Book Review: Shakespeare, the Man Who Pays the Rent

Some of us (many thanks to Diane for the loan) have been reading Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent. This is the account of a fascinating series of conversations between Dame Judi Dench (National Treasure) and Brendan O’Hea, Actor and Director and friend of Judi’s. These conversations took place over a period of four years, during which time Brendan read scenes to Judi, or the two of them watched films of her performances, and then discussed individual characters she’d played, aspects of performance, gossip and backstage pranks.

So, in essence, this is Judi Dench at her self-deprecating and honest best, discussing many of Shakespeare’s women. Obviously, I was especially interested in those plays performed over the years by WOAS as I knew them much better. I was particularly interested in her memories of playing both Hermione and Perdita at the same time in a Trevor Nunn production, and more recently, Paulina in the Kenneth Branagh production.

She’s clearly an entertaining speaker (you can hear her voice throughout the book and an audio version, if available, would be a treat!). Her thoughts and perceptiveness and sense of humour in recounting amusing anecdotes made for enjoyable and interesting reading, and at the same time I learnt a huge amount. The book is peppered with her sketches of characters and props (remarkably good sketches) which she eventually agreed to have included as encouragement for anyone else with severely impaired sight.

Enough from me – read it yourself!


Audition Nerves


  • To audition – to assess the suitability of someone for a performing role

We’ve reached the end of our marvellous season of varied workshops, and it’s that time again. My heart thumps, my palms are clammy and my voice rises a couple of octaves at the thought …(and I’m not auditioning).

But we’re not scary here at WOAS! We’re a friendly, welcoming group, and we believe our auditions reflect that.

I first observed the auditions for The Tempest in 2012 and was impressed with how gentle, kind and encouraging they were. Far too nervous to actually take part: I’d never done any acting, you see, but got involved as prompter and loved it…

A year later, emboldened by attending workshops (see previous blog – I told you how great they were!) and realising that I performed daily in my teaching job, I dared audition for The Merry Wives of Windsor. I didn’t care which part – I just knew I wanted to take part, and that’s been my modus operandi for the other 5 times I’ve auditioned . I was thrilled that time to get the tiny part of Abraham Slender, who didn’t say much, but got lots of audience laughs – the perfect part for me.

I’ve also been on the directorial team four times – and I can assure you that auditions are just as nerve-wracking and exciting on that side of the fence.

I’ve come to understand that there’s far more to casting than simply being good at a specific part. Most plays involve family and friend groupings – fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and the apt phrase Sheila used (and still uses) is to ‘fit the jigsaw together.’ In WOAS, we’re happy to stretch the disbelief of the obliging audience to its absolute limits as we’re all obviously so young-looking (!) but a son really shouldn’t look older than his father…! The Comedy of Errors even required two pairs of identical twins (and was managed brilliantly). 

The auditions are much like workshops. We might play warm-up games, ask you to read from a scene or two, more than one character, see how you work with others. You may have a preferred named character (and we may ask you to ‘try out’ something). Fitting the puzzle pieces together is a challenging task for the directors, and can lead to headaches! The enthusiasm and talent of those auditioning never fails to amaze me.

If you’re thinking of auditioning for Much Ado, there’s still time. If you’re dithering – why not give it a go? There’s nothing to lose! Book in with Lesley and Sheila here, or by contacting them through the Facebook page.

I wish you the very best of luck – and can’t wait to see the cast-list!

Wonderful Workshops!

Have you tried out one of our workshops yet? You really should! 

Whether you’re a seasoned actor, a Shakespeare enthusiast, or a newbie to both acting and The Bard, you’ll receive a warm welcome and pass a fascinating evening. Many of us initially attended workshops, gaining the confidence to audition for parts in the summer performances. (There is no requirement to perform – they are fun in their own right!)

Workshops are led by different members of the group and range from games, speech-reading, language-untangling and the acting out of small scenes in ‘rehearsed readings’ in groups – all in a safe and supportive space.

Workshops during the Autumn term covered sonnets, scenes, physical comedy, body language in Much Ado About Nothing and soliloquies and monologues.

Often, scenes are chosen to revolve around a theme (useful for dipping a toe into an unknown or lesser-known play, of which most of us have many). Some workshops are specific to a particular play – a chance for the director to ‘try out’ ideas before rehearsals proper begin!

Workshops take place on Fridays, 7.30-9.30pm, The Annexe, St Mary’s Church. They cost £3 and we ask that you let us know in advance, so we can prepare for the right number of people. Spring dates are as follows:

Friday 5th January Helen Chambers and Alison Rowlands are the Lords of Misrule!

Friday 12th January – Friendship – Sheila Foster

Friday 19th January – Tackling the Language – Sheila Foster

Friday 26th January – Fantastical Beings – Nigel Walford

Fridays 2nd and 9th February, read through of Much Ado About Nothing (one half each Friday!) Come along whether or not you intend to audition.

AUDITIONS for Much Ado will be at Wivenhoe Bowls Club on Sunday 11th Feb, 2-5pm and Wednesday 14th Feb 7.30-9.30pm. It is ESSENTIAL you pre-book an audition slot by emailing: or by contacting Sheila via our contacts page.

Winter Magic in the Summer

I’ve been putting off writing this for some reason, maybe fear of being self-indulgent, maybe imagining that to analyse it might be to burst the magical bubble in which it exists in my mind – but enough time has passed that it doesn’t matter. Here goes: The Winter’s Tale, June 20-24 2023.

I was fortunate and privileged to direct this marvellous production – I say marvellous not out of arrogance but out of enormous pride in everyone involved and all that they achieved. I was blessed with an efficient and supportive team and crew, and a talented and kind cast. It’s difficult to pick out favourite moments in what was a very special and intensive four months, there were so many. The whole was enjoyable, tense, exciting. Twice-weekly rehearsals over three months meant that the whole thing – production and directing the performance – rarely left my mind. There were always questions to answer, production tasks to complete, scenes and fractions of scenes to consider. I loved it all and learnt so much from it (I only spent one stressed week late May/early June feeling it was all too much!) Everything remains clear in my mind, but how can I possibly write about the whole thing? Here are some key moments chosen from so many golden moments.

The first read-through. Bitter weather. Cold March wind blowing through open windows. We’ve pulled our coats tight around us. The reading is clear, full of expression and character already – the cast have thought hard about their parts. The cuts work. We reach the final, statue scene and really I should boost the heating but I can’t move. No one can. The tension cannot be broken, we are so immersed in the story. Some of us are in tears. In fact, most of us are moved to tears every single time we rehearse this scene. (In the performances, I scan the audience at this point. Each time they are visibly moved.)

Next, to our final off-venue rehearsal. It’s a word-run on the Friday evening prior to show week. This time we’re upstairs in the Sailing Club and the windows (those windows which need tall cast members to close them!) are flung open, this time against the heat. The cast speak their lines to each other with understanding and meaning, their characters full and rounded. Camaraderie and friendship. Distant sounds (the downstairs bar, the summer river and its users) fade into stillness, an electric moment. Of course we cry at the end. We’re ready to perform, we’re on the precipice between rehearsal and show!

The dress rehearsal on the Monday evening. The first full performance, in the venue, with a tiny audience. (Me, Mum and Dad.) This is the only performance where I sit as audience and allow myself to totally submerge. For all the others, I hover at the back, ready to open doors, indicate, direct, encourage individual actors, shush random folk walking through the churchyard, run around to the dressing room if needed, thumbs up signals and big grins to the cast – I’m on call, just in case! But for the dress rehearsal I sit with my parents, their first trip out since Dad’s weighty treatment, and I wallow. What a superb play, what a strong cast, what a brilliant performance!

The week gallops past, as all the weeks have in the lead up. I can’t believe it’s over. The end. I read my final ‘speech’ to the cast and prepare for the post-play blues, which hit hard afterwards. I enjoy the letters and messages of praise and thanks, and I attempt to tie up all the loose ends. We get five, FIVE! nominations from NETG, three for individual actors, one for costumes and one for the production as a whole. Congratulations to Clare, as Paulina, who wins her category – very well deserved – for bringing us to tears in every performance! Congratulations and love to everyone involved – winners all. What a summer! What an experience!

(First published on my own blog, in October 2023 – visit it to see the photo gallery!)



Pop-Up 2023

Some of us Popped Up on a warm October Saturday afternoon, 7th October, to a large and appreciative audience.

Our varied offerings included a range of sonnets, both saucy and serious, including wonderful poet Wendy Cope’s musings on what Shakespeare might have been like at school. (Sitting at the back, making quips… you can imagine the rest!)

The specially-formed Shakespeare Ensemble sang ‘Shearing’ and a jazzy Rutter arrangement of It was a lover and his Lass. There were Scottish songs on recorders following a hugely-shortened version of Macbeth such as you’ve never seen before, performed by The Cut Price Theatre Company – an amateurish version of reduced-Shakespeare meets Play that Goes Wrong.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: thought-provoking, shocking and heartbreaking. Richard II’s enforced separation from his Queen, Petruchio’s bullying of Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew, Iago’s evil cunning from Othello, Shylock’s impassioned ‘do we not bleed’ speech from The Merchant of Venice, the whole of life encompassed in Jaques’ Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It – and compared here with King Paramount’s song from Utopia by Gilbert and Sullivan.

And finally a tantalising hint from next summer’s production of Much Ado About Nothing where Benedick scorns those in love (spoiler – he’s in love himself by the next scene!)

A pleasant and entertaining afternoon.


(Photos by the cast and Jean Coverley)

Listen Again

Listen Again…

Here’s a list of most of the music we used during The Winter’s Tale in June 2023, with links where relevant.

Entry to Act 1, scene 2, where we wanted something formal for Leontes’ court to process on, and a full orchestra playing:

Young person’s guide to the Orchestra, Benjamin Britten

Golden Slumbers, traditional Nursery Rhyme (and harmonised by the Beatles in the 1965) based on a poem by Elizabethan poet Thomas Dekker. This was sung by the cast before Mamillius was taken away by Leontes, and again before the final statue scene.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings (a personal favourite) for ‘Nor night, nor day no rest’ – tormented Leontes – and then repeated near the end when he promises Paulina he won’t marry again. Find out more about Samuel Barber and his Adagio for Strings in a recent series of Radio 3’s Composer of the Week.

Zorba the Greek for Cleomenes and Dion to dance to, on their return from collecting the oracle at Delphos – a little light relief before the heavy trial scene.

Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home sung by Ella Fitzgerald. This opened the scene (16 years on) where Camilla begged Polixenes to let her return to Sicilia and the repentant King Leontes – but Polixenes had other distractions to worry about.

We played Vaughan-Williams’ English Folk Song Suite during the interval.

The second half began with our own rousing version of Click Go The Shears (and discussed by Brian in the previous blog post).

Get You Hence was adapted by Lesley and sung to the tune of Summer Loving from the film Grease.

For Autolycus’ entrance, the tune to Jog On was inspired by I’m Gonna Be by The Proclaimers.

Robin played Lost Lady Found (by Percy Grainger) on tenor recorder at the start of the ‘Three Gentlemen’ scene, the subject of which is Perdita’s reunion with her father King Leontes.

We also made good use of sound effects – a bear roaring, claps of thunder and lightning and a storm and heavy rain!

Folk Music in The Winter’s Tale



By Brian Ford

Several people have asked me about the song Click go the Shears. It is based on a nineteenth century Australian folk song about the events and people in a sheep shearing shed in the days when all the work was done by hand. Helen has cleverly reworked the lyrics so that they are relevant to our play. In the original, an old shearer fixes his gaze on a ‘bare bellied yo’ (a ewe with no wool in her underside), hoping to shear her faster than the Ringer, the best shearer in the group, can shear his sheep, thus the old shearer would enhance his reputation and standing.  

Various people are mentioned, such as the tar boy with his pot, waiting to slap tar on a sheep with an open wound and the colonial experience man, an upper class English wastrel.

The song is derived from an American sea shanty called Strike the Bell in which a group of sailors try to persuade the second mate to strike the bell to allow them  off duty.  This song is performed by Wivenhoe’s very own shanty group The Hoolies, who will be appearing at the Wivenhoe Regatta on July 22nd, and at a shanty concert in St. Mary’s on 1st September.

The lovely recorder melody that Robin plays is from Percy Grainger’s suite for military band called A Lincolnshire Posy. It is a folk song called, appropriately, Lost Lady Found, which tells the story of a young woman kidnapped by gypsies, but her uncle is accused of murdering her and sentenced to death. Her lover goes in search for her and, after travelling through England, France and Spain (poetic licence here, I think), finds her (in Dublin!), they go back home and, in the nick of time, save her uncle from the gallows (Hooray! Hooray!)

The music at the start of the interval is the march from Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite, based on the song Seventeen come Sunday.  There are a number of versions of this song collected from different parts of the country by Victorian folk song enthusiasts, including the splendidly eccentric clergyman Sabine Baring Gould, author of Onward Christian Soldiers and, for a time, rector of East Mersea.

I’ll stop there, I could bore you for hours with this sort of stuff. I think I should get out more!

Brian playing guitar (Alan on harmonica) while the cast dance and sing

Lord Sebastian, and Mopsa, the shepherdess


‘Indicate your dream part(s) in The Winter’s Tale,’ said the audition form.  I hesitated, put ‘Paulina’ (well who wouldn’t?  It’s such a wonderful part!) followed, more realistically, by ‘any of the Sicilian lords or Bohemians’.  I hadn’t twigged the significance of the plural (s), and was surprised but delighted to find myself chosen to play two parts:  Lord Sebastian, one of King Leontes’ courtiers, and Mopsa, a shepherdess in the pastoral Bohemian scenes. So began my double-life in Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare!

WOAS has always had flexibility around gender casting – not (just) because we are woke, but because there are far fewer women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays than women in our group.  This brings great opportunities: to change the gender of some roles (we have a wonderful Camilla rather than Camillo) or to have a go at playing a male part.  But acting two very different male and female roles brings its own set of worries.  Will pompous Lord Sebastian accidentally burst into a bawdy Bohemian ballad, or flirt simperingly with Lady Giulia?  Will Mopsa remember to be out-going and lively and not find herself frozen ceremoniously to the spot while channelling Penny Mordaunt at the Coronation?  Let’s hope I can keep them separate in my head!

The real joy of playing these two parts is being part of almost every scene in the play.  The Winter’s Tale has been conceived as an ensemble piece, and playing both a Sicilian and a Bohemian means I get to witness both the horrifying and moving trial of Hermione and the light-hearted singing and dancing of the sheep-shearing party. Every night I will get to experience, alongside the audience, the high drama and emotion of this beautiful play.  We’re both going to enjoy this very much!

by Diane Spivey


On the Book


Being on the book in theatrical terms means an actor who has not learned their lines, and needs to rely on their script.

However, what I do is different – and is a variation of the term blocking.

As the director decides where actors are to enter and exit each scene, and how movement about the stage is to flow, my job is to record these movements exactly in the script.

The term blocking derives from the practice of 19th-century theatre directors such as Sir W. S. Gilbert who worked out the staging of a scene on a miniature stage using blocks to represent each actor.

I’m not sure if Helen, as director, or Clare as deputy-director actually use blocks when working things out, I’ll have to ask ….. (no – though lego models have been used by past WOAS teams!)

I need to attend every rehearsal with my toolkit, consisting of play script, pot of sharp pencils, and most importantly, my eraser.

I always start each new play with a pack of sharp pencils, which dwindle in number as rehearsals progress, as cast and crew “borrow” them to add notes to their own scripts!

In addition to exits, entrances and basic positions and movements, it is also important to record other stage directions, such as use of props, and specific interactions between cast members, even if they are not the exact focus of the audience’s attention at the time. Someone somewhere in the audience will notice these details. Even if the actors feel they are not necessarily important, they most certainly are being observed!

This recording serves as a vital aide-memoir to the actors and production team. It is useful if anyone misses a rehearsal, because I can help them once they return.

Of course, directions change as the staging evolves, and I frequently reach for my trusty eraser. In addition, I closely read any notes and emails the director sends to the cast to identify changes needed in my script.

Once the actual production is underway, my job is done. It is a bit like sitting in a driverless car, as at this point there is nothing I can do. I can hardly shout, “No, stage left please ….. LEFT!” if somebody inadvertently wanders on stage through the wrong entrance. 

I clearly remember one occasion when a cast member (who was bringing on a prop crucial to the whole play) failed to appear at all! While I held my breath, covered my eyes, and prayed fervently to all the theatre gods, the actor already on stage had the astonishing presence of mind to ad-lib – for what seemed like an eternity –  until eventually the hapless character stumbled (or was pushed?) into the limelight. 


Whether you call it being on the book, or blocking, it’s a very interesting and important job, and I’m really proud to do it.

Now, excuse me please while I count my remaining pencils.

By Pippa, Rehearsal Manager

Twinned Lambs that did Frisk in the Sun

I’ve been involved with Wivenhoe Open-Air Shakespeare since 2019; I’m playing Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, in this year’s production of The Winter’s Tale. As someone who’d done no drama since school (a long time ago!) I’m always worried about remembering my lines, so I start learning them early. I recite them aloud when cycling to and from work at the University or when out walking.

So if you see a middle-aged woman walking or cycling round Wivenhoe and its environs muttering to herself, don’t be alarmed; I am not mad (?) but reciting Shakespeare. As I’m playing a King this year, there may be the occasional regal gesture thrown in for good measure. I even practised my lines while on a walking holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District with my family over Easter. I would drop behind the rest of the party to declaim (top tip; don’t do this while walking up a 1 in 7 hill; you will run out of puff….!)

The Kingdom of Bohemia teems with shepherds in the play and the Derbyshire fields were full of sheep and new-born lambs, to whom I was able to quote one of my loveliest lines about ‘twinned lambs that did frisk in the sun, and bleat the one at the other’. I am now like Francis Flute the bellows-mender (who played the part of Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – I can ‘speak all my part at once’ but have no idea about my cues, entrances, exits, or stage movements, so much work remains to be done! 


By Alison