ARTS AND FEATURES — 21 May 2013

Alexander Neal and Emily Florence Hutchings performing a scene from The Seagull. Picture: Mandy Gasson 

By David Hennessy

An amazing response to their recent run of Chekhov’s The Seagull and Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at Theatro Technis was the latest praise to be heaped on Charm Offensive, the theatre company established in 2001 by acclaimed Irish director, Gavin McAlinden. “All the feedback was terrific,” says the director from Armagh. “All the reviews were very, very good and it was just a very happy experience for everybody involved: Audience, actors and the venue were delighted. We got some great houses so all told, it was an extremely positive experience for everybody.”

Gavin’s production of David Edgar’s Pentecost was nominated for two Off West End Awards last year in the categories of Best Director and Best Ensemble. Other recent productions include the critically acclaimed The Revengers’ Tragedy which starred Kris Marshall of Love Actually and the British premiere of Frank McGuinness’ Gates of Gold which was Critics’ Choice in The Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Financial Times, Time Out and Metrolife (ES magazine). Gavin’s short films include Tainted Heart which was shortlisted for the Cinefoundation at Cannes Film Festival and Target: Audience which was Shortlisted for the BBC Talent New Filmmaker Award.

Other actors who have joined Gavin’s productions include Richard Armitage (The Hobbit), Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Paul McGann (Withnail & I), Shaun Williamson (Eastenders’ Barry Evans), Gary Kemp (The Krays), Paul Freeman (Dr. René Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Arc), John Bennett (Doctor Who, The Forsyte Saga), Olivier Award winning Niall Buggy, Will Thorp (Coronation Street’s Chris Gray) and the highly respected stage actor, William Gaunt.

Gavin (left) works with two actors at his acting gymnasium at London Irish Centre, Camden

Gavin also holds a weekly acting gym in partnership with the London Irish Centre, Camden. Like it sounds, this is a place where actors can come and work on their acting skills with tuition and the support of a group and in turn, improve week in, week out. This is set to expand with a new Monday night group working towards a production of Playboy of the Western World, with Irish World readers encouraged to join in: “It would be nice to get a few Irish people involved. I’m working in partnership with the Irish Centre and it’s an Irish classic play which is obviously a very, very funny play as well so I just think it will be quite a good piece to work on. If any of your readers fancy treading the boards then get them to give me an email. It will be terrific, great experience, get to develop your skills, develop the confidence, do a great part and perform a play, get reviewed: It will be an all-round a very worthwhile experience.”

The Irish World observed one of these sessions recently and although it was their first day getting to grips with a new script (Charm Offensive are preparing for a rep season of Chekhov’s Ivanov and Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool at Theatro Technis in November), was impressed and found that the outstanding performances are not reserved for their stage productions.  “It’s like Fight Club,” Gavin told The Irish World, as at the end of every session, everyone gets up and performs what they have been working on to receive feedback as, like with anything, practice and listening to constructive criticism makes for improvement.

“Some of the guys came to me, they had never been in a play before in their life whereas other people have trained at RADA and places like that and you couldn’t spot the difference between the people who had trained at RADA and the ones that have very minimal training, because they both go through the same rigorous processes with myself. I’ve seen dramatic improvements in people: Improvements in their voice, improvements in their posture and body language, improvements in their confidence and how they approach characterization and their imagination and stuff. All round the feedback that I have had from people involved has been fantastic, which is extremely rewarding for me on a personal level and on a professional level.”

“By and large, people have heard through word of mouth, through Facebook and stuff like that, and decided they wanted to come along, got involved and then week in, week out they’re coming along and working at the gym and having a great time as well. There’s also a social element to it, they go to the pub and they have a couple of pints and create a support atmosphere for everybody as well, an environment where they can tell each other about auditions and just generally create a bit of a family atmosphere, support network type vibe.”

The Irish Centre has offered huge support to Gavin and his group, providing somewhere for them to rehearse. Prior to this, Gavin’s acting gym had no regular venue: “We were a wandering group of merry players until Gary Dunne (Artistic Director, London Irish Centre) took pity on us and offered us some shelter. Gary, being a man of great vision of imagination, saw that there was some good work being done. He had sat in on some rehearsals, saw the intensity of the work and the devotion of people and the talent levels, so he was pretty blown away by that. He wanted to get involved and give us a bit of a leg up so we’re obviously very, very grateful to him and to the management and staff of the Irish Centre for being so supportive in extending the hand of friendship to us, inviting us to come in and making us feel so welcome.”

Alexander Neal starred in Charm Offensive’s recent productions of The Seagull and A Month in the Country and has also been nominated for Best Male at the Off West End Awards for his work on Sus at the Lion & Unicorn. Alexander told The Irish World how the acting gym has benefitted him since he graduated from Central School of Speech and Drama: “I wanted to stay active and being involved with a group, so I got online and searched theatre groups and I came across Charm Offensive and I facebooked Gavin and he said ‘come on down’. When you get involved with a company, you want to know that they have got a decent pedigree and it seemed from the work that he had done and the people he had worked with that it was a director who knew what he was doing. And he does, its’ great. He’s a great director and he’s fun to work with as well.”

Claire Conroy (right) and Carla Evans pictured in a scene from The Seagull. Picture: Mandy Gasson

Claire Conroy, from Enniskillen, has been working with Gavin for two years: “You can be doing classes and classes and they’re good for technique but there’s nothing like actually doing the work every week, coming together and going through different characters and different texts and working towards a performance. As actors, you can spend a lot of your time technically out of work and waiting for things to happen. The idea of the gymnasium is that’s what it is: It is to keep your acting muscles going so that you’re not sitting for weeks waiting for an audition. When the audition comes up, you’ve been acting every week and you’re just more ready.

“What’s been lovely is to see other people (from the group) go off and do work with each other as well and recommend people for jobs. It’s a great source of networking because the best way to get work sometimes is through other actors, people who recommend you directly, because the audition process can be lengthy so sometimes people just want to go with someone that they know is reliable.

“What I find is that people have chosen to give up their Saturday which is a day a lot of people value as their free time. People are consciously giving that up so you get people who are very committed to give up every single Saturday which is quite a lot of commitment. I think when it comes to the actual performances, that commitment shows through.”

Emily Florence Hutchings has been working with Gavin for two years now and her starring roles in A Month in the Country and The Seagull have led to her being invited to join a Shakespeare tour with the company, Burnt Out in June. “It’s been invaluable in terms of my training and education,” Emily begins telling The Irish World. “This provides me with the tuition from Gavin, the chance to get reviewed and the chance to do a quality show in a quality venue in front of audiences whilst I’m working on getting an agent and getting professional work.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for doing your own work and finding your own work. You can’t just sit around and expect paid professional work to come to you. You have to keep doing fringe shows because that’s where you meet people. I wouldn’t have got the Shakespeare tour if I hadn’t met Clemmie (Reynolds, director of Burnt Out) doing fringe work so it’s really important that actors don’t turn their nose up at workshops or productions that are the result of workshops because that’s where you learn, where you grow.

“I think you should take every opportunity that comes your way and not turn your nose up at anything even if it’s something out of your comfort zone. The Government Inspector, I basically played a guy. It was totally out of my comfort zone, I didn’t want to do it but I’m so glad I did because I learned so much more doing that than doing something that I’m used to. That’s what the gym is about, not just playing to your strengths but identifying what you’re not so comfortable with and getting used to it so you do become a more versatile actor that can take different jobs and not be afraid to take a job just because you’re not experienced at it.”

Gavin has worked with a whole host of famous faces and put Richard Armitage on his way to a great career by giving the Hobbit and Strike Back star his first role out of drama school. Gavin’s 2004 production of Gates of Gold featured John Bennett, William Gaunt, Kika Markham, Aoife McMahon and Alan Turkington and was sadly the last stage appearance of the late John Bennett. “I do enjoy working with the older generation and also putting established actors alongside emerging talent,” the director reveals. “I remember when I was doing the McGuinness play Gates of Gold, I think the combined experience of all five actors was 130 years experience in the industry so it was a bit of a daunting proposition walking into that room on the first day of rehearsals  but thankfully they listened to what I had to say and the production got good reviews so it did well.

“Also another reason I’m so satisfied working with established ones is that you just don’t get any hassle with them, they’ve got nothing to prove. If you look at somebody like Richard Armitage or Kris Marshall, they’re just one of the boys really, they just want to do the work and have a bit of craic and whatever else. They’re not interested in status or where their name is on the poster, whose dressing room is that. They just want to get on and do the work and get along with everybody, absolute delight to work with.”

“It looks like I’m gonna be quite buzy. It’s good to have so many creative projects going as well.”

Charm Offensive will present a rep season of Ivanov and Fortune’s Fool for the first three weeks of November at Theatro Technis. Also look out for the productions of Playboy of The Western World and Frances Connor’s An Apple a Day, all in partnership with The London Irish Centre, Camden.

For the full feature, see the May 25 edition of The Irish World.

If you would like to join Gavin’s acting gymnasium which will now be two days a week at the Camden Centre with one on Mondays, you can contact Gavin by emailing gavinmcalinden@yahoo.com.

For more information on Charm Offensive, you can go to: http://www.charmoffensive.org.uk/.

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