Every once in a while, an am-dram theatre group comes along that gives the impression they’re actually a professional touring company instead. Case in point: Edinburgh’s Bohemians Lyric Opera Company. Formed in 1909, their production of Legally Blonde at the King’s Theatre last year was on a par, if not better, than the West End touring version. In short, a show well deserving of the general public’s cash, and not just invited friends and families.
Putting such a high quality production together, however, isn’t easy, says Bohemians’ Gillian Bruce. As Chair of the Company, she says it’s all the more difficult when most of the production team work regular 9-5 jobs. How apt, then, that the Bohemians’ latest offering, which kicks off this Wednesday (running until Saturday), is Dolly Parton’s musical adaptation of her hit 1980 movie, 9 to 5.
As well as organising everything behind the scenes – Bruce’s day job is a Customer Operations Representative at Standard Life – the 38-year-old will also be playing the role of Felicia Washbourne, who works in the Pensions Department.
AAA: So, how does a part-time am-dram company manage to pull their resources together to ensure punters get good value for their buck? And does performing at a theatre such as the King’s raise everyone’s game?
Gillian Bruce: “Yes, being at the King’s Theatre certainly holds huge kudos. It’s a professional working theatre that requires a certain level of professionalism from us, too. Our cast, Committee and Production Team all sign up to a lot of hard work and dedication for the nine months we are in rehearsal. For the Committee, it’s a full, year-long job: planning the Fringe Festival Concert, as well as next year’s production of Footloose. It’s ever evolving, and the deadlines set from outside agencies are strict – if we miss the boat with them it has a serious knock-on effect. We have to treat the company as a small business and we have high expectations for everyone involved. Amateur Theatre can have negative connotations attached – dodgy accents, wobbly sets and missed lines – but we work extremely hard to ensure our productions are of the highest quality, affordable, and can stand up against the touring productions that also visit the King’s Theatre.”
AAA: There’s a lot of musicals out there to choose from. What made you decide 9 to 5 was the one to go with?
Gillian Bruce: “We’re blessed to have good relationships with the rights-holders of many new musicals that have been out on tour, and available to amateur companies. We were actually offered first refusal for this show before it was released to the masses. I had seen it at the Playhouse Theatre, enjoyed it immensely, and knew it would suit the current cast that we have. The Company is over 100 years old, and there are only so many times you can put on Oklahoma and Hello, Dolly! As there are a lot of amateur companies in Edinburgh, we are trying to forge a new path of producing the more modern musicals that suit the more youthful members that we now have.”
AAA: Working 9-5. Many people have to work several jobs out with 9-5 hours to make a living these days. Does the day job make rehearsals problematic for everyone involved within the team? What’s been the challenges in putting it all together?
Gillian Bruce: “From a personal point of view, this year has been more challenging. I started a full time job six months ago and can’t be on the computer organising things, emailing people, at 2am anymore. We are lucky to have such a diverse cast, but not everyone has a nice 9 to 5 office job. Our Musical Director is a Music Teacher so the schedule had to be built around parents’ nights and school trips. We have a Paediatric Doctor who works 12-hour shifts but still manages half a dance rehearsal before heading to the hospital. We have to take all of this into account when casting and scheduling, but the passion and commitment our company has makes it a lot easier… most of the time.”
AAA: The story is essentially about three women office workers who ensure their misogynist boss gets his comeuppance. On a more serious note, do you think equality for women in the workplace has improved since the original movie version came out in 1980?
Gillian Bruce: “Yes and no. I joined a huge company that is proud of the fact that the majority of the team and department managers are female; however, the CEOs are men. It seems to be getting better, but sadly there’s still an air of ‘she’s too emotional to cope with the responsibility’ or ‘her childcare issues will get in the way’ that I fear a lot of women still aren’t being given a fair shot at promotion. The media headlines are still filled with pay inequality so, until businesses stop putting bonuses first – and look at equality in the workplace at grass roots level – I fear nothing will change drastically.”
AAA: Speaking of 1980, comedic sensibilities have changed a lot since then, too. How have you freshened up the humour for today’s audience?
Gillian Bruce: “Patricia Resnick, who wrote the script for the film, and the book for the musical, is a very clever woman. She keeps it in the style of the film but has updated the one-liners to perfect effect. Some of the jokes are a bit close to the bone, but perfectly illustrates the different characters and the emotions they are experiencing. Licensing contracts means we cannot change any of the script but we really don’t need to. Sadly, misogyny is still extremely recognisable and the character of Hart does not hold back so you definitely empathise with the three female leads.”
AAA: 9 to 5 is a great musical for hen nights, and some men would admit to it being a guilty pleasure. But isn’t it slightly unsettling that the musical literally laughs at sexual harassment? Or is that the best way to deal with a heavy, and let’s face it, serious issue? After all, the women get what they were entitled to in the end.
Gillian Bruce: “The majority of woman, sadly, have been wolf-whistled at, or received derisory comments due to their sex. The musical goes on a journey of discovery and finding strength in adversity; and yes, Hart (the misogynist boss) does get what he deserves. Just because they burst into song doesn’t mean that song can’t pack a punch in the message it portrays. It is a very serious message that the show holds, and it is clear that the script writers do not approve of sexual harassment in any way, shape or form. But it also takes the opportunity to show that there’s many ways to cope in such a situation, and still be ok.”
AAA: The chemistry between the three main characters is what made the original so successful? Was it difficult casting the right people for the roles?
Gillian Bruce: “We hold a full-on audition process to gain membership of the company. A full boot-camp style teaching of the dance, acting and singing elements, so people are fully prepared to do the best they can in the actual audition. Everyone has to be at a certain level of competency, to ensure we produce the highest standard of production. This year, we were overwhelmed again by the talent that was presented to us, and we could have cast it three times over. The three lead females are so different, yet so alike, that we could see the different quirks come through in audition – we matched them up so that the trio bonded, they complement each other, and are truly believable as characters.”
AAA: The pro, mega-buck, touring version of 9 to 5 has new songs incorporated into it. Will you be doing likewise? And does Dolly Parton’s songs still hold up today? Will you be performing them straight, or will you be jazzing them up a little?
Gillian Bruce: “Dolly Parton did write all the songs but it is not a jukebox musical. She is ridiculously talented and has created some absolute belters – from jazz, to power ballads, and even Disney. The famous ‘9 to 5’ hit has had a re-work so the full company can sing in 5-part harmony. The only other song that Dolly released as a single was ‘Backwoods Barbie’ but even that was written with the musical in mind. As far as I’m aware, we are performing the songs as the UK tour and the original Broadway version, as some numbers were changed in previews before hitting Broadway in 2009. Dolly is so versatile in her writing that every song is perfect.”
AAA: What does the future hold for the company? Who pours the cup of ambition?
Gillian Bruce: “This is my fourth year as Chairman and I am exceptionally proud of how far we have come. The committee works very hard to make the right decisions for the company, so that we can continue to produce the highest quality of amateur theatre in Edinburgh – and stay at the King’s Theatre. We have Footloose booked in for next March, and are looking for ideas for 2019 already. Shows that suit our company – shows that the Production Team want to do – is a tricky combination. There’s either a feast of choice or a famine. Shows we desperately want to do can get pulled at the last minute as they go out on professional tour so, in some respects, we can’t book that far in advance. But when the rights are released we are ready to pounce.”
9 to 5, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Edinburgh, Wed 15 – Sat 18 Mar, 7.30pm (Sat matinee 2.30pm), 0131-529 6000
Interview: Barry Gordon