Not a feat for the faint-hearted

As I popped out for a coffee on a break last week, I  noticed a sandwich board with a Corner Shop poster on it.  I stared at it for ages, watching all the early Christmas shoppers zoom past.  I was thinking to myself, “Amazing.  Theatre in a shopping centre”  I was crouching down to take this photo, and trying to ignore the stares and gawps I was receiving from people walking passed.  Julia Rosenbaum, our steward co-ordinator, passed me by and giggled.  She was probably the only person who didn’t think it strange that I was photographing a sandwich board.  Julia has been working with Bobby and the stewarding team to ensure that audience transitions from scene to scene runs smoothly and efficiently…

Rochi Rampal

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Theatre...in a shopping centre?!

 

 

So, how did I, a Birmingham-based school teacher, come to be one of the most public faces of The Corner Shop?  How did I come lead a team of volunteer stewards?  How did I come to be encouraging to stewards to assertively guide – or, as I like to put it, ‘boss around’ – a 60 person-strong audience in the unlikely setting of Wolverhampton’s Mander Shopping Centre?

Well, a little over 6 weeks ago, Bobby Tiwana of Black Country Touring made good on his promise to find a role for me within the organisation. As I walked into their Oldbury office, I had no idea of the trust that was about to be placed in me.

An hour or so later, I left with the task of recruiting a team of 30 or so volunteers to act as stewards for the upcoming performances of The Corner Shop.  I was also to brief my team; produce a schedule to ensure that we had enough stewards for each performance; and, along with Bobby, generally make sure that all things steward-related ran like clockwork.  Not a feat for the faint-hearted!

Next day, the search began… It wasn’t difficult to be enthusiastic about the project. The Corner Shop embodies everything that good theatre should be: Brilliantly acted and scripted?  Yes.  Engaging?  Certainly.  But also, comic, tragic (to the point of my having to hold back the tears), and deeply, deeply relevant.  For, though many of the tales of the production stem from decades ago, what could be more relevant in today’s recession-plagued society than a piece of theatre which touches on themes such as making a success of a small business in hard times; people’s bigotry and fear of immigrants; and the desperate need we all have for a sense of community.

It was, as I say, not hard to enthuse people about a production as inspiring as The Corner Shop but I was also aided by the fact that the stewarding roles on offer were so different from those of a more usual theatre production. Stewarding for The Corner Shop, always promised to be a little different… Members of the audience go on a journey through both the drama, and the performance space itself, so the stewards’ role involves guiding the audience through the different scenes, making sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time and, overall, ensuring that every audience member has a great experience.

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Julia and just some of the stewards from the team of 35

 

Was it easy to get people involved?  Well, there were hiccups: turning initial interest into commitment; getting the right number of people for each show; and jogging potential stewards’ memories without making them feel harassed!  I did, however, get a brilliant response from many people eager to get involved. Additionally, others put themselves out: spreading the word by making announcements; forwarding on my numerous emails; and even scripting advertisements to drum up support! I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank all those people who helped to spread the word.

By the time the run began, I’d assembled a fantastic team but I still needed additions to it and there were stewards who were forced, through situations outside of their control, to drop out of performances at the last minute. These moments seemed to fall into sync with those when Bobby would tell me I was doing a ‘sterling job’. Coincidence? I don’t think so. With this support from Bobby; that of Frances and Steve, Deb and Mick; and, of course, the wonderful commitment of the stewarding team, we have yet to be left in difficulty.

Briefing new stewards, a role which continued at almost every performance, continued to be a joy, as did watching the faces of each steward during their first show and talking to them immediately afterwards: Every single person involved has been full of enthusiasm for the project. As one of the members of my shiny, new stewarding team said after watching the dress rehearsal, ‘I’ve paid no attention to the route; I was so involved in the characters.’ This is a testament to power of the unique theatre experience that is The Corner Shop.

Julia Rosenbaum

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