Our reigning champions tell their stories: The Athelstan Players

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Our reigning champions, The Athelstan Players L-R Natasha Gray, Bob Charman, Nicola Pearce Smith and Jackie Morris (director)

As we gear up for another exciting year at the Harold Jolliffe One-Act Play Festival, we thought it would be great to catch up with our reigning champions now they’ve had time to reflect on their experience. What better way to get the inside view of what it’s like to be part of a winning production? And if you’re preparing for this year’s festival, it’s a chance to get some fantastic insights into what it takes to be champions.

Today we’re featuring our champions in the adult category, The Athelstan Players who performed ‘Honeymoon Suite: Something Old, Something New’ by Tony Layton. After winning at hj1act 2015 they went on to achieve amazing success, winning through round after round of the All England Theatre Festival making it all the way to the English Final in Harrogate. (You can read about their amazing journey HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE ).

‘Something Old, Something New’ is a bittersweet comedy which GoDA’s Tony Rushford called ‘a love story in hiding’. We recently caught up with the production’s leading actors; Bob Charman who played Jet and Natasha Gray who played Pat.


hjHQ: Welcome to hjHQ! Thanks so much for coming along to chat with us.

Diving straight in….

As a company, you’re obviously long-standing supporters of the festival scene. Why? What do you like about your hj1act experience?

NATASHA: I liked being able to receive constructive criticism in a competitive environment. I also liked the feeling of creating something which was so collaborative – at each round we had to keep evolving and digging deeper in order to survive!!

BOB: It gives you the chance to perform in different venues, with different audiences, and most importantly gives you professional feedback from the GoDA adjudicators. The experience of the adjudicators means that your production is being compared to a wide range of productions, and often against current trends in theatre. Plus of course the competitive edge of a festival really adds to the excitement. With regards to the HJ Festival, it is welcoming, very well run, and true to the principle of encouraging involvement in theatre from all age groups and all backgrounds.


hjHQ: 2015 was another winning year for you. Talk us through the process of choosing your entry and why you think this particular play did so well.

BOB: Choice of play was down to our director, Jackie Morris who actually produced it as part of a 3 play trilogy for our Spring production (Honeymoon Suite by Tony Layton). Other one-act play suggestions were not coming forward so the suggestion was made to enter one of these 3 plays into the HJ Festival. This was additional good sport of course…as the director had to choose which one of the 3 to enter – which she did after seeing how the plays developed during rehearsals. I read all 3 plays and felt the eventual festival play “Something Old, Something New” had the right degree of pathos, humour, realism and depth to potentially do well in the 2015 All England competition. In terms of its success, to do well in the competition a play has to have a balanced strength – and clearly has to score well in the 4 categories of Acting (40%), Production (35%), Stage Presentation (15%) and Dramatic Achievement (10%) – and not forgetting the all-important time limits – marks are lost if you exceed the 55 minute time limit…so our 54:59 in the second round was too close for comfort!


hjHQ:  What about the directing and casting? How did that work?

NATASHA: Jackie was rather empowering as a director and allowed us the creative freedom to experiment with our characters in a safe environment. Both Bob and I are fairly intuitive performers and from the start we were able to feed from one another and create the right energy without too much intervention. Of course Jackie was there to steer us if we diverted too much from her vision of the play.

BOB: Two read-throughs were held with the director fairly trying various combinations of actors across the 3 pairs of couples in the 3 plays – choices were made, offers communicated and accepted, rehearsals began. Rehearsing 3 plays within 2 evenings of 2 ½ hour duration is not easy, and extra rehearsals had to be arranged as the festival (and local performances) approached. Directorial style was inclusive, and normally an amiable experience – however don’t forget a bit of “creative tension” is a good thing – no pain, no gain!


hjHQ:  What was it like progressing through the rounds? What challenges did you face and how did your production evolve?

NATASHA: It was sometimes a challenge to get the balance quite right between addressing criticism from an adjudicator and keeping to our version of the play. Obviously every adjudicator has something to comment upon and there were times when we adjusted something in response to a criticism and times when we felt that was just not appropriate.

BOB: Winning through to the next round is always a great thrill – but once the euphoria of a successful festival has abated it’s important to remember to pace your rehearsals well in the lead up to the next round.


hjHQ: What did your techies tell you about the challenges of working in different theatres?

BOB: Ah – the true heroes of a production – it’s important that strong links are established with the next venue to ensure no technical surprises – stage plans, lighting and sound plans should be provided well ahead of time, and on the day of the festival you all need to be really organised and ready for your technical set up time slot – normally in the morning before the afternoon/evening performances. A good rapport with the venues technical crew is a MUST. I personally find the technical set up one of the most stressful parts of a festival day – but one MUST suffer for one’s art…. !! You need CHAMPIONS for each part of the play – the set, the costumes, make up and wigs, the sound, the lighting, special effects, the Direction – without these no matter how good a cast you may have, the production will struggle.

NATASHA: Our technician Doug has worked in so many of the spaces and was a real help to us. He prepped us about sight lines, how loud we needed to be in each venue and generally kept us well informed of everything we needed to know in terms of practicalities.


hjHQ: Some companies might be put off entering festivals because they think it’s too costly. Others also may object to the idea of being adjudicated. Talk us through your philosophy here.

BOB: The cost of the initial festival should not put groups off – most perform in their local area and HJ link the entry cost to selling tickets for the festival itself – this seems to work well. If you are successful and go on, you are supported somewhat financially by the fund raising efforts of HJ (THANK YOU!). It can get tricky if you go deep into the AETF as royalty payments continue for each round, and the transport costs to further flung venues will of course rise. HJ kindly arrange a van hire prize as part of the sponsorship with Swindon Car & Van Hire – this was great last year as they kindly allowed us to use this prize for the weekend trip necessary to the English Final in Harrogate! Apart from that a donation by a generous AP Member and a one off payment from the AP Committee saw us through. Yes there is cost for individuals as you progress – but great trips to RWB, Dorset and Harrogate were experienced as a result!

As regards the adjudications, a challenge to be aware of is the influence of the adjudicators remarks. Whilst they are normally balanced and borne from experience, they are still the views of one individual, and trying to adapt a production after each set of feedback can lead you astray. Stay true to your intent for the play.


hjHQ:  What would you say to a company considering entering hj1act?

NATASHA: Do it! It’s such a fun experience that will stay with you.

BOB: Go for it – it’s a truly dramatic experience.


hjHQ:  Anything else you’d like to add about your experience?

BOB: Personally I don’t like there being a prompt. From the outset the cast must absolutely commit to working on their lines and their intent. Then you can develop the play and find those depths. If you don’t establish that foundation, you will never reach the levels required.

NATASHA: Next time I want to wear the leather trousers!!


Thank you so much Natasha and Bob for taking the time to give us your insights. It’s wonderful to get such a detailed inside look at what it’s like to be festival champions. Congratulations and we look forward to seeing what you do next!

HJ1A Sat (1 of 1)-2

The Athelstan Players perform Tony Layton’s Honeymoon Suite, ‘Something Old, Something New’ at The Harold Jolliffe One-Act Play Festival 2015 L-R Natasha Gray as Pat, Bob Charman as Jet and THOSE leather trousers!


COMING SOON:  More champions’ stories and we chat with this year’s entering companies


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If you have a story you’d like us to include here in our blog, or if there’s something you’d like us to write about, let us know at hj1act@gmail.com  So long as it’s festival/drama/local theatre centred, we’ll definitely give it a look!

The Harold Jolliffe One-Act Play Festival supports  SWINDON 175
Celebrating 175 years since the birth of Swindon as a railway town        
Find out more HERE and HERE

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