Wed 27 Dec 2023

Theatre by the Lake made it happen for me… by Melina

Melina Barnett is one of our Associate Artists here at Theatre by the Lake, A Little Princess was her debut as an Associate Director.

How long have you been an Associate Director?

This is my first Associate Director role and it’s been such a big learning journey! I’ve come from a producing background, so I’ve produced a lot of theatre rather than directed it. I’ve got that background but then I’ve also worked in community engagement. That included working with young people, the community and working in groups and integrating them into the world of theatre. I was using theatre as a vice for learning, so it ended up working really really well.

Having the many different experiences that I’ve had and bringing them all into one, it feels like this role was the perfect fit.

What first got you in to theatre?

When I was in year 5 or year 4 my next-door neighbour was in a show called Dick Whittington at school. I wanted to know what it was, I wanted to know what it was like to be able to go on stage and perform! The next year I was in Cinderella and I was the evil stepmother and had parents coming up to me after the show saying “wow you were so convincing” so I got into acting. Then I moved into the world of performing until there was a part of my life when I was really unwell so I couldn’t do any acting anymore.

I loved theatre so much I looked at how I could get involved again, I looked at what roles there were outside of acting and I fell into producing. That was a whirlwind, it’s a different world, you have to use a different side of your brain. It’s a very analytical side of theatre. I got to experience a very different side of it all because I ended up in this project where we were working with young men who were at risk of mental health conditions. I watched them using theatre as a vehicle to support their mental health.  I found myself thinking this is what community is and this is what community theatre can do. I watched them over a course of 3 years and realised that I wanted to do that!

I want to have a positive impact on people’s lives so that’s when I started to move into community engagement.

I did a short training course on how to facilitate and work with people and then I managed to go straight into it. I came up here to Theatre by the Lake in 2021 and worked on a production called Jacaranda. I did the community engagement for that and that felt very very different in that I was delivering more to the community. I was not really involved in the community in the creative experience but more involved with them in Q&A’s and just creating additional vices like workshops for people to come along and enjoy.

And now here I am… all those things just merged!

When did you get asked to be the Associate Director for A Little Princess?

It was in early spring and it went back to a conversation that me and Liz had when I was doing Jacaranda. I said then that I’d like to see what being an Associate Director role would be like and then she gave me the opportunity. I’m an Associate Artist here at Theatre by the Lake as well, so it was kind of like ‘oh I love being here, it’s so exciting, such a beautiful place and I’d love to be able to spend a chunk of time here’. An opportunity to really immerse myself in the environment and in the community. As an Associate Artist I’ve been able to do that and so that was really easy to tie that into when I became an Associate Director. The links have already been made so it was a really really seamless process. It was so lovely to be asked because I don’t have the experience of being an Assistant Director.

I’ve done all of the other things but never that so actually it was just about bringing all of the transferable skills that I’ve learnt and just putting them into one job and that was really exciting. It’s been such an amazing challenge to get my teeth into.

What does an Associate Director do?

It’s a big job, it’s a bigger job than I anticipated! I worked really closely with the director of the show (Liz Stevenson).  The first step for me is reading the script and working out if I wanted to do this role, is this something that I’m interested in? When I was offered the role I had a lot of questions, could I do this role, while I understood the themes of the story were relevant to me, the culture was still very new to me, so am I right for this role? I’m not from that culture! But actually, I could, I just had to do the research, from reading the script, pulling out words and understanding the environments they are in. I had to learn about that area in India, it’s such a mind opening experience. There was a lot of questioning!

We had a Cultural Consultant (Anindita Ghosh) who checked everything to make sure that it was culturally accurate and we’re not taking anything out of context. After that we moved into the process of recruiting the young company and that was done between me, Liz Stevenson and Claire Dunk. We sat down and looked at what worked last year for The Borrowers and how we could incorporate any learnings from that into this process.

How can we make it an inclusive and accessible process for everybody coming from near and far in Cumbria?  

We sent a ‘Call Out’ for young local performers and had so many applicants! It was a tough process because it meant that we had to let people down. We tried to look at who would benefit the most, so there might have been people in the audition that lacked a little bit more confidence than the others in the group. We thought this process will hopefully give them some confidence, agency and the ability to be able to trust themselves and to trust their intuition.

Just to see the process where these young people have developed their confidence and their support of each other has been so beautiful and so inspirational to me. I often said, when we were in the rehearsal process at the beginning, “this isn’t a process where I’m going to sit and teach you everything it’s collaboration  where I am learning as much from you as you are from me”.

Being able to be with them and just be my authentic self! The one thing I find is that sometimes we hide the mistakes that we make and that makes young people feel like they have to be perfect!  That’s how we also work on stage and in the rehearsal process, it’s okay to make a mistake! Liz often says ‘Strong but Wrong’ and that’s something that we’ve done in the rehearsal process, we’ve said just give us 100% and if we need to tell you to tone it down, tone it down, that’s absolutely fine, especially in theatre. We want big and real expressions and you see it when they’re performing.

They are doing their best and they put everything into their work.  It shows and it’s been such a beautiful process.

Outside of the young company I also work with the main acting company as well. I sit in the rehearsal room and work with the actors when they’re acting and if there’s anything that I think they should try differently.  Liz has given me the freedom and agency to do that.

A lot of time it’s research though, research into the script and what’s happening in the time the production is set.

We did a big section on the timelines of A Little Princess, it has them arriving England in September 1930 and then the show ends, technically, in September 1931. So we tracked the timeline making sure that things were right, it affects what they are wearing, are they going to be looser outfits or are they going to be wearing coats and lots of layers. Figuring out the timeline helps with lighting states as well. My job was really important, it’s making sure the story is right, collaborating with all the team members and we’re all working together.

Have you added a new tool to your toolbox of tricks from this experience?

YES… previously I’ve just sat in a rehearsal process for a day or two at a time. Then I’ll sit in on a technical rehearsal on the odd time. So I’ve never been in the rehearsal room for the whole day, the days are long, very long! Especially technical rehearsals, they could be 15-hour days!

One thing I noticed; with technical rehearsals I need to eat more so I have more energy so I can last longer so you have to prepare yourself!

The other thing I’ve leant is to learn the roles of everyone in the rehearsal room, for example the deputy stage managers, they don’t stop! They have to be tuned in all the time to what Liz is saying, to what’s happening on stage, who’s taken what prop off , what directions everyone is going on and off the stage and it’s just a whole process that I don’t think I have fully appreciated before. Just watching Sara Cowman (Deputy Stage Manager) do it I was just like ‘wow!’ but it also means that in that process I didn’t have to do as much as I thought I did! It’s a collaboration process and I’ve learnt so much. Watching people’s processes, watching the sound designer Arun Ghosh as he sits in the rehearsal room and plays his clarinet or tinkers on the piano. Just like that he created the world of the music of the show and obviously with all of the other elements.

…watching people’s processes has been truly learning experienced to me and a really really beautiful one.

Would you do it again and would you like to Direct?

YES I would absolutely do it again! Every experience is a learning experience, so I’ll be able to learn again when I’m doing it again.

Whooa Directing a show, I would need more experience… being a Director is not just being in change of the actors, it’s being in charge of the creative team and it’s all yours, your creative vision, everything, it’s yours! Yes, you liaise with the people around you but your name is on there as Director.. so YEAH that! But this experience has definitely helped me if ever I do… Direct!

When theatres’ are able to provide opportunities like this for people who are coming into this for the first time it really does make a difference because I’ve developed not just as an artist but as a human.

Not everybody has the opportunity to do that, a lot of the time people aren’t willing to take risks on a new Associate or new Assistant Directors. The difference between Assistant and Associate is the Associate has more responsibilities. So my responsibilities was looking after the youth cast and that was my main responsibility. Where as when you’re an Assistant Director, you sit in the room, you’re there but it’s much more of a shadowing role. So providing opportunities for people to be able to do this, especially people in their early careers, it makes such a difference and is so valuable that I’ve been able to have this experience and I’m SO grateful. Ask, ask for what you want and see if someone is willing to make it happen.

Theatre by the Lake made it happen for me and I’m just super grateful to be here!