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Big Adventures Theatre Company - 20 Years On

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 October 2017

Big Adventures Youth Theatre in Spamalot

Big Adventures Youth Theatre in Spamalot

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As local theatre company Big Adventures celebrates its 20th anniversary, Ashley Franklin talks to founders Dave Culling and Caroline Reader

A scene from The Last Revolution.  Photo by Tony Fisher A scene from The Last Revolution. Photo by Tony Fisher

‘The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams,’ said Oprah Winfrey. If she is right, Dave Culling and Caroline Reader have been living the dream for 20 years. Together, Dave and Caroline run Big Adventures, a Derby-based independent theatre company. Since 1997, it has built an impressive reputation, initially for murder mystery events but subsequently widening its scope and appeal through highly diverse, ambitious yet always accessible stage productions. Big Adventures has also been a guiding light for both community and youth theatre in the region. Dave and Caroline are also published writers and receive commissions to produce scripts for specific events such as conferences or training courses.

Over the years, I have enjoyed the ‘boisterous fun’ of Big Adventures’ ‘light, knockabout’ open air production of Robin Hood; admired the way they connected with a young audience in a production of Romeo & Juliet with a 60s gangland setting; and been gripped by their ‘stark, creepy, claustrophobic and spine-tingling’ take on Henry James’ psychological thriller Turn of the Screw.

The company has also performed stage adaptations of novels ranging from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles to Stephen King’s Misery, while the Youth Theatre has performed everything from West Side Story to Nicholas Nickleby.

Their latest Youth Theatre production – a zestful and invigorating version of Monty Python’s Spamalot – confirms that Big Adventures decided to celebrate its 20th anniversary year with a show of the company’s remarkable versatility by bookending it with The Last Revolution, a musical portrayal of the Pentrich Uprising, and The 39 Steps, a thrillingly entertaining caper adapted from Buchan’s novel and Hitchcock’s classic film.

All those who gathered for Big Adventures' 20th Birthday Party All those who gathered for Big Adventures' 20th Birthday Party

The first steps towards Dave and Caroline’s big adventure were made in 1993 when – together with another founding member Alison Carthy – they were fellow students on a BA Hons Dramatic Arts course at Bretton Hall, Leeds. ‘We were making plays and having fun,’ recalls Dave, ‘and we wanted to retain the flavour of that life.’

This adventure was not only big but also brave: ‘We had no idea what small theatre companies were supposed to do,’ admits Caroline. ‘The company was borne out of friendship and a lot of blind optimism.’

For Dave, the name Big Adventures seemed eminently suitable: ‘We had embarked on something not knowing if it would work out. But then looking at it as an adventure gave us licence to fail and helped us retain a pioneering spirit.’

Dave and Caroline’s venture would barely have begun had it not been for their patron Christopher Reynolds (Tim Brooke-Taylor is their other patron) who invited Big Adventures to become Theatre Company in Residence when he was headteacher at St Benedict’s School. He was also responsible for the building of the Robert Ludlam Theatre which became Big Adventures’ home stage. As Christopher recounts, bringing in Dave and Caroline galvanised his pupils: ‘As well as tutoring the youngsters and staging productions, they prepared groups for national conferences where they performed; prepared students to perform abroad as part of an exam course; prepared young people from schools across the city for the annual Derby City headteachers’ conference; and they even helped the maths department bring alive a difficult concept and the science department demonstrate a theory. The list goes on...

Dave Culling and Caroline Reader in a few of the many roles they play in The 39 Steps.  Also pictured is Richard Fry who plays Richard Hannay Dave Culling and Caroline Reader in a few of the many roles they play in The 39 Steps. Also pictured is Richard Fry who plays Richard Hannay

‘Big Adventures brought an energy into the arts area that was infectious; and the breadth of their expertise demonstrated the wide range of possibilities in performing arts. They also enabled some of the more disadvantaged students to achieve success who perhaps could not shine at traditional academic work but had real talent in performing.’

When I wrote about Big Adventures’ tenth anniversary, Caroline quipped that ‘for a self-funding, small-scale theatre company in a small city, we’re unusual insofar as we haven’t gone bust yet.’ One reason why Big Adventures is still going strong is that ten years ago they took their work with young people to a new level. Having provided workshops and performances for pupils at St Benedict’s – they are now based at Lees Brook School, Chaddesden – they set up a summer school. The success of that led to the establishment five years ago of their youth theatre, which has flourished.

The company’s website now declares that Big Adventures are the ‘go-to people for youth theatre.’ As Dave points out: ‘Caroline and I work in the industry professionally so we are able to bring professionalism to bear in the productions – and we treat all our students as professionals. Theatre gives youngsters so much. The obvious things, oft cited, like confidence, self-expression, self-motivation etc, are all there but there is also the feeling they get when they have entertained a crowd and made them laugh or cry. It’s a feeling that can’t be matched by any other activity that springs to mind.’

Added to that is a quality that Big Adventures has become particularly known for: a sense of fun. Caroline says, ‘Even if we produce a hard-hitting script covering a serious social topic, there is always a lightness of touch permeating our work. This works so well with young people, too, because children are inspired when they are engaged and they are engaged when they are entertained. Dave and I have always valued fun and entertainment above pretty much everything else.’

Dave Culling in one of his many roles in The 39 Steps Dave Culling in one of his many roles in The 39 Steps

As Dave adds: ‘Theatre should be a combination of hard graft and giggles, and we hope that we imbue Youth Theatre members with a sense of enthusiasm and laughter.’

They do even more than that. Current and former members speak of developing a passion for drama and a learning for life. Tommy and Julia Lammond’s three children, Aisling, Sam and Joe, had Dave and Caroline as their tutors while at St Benedict’s School. ‘They were such inspiring and charismatic teachers,’ says Julia. All three did ‘really well’ in Performing Arts and Performance Studies at GCSE and A Level. Aisling and Sam have performed with the Youth Theatre, Joe has been the technician for recent shows, and even mum and dad have joined in – Julia performed in the community production of The Last Revolution while Tommy played in the band.

‘Big Adventures has opened my eyes to live theatre and a real love of musical theatre,’ declares Julia, ‘and we are in awe of Dave and Caroline’s talent.’

‘The beauty of Big Adventures is that unlike so many other theatre companies, we have never had one unique style,’ says Caroline. ‘Because we are actors, writers, directors and teachers, we enjoy diversifying and flexing our artistic muscles in different ways. Mind you, maybe we just have very short concentration spans so always need new challenges!’

‘They are rare in the diversity of their work and approach,’ says Will Jessop who performed in that very first Big Adventures production 20 years ago. ‘They also write and produce with vivid dramatic effectiveness.’

Carl McGarrigle, who was also in Big Adventures’ first production, is full of admiration for Dave and Caroline: ‘The twin sensations of terror and joy that come with acting can often create a bond between performers but with Big Adventures, this was especially deep and it has led to a strong and lasting friendship. During rehearsal, they collaborate with the cast, celebrate new ideas and make you feel valued. What’s more, the standard of their writing is extremely high. Even their earliest material sounds as fresh, original and contemporary as when it was first performed.’

Elizabeth Williams, who was given her first paid acting job with Big Adventures, applauds Dave and Caroline’s tutoring and production skills: ‘They gave me such a confidence boost, and although I was the baby of the group for a long time, they were like protective older siblings, always looking out for me. As producers, they are great perfectionists. I did many murder mysteries with them and their attention to detail is staggering. I once covered a murder mystery for another company and was told to just wing it and make innuendos; that really brought home to me just how good Big Adventures are at what they do.’

This month Big Adventures will be reprising its production of The 39 Steps, a fast-moving, inventively-staged and exhilarating show where Dave and Caroline revel in a multiplicity of roles, from plodding coppers to eccentric crofters.

Richard Fry returns as the urbane Richard Hannay character and can’t wait to work again with Dave and Caroline: ‘They have an approach to directing which is relaxed yet focused, and they always make me feel respected and welcomed. My only problem is that Dave and Caroline are so funny, you have to work hard not to corpse on stage!’

Of course, corpsing would be considered a theatrical faux-pas. Of the mishaps that Big Adventures can recall in their 20 years, two stand out. As Dave recalls: ‘Performing a musical about the environment in the middle of Chesterfield car park where the audience numbered one; and forgetting a gun for a murder mystery evening which meant simulating the sound of a gun by banging two suitcases together!’

So what aspect of their 20 years makes Dave and Caroline most proud? ‘That we’re still going,’ states Dave, ‘that we ever started, that as 20/21-year-olds, we had the confidence to give it a shot, and that it’s paid off!’

Big Adventures’ production of The 39 Steps is at the Derby Guildhall from 25th–28th October

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