Friday, 27 July 2012

Learning a Thing or Two: by James Wilkes

It’s July 2012: the year of the Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the year the world comes to an end but most importantly of course it is Belt Up’s fifth Edinburgh Fringe. It only feels like yesterday that about fifty students from York University were deliriously trying to rehearse twenty five different productions for The Red Room. It feels like yesterday but it, like many things in the past, seems like a different age. Belt Up is a different company, we’re all different people but at the same time... the same.

I won’t be performing with Belt Up this summer; I haven’t been with Belt Up at the Fringe since 2010’s The House Above (feels like yesterday/a different age). It’s fascinating though to watch the company more objectively. Last year on a day off from York Theatre Royal’s ‘Peter Pan’ I snuck up to the Fringe and was able to watch Outland, simply as an audience member. I’d seen a stumble through during rehearsals but it felt rather nice to be able to come in relatively ignorant and just enjoy a Belt Up show as a Belt Up audience member. What struck me was how far we’ve come since our emerging days in 2008. The writing, acting, directing were all so much more sophisticated. In those many years we’ve been rattling around, we’ve actually learnt a thing or two.

I’ve now hidden away from the harsh realities of the real world and gone back to being a student – taking a sabbatical from Belt Up to train at LAMDA- so learning and developing is very much on my mind at the moment.  One thing that I’m truly starting to appreciate is how much I’ve learnt from writing, directing and acting with Belt Up.

As a company we developed greatly as individuals. We have learnt bucket loads from each other and our mentors but more often than not, our most important lessons have come from our interactions with the audience.

Lyn Gardner once described us as “learning on the job, 21stc equivalent of the rep system” and I think this is entirely accurate. Through doing so many shows we have been able to experiment directly with our audiences. Because they’re not hidden away in the shadows, our audience’s reactions aren’t hidden away – that means if you’re giving a bad performance, you’re very quickly aware of it; you can see every smile, laugh, tear, yawn or grimace. You can see at exactly which point a critic writes in their pad. You can see all too clearly when someone gets up and walks out (most of the time they have to say ‘excuse me’ to pass you). This open relationship has meant throughout our many shows and many runs we get instant feedback and that kind of experience is invaluable. Every single performance can teach us something new.

All artists are individuals and every member of Belt Up is an individual. We exist as a collective but we also have our own paths in which we’re growing and learning. One thing is for sure though; we are all indebted to what we learn through our work with Belt Up and the prospect of new lessons is what keeps Belt Up going. I for one can’t wait to see Belt Up’s work this Fringe and I can’t wait for the audiences too either. After all, over the next few years when 2012 feels just like yesterday/a different age, the audiences for The Boy James, Outland and A Little Princess at this Fringe may actually have taught us even more than we’d have imagined.

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