Culture: From stage fright to limelight
After years in the wings Ryan Wilson-Lane steps into the spotlight for Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s upcoming production The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He tells us why he’s glad he made that leap of faith
Twenty years ago I studied A-level theatre studies without ‘treading the boards’ once. Now, for the first time, I have been lured into the limelight by the pleading of a friend.
I have known Chris Strahm, the director of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, for more than 13 years. Chris has starred in many of the productions the Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society has put on, however this production is his directorial debut.
I moved to Bury St Edmunds 13 years ago and have always been a keen supporter of both the local community theatre groups – BSEAODS and Irving Stage Company (ISC). On many an occasion I have been asked, and genuinely tempted, to join up for one of their shows. Twelve years on shift in the police was always a valid enough reason to be able to excuse myself from such a regular weekly commitment, but for the last couple of years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to say no, especially as more and more people who work shifts have been getting involved in productions.
After every show I’ve been to, the atmosphere in the Green Room bar of the Theatre Royal is always buzzing with family and friends of cast members; jovial congratulatory excitement mixed with exhausted people who haven’t been able to get as much stage make-up removed as they thought they had. . . Proud parents and partners, an admiring audience still applauding as actors appear from backstage. . . With adrenaline still flowing, my friends have always been beaming as they approach the bar, even though I know they just want to get home to bed before another regular day awaits and then having to come back and do it all over again.
I’ve never really realised it, but I did want to see what that felt like too; I had just laughed and declined too many times that my friends had begun to not ask me as often. Until this year. . .
Chris was excitedly talking about his directorial debut at a party in January; what he had in mind and how it would work, etc. We talked about how other theatre companies had produced the show across the world and what we thought would work for Bury St Edmunds. In all my enthusiasm for his ideas, I somehow missed the point where I casually agreed to become part of the ensemble. By the end of the afternoon I was being shown the video footage of what the choreographer had put together for the audition and was emailed an audition piece to learn. Chris and his wife Jackie were witnesses at our wedding and we go on holiday with them at least once a year – how could I back out now?!
The BSEAODS previously did this show back in 2004, with several cast members doing it again this time round. We have some people reprising their roles, with some trying their hand at something different. We have a real-life married couple – Fiona and Barry Barker – playing opposite each other as the romantic leads Miss Mona and Sheriff Dodd (with several of us in rehearsals brought to tears in one particularly emotional song).
In my honest opinion I’ve never been able to sing, however I’ve always wanted to. I’m the type of person who has (let’s be honest, we’ve all done it) turned the radio down when belting out the words to a song I love, only to be mortified at exactly how I sound. No matter how quickly it took me to learn the words to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, without having it deafening loud while I’m driving, I know deep down that I sound like a hippopotamus sitting on a porcupine. However, put me on a dancefloor at a wedding and although I’m not one of the 200 or so people that make up the dance phenomenon Diversity, I can certainly freestyle it to Bruno better than most.
Now I’ve always thought that I know myself pretty well. I’m 38 years old, have travelled the world a fair bit and I’m independently confident. One of the things about this whole experience is that I’ve genuinely learnt a few new things about myself in a very short time. Whereas I certainly won’t be putting myself forward to audition for any televised singing contests, I can in fact harmonise and have been expertly advised by our musical director, Simon Pearce, that despite my high-pitched car squeals to Kylie classics, I am what’s called a ‘bass’ and hanging out with the deep-voiced guys. On the dancing front though, our amazing(ly patient) choreographer Jess Clifford has had to work extra hard to help get me up to speed with the steps. I certainly wasn’t ready when she stood in front of us and did a jig full of fancy footwork, for the six other chaps in the locker room scene to all morph into Rhinestone Cowboys doing the Riverdance and be able to instantly recreate what they’d just been shown. It was actually quite remarkable and this wasn’t the only occasion.
Of the entire cast, I am the only person in this production who is experiencing this for the first time. We have some 30 people in the cast, all with very different backgrounds, interests, careers and professions. From supermarket specialists, support workers and civil servants, to bankers, business managers and beauty therapists, be it teaching assistants to dance teachers and chiropractors to ophthalmologists or decorators to drivers, the world of community theatre has an incredible array of talent when it comes to both on and off stage. All of the people I have met since I joined have done several productions before and it is evidently a place where you can truly be yourself, without being yourself. I can’t think of another hobby where you can learn more about your abilities by pretending to be someone else, where you can spend an evening learning something new and the laughter of your peers when you get it right is louder than the laughter in their cheers when you get it wrong.
This family of fun is for everyone; an open and embracing hug of a group who really care about who you are and not what you are. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone and everyone to get involved and join in the fun, so check out bseaods.org.uk to see what’s next for us, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to see how you can visit the auditions for the next show.
In the meantime, of course, tickets are available for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas from the Theatre Royal.
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Photographic student Sandy Miles has recorded the progress of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas from the very beginning as part of her college course. She tells Culture about the experience
If money, qualifications and responsibilities presented no barrier, who would you be?
I am a mature student studying a Level Three Diploma in Art & Design (Photography) at West Suffolk College. After many years in the corporate world, I made the leap of faith last year to start following my own dream; to be able to put BA (Hons) after my name.
For my first Final Major Project I wanted to do something that was far removed from the commercial world; something I felt excited about and reflected my new creative environment. A love of the theatre, and the unique world of amateur dramatics, led me to approaching the BSEAODS to ask if I might follow their forthcoming production The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, being performed at the Theatre Royal in May.
From their first auditions in December, and through four months of rehearsals, I have been recording in still photography this amazing group of talented people as they juggle family life and work commitments. I have seen first-hand the hard work that goes into their production, but it’s the fun and laughter that will stay with me long after my project has finished. I doubt I will ever laugh out loud quite so much in the future when editing photographs!
I can’t thank BSEAODS enough for making me feel so welcome. Through my project I hope to be able to show, not only a behind the scenes story of an amateur theatre production, but also a little glimpse of how a group of people have come together to live their own dream. . . and in doing so have helped me on the way to mine.
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS
Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society saddle up for a classic Texan tale, where governors, senators, mayors, and even victorious college football teams frequent Miss Mona’s cosy bordello, The Chicken Ranch.
A rollicking hootenanny of a musical, this Tony award winning production recounts the good times and the demise of a real life whorehouse, known since the 1850s as one of the better pleasure palaces in all of Texas.
Girls came from all over to work at the ranch and make a little extra cash. However, the town’s Sheriff finds himself in a sticky situation when a crusading, loud-mouthed political opportunist focuses his television cameras, righteous indignation and conservative audience on the institution, exposing The Chicken Ranch and forcing it to shut its doors forever.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, May 1-5, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Call 01284 769505 or visit theatreroyal.org