Rooting for our local playwrights
First, before I go any further, I must make a confession: I am not a theatre critic, but I do enjoy going to the theatre and I know what I like.
A few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending an invitation-only performance of a unique play that will have its worldwide premier at the Liverpool International Theatre Festival (LITF) being held later this month from Oct. 18 to 21.
Liverpool amateur playwright, Greg Tutty, is a talented person I am happy to call a friend. He is thrilled to be presenting his original play, Oliver’s Bench, on the Oct. 18 opening night of the 14th LITF, as he should be. As I said, I am not a theatre critic, but I know a good story when I see it. Such was the case with Oliver’s Bench.
The first LITF was held in May 1992 and over the past 22 years, the event has hosted theatre troupes from all over the world. Since that time, the festival has grown and is now a well-regarded event on the amateur theatre festival circuit.
The lineup for this year’s festival is as diverse as the home countries of the performers. A dozen theatre troupes from the Central African Republic, Egypt, Mexico, Nepal, Iran, China, Argentina, Wales, Peru, Bangladesh and Liverpool have been invited to participate in the event being held at the historic Astor Theatre in Liverpool.
Oliver’s Bench is unlike any other play I’ve ever seen. It’s an hour-long roller coaster ride of emotions as the audience is invited to observe a small portion of Oliver’s life. We figure out very quickly that this bench is in a special location to Oliver and that, clearly, it’s near and dear to him.
Oliver, played flawlessly by the very talented Liverpool thespian, Al Steele, is best described as an introvert whose world intimately revolves around a park bench. In anyone else’s hands, Oliver could have been a flat, linear character. However, through Steele, a veteran of many local theatre productions, the socially inhibited character comes to life with gestures and facial expressions, touching the audience in a way I could never have imagined without ever uttering one single word.
Give that man a Tony … or some kind of acting award.
Tutty also deserves an award as he has masterfully created an intimate play about a man, a bench and a small circle of people he encounters on the bench. In one word, it is simply genius.
As described by Tutty, an active member of the Liverpool Winds of Change Dramatic Society and who has previously directed two other productions for the group, this play tells the story of Oliver, a simple, unassuming man who happily spends his days in solitude sitting on a bench in a park beside a lake.
A man of routine habits and order, Oliver tries his best to put up walls to protect his safe, little world. However, despite his best efforts, one day a quirky woman manages to find her way in, breaking down his imaginary barrier. Conflict arises as Oliver is forced to adjust to new situations and accept the consequences, both positive and negative, of letting his guard down and opening up to someone he doesn’t know.
With this non-verbal play, the writer invites the audience into the park and allows us to watch and interpret the story in their own way without benefit of words. Not an easy task, but the small cast allows us to draw our own conclusions. Well done.
When asked about the play, Tutty modestly explains, “It was quite a task to write a play with a story that can hold the audience’s attention for 55 minutes without anyone saying a single word. As a matter of fact, when I first developed the concept and wrote the play five years ago, I really wasn’t sure how it would go over. I tucked it away in a file and forgot about it.”
However, he says, the president of the Winds of Change, Annette Burke, really believed in the play and convinced him to submit it to the Winds of Change board, who were at the time looking for a play to submit to LITF 2018.
Happily for Tutty and luckily for the audience, the board loved the play and the concept. Members unanimously voted to summit the play to the LITF artistic directors for consideration. The play was ultimately chosen to be part of the lineup for LITF 2018 and is the only Canadian play to be chosen.
Tutty generously praises his cast and crew who, he says, believed in this project as much as he did and who unselfishly gave him many hours of commitment and hard work.
In particular, he says, “Al Steele gave me all that I asked for and more. His powerful performance is extremely moving and poignant. The brilliant Annette Burke plays Faith, and first-timer Teresa Clarke rounds out my talented cast.”
He also credits producer and assistant stage manager Jean Robinson-dexter, along with stage manager Leslie Clarke, for helping to bring his vision to life. The lighting, designed by Jon Paterson of the Astor Theatre, is also important to the play for mood and ambiance.
Tutty says his inspiration for this play was very simple. “I was walking in a waterfront park in Liverpool one summer’s day a few years back when I rounded a corner and surprised a lady sitting on a park bench. I really spooked her and her reaction was quite animated. I was quite taken aback.”
It was clear, he says, the woman was not expecting him to be there and she obviously didn’t want him there.
“I quickly walked away. All the way home I thought about her reaction and invented various scenarios in my mind,” he explains. “I didn’t know the woman so I had no way of knowing what prompted her reaction. I also didn’t know anything about her background story or why she was in the park that day. And obviously, I will never know what happened after I left the park.”
He says it was then that he realized that would make a wonderful concept for a play — a play with no words where the audience has to interpret their own story of what happens on the park bench.
Watching the play, I was struck by the simplicity of the production — 55 minutes, three actors, no words and a park bench. It doesn’t get much more stripped down than that. Tickets for individual plays, Flex 5 passes or passes for the entire festival are available at www.litf.ca or directly through the Astor Theatre box office at www.astortheatre.ns.ca.
Tutty guarantees the audience won’t be bored. I guarantee it as well, and that’s the view from here.
Oliver’s Bench will open the Liverpool International Theatre Festival stage on Oct. 18 at 8:30 p.m. The Winds of Change encourages everyone to come out and cheer on the home team, led by Al Steele, who plays Oliver.