Laila & Darren France – UpShoot Theatre

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Production photo from Raiders of the Lost Panto
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UpShoot Theatre Company, working from the Fisher Theatre in Bungay, provide local performers aged 18 and over, with a range of performance arts opportunities, producing community and professional theatre, including touring shows, outdoor performances, musicals, pantomime and theatre well-being projects.

Inspired by their involvement leading the Fisher Youth Theatre Group (FYTG) since 2000, Laila and Darren France formed UpShoot in 2011 to help young artists develop toward professional careers in performance arts and keep a younger demographic engaged in the arts.

We caught up with the couple, Laila and Darren, to talk about the development of the company, how they have adapted in the pandemic and what the future holds.

Hello! Firstly, let’s get to know you – tell us a bit about yourself and the company…

Laila: UpShoot was an idea I had 10 years ago because many young people were coming out of our Fisher Youth Theatre Group wanting to go into performing arts professionally, but needing more experience before they auditioned for drama school or pursued other avenues in the business, we decided to form UpShoot, producing more contemporary theatre accessible to younger performers and younger audiences. The company has grown and developed in many ways over the last decade, and as directors and producers we have learnt a great deal.

Darren: Having both worked with children for 10 years prior to forming UpShoot, we realised there was a great appetite across the rural communities of North Suffolk and South Norfolk to be involved in performance and to experience exciting contemporary theatre on stage. Younger adults in communities who aren’t easily able to access performance arts activities, were particularly keen to get involved, be it to take part or to watch and enjoy – so that’s where it all started.

For you both personally, has theatre always been in your life and how has this aided UpShoot?

Laila: For me, it’s been there since I was six years old and I got my first lead role! It’s been there throughout my life, and as a student I did a lot at university. Coming out of that, I ended up working too much and forgetting about theatre a little bit, but I have really come back to it and it’s become everything I do now. A lot of adults now come to join UpShoot’s Community Group because they want to meet new people and grow their confidence, and we provide a very supportive environment for that.

Darren: I set-out from quite an early age too, I went to drama school in London for three years when I was 18, worked as an actor for a few years and went back to university later in life. Both Laila and I have also had careers in health and social care, that’s one of the other important objectives of UpShoot, health and well-being, particularly mental health. We are very much about well-being and shared experience; and about giving people a place where they can express themselves. Our work in mental health has really connected us with those ideas about performance arts and well-being.

What have you been doing in the past year to keep yourself busy and secure moving forward?

Darren: We had to put a hold on a lot of work this time last year, but we took as much of it as we could online. Laila ran sessions online with our community adult company, and we both ran sessions online for the FYTG children’s groups. We then had the idea of producing some outdoor theatre in the summer, to bring live performance back to audiences when people could move around again. We sold out all eight performances across different outdoor venues; One of the performances we delivered in collaboration with The Cut Arts Centre, and Richard Curtis, one of the writers of the acclaimed Blackadder TV series, donated us some great memorabilia to auction off in support of our efforts. Norwich Theatre (NT) also supported us, providing us with fantastic costumes for our Blackadder episode, while the Fisher Theatre gave us the place to rehearse. Laila then had an idea for pantomime…

Laila: I thought ‘what about creating a Panto around the story of Raiders The Lost Ark – Peter Pan could still be the lead character, but trying to find lost Panto’, the lost Panto being the arc of the covenant that Indiana Jones was searching for, and Raiders of the Lost Panto was born. We managed to perform eight shows at the Fisher Theatre, playing to sold-out socially distanced audiences and then had to cut the run short because theatres were shut down in the third national lockdown.

Darren: We are currently working on a project we began in March 2020 and have now commissioned a film company to film the play which will be streamed throughout the coming year. It is called ‘Dr Hills Casebook’, and is an archives, wellbeing and theatre project. The story is drawn from the medical journals of Dr William Charles Hills’ – Medical Superintendent of the Norfolk County Asylum, Thorpe St Andrew, and the case records of patients under Dr Hills care during the late 1800s.

How have you found adapting to that digital side of things – have you enjoyed it or has it been a challenge?

Laila: One of the hardest things I have found is rehearsing singing online, it has been really tricky to do this, and usually sounds quite awful. Everyone has different connection speeds, hearing each other at different times, when you try and get everyone to sing together, it can be quite frustrating.

Darren: It’s been a learning curve. When trying to rehearse ‘Dr Hills Casebook’ it became particularly challenging keeping the room safe and let the creative process of rehearsal happen. After one week of research and development on the script we decided to pause rehearsals; we reconvene rehearsals and filming in early May at The Cut Arts Centre.

Laila: Restrictions in the rehearsal room stifles your creativity a bit because thinking about the health and safety gets you very worried. You feel so responsible for everybody’s safety that you forget what you’re there for.

In addition to all the other projects, I believe that you’ve got a production of Into the Woods coming up – can you tell us a bit more about that…

Darren: We have wanted to do the show for a long time, it’s an amazing piece of musical theatre, it’s a bit different – Sondheim musical theatre is not your average musical theatre, this show is a very popular story, made more popular by the film and it’s the perfect story to tell outdoors.

All the pre-production started at a time when we thought we were definitely going to be able to do this show in summer 2021. The challenge now being that the government’s roadmap says community and amateur groups can’t start rehearsals until mid-May, leaving us not enough time to put the show together ready for the end of the summer, so we have taken the difficult decision to move the production to July 2022 – but we’ll definitely be doing it next Summer! However, as previously mentioned, we are producing ‘Dr Hills Casebook’ as a filmed performance so stay tuned.

While we keep waiting for the return of live theatre, what have you in the past year and what would you say people can do to keep supporting the arts and companies like yourselves?

Laila: People really enjoyed our outdoor theatre offering last summer and tickets sold out very quickly – evidence that everyone had missed live performance. We would ask everyone who loves theatre to support the return of live performance again this summer. The complete absence of live performance has certainly made people realise the value of the arts and how much we need these experiences to feel good.

Darren: Keep supporting our work, and the work of local arts and cultural organisations, if you see something advertised and you’re a bit curious or interested then check it out, book a ticket, and when live performance starts to emerge this summer go and see it. People are going to be worried about returning to indoor venues, but the industry has responded well in terms of ensuring people’s safety. There are real risks of losing arts and culture experiences in our communities, opportunities that we greatly value and that are so important for our well-being, so I’ll just say think about that – the value of the arts in terms of the health and well-being of our society.

As a bit of fun one, if you could see the opening night with the original cast any show, what would it be and why?

Darren: I’d like to be at the original London opening, in 1956, of ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller. I would like to be there because it was a groundbreaking piece of theatre at that time, a story that is as relevant today as it was in 1956. Also, I am going to be in a production of this play myself in November this year. It’s touring around Suffolk with Open Space Theatre Company, another great local company that does really good work – so hopefully people will come and see it!

Laila: I would like to be at the opening night of Richard III with Antony Sher, directed by Bill Alexander in 1984. It was a brilliant production that met with much acclaim and criticism, a new style and energy that influenced our approach we tell Shakespeare’s stories.

You can find UpShoot Theatre Company at: upshoottheatrecompany.com and facebook.com/UpShootTheareCompany.


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