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INTERVIEW: Luke Burton of The Studio Theatre Company (South Hill Park)

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Could “theatre” be the New Year’s resolution that changes your life?

We all make resolutions – and we all too often break them. But if your plan was to get into acting, see more theatre (maybe you haven’t been since school?) or produce a show – 2019 might just be the year that you transform yourself!

Luke Burton, Creative Director of The Studio Theatre Company (based in South Hill Park), describes a place that has given a whole new life to people who never knew they could act or enjoy a good show…

Luke Burton, Creative Director of The Studio Theatre Company

Tell us about The Studio Theatre.

Most people just think of pantomime at The Wilde when they hear South Hill Park – they don’t realise there’s another small, haunted 47-seater theatre right above it.

It stood empty for years, apart from the odd touring show and the ghosts. But in 2011 I was asked to turn it into a proper community-led theatre – 6, 7 shows a year, all produced by local people, from the acting, to the directing, to all the stuff that happens backstage.

People might laugh at that idea, but here we are 42 shows later! All because the community keeps it going, putting on shows and coming to see them. This is a project that offers something great to everyone.

Scene from “The Mercy Seat” (photo by Simon Vail)

What sort of shows do you put on?

We prefer modern stuff that’s more relatable than Hamlet. Something you’ll go home thinking about, rather than something you can see anywhere, or something you’ve seen 100 times before.

“Bent” by Martin Sherman is a great example. It’s about two gay men in a WW2 concentration camp. The play was literally two guys moving rocks from one side of the stage to the other. It was really stark, there was no set to overpower the actors or the story – it shone a light on how badly homosexuals were persecuted during the war, and people still talk about how much it moved them.

We also put on one brand-new play by a local writer each year. “Valediction”, a play about John Donne by Susan Rollins is a great example of what we’re about. It had an epic cast size, full of kids and adults, hundreds of lighting and sound cues – the whole community came together to make it work. So get in touch if you’ve got a script you want to put on!

Sometimes we’ll go with a well-known writer – a Shakespeare or an Agatha Christie – but it’ll be a play you don’t know so well. “Two Gentlemen Of Verona” or “The Unexpected Guest”, for example.

Scene from “Bazaar and Rummage” (photo by Simon Vail).

So if someone’s interested in acting or making theatre…

Get in touch! I want to hear from new people; people who’ve never acted before but want to give it a try; people who haven’t acted for years but remember how much they loved it. Whatever you want to do – act, direct, lights, sound, set construction, backstage work – we’ll help you get that experience, in a professional space, with a professional producer, for free.

There are no membership charges, everyone’s really friendly, directors won’t just cast their friends, and no preference is given to people who have a history here. If you’re nervous, that’s fine – you can just come and watch rehearsals or help out backstage to start with, if you like, until you feel confident enough to take part.

Community theatre can be life-changing. You might laugh but I met my wife and my two best men through theatre! We’ve had people who did one show to get a feel for acting, found a passion for it and then went off to drama school. Other people who are new to the area come along to make friends and have forged links with loads of other local groups, creating a whole new lifestyle for themselves. They all have such a good time that they come back again, so we must be doing something right!

Scene from “Four Nights In Knaresborough” (photo by Simon Vail)

Why should someone come and see a play here?

For less than the cost of a Dominos, you get to see real people live and die on stage, so close you can touch them. No-one’s going through the motions; they’re going through an emotional journey on stage, living it, breathing it. They could mess up at any moment, or do things differently to how they did it the night before. They’ve spent months learning lines, developing a character – just for you.

That’s a lot better than watching an edited-together scene in a film, where someone’s had multiple takes to get it right. How can you really get invested in something if you can’t see the sweat, feel the spit?

Plus there’s the small space of the theatre. Don’t laugh, but that actually enhances the experience – it makes stuff really intimate and special, or on the other hand you get to see these massive great sets come to life in a tiny space! When we did “4 Nights In Knaresborough” we turned the whole place into a castle!

Scene from “Drowned World” (photo by Simon Vail).

And finally…is it really haunted?

Yes!

A lot of people have heard children’s voices and footsteps when they’ve been alone in here. Sometimes a set will be left locked up in the theatre overnight, and in the morning things will’ve moved around. A lot of the house managers really don’t like locking up here alone at night. Most Haunted even got in touch at one point!

Legend has it that years ago when the house was privately owned, the owners’ children sadly died in a fire when their nurse slipped away one evening for a liaison with a local. That’s just hearsay though…

Further details on The Studio Theatre Company’s upcoming shows can be found at https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/whats-on/shows-events/, while details on upcoming auditions can be found at https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/news/ and on The Studio Theatre Company’s Facebook Group. Luke Burton can be contacted directly via luke.burton@southhillpark.org.uk

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