The Ben Hur Project – Bath Theatre Royal

Our first meeting with Jill Bennett succeeded in explaining to us the nature of the project, Jill’s involvement and the progression of her organising of the event.
The project is primarily funded by the trust of Margot Boyd (late actress in ‘The Archers’) in the hope of creating a project to inspire and outreach people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to work in theatre – whether they be aspiring actors or would like to learn about what happens behind the scenes.
First Jill needed to sell the event to the theatre itself as she needed the cooperation of the current staff to be able to make the project work and did this by re-writing part of the story in the hope of getting the staff hooked on the idea and what better way to do this than to appeal to their creative imaginations.
After winning over the Bath Theatre Royal staff Jill went about developing a leaflet to get people involved. This was important because this would be the imagery linked to the project throughout the whole of its progression and therefore needed to be eye catching, inspiring and friendly to allow people to feel comfortable within joining the project.
The original design of the leaflet, however, did not portray these things but showed an epic, very serious theme taken from the mood of Ben Hur itself. After deliberation, the leaflet was changed to suit a wider audience by using cartoon illustrations to show the nature of the project rather than the outcome of Ben Hur itself. The final design looked like this:

The Next step for Jill is to find rehearsal and meeting spaces. At the moment she has booked village halls but hopes to find an empty shop or office building it Bath for a more permanent space.
The goal at the moment is for 520 people to come to each performance in order to make the budget work and I think from the interesting nature of the project I do not think she will have any trouble with this.
The launch of the event involved workshops and talks to allow people to participate actively and be inspired to continue and learn through the project.
After the launch of the event in which many people came to show their support and involvement there were many questions that needed answering. This is why Jill released an FAQ sheet answering questions such as “What do I need to do next?” and “do I need to pay to be involved?” This tied up many loose ends and gave people more confidence in the running and organisation of the project.

We all attended an admin and fundraising meeting in order to meet and greet the people wanting to get involved in more behind the scenes work for the project.
The demographic of the group, from first observation, seemed mainly female, middle aged and middle class but the main thing that struck me was that many of the people involved seemed to have been involved with the theatre or amateur dramatics or fundraising for other similar such events. One man was involved in the fundraising for the theatre royal and another woman sends her children to “storm on the lawn” which is the children’s version of the Ben Hur project.
Also, in a very short space of time you could see that there were already some dominant members. This worried me because, as the project is an outreach to people who do not usually have the opportunities to be involved in projects like this, it could be intimidating to be in a room full of people who already know what they are doing and, therefore, put people off being involved.
I think it is very difficult to find a group of people who will learn well together and I believe that having different experiences and sharing them is very useful for the development of the task but having extremely dominant members is a hindrance to learning and confidence within the job.
The workshop itself was very useful and explained some of the aims of the admin team. This involved the trust of data protection for people involved, budgeting fees for the cast, fundraising, organising social networking and liaise with stage management team on the production of the project.
The overall atmosphere of this meeting was warm and friendly and light hearted and I would be interested to see how many people stick with the project as it progresses.
After some meetings Jill began to put people into groups of 30 in which some people were already becoming very dominating.
There began to be some community cohesion as some of the people involved began car sharing and meeting outside of the project in social situations. I think that this type of relationship is also good for an on stage and working relationship.
Drama workshop
I attended one of the first drama workshops which took place in the scout hut in Bath run by Shane Morgan. When first entering I immediately recognised two people from the admin meeting which showed that some people get far more involved in these projects than others. There were a wide variety of ages at this particular workshop. I estimated there were:
3 under 18s
2 people aged 18-30
9 people aged 30-50
4 people aged 50+

The participants were asked to read a section of Ben Hur to themselves and get into groups to perform their own adaptation of them.
Group number one, a large group had an extract involving a large group of towns people. They split up the males and females and the men were discussing the scene and were all having useful input while the women were all gossiping on the other side of the room. This surprised me as, generally speaking, it usually tends to be women who get more involved with projects such as these while men take the step back.
Group number two was made up of 5 people. They sat for much longer than the other groups discussing equally the section of the script in detail with the exception of the younger member who perhaps didn’t feel he was old enough or experienced enough to contribute and was not asked his opinion. When the group finally started rehearsing it was obvious that there were two very strong actors both in their 20s who were dominant in the group.
Group number three were a group of three people all over 50. This group were the first to perform their extract so perhaps the most confident.
Everyone showed their performances to each other and it surprised me to find that the group of older people’s performance was much more improvised and chatty whereas the group of younger people performed their section much closer to original script.
One woman I spoke to, one of the over 50s, wanted to get involved in theatre in a small way and explained how she liked the idea of getting the community together. She thought that the community has diminished and that a project like this one is what the public need. She said that she hadn’t been involved in acting since University so this project was good to allow her to get involved gradually and enable her to build up her confidence.

The next stage would be to follow the stage production and set design side of the project but unfortunately the deadline did not allow for this to happen.


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