To­tal de­light: Story of the To­tal Ensem­ble theatre group

What­ever your age, what­ever your am­bi­tion, what­ever your abil­ity, To­tal Ensem­ble cre­ates in­clu­sive theatre with ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sults both on stage and off it

Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rachel Buller PHO­TOS: Mark Ivan Ben­field N

When job­bing ac­tress Re­becca Chap­man went to watch a per­for­mance at the world fa­mous Chick­en­shed theatre in Lon­don, it was she says, a life chang­ing mo­ment.

So in­spired was she by what she had seen, it re­sulted in a change of direc­tion – swap­ping end­less au­di­tion­ing for cre­at­ing her own in­clu­sive theatre com­pany here in Nor­folk.

She formed To­tal Ensem­ble in 2011 and this month will put on its most am­bi­tious show yet – Boy in the Light­house – a to­tally orig­i­nal piece de­vised by cast mem­bers which will run for six nights dur­ing the Hostry Fes­ti­val at Nor­wich Cathe­dral.

Re­becca’s pas­sion for in­clu­sive theatre is in­fec­tious and she cred­its that en­thu­si­asm and be­lief to Jo Collins, co-founder of Chick­en­shed, who is a pa­tron of To­tal Ensem­ble.

“I had been at Bris­tol Old Vic theatre school and wanted to be an ac­tress. I was in Lon­don, work­ing all sorts of jobs while au­di­tion­ing and do­ing dif­fer­ent roles. Then I went to Chick­en­shed to watch a pro­duc­tion for the first time and I was so pro­foundly af­fected by what I had ex­pe­ri­enced. I sent them a long let­ter after­wards ex­plain­ing why I thought it was so in­cred­i­ble. Watch­ing that show lit­er­ally changed my life. It turned it com­pletely up­side-down.”

Rather un­ex­pect­edly, says Re­becca, they wrote back, firstly ask­ing her per­mis­sion to use some of her words to send out to po­ten­tial donors and sec­ondly to of­fer her a job.

“They said my let­ter showed I re­ally un­der­stood what they were all about. I ended up work­ing for Chick­en­shed for three years and it was an ex­tra­or­di­nary time. I quickly re­alised I was ac­tu­ally far more suited to be­ing a fa­cil­i­ta­tor rather than be­ing in the lime­light as an ac­tor.”

When she moved to Nor­folk, it was Jo at Chick­en­shed who urged her to es­tab­lish an in­clu­sive theatre com­pany in the county. It was a big ask, but such was Re­becca’s un­fal­ter­ing be­lief in the project, she was de­ter­mined to make it hap­pen.

“I just hap­pen to think that the best theatre is in­clu­sive theatre. It is not about pa­tro­n­is­ing any­body or us­ing la­bels, just what we can achieve as an ensem­ble us­ing the many dif­fer­ent skills and ex­pe­ri­ences which ev­ery­one brings.”

Coin­ci­den­tally, around the same time she re­turned to Nor­folk, Stash Kirk­bride and Peter Bar­row were in the process of set­ting up the Hostry Fes­ti­val and were keen to put Re­becca’s fledg­ling theatre com­pany un­der their um­brella, a re­la­tion­ship which con­tin­ues.

“The first year, all we did was a work­shop. Grad­u­ally it sim­ply grew from there and now To­tal Ensem­ble’s per­for­mances are an in­te­gral part of the Hostry pro­gramme.”

Re­becca, who is founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of To­tal Ensem­ble, says some peo­ple have a very set idea about what they do, but that is of­ten far re­moved from the re­al­ity.

“Peo­ple think dis­abled, then they think chil­dren, but we are to­tally in­clu­sive. We have per­form­ers of all ages; we have a four-year-old on stage along­side a 70-year-old; some mem­bers have dis­abil­i­ties, some don’t; some are pro­fes­sion­als keen to get back on stage, some are com­plete be­gin­ners want­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of theatre, some­one might be a wheel­chair user, some­one else might have lim­ited speech. Ev­ery­one has their own rea­sons to be there and ev­ery­one brings some­thing unique to our group.”

One cast mem­ber joined To­tal Ensem­ble be­cause he was the only one of his fam­ily who didn’t act and he wanted to give it a go with­out feel­ing any judge­ment. It so hap­pened, says Re­becca, his ‘act­ing fam­ily’ were ac­tual Bol­ly­wood stars.

“His mum came over to Lon­don for a film pre­miere and then came to watch her son act with us. She couldn’t be­lieve how in­cred­i­ble the per­for­mance was and was over­whelmed by what we did – and we all got to go and see her film at Cinema City for a spe­cial screen­ing. Maybe we will take To­tal Ensem­ble to In­dia!”

The com­pany doesn’t have its own premises and uses a va­ri­ety of re­hearsal spa­ces around the city while work­ing on a show. It also doesn’t op­er­ate weekly ses­sions or classes, it runs in­stead on a pro­duc­tion by pro­duc­tion ba­sis – which can of­ten take sev­eral months.

“We al­ways work to­wards a pro­duc­tion, whether that is a com­mis­sion for an event, which we al­ways see as real val­i­da­tion for our pro­fes­sion­al­ism, or for

“Watch­ing that show lit­er­ally changed my life. It turned it com­pletely up­side-down”

OP­PO­SITE:The To­tal Ensem­ble Theatre Com­pany cast for Boy In The Light­house

ABOVE:To­tal Ensem­ble at re­hearsal

BELOW:The ensem­ble has a wide range of ages tak­ing part

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