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Raising the curtain on a new approach at theatre

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: May 25, 2012

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BACK when she got her Equity card, thanks to her work as a backing singer for Knotty Ash joker Ken Dodd, Dreena Morgan Harvey couldn't have guessed that the world of showbiz would lead her to weighing up the pros and cons of different toilets for the Dylan Thomas Theatre.

Not to mention tussling with health and safety regulations.

But aside from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, such concerns are the nuts and bolts of theatre management.

The place has been an eye-catching sight down at Swansea Marina, with its Under Milkwood themed mural, since the late 1970s, with Sir Harry Secombe officially cutting the ribbon on it in 1983.

Home to Swansea Little Theatre, it has ploughed a largely traditional furrow over the years, with a steady programme of pantos, farces, classic dramas and whodunits.

But these tough financial times have led to some thinking outside the box, says Dreena, to try to capture the less frequent theatregoers.

"For instance, we have started a monthly comedy club this month, so we are in contact with Swansea University to get young people down here with their comedy acts and learning on a proper stage.

"It might be that the younger crowd which will come to the comedy club wouldn't usually go to see the traditional theatre productions we do, but they might pick up a leaflet and think about coming back another time.

"We also have a stage hypnotist coming, and a clairvoyant, and we are going to start acting classes."

The theatre already has a long- running association with Theatre Na n'Og, which puts on inventive shows aimed largely at school pupils, so it hopes to tap into the current hunger for theatre school skills with classes in the foyer space.

"We are calling them Keeping Drama Alive, which is what we hope to do, and they will be samplers really, focusing on things like stagecraft, putting across accents and voice control.

"John Griffiths, who was a member of Swansea Little Theatre years ago, will come back for that. He has been the grandad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he is in The Sound of Music with Connie Fisher. And we will have regular visitors from London leading the classes."

Calling in favours from old colleagues in theatre land is all part of the give-and-take spirit needed to keep the wheels turning, says Dreena.

"We don't get any funding at all, and although we are a charity there are no concessions when it comes to covering the cost of complying with health and safety regulations, for instance.

"But we are OK. We are still here."

The theatre would though, be lost without the help and generosity of spirit of its volunteers and members.

"We have six volunteer staff and 135 members who all give their time to help the theatre, and we are so lucky to have them," says Dreena.

She has had to be a woman of many parts too, and not just as a leading light in Swansea's Little Theatre.

"It means I turn my hand to training in health and safety, childcare for the school shows — all of those things you just don't think about that have to be taken care of. Manning the bar, taking the tickets, it all has to be done.

"We are lucky too that there are a lot of people around who love the theatre but who have no inclination at all to get on the stage — so they are the people who help us with props, set-building, electrical work, costumes — everything that keeps a theatre running."

And though the standard fare might have been the venue's bread and butter over the years, that is not to say they have been staid.

A Swansea Little Theatre production of Mike Leigh's Ecstasy a few years back turned the air blue, with its tale of rowdy friends who share a boozy night out. A more recent production saw a Vicar's warden from Gower roped in to play the Pope, and any number of actors have bared all for The Full Monty.

As an actress, Dreena first trod the boards when she was 14-year-old and she has a Glammie to her name, (Glamorgan Drama League Award) thanks to her portrayal of Filumena in the Eduardo de Fillipo play of the same name.

Aptly, given the theatre group's association with Dylan Thomas — a former Swansea Little Theatre performer — she has, over the years, directed Under Milk Wood and played Polly Garter and Rosie Probert.

After bowing out of a professional acting career in favour of a more stable one in the civil service, acting became her main hobby and she has appeared in more than 50 productions over the years.

She says despite the ups and downs, it was always going to be an actor's life for her.

"These aren't easy times and everyone has to be creative about getting audiences through the door. But this is a beautiful theatre space and it is such a valuable asset for performers."

Swansea Little Theatre's next production is the holiday camp farce HI-De-Hi, on from June 20.

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