THE stars must have been in happy alignment when a chance encounter led to Dame Judi Dench agreeing to become patron of The Festival Players Theatre Company.
The travelling, all-male theatre troupe has close connections with Stratford, and following a performance of their current touring show, The Winter’s Tale, at New Place recently, locally-based actor Mark Spriggs took time to tell Herald arts about how they unexpectedly secured the great actress’ patronage.
Mark says: “We were performing a show on the tiny Scilly island of Tresco with 80 in the audience, when director Michael Dyer came backstage and said that Dame Judi Dench was in the audience with her family. It was a bit daunting, especially as she had just played Paulina in Kenneth Branagh’s production.”
Explaining that, as they are a professional outfit, the players always do their best for everyone in the audience, Mark jokes that Dame Judi’s presence perhaps led them to perform a “more vigorous warm-up” before taking to the stage.
After the show, Dame Judi met the actors backstage.
“She was very sweet,” says Mark. “She said how much she loved it, and that it was the first time she’s ever seen an all-male Shakespeare, and understood that was how it was originally done.”
It was at this point that Michael Dyer, who has been artistic director of The Festival Players for 16 years, asked the great actress if she would become patron.
Mark explains: “Michael bit the bullet and said to her: ‘We would love it if you could consider being our patron’; she hardly hesitated, and said she would be delighted. So we are now an all-male troupe headed up by one of the greatest dames.”
Following the show, and after everyone had departed on the last ferry back from Tresco, Mark says that they all felt it had been a momentous day.
He says: “We were absolutely thrilled with meeting Dame Judi, it was a moment of magic… of all the places in the world to encounter her – a lump of rock on a damp evening – a Scilly isle where silly things happen.
“We spent the rest of the evening drinking Pinot Noir and watching the shooting stars of the Perseid Meteor Shower in the least light-polluted sky in the UK.”
The Festival Players, based in Dormston near Inkberrow, were founded in 1986 by Trish Knight-Webb, who directed its first production Romeo and Juliet for the Three Choirs Festival. The company is now well established as a professional company, delivering the best in open-air Shakespeare.
For the last four years it has toured as an all-male repertory company staging two shows featuring the same team of performers. They are also well known for performing Shakespeare in English in countries such as Belgian and Norway
Mark says their mission is to make Shakespeare accessible for all, and is hopeful that with Dame Judi’s patronage they will be able to apply for funding which will enable them to undertake more outreach work, such as their projects working in schools in Liverpool and supporting charities such as Help for Heroes.
Watch out for the their production of Much Ado About Nothing, which tours next summer.
Meanwhile, you can catch Mark performing locally – as he guides Ghost Walks for Stratford Town Walk, hosts storytelling sessions and leads drama workshops.