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Theatre Studies students gained first-hand experience of professional theatre – on and off the stage – in a Fortune Theatre production of Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night.

The Theatre Studies programme and the Fortune Theatre have lowered the curtain on another successful collaboration, this time involving a modern take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

The collaboration, which offered 11 Theatre 454 students the chance to take part in the recent Fortune production, was an invaluable experience, says fourth-year student Orion Carey-Clark.

“Being given the opportunity to perform in a professional production meant that I was surrounded by professional actors and directors who are all fantastic at what they do. Often I found myself just listening and watching when I wasn’t being rehearsed because the conversations taking place were so informative and helpful.”

Theatre 454 – taught by Department of Music head Professor Stuart Young, senior lecturer Hilary Halba and theatre manager Martyn Roberts – is an honours paper offered every two years. It was first offered in 2015, when nine students were involved in the Fortune's production of Punk Rock.

This year's class comprises 11 third- and fourth-year students, the maximum spaces available, says Young. “There'd be a danger if there were too many students. It's about being able to provide proper mentoring and supervision for them. And giving them a meaningful project and experience.”

Twelfth Night saw the students working in every department throughout the theatre, from the design and construction of the set, costumes and lighting, through to education and marketing. Third-year Nina Murnane designed one of the key costumes – Olivia's black dress – and fourth-year Zoe Connor took on the important role of assistant director.

“After spending so many years studying the theatre in an academic context, it was fantastic to have the hands-on experience to go with that,” says Connor.

“The mentors were amazing. They welcomed us into the cast and crew family and provided us with infinite learning opportunities, while always being supportive and helpful.”

Third-year Shaun Swain was one of three students who successfully auditioned for an acting role, ultimately playing three characters – Valentine, a maid and a priest.

“Regardless of what the audition is for and for whom, there is always this strange mix of nervousness, excitement and questions of whether I'm worrying too much or being too complacent. But, in the end, it's always important to breathe and let myself be myself: to slow down, think, and take things as they come,” says Swain.

“It's been an intensive and rewarding course being surrounded by people with so much experience and ability to the point that every single day was full of discovery and learning. In addition to the learning experience, I was also given the opportunity to act in the accompanying children's show, What You Will, which was rehearsed and performed during the days of the Twelfth Night show – which, while tiring, was incredibly worthwhile.”

For Carey-Clark, who played Antonio in Twelfth Night, the experience has confirmed for him that acting is something he wants to continue with.

“It's also opened my eyes to the level of skill and practice needed to perform as a professional. I was challenged by a professional director, Ben Henson, who pushed me in terms of the performance I needed to give. And it was certainly different rehearsing full time. But it was great because it just immerses you in it way more. It's a much more dedicated approach.”

Young describes the collaboration between the Fortune and the University as “a real privilege”, as well as a stepping stone for a number of students, such as Jordan Dickson who was assistant director for the Punk Rock production in 2015 and who is now the Fortune's marketing and front of house co-ordinator.

“It's great the way the Fortune empowers these young people,” says Young. “It really crystallises what they want to do.”

The collaboration benefits the Fortune too as it allows them to aspire to bigger-scale productions, Fortune's Theatre director Jonathon Hendry says.

“It’s also valuable for us to work with students as, through their enquiry, you can reassess your habits and re-evaluate processes as you share them. By imparting knowledge – teaching – you invariably learn new things from those you’re working with. All the students, on and off stage, contributed a great deal to the life of the theatre over the period.”

Hendry is happy to see that the relationships are still developing, with students continuing to offer to participate.

“That, to me, is the real joy in this collaboration. To forge and develop relationships and break barriers to enable opportunities for young practitioners to get involved in the rich collaboration that is professional theatre.”

Photo: George Wallace