Watermill - the production process
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Watermill - the production process

Newbury Weekly News article of 9th August 2012.

Watermill bucks the trend

When theatres start to fail, value for money and trust in the product is key to success

Many theatres are reporting poor sales. The reasons for this are well rehearsed, if you'll excuse the pun. Berkshire's only producing theatre, The Watermill, is bucking the trend - and how.

Tickets for Ben Hur sold out way before the show ended and tickets for its current show Thoroughly Modern Millie are heading that way too. Its workshops, scratch choirs, children's shows and book clubs are more often than not sold out in well in advance.

The question is why is The Watermill doing so well? The major reason is that its audience trusts the theatre to offer work of a consistently high standard, therefore it presents value for money, a prerequisite in these difficult times.

For its main shows, Hedda Beeby, the theatre's artistic and executive director, will first choose the play or musical. She decides who should direct and then together, she and the director will choose the creative team. This team starts the process of designing the show, which starts with the play and its needs, and then is conjoined with the concept that the director wishes to frame for the production.

While all this is going on, Abbi Pickard, the casting and production assistant, will sift through hundreds of CVs and headshots to create a long list of actors for Hedda and the director to whittle down to a manageable list for auditions, which are held in London over several days. Often the casts come together quickly but sometimes it can be a protracted exercise to ensure a company that will balance well, on and off stage.

Long before the company arrive at the theatre for rehearsals, the creative team meet the production and stage management team to present the white card set model, an outline of what they propose to do.

This is when over-expensive and impractical ideas are discussed and alternatives are worked out. Designing and staging a show in a small converted watermill brings many challenges and has resulted in some extraordinarily imaginative and cleverly-designed sets.

Another set presentation will happen before the set is built in a commercial workshop in Coventry. The Watermill doesn't have its own facilities for set building. Costume designs are presented at this point and Debbie MacGregor, the wardrobe supervisor will then start to make, hire or find everything needed.

At last the cast arrives at The Watermill. On the first morning there is usually a read-through of the script and a presentation of the final set design and costumes. While rehearsing, they will have costume and wig fittings. Some actors will need to grow their hair, others have it cut, and some have it dyed for their role.

With a Thursday opening, the production team, led by Lawrence Doyle, will 'get-out' the previous show set and electrics on the preceding Saturday night after the evening show. They then 'get-in' the new set and electrics from Sunday morning through to Tuesday afternoon, when they will start their first technical rehearsal, complete with actors on stage for the first time.

The 'dress rehearsal' takes place on Wednesday evening, leaving time for last-minute changes before opening on Thursday evening, when the public sees the show for the very first time.

It is a long and protracted series of events that create The Watermill shows that entertain and amuse the audience.

Next time you go to the theatre, consider that this all began more than six months ago.

TEI WILLIAMS