Pameli Benham is an actress, writer and director. She has directed all ages and numbers, from single actors to casts of 50, in straight plays, cabaret, opera and revue. Her latest production, The Darkroom is running now until October 15th at the Alma Tavern in Bristol.
For more info and tickets to The Darkroom please visit the Alma Tavern Theatre website.
Alma Tavern, Clifton, Bristol
Sat. October 8th, 2011, 6:30pm
What are you working on at the moment?
I am in the middle of The Darkroom, a play by Steve Lambert. It is the start of the Theatre West season for new writing, and is the first of 5 plays chosen for full production. It uses quite a lot of props and bits and pieces, which on the whole, I’d love to do without, but are integral to the play. Therefore I come in each evening with things like milk and knitting and so on! I was asked today to play a part for next spring that I am considering and I am also writing something. So those are things going at the moment.
Can you tell us a bit about The Darkroom?
Its set in 1949, in England, which was still in the grip of, what was called at the time, austerity. There were terrific shortages of food and fuel, of almost everything. People were working tremendously hard. There are 3 characters in this play, and they are all intimately involved and all have secrets from each other. The time of the play’s setting is a time of terrific political hope in some ways. There was a pioneering government elected soonish after the war, with the aim of making society much more equal, how shall we say… more welcoming to people that didn’t have a lot of money or privilege. The Communist Party had attracted a great number of supporters in the 20s and 30s, also hoping for a fairer world. But then people saw how communist Russia was actually run, especially when Stalin sided with Hitler, people left the party, some people stayed in covertly. There all these strands in the plays, of whether people are actually right or left wing, whether they’re disguising what they’re doing. Throughout the course of the play, along with getting a goodish deal of political background, which I hope isn’t too heavy, you are getting lots of what makes the characters tick and what they are hiding from themselves, as things are gradually revealed.
What is your earliest theatrical memory?
I started going to the theatre very early indeed. I was 3 ½ or 4 and I was taken to see Arthur Askey, who was a very famous British comedian, very warm-hearted. I was sitting with my parents and he asked would any little girl or boy like to come up on stage. I was out of my seat like greased lighting and on the stage before anyone could stop me! I remember very much wanting to perform, to show off. Another thing was, my grandfather used to take me to the Yiddish theatre in Mile End Road in London’s East End. That was very big and very powerful, and even if I didn’t understand every word, it made a tremendously powerful impression on me.
Who or what inspires you?
I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve been able to go to theatre, to the opera since I was a small child. And have seen so many actors’ and directors’ work, I really loved. I can remember one of the RSC seasons, in the 70’s in London and the whole season they had a white box. They stripped everything down. There was a tremendous concentration on the beauty and power of the language, in an empty setting. That’s been a huge influence. The whole idea that you can get something to move fast and really depend on the actors, and don’t need to do an elaborate scene change and could do everything ideally, with just good lighting. If your actors are good enough and your direction is clear enough, then that’s really, really powerful theatre.
Can you tell us about the your company Boil and Bubble and why you started it?
The aim was particularly to give work or offer a space to older actors, writers, directors. It wasn’t to be a sort of geriatric ghetto, so for instance the Witching Hour, had two older women, and a much, much younger one. As you get older, acting work can dry up, there are just fewer parts. I did something with the Theatre West season with older writers who never had anything professionally performed before and got some very good plays out of that.
I read that one of your inspirations for starting Boil and Bubble was because you were, as an actress repeatedly being offered roles to play mad old women?
Oh yes! Almost everything I play is dazed and confused. There are comparatively few parts for older women that show them as feisty or intelligent or dynamic. There’s a smallish amount of television work and films and that tends to be batty, old… whatever!
In what direction do you feel theatre is heading?
Ooh gosh. I think that some of it… well I don’t know if should say this in your blog! But someone like, Rupert Goold, who is enormously inventive and I loved Six Characters In Search of An Author, last thing I saw of his which was at Stratford, the Merchant of Venice. It was very inventive, very fascinating. But I am not sure if directors should dominate as much as some of them do. I am not sure how keen I am on someone who says, well this has been done a 100 times before so I am going to wrench it in another direction! On the other hand, today I’ve spent the day watching Show of Strength in Knowle. Wonderful 15 minutes pieces, beautifully acted and performed in a shopping centre with no or hardly any props. In shops and out on the road, so I can see two directions really.
As an actor, I have played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, I’m too old to do it, but I’d love another crack at it. Or the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That Ends Well. To direct, I would like to do some more Caryl Churchill. I’ve done several of her plays and really, really enjoy them. I’d love to have a crack at directing more Shakespeare. I haven’t directed any with a professional cast. Oh and opera. I love to do opera.
Final question. Is the director dead?
No. I don’t think so. I did once end up, because I lost an actor, in a play I was directing. And I just hated it. What I really didn’t like was the get in and the tech, acting and saying things like can we do such and such with the lights, that didn’t suit me at all. I admire people like Kenneth Branagh that can do it, but that’s not my cup of tea at all. In a play, I don’t seem to have that combination that can see outside myself and direct things.
Thanks Pameli for sharing your thoughts!
“Don’t want to be too clever.” Gregory Doran