Twinkle, twinkle, Torquay's little stars

Twinkle, twinkle, Torquay's little stars

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By Wendy Bennett, The Princess Theatre Torquay
Date Published: 09 December 2016
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After watching the film 'The Nativity' at home one night with my own children, I woke bolt upright at 5am the next morning with the crazy idea that we could provide the same opportunity for local children to 'sparkle and shine' at their Christmas Nativity.

The idea was very simple: we would provide a very basic set, a star, sound equipment for all of the children to be heard and beautiful lighting. We would then invite local schools to come in and perform their Nativity on stage, free of charge.

The idea was fully supported by all of the staff at the Theatre, by senior management within ATG and by the wider local community. ATG held the dates in the diary, carpentry students from a local college built a stable, hay bales were dropped off by a farmer nearby and the local paper contributed to the cost for the sound equipment.

Four years later and this simple idea has resulted in 23 Nativity performances and nearly 4000 children performing on stage here. Even writing that figure fills me with absolute pride at what we have all achieved. I may have had the original idea but it is a team effort that makes it happen. The technical team, Martyn, Paul and Eric have created the most wonderful set and stunning lighting and stage manage up to 330 children at a time which is no mean feat. Helen helps to organise schedules, FOH arrangements, assist with rehearsals and sort out contracts. For the first year this included having a donkey on stage!

Not every child is born into a Theatre-going family. Not every child has parents who can afford trips to the theatre or who can pay for performing arts or dance lessons. Not every child is a natural born performer.

Our Nativities project breaks down all of those barriers and gives all children, regardless of their background, ability or confidence a chance to join in and maybe even a chance to shine!

There will be a generation of children growing up in Torbay that will hold Theatre very dear when looking back at their childhood memories. This in itself is very special but when you realise that a good 80% of these children have never set foot in a Theatre before, you realise the full impact of what we are doing.

Everyone involved in each of the productions has special memories that will last a lifetime. Who could forget the not so angelic angels that were hauled off the side of stage by a long pair of arms, the rogue donkey who kept us all guessing where he was going to pop up next, or the tiny sheep who took great offence at his fellow sheep who had remained centre stage rather than returning to his place at the side of stage. This little sheep was clearly left with no option but to march back, grab the other sheep who was attempting to steal the limelight by the ankle and drag him very slowly across the entire stage. The laughter rang out for many moments afterwards!

The tiny tot who sang a beautiful solo in front of a packed auditorium will always be etched on my memory, as will the little girl who broke down whilst trying to deliver her lines but managed to compose herself and get through it cheered on by every single one of us. And tears come to my eyes every time I think of the five year old who was caught absolutely lost in the moment, singing into the microphone on stage just before rehearsals started. She was lost in her own quiet song. This was such a lovely sight to see, but when I was told by the teacher that this little girl did not speak or communicate in class, the sheer enormity of what I had witnessed just blew me away ...  and still does!

You can't fall in love with theatre unless you have had a chance to experience it for yourself. This is not only true for the children but for the thousands that come and support their little ones. When we hear "it's a bit like the cinema isn't it," we know that we are welcoming people who have never set foot through our doors before. Most schools have to limit tickets to their Nativities to two tickets whereas we can offer seats to the entire family. Grandparents have travelled from as far as London and York to see their grandchildren perform as they have never been given this opportunity before.

It is also great that the Nativity story can be told with all of the correct facts. Who knew that there were so many cowboys at the birth of Baby Jesus and how remiss of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John not to mention Lord Sugar, Simon Cowell and the larger than life Minion!

This year, more than any other year, I have watched in absolute wonder at the confidence of the children taking part and the effect that performing on stage has on ALL of the children: those with learning difficulties or behavioural problems, children who lack self-confidence, children who aren't able to join in with school assemblies, children who simply struggle.

It is no wonder that throughout the week, I, like many of the staff here shed quite a few tears of joy, sadness and absolute pride. We have created something really special and it is both a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of such a magical experience.

The Nativity story tells the tale of a star being born. This year alone at the Princess Theatre, Torquay, 1203 stars were born and I hope they continue to sparkle and shine for many years to come.

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