I’m David, part of the community ensemble appearing in The Grapes of Wrath. This is the first time I’ve been involved in theatre, something I’ve been considering for a while after a couple of experiences as a “supporting artist” (i.e. an extra) in film and TV productions.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s classic commentary on Depression era America, is simultaneously the story of one family (the Joads) and a million others in the same situation: driven from their homes by poverty, callous corporations and the false hope of easy work on the West Coast. So it makes sense that the stage adaptation alternates between intimate family scenes (brother and brother, husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son) and scenes played out against a crowded background of migrant camps, bread lines and picket lines, which is where we – the community ensemble – come in.
There are about 45 of us in total, with 25 or more appearing on stage during each performance. Some of us appear on alternating nights, and some in all – or almost all – of the shows at the Playhouse. We’ve been rehearsing weekly since mid-February, and have got to know each other while getting to know our scenes, but I feel like the sense of camaraderie has really solidified over the last week as we’ve spent more time together going through the final preparations, technical rehearsals, dress rehearsal, and the first few performances.
The principal cast are hugely talented, several of them doubling as singers and musicians and/or playing multiple roles during the story. They’re also very friendly, down-to-earth people in their interactions with us ensemble cast members and with the many technical and directorial staff involved behind the scenes (who are also very supportive and professional). Most of all, our community company has benefited from the wonderful direction and encouragement of Allie (“Mama Grape”), who led our rehearsals and prepared us for the stage, and Rosie, who joined us for the last few rehearsals, providing a link between our group and Southampton where the production debuted.
I love the music in Grapes of Wrath, which ranges from haunting solo melodies on the cello or musical saw to jazz, vaudeville, soulful gospel hymns and a vigorous hoedown. My parents, friends and colleagues who have come to see the show – some of whom were familiar with the novel and some not – have all been impressed and moved by the story, the actors and the passion of what they saw on the Playhouse stage.
At a personal level, I’ve found this experience great for my self-confidence. Walking out on stage in front of a crowded theatre for the first time was a nerve-wracking experience, but I felt much more at ease on stage afterwards. I’m a sort of a shy extrovert, and have found playing someone else a great way to be myself. I may not have a big part to play in the story (and I’m careful not to distract from the principal actors) but I try to bring what I can to my appearances on stage: the optimism and despair of the migrant, the panic of witnessing a fight or a killing, the joy of a Saturday night barn dance, the exhausted determination of working hard in a raging storm.
And I know my fellow chorus members are doing the same. And what started well has only got better with each performance as we become more practised, more relaxed on stage, and more confident in our cues, our performances and our bonding as an ensemble company.
Image: Communuty Chorus members in rehearsal. L-R: L-R: Sally Maddison, David Watts, Suzanne Barlow, Nicola Hawes, Katerina Senior and Cibele Alvarenga. Photo by Alan Fletcher.