava’s Snowshow. It couldn’t have been a more inspiring way to begin the New Year.
In many ways, it made me think of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, which I had to read all those years ago as a drama student at Bristol, and which I recently re-read;
“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged”
Slava’s Snowshow was in many senses an archaic act of theatre, a pantomime and a richly detailed exploration of the physical, at once melancholy and extraordinarily joyous. But at its heart was Brook’s simplicity – a man, an empty space and the combination of the two creating a perfect act of theatre.
What thrilled me most of all though was the number of young children in the audience. On every row, at least a quarter of the seats were occupied by small children, transfixed, open-mouthed, reveling in the sheer joyousness of the world Slava and his troupe had created. It is vital for our continued cultural development that we encourage more children to attend the theatre. These are the practitioners of the future, and if their first experience of theatre is something as exuberant and exciting as Slava’s Snowshow, then I imagine we are in for quite a treat in the next few decades.
Surrounded by young people, I couldn’t help but recall my own first experiences of the theatre. Being fortunate enough to have been educated in a pre-National Curriculum, pre-Health & Safety Risk Assessment world, my first ever trip to the theatre was, perhaps unusually, to see London Festival Ballet perform Swan Lake at the London Coliseum. I saw the LFB perform Cinderella two years later, here in the Royal Festival Hall, Meg & Mog at the Unicorn Theatre, now the Arts Theatre in London, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the National, Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria – all before I had left primary school. I had been one of the first members of the Tricycle Youth Theatre, learning from Matthew Kelly, and watching the first performances of Jenny Jules, and I travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon for one glorious weekend to stay in a youth hostel and drink in all that the RSC had to offer.
All these experiences shaped me, I remember many of them exceptionally clearly – meeting former Prime Minister Edward Heath at Cinderella (I still have the programme he kindly autographed), I can still sing some of the songs from that magical production of Meg & Mog, and I remember clearly being transported, tearfully, to a place of utter loneliness in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the National Theatre, and having to be told to calm down on the bus home after Starlight Express sent me into paroxysms of hyperactivity.
Since then, I have performed myself at the Royal Festival Hall, and the London Coliseum. Places that were once a magical fantasy to me became, for a short time, a second home. And I am still obsessed with the theatre. My bookshelves groan under the weight of programmes I have collected over the decades; my mind is filled with memories of magical things I have seen, and my heart with plays, performers and theatres that have touched my soul.
When I was, for a short while, a teacher of drama myself, I was horrified to be told that I could not take my Year 7 class to the theatre, that I could only take my Year 10 GCSE Drama students. Effectively then, any student who had not elected to study Drama at GCSE might complete their entire education without ever once going to the theatre. This is a terrible and alarming state of affairs. How thrilling then, to see that for so many parents, a Christmas trip to the theatre is still a wonderful treat.
Your first visit to the theatre will have shaped you, will have influenced your thoughts about the kind of work you want to do, the sort of work you want to be in, the sort of work you like to watch.
It can be no accident that when I chose to study at Mountview, I chose Musical Theatre – no doubt that long ago trip to Starlight still haunted me, or that my collection of theatre books contains more books about Shakespeare than anything else – that lost weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon left me with more than simply memories of how glorious Shakespeare could be.
So, to herald the New Year, we are asking you to cast you mind back, to your first time. Tell us, in 500 words or less the story of “My First Time”, what it meant to you, how it changed you. We will publish the best stories here on Fourthwall, and one lucky winner will receive £50 in Theatre Tokens to spend as you will.
Email your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org before March 1st.
Good luck, and we look forward to reading all your accounts of My First Time.