The University's European Theatre Group toured The Merchant of Venice in December 2012: "We need to take half the seats out to keep the set in the back. I hope that’s ok!"
That was 2011 – King Lear – in a crisis centring on the bankruptcy of a coach company, and the subsequent desperate search to find another one willing to have us. Most weren’t. It’s not an immediately attractive proposition: rather than taking retirees to Vienna, as he did on his previous trip, our eventual driver Andy took 24 students around Europe in a coach with tea crates and wire trees (the set) in the back, and stacks of lighting equipment in the hold!
The European Theatre Group (ETG) has been doing this every year since 1957. It has to be said, we’ve stepped up from the grocer’s van that held the set back then. ETG is bigger now: more people, more places, more lights.
I went last year as a Stage Manager. It was very hard work, but within weeks of finishing, I missed it. There’s a sense, living so closely with the rest of the company, that there is nothing but the tour. It becomes a whole parallel world in which your responsibilities are much clearer. All you have to do is get the set and lights off the coach and ready for the performance as quickly as you can, often quicker than you can. The show has to happen, and then you have to get everything and everyone back on the road. There is no room for manoeuvre, in terms of time or in terms of space on the coach.
It sounds tough, and there is a tendency for tour members to talk up how tough it is, how tired they are, how heavy the crates are. And yet last year over 200 people auditioned for the 11 spaces in the cast of King Lear. We expect a similar number this year. I knew what it was like, and yet I still chose to take on more responsibility for the next one.
There are lots of reasons why people want to go on the tour. There’s its history: Trevor Nunn and Derek Jacobi established ETG while they were students. But more importantly, we’ve been going to some of the venues for several years. Most are schools. Over the winter term, students study the play we’ve chosen in their English classes. We perform the text for them, and lead workshops exploring characters, language and performance. I think we’re doing something good for these pupils. In return, the students and their parents are unfailingly generous: they pick us up from the coach park in the dead of night, take us back at the crack of dawn, feed us, ask us questions about the show and the tour. Arranging the itinerary with them feels more like a friendly conversation than the haggling process that can go on with the professional venues we also visit.
ETG has become a major part of my life as an undergraduate in Cambridge, something I never expected would happen, but something I’m happy about. I’d like to thank the College for helping me with my contribution to the tour funds.