”Let’s take it again from the beginning”, Ritabrata Dutta, the director of Thespians Anonymous’ autumn production Garden of Delights, orders. On stage, fake tears have just been shed by Christina Rees, an exchange student from Germany where she studies American and British Studies, and one of the stars in the show. Present at a rehearsal space in Sörnäinen are also other actors, the stage manager, and musicians who have composed music for the production. With less than seven weeks to the premier the cast and production teams are busy putting the performance together. BTSB caught up with Christina, Aino Suoranta, an English Philology freshman, and Ida Mauko, an MA student in English and originally from Croatia, to find out what goes into the making of an amateur theatre production.
Founded in 1999, Thespians Anonymous Theatrical Society is one of the few theatre companies making theatre in English in Helsinki. In addition to The Finn-Brit Players, it’s the only one open for anyone and everyone to join. In the past, productions have ranged from musicals to Shakespeare. This autumn the group is tackling Garden of Delights, a surrealist play written by the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal in 1968. With a challenging text and taking advantage of shadow theatre and video projections, it’s a leap from the company’s usual repertoire. ”It’s definitely a strange play, and unlike anything I’ve ever done before”, Aino says. Although she’s only just joined the company, she has a history of participating in theatre clubs since the tender age of seven. Christina is also a newcomer in Thespians, but has a background of acting both in theatre and student films. She spotted Thespians’ stand at the Welcome Fair for exchange students and decided to audition for their production just for the experience. She, too, had her doubts about the play in the beginning. “It sounded weird at first, but when I read it I was completely drawn to its structure and choice of words, and now have one of the main roles”, she explains.
After an audition rehearsals can begin. Creating a character can be demanding for the actor, especially in a show such as Garden of Delights. The director’s feedback has a significant influence on how a character is shaped, and conversations with the other actors help as well. “Rehearsals are important, because you get to try different approaches”, Aino describes. In this play, she has the role of a sheep, which has turned out to be a much harder animal to portray than a cat, for example. “It’s been a process of trial and error”, Christina confesses. For her, it’s important to find cues that explain why her character is the way she is by reading the script multiple times. Perhaps surprisingly, she reveals that scenes that look the easiest are usually the hardest to create. ”Casuality is hard to portray authentically, because you can’t do too much, but you have to do more than you would when executing the same tasks privately.” Ida, whose first Thespians production was a musical last spring, tries to connect her role to a real life person she may know and then embody them to the best of her abilities. “I love doing different voices!” she adds.
Once the premier arrives, actors get ready to take over the stage. ”It's the biggest rush!” Ida describes. “Just knowing that your performance is bringing laughter or tears, or making people think, or just generally making their day better is absolutely wonderful.” “I do like being the centre of attention, which is what you get on the stage”, Aino admits. How do our three stars deal with stage fright? No miracle cure seems to exist. ”Alcohol helps! Just kidding. Being nervous helps with the performance because it keeps you on your toes”, Ida says, and Christina agrees. “It gives you more energy and makes you more awake, which is important for the play to succeed”. ”Just embrace the feeling!” Aino encourages.
On stage, the actors leave their everyday lives behind and morph into the characters. “I love being able to express different emotions on stage as I act”, Christina says. Despite sitting in the dark, the audience doesn’t go unnoticed. “My character is not ‘finished’ before the show”, Christina reveals, ”I work on it whilst performing, based on the feedback from the audience”. What the actors do in the wings while waiting for their scene is just as important as the time spent in the limelight. One eye needs to be kept on the events on the stage so as not to miss any cues. Some need space for concentrating, whereas others prefer to chat with the other cast and crew members. “Sometimes food and drinks are served backstage and in that case I tend to help myself to it!” Aino tells.
With the actors usually getting most of the attention, it might come as a surprise that the on-stage cast is outnumbered many times over by other production crew. “People have no idea how busy it is behind the curtains! Neither did I until I joined Thespians. Props need to be moved around the set, music needs to be played, lights have to be set, makeup needs to be done, costumes need to be ready...” Ida describes. If you’re interested in theatre but not keen on standing in the spotlight, there are plenty of other opportunities to experience the magic of theatre. “You can be in the backstage crew, making nifty props, or sludging makeup on us poor actors. Or maybe you're a budding fashion designer who'd like to help make awesome costumes?” Ida suggests.
Although all three Thespians have previous experience in making theatre, they agree that having an international group of people working together creates a special vibe. “Because everyone is from a different country and has a different cultural background, they all bring their unique approach to theatre to the group”, Christina analyzes, and Aino agrees. For her, it’s been interesting to notice how people from varying backgrounds all have different working methods and ethics. Speaking English with other second-language speakers is good practise, too. “I doubt being in Thespians would be half as fun if it weren't for the awesome people”, Ida says. “Every time I step into our clubroom - or wherever else the rehearsal/party/meeting may be taking place - I know I'm going to laugh, have fun, and learn.”
In addition to making new friends, our interviewees have gained plenty of skills that are applicable outside theatre, too. “Acting gives you so much more confidence”, all three ladies say. ”It helps a lot with your communication skills”, Christina points out. Learning about breathing technique and how to use your voice, as well as body language and agility, all get mentions from these thesps. ”The ability to improvise and understanding what impression you give to people are useful when you have to give presentations”, Christina continues. ”Portraying different characters lets you discover new sides in yourself too”, Aino reflects. ”Stepping into someone else's shoes is the best way to expand your understanding of how the world works and why people are the way they are”, Ida thinks. ”Theatre really is for everyone and anyone, whether you’re young or old, shy or confident”, Aino encourages.
What theatrical dreams and plans do Aino, Ida and Christina still have? “I’d like to perform in period costume, even if it sounds superficial”, Christina, whose favourite playwright is Ben Jonson, admits. Aino dreams about being a professional actor one day, but translating plays is also a career option that connects both her interest in the English language and theatre. In any case, she’s planning on staying with the Thespians in the future, too. “I would really love to make another musical”, Ida muses. “In any case I'm looking forward to anything, as long as it's in good company. Once a show is over and you're standing there with the rest of the cast while the applause is roaring, it makes you feel incredibly proud, accomplished and thankful.”
Garden of Delights premieres on 28 November and is on daily at 7 pm until 1 December at Cable Factory (Tallberginkatu 1 A, Helsinki). For more information on the show and the company, check out their website (http://www.thespiansanonymous.org/), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Thespians?fref=ts) and blog (http://blog.thespiansanonymous.org/).
For more theatre in English in Helsinki, check out The Finn-Brit Players (http://www.finnbritplayers.com/) and Helsinki International Theatre (http://helsinkiinternationaltheatre.blogspot.fi/).