Mondays during term time, from 10.15am - 13.15pm
Monday mornings are Act V mornings at The Headgate!! This thriving group combines study and participation of all aspects of theatre with a supportive social atmosphere. If you're interested in all thing’s theatre - whether that be Shakespeare, musical theatre, modern plays, performance or technically creative - this might be for you! No particular knowledge or performing skills are required – just a willingness to explore the topic and have some fun!
Experienced theatre practitioners will lead the group through the exploration of a topic and encourage practical contribution. Groups might explore the use of an item of clothing or a prop to create character, explore and perform one of Shakespeare’s sonnets or a song from a musical. Current participants come from a wide range of backgrounds and most are not interested in "performance" - they just have a love of theatre! We understand that starting a new group might feel daunting, so your first session is treated as a "taster".
The group plan to publish a booklet of sonnets, the result of one of their Zoom sessions during lockdown, and we are making arrangements for social events during the summer plus a rehearsed reading. Further details of can be found in our Current Activities.
According to my old diaries, I joined Act V at the Mercury Theatre on Monday 8th September 1997. I was told the group had started about six months before I joined, and that means March 2021 sees the 25th Anniversary of Act V!
There were only about six of us in Act V for the first year or so. A few weeks after I joined, the main Mercury stage went up in flames! (Not me, Governor!) and the Mercury Theatre closed for repairs. The management, led by the fantastic Dee Evans, hired halls around town for the group to continue. We finished up in the Arts Centre, doing the Three Witches from Macbeth. All seven of us, six ladies and me, and including dressing up and playing small percussion instruments, which we recorded audibly, and with our chanting, sounded quite good. I don’t know what it looked like, with me as a witch! I know the group of ladies, who were all friends before joining Act V, didn’t like me calling them the “Inner Coven” for many years after!!!
As time went on, we regularly presented short shows, mainly to actors and staff at the Mercury Theatre. Many times, it was a variety type show with singing, recitations, jokes, small playlets etc. Sometimes it was short plays written by ourselves. I remember doing a complete Old Time Music Hall, where I was the Chairman, complete with dinner jacket and gavel (which I made), and a list of very long, complicated words, as I introduced each act. Another time we did Noises Off. A short play is performed, but during the intervals, small groups of Act V members in the “wings” discussed their personal problems etc. I was a king in the main play, and got stabbed to death in the first act! (I made a dummy knife and scabbard especially for the play). We had workshops on all sorts of subjects to do with theatre, even having workshops on writing plays, stories, etc.
Over the years, Act V has occasionally broken free from working at the Mercury Theatre. For example, we had a whole morning session at Firstsite where the BBC TV filmed a programme of members doing sculptures of the heads of other Act V members! At the end, no one wanted the grotesque sculptures of their own head made by other people, and we took our sculptures home. I put mine in my garden and a week later, it had disappeared! I hadn’t kiln baked it and the rain washed it away, thank goodness! Another time, we had a session on audience control (I think it was a psychological experiment!), where we had to individually filter ourselves into Culver Square. Then, over a period of time, we gradually formed a queue right in the middle. Members of the public asked what we were queueing for and we had to be secretive, but inviting. Then, one by one, we dispersed, leaving just the public queueing! It worked, but I still have no idea why we did it!
Another time we were asked to make little paper boats in the Mercury Studio, walk down North Hill to the bridge over the Colne, and float our boats under the bridge, to see which one came out first. Mine sank under the bridge! We performed a short play written by us, all about Colchester, at a Summertime Festival of Colchester event. We were in Tymperley’s Garden, with a good audience, and it went down very well. Once we were asked to attend a Saturday morning’s session at the Mercury Theatre. We were assembled on the main stage and given a dance lesson, whilst being televised live, by BBC TV Look East. And another time we performed ‘the play within a play’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare. We performed it in the church ruins next to Saint Botolph’s Church. I had a longish speech, but tried to position the microphone before I started talking. It disintegrated in my hand, and I had to walk across the stage area to the one and only other microphone! I also forgot my last line!!! And we lost the lion costume used in the play, that I had borrowed from one of my other groups. Six months later, it was found in the Mercury costume store where it had been accidently hung!
Many times, members of Act V were asked, individually, to be extras (unpaid, of course!) in the professional plays appearing at the Mercury. I’ve appeared three times, but other members have appeared more frequently. I was once the Pope in The White Devil, in full Papal Regalia, and I had to sit absolutely still on a throne for three quarters of an hour, as if I was a statue. I was inside a large transparent plastic box, on centre stage, high up, with my back to the audience. Then, at a specific cue, my box was slowly rotated to face the audience, and I had to become animated, to gasps of amazement from the audience! I didn’t last long in the play because I was murdered by the villain at the end of the first act. He blew poisonous dust into my cubicle! Looked very effective and very dramatic! In the rest of the play, I was demoted to a priest, tasked with praying, and moving chairs, in the background! Another time, I was given four different bit parts to do, in To Kill a Mockingbird, including two actual lines to say, in an American deep South accent. At the first performance I forgot my lines! I have no idea what I said. Next morning, the Director went around us all commenting on our performances. He said to me “Steve. You forgot your lines! But you adlibbed, and the audience would not have noticed any difference. That’s the sign of a real trooper!” That is just one example of how helpful all the theatre staff were to Act V members. The third time for me on stage, was as father to Chekov’s Three Sisters. As the audience entered, the stage curtains were already opened. Three little girls were playing with toys centre stage. I was standing by a piano, in full military uniform, with my back to them. The curtains closed, we disappeared, and the three grown up sisters appeared in the main play! Their father (me) was dead before the play even started! In the play, I became a slave, moving chairs around! I’m good at moving chairs around on stage!
One year, Act V decided to take part in the Colchester Carnival. I made wooden tower as tall as me, to carry on my shoulders, with red ribbons from the top to the ground completely hiding me. At the very top I built a large globe with MERCURY THEATRE around the equator. The ladies all wore red dresses, and danced around me like a moving maypole!
With practically every stage performance, particularly with plays by our local permanent actors, Act V were given guided tours of the stage set. We were given talks in the Studio, about sound systems and lighting sets, and allowed to fiddle with the mock-ups set up just for us. Set designers gave us talks on set designs. Every aspect of the theatre was covered in our sessions. Our practitioners were many and varied, knew what they were talking about, and frequently included professional actors from the Mercury acting group.
I was once a part of a small group who went to a major London Theatre, to tell them all about Act V, and to do some demonstrations of the sort of things we do. They were considering starting up a similar group.
Things change! Nothing ever stands still. The Mercury needed to do major alterations over a few years and had difficulty finding big enough local halls that could cater for Act V. The Headgate Theatre very generously, decided to step in, and Act V has actually grown in numbers to around 50, a sure sign of its success. I am absolutely certain it will go on, and on, long after I have taken my final bow! Thank you, both the Mercury Theatre, and Headgate Theatre. We really do appreciate what you do for us.
Written by Steve Desmond. March 2021