“Maybe because I am tall, maybe because of my pulling faces, maybe because of my ornate Captain Hook costume, but it worked! I scared the kids at the last Three Kings’ Cavalcade, where the Trafalgar Theatre Group participated with a walking float of assorted pantomime characters. And I did it again later in January, on stage, as the much booed Prince John in Robin Hood. I enjoyed it very much, and would definitely play the villain again,” cackles seasoned amateur actor Mark Dallison, with a glint in his eye. “Being jeered by a vociferous audience is rewarding. The louder the jeers, the more rewarding for the actor. I would also like to play the panto dame – that is a challenging role that every comedian should try.’’
After a 30-year career as a travelling businessman, while he actively cultivated his passion for amateur dramatics back home, Mark semi-retired three years ago to the Rock, where he is now a licensed tour guide (“A sharp career change for which acting skills do come handy”). He joined Angela Jenkins’s Rock Theatre and he played various roles in the past three Drama Festivals. His favourite was Blackadder, a tribute to the endearing clumsy rogue brought to life by rubber-faced British actor Rowan Atkinson. As it often happens with local groups, Rock Theatre ‘loaned’ him to TTG for the panto, and now he’s a member of both.
Mark has played a variety of roles but he enjoys comedy best, perhaps because he’s got the looks for it, as he claims, or simply because making someone laugh requires way more talent than making them weep. If they laugh when supposed to weep and vice versa, then the production is not doing well – and successful comedy usually boils down to timing. “Timing is the essence in comedy more than any other genre, and ill-timed delivery can ruin even the funniest script,” he says. He offers the example of the panto-like show staged last July for the Trafalgar Theatre Group summer picnic, The Three Musketeers, in which Mark, Steve Lawson and Harriet Seed played all the parts, having to dash behind the scenes for quick changes, and be on the ball when uttering their pertinent lines in the right timbre of voice and accent. “Timing really was everything, especially when we had to deliver lines together. Making actions look accidental takes a lot of rehearsal as well as understanding each other as actors.”
According to Mark, a good actor must not just commit to memory his or her co-stars’ parts in order to anticipate when it is their turn to speak, but also to allow the rest of the cast taking centre stage when required to perform their part effectively, hence making the entire play work. A good actor knows how and when to step up and how and when to shut up. Nobody should upstage anybody, whether maliciously or maladroitly, that’s why good comradeship at rehearsals must be fostered by the shrewd director so that the production doesn’t crumble because of eventual primadonna egos. “Not only do you have to wait until someone else has finished before blurting out your lines, but when you are not the focus of the action, you should never steal their attention from another character with unscripted gestures or expressions, unless the play specifically calls for it, as may be the case with farces or coarse plays. A good actor must know when to step out of the spotlight and allow others to shine, in the true spirit of teamwork.”
Of course, a lot can, and sometimes does, go wrong in amateur theatre, and the audience is not always as magnanimous as one may expect from the modest admission fee. Mark recalls with horror a show from 20 years ago when one of the leading actors forgot many of his lines. He was also slightly deaf so the prompt had to shout for him to hear, which ruined the show. Mark hastens to add that this doesn’t often happen in Gibraltar, where productions are limited in number and generally well-rehearsed. On that topic, he laments how the theatre season is ‘so very compact’ here, besides some sporadic productions staged for very short runs, and it is concentrated in a single week, the Drama Festival. This can cause an overdose effect for some people bombarded by the too intensive theatre experience, later left craving for encores in the following months when reruns could be staged for those who missed out the premieres.
Though appreciating that the Ince’s Hall and the John Mackintosh theatres are too big to be sold out for more than a few performances, he hints that most amateur theatres in the UK have no more than 150 seats, so they are easier to fill. No theatre group would be flattered to perform to a nearly empty theatre, so Mark echoes calls for a smaller venue made by others theatre lovers. “We only had 48 tickets per night for the summer show in the courtyard. Other groups have also performed to smaller audiences in the GADA premises. It is hoped that this will continue as this more intimate space is ideal for many plays, meaning that more drama can be performed locally.”
He reckons that theatre is a lifelong passion, no matter what career one pursues for one’s bread and butter: once an actor always an actor, at heart and on stage. There are parts for all ages and types, and backstage help is always needed with costumes, sets and prompt, for a true drama king or queen to uphold their theatrical reign when memorising lines becomes harder. While it is difficult to make a living as a professional actor, amateur dramatics is an ideal way to be cast in covetable roles: “You can be any type of character, and play several different ones per year,” he advises. “Some professional actors become famous and make a fortune, but most do not, and even those who do can become disillusioned with it. One of my school friends did become a professional actor, he even got into a West End show, but left after two years because he became so bored with doing the same thing, week in week out. He also appeared in several small roles on TV, but struggled to make enough money, and eventually set up teaching drama to children.”
The Fellowship Players in Walsall, West Midlands, where Mark performed for over 30 years, shared the Grange Theatre with the Grange Players, alternating shows and offering a new play almost every month. “We could therefore afford to be more experimental and perform all types of shows. I am a fan of the summer variety shows and believe that these would work well in Gibraltar. There is an enormous amount of talent here, Gibraltar punches well above its weight in many areas, particularly song and dance. Some of the youth performances at the drama festival are world class, so we need to encourage all these young singers, dancers, actors and comedians to try ‘amdram’. Perhaps a variety show with songs, sketches, dance, comedy and cabaret might tempt more of them to join in outside of school and the Drama Festival.”