The July sun, roasting me on what was at least the third week uninterrupted now, felt out of place for what I considered may be a solemn affair. After more than a couple of decades of constant performances in a quaint town in Warwickshire, the Atherstone Theatre Workshop was closing down, and all of its past members were being invited for one final goodbye party. The old building where we met up on a weekly basis, a former girls school converted into a small theatre, that seated possibly 50 people at the most, was the venue for this wake.
Going in through the doors was like putting my head through water, as sudden familiarity near overwhelmed me. I hadn’t visited for around 7 years, yet everything was precisely the same. Even the posters of productions hosted by the Dramatic Society were completely unchanged. None added, nor removed. One of them I even had a role in. Even the towering framed piece of David Tennant in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company overlooked the seating area like a monolith. It had nothing to do with us, and I had always just assumed it was meant to be some kind of motivational piece for the actors, like a picture of a pop star in an aspiring singer’s bedroom.
The whole building, from the sea green colour scheme of the seats in the main hall, to the kitchen fittings, just one doorway away from the stage entrance, was a time capsule, that perfectly captured what had been an escape for many years. A refuge for me to be myself once a week, rather than attempting to fit in out in the rest of the world as I grew up.
Being recognised was a surprising but welcome response after walking through the doors. The leading woman, June, remembered me immediately, having spent roughly 7 years under her fierce and specific vision, as did John and Maggie, two other volunteers who lead in equal parts and were just as pleased to see me.
Other actors too recognised me and chatted along; Ben, a charismatic blonde gentleman whose appearance joined the environment in looking exactly the same, was still acting now, which made sense to me. Out of everyone there, he was the most invested, and these were people who were already invested enough to spend hours and hours of time remember lines and perform in front of audiences here and around Atherstone. Hannah, an ever-smiling bespectacled woman, was somewhat overcame when she arrived, shedding a few tears after a round of greeting hugs. It was all a lot for everyone, I think. I came close to weeping myself later.
Another person, Dan, a man who’s long black boyish hair had migrated in some part onto his face in his adulthood, was there. It took me a second to realise who he was through his new scratchy facial fuzz, and even longer to remember his name, despite being good friends when we were here. It was only after seeing him that it really hit me how long it had been since I’d last been here. The frozen-in-time nature of the building had made me comfortable, as if I’d never left, and yet I saw the faces but the names weren’t coming. The real familiarity, the personal touch, was a fire long faded, but still trying to relight in this moment.
He’d brought his guitar, and went to play it at one point in the party. Normally such an act provokes an innate cynical recoil in my body, an instinct learned from pretentious first-year students at university parties, but it was different now. Firstly, he was actually good, playing songs both familiar to the room and also ones of his own that were catchy enough for such a setting. I remember thinking it would fit in nicely with everything else on the chart radio, if it were played on those stations as often as all the other songs those stations demand we like.
But it was much deeper than that. It may have been the strumming on the acoustic that triggered a sort of melancholic introspection that has lead me here now, recalling all of it, getting my thoughts into order. The sound really made it hit home the weight of this place closing down, and its budding thespians moving on. One person was working at a Gregg’s Bakery now, another was living more than an hour away in the south of Birmingham, and university conquests were a common answer for question all small talk. And now the lights were closing on a place that probably got me through my formative teenage years without a broken mind or soul. Would other young people be robbed of this, simply because they were born too late?
No. As these things often turn out, a new face was moving in come September, with a lot of the same help as the old helping out with the new, in a new streamlined scheme of two age groups, down from the three or even four the old workshop group had. During my chat with June, I had even given her my email as she pitched me a farcical comedy play she was doing separately, about a pilot whose many mistresses across the world were coming to visit, which was exactly the kind of amateur dramatics I found the most enjoyable.
We also spoke of Eileen Barrs, the chairman of the workshop for 20 years, whose unfortunate passing this year was a big part of the closing according to June. She was always a firm and ruthlessly efficient woman, hounding anyone who hadn’t paid for their upkeep to balance the books. Her granddaughter Molly was there too, but I didn’t get to chat to her too much. I remember in the first play I was in, when I was still in primary school, she played a weasel named Wilimena, in an woodland whodunnit mystery.
The decision to wind the party down was one that was unconsciously mutual. Perhaps it was just the right time for the amount of people that we had at this reunion. Maybe it had something to do with running out of squash in this blistering, unending heatwave (paradoxically, there was enough food for three times as many people as there were here). Nevertheless, I said my goodbyes, and returned to my car and drove away. Maybe not for the last time, but probably for the last time with those familiar faces in my rear mirror.
I had picked up some photographs before I left, two group ones where you can see me at a tender young age, attempting some kind of smile (I was never one for photographs), but wrapped up in a place where I felt I fitted in, where I could be understood. The irony of being able to express and be yourself in a place where you’re meant to be someone else was not lost on me. But life, and growing up in particular, is peculiar in that way.
I’ve no idea where I’ll be when June asks if I want to do another performance. If I can make it though, I would like to. Acting is a wonderful escape, slipping into the confines of a script where the external pressures cannot penetrate without permission of the one holding the pen, and that’s something I find all the more appealing as the days go on.