Visiting WEA Film Making Class in Blackhill, Consett
(Tuesday 7th February 2017)
Blackhill Village Hall, hidden away in the depths of County Durham, is home to a thriving and prolific filmmaking troupe, led by WEA Tutor Graham Smith. The students are members of Ebony Day Care Centre and have diverse learning needs. As soon as I walked through the door I could see the tightknit bonds of friendship and support between students, support workers, carers and the tutor. Graham was screening a preview of their latest work in progress, ‘The Stage Hand’. The premise is a character who wants to be part of a theatre production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Despite working hard, showing willing and turning up to the audition, he is dismissed outright and the panel decide he would be better suited to being a stage hand. In keeping with the comical tone of Graham’s previous short films, such as ‘King Pong’, a spoof rendition of the classic King Kong, this piece is inflected with ludicrous touches. The directors are exaggerated and hypercritical, the actors are prima donnas and the mains stars are aptly self-absorbed and serious. The character of the stage hand looks on from behind the scenes and, as the actors prepare for their debut, it seems he will never get his chance to shine. But then Romeo is struck down with a violent bout of vomiting on the opening night, and so the stage hand must rise to the occasion by taking up the baton and demonstrating his overlooked worth, defying everyone’s assumptions and expectations.
As the class eagerly awaited their turn to view the film, the student who plays the shy and retiring main character could barely contain his excitement. He was finding his moment in the lime light just as powerful for himself as it is for the undervalued character he portrays. Although I get the impression his buoyant personality never leave him overlooked – he was the life and soul of the group!
Tutor Graham uses improvisation to help generate his script and the characters’ actions. This approach involves the whole group. At various times during the session, he gathered everyone together so they were either sat or stood in a circle and explained what was happening in the scene. He then called upon the actors and, with the input of the group, decided upon the best actions and most succinct dialogue to convey the scene. This instinctive and immediate engagement had the group enthralled and produced natural and compelling acting. One improvised scene I observed was when the stage hand points out how to read a line to the confused actor playing Romeo. Romeo sits staring at the play script while the stage hand cleans behind him. The stage hand then comes forward and points over Romeo’s shoulder pronouncing the words correctly for him. I also saw a rehearsal scene where one actor sneaks up behind the other wielding a sword and threatens to stab him. Through improvisation and asking the group how they would react Graham was able to easily generate natural dialogue. Once the group were agreed on the best choice of actions and words they set the cameras rolling.
Before I knew it, lunch was being served and everyone took some well-earned time out. I took some photos of the group, including a pair of close friends who put their arms around one another to pose for their picture. The positivity and warmth between the students was palpable.
The afternoon had more filming in store, this time in the village hall, so they could make use of the attractive traditional stage which is part of their set. The stage hand swept in the background of the shot while the two directors, one severe, the other a prima donna, stood in the foreground and lamented their mediocre cast. Students who were not acting took it in turns to help set up and film shots with Graham’s support. It took time and concentration but the students were all rooting for the project’s success, even though some were unable to contain their enthusiasm, even after Graham had called action! However, it was clear that commitment is never a concern with this focused and eager group.
These scenes required several takes. First there was background noise from the heaters and then objects had to be moved out of shot, so that by the third take the actors forgot their cues. However, they all took these inevitable trials of filmmaking in their stride and kept going until the scene was right. As Graham later points out to me, while he reminisces about filming up to his knees in a river, it’s all in a day’s work. He adds that they got the shot on that occasion and their horror film was completed, another string to the group’s bow.
As I leave them all embarking on some more improvised acting sessions for the final scenes of the piece, I am in awe of what this small, relatively unknown group have achieved. From the short excerpts I have seen, this piece is shaping up to be another of Graham’s filmmaking triumphs. Once the films have been edited, they always have a film night to show the finished picture on a big screen to an audience of participants, family and friends. Graham tells me this is a big event. “That’s the unique and special thing about creating these films”, he explains. “Through the editing process you can highlight and emphasise the students’ best acting moments and through visuals, sound effects and music you can condense the material into a succinct storytelling experience that is very accessible and instantly enjoyable to all”.
Although Graham emphasises that this is not a “message piece”, he realises that the narrative portrays the kinds of challenges his filmmaking students face in their personal lives in a way he has not been previously attempted in his films. However, as with his previous films, humour inflects this piece, and these comical touches seem to evolve from Graham’s easy rapport with the students. I saw how the students so clearly respected their tutor and wanted to please him. At one point during the session he asked the student who plays the flamboyant director to sit back down. So dedicated was this student’s commitment to character that he expressively waved his hand and strutted back to his seat in exasperation, not realising that he no longer needed to play that role. Graham could not keep a straight face and the whole group burst into laughter. These moments of connection between the group members brought delight and passion for the work they are doing. It showed to me the unexpected and intangible moments of pleasure that can arise from creative projects.
I can highly recommend the short films WEA tutor Graham Smith produces with all his WEA filmmaking groups. ‘King Pong’ will soon be available to view on our website. It is an amusing and heart-warming experience, just like my day with the WEA Filmmaking class in Blackhill, Consett. Keep up the great work everyone!
WEA Staff Member