For some, appearing on stage is a whole new world. Others are one jump ahead, having taken part in previous Big Summer Productions. Either way, we wanted our 10th year to be magical adventure so what better show than Aladdin.

Some 50 young people have spent two weeks putting the show together. To mark the anniversary, we spoke to support team members James McConnell and Gerard Earnshaw and assistant director Jake Harrison about the role the Big Summer Production has played in their lives.

How did you get involved with the Big Summer Production?

James McConnell: I’ve been with the Big Summer Production for all 10 years. I started as a participant when I was 12. I used to do drama at school but when I walked through the doors on the first day I thought I was going to be part of the backstage team. My mum kind of tricked me, she knew I wanted to do a bit more of that but she liked seeing me acting. I forgave her after a little while. I was a little wary the first few days but I’ve absolutely loved it.

Gerard Earnshaw: I was a participant in the first ever Big Summer Production. I’d been at The Garage quite a few times, I’d done a singing course originally, then moved to a drama one. As I grew older, I started volunteering here in a younger class. Through that I was able to start volunteering on the production. It’s good fun. It’s always got a great energy to it and I’ve been supporting the last five or so years.

Jake Harrison: I started doing drama classes at The Garage when I was 12. I didn’t start with the Big Summer Production until I was 15. I got to the age where I was like “I’m getting a bit tall for this now” so I ended up being part of the support team for four years. It’s amazing to be here for the 10th anniversary and to be involved with the production for so long.

What was your first role?

JM: I was in the chorus the first year. I had another part towards the end of Alice in Wonderland, which was a guard in this big party the Red Queen was throwing. We had quite a lot of fun in rehearsals of her yelling at us. I was a participant four years. The second year we did Snow White and I was one of the rapping dwarfs, that was interesting. I’d never rapped before and never have since, probably for good reasons. The third year we did Cinderella and I played her father who’d gone off to fight in the war and sent her off somewhere else. It was the first time I’d had to learn monologues.

GE: The first year there were two different groups – an older group who were the main characters and the younger group and we were part of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. We did a dance routine to Black Eye Peas and it was really fun.

JH: My first show was Cinderella. I was Charles, the prince charming character. I remember loving every moment of it. I came the next two years, acting in Peter Pan and Jungle Book.

How did you become part of the support team

JM: I was one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. As a participant, we have a lot of team leaders within the cast. My role that year was to lead the other lost boys. I enjoyed that so the next year, when I couldn’t be a participant, I asked to help out in other ways. My job was literally going “shush”, making sure the cast were quiet as they went to and from the dressing rooms and backstage. The next year I was invited to join the support team.

GE: I’ve always wanted to be involved in the arts but I just like helping out here however I can, giving back to The Garage because it helped me a lot through my life, especially in those early years… The Garage has helped me with my confidence when I was a kid… I was going some tough times and it was a really good way of escaping for me then… It was somewhere I could feel happy to be myself…

Why is the support team so important?

JM: My first day was overwhelming and I think that’s still probably the case now for people who come for the first time. There are 50 kids involved and there’s potentially 49 people you’ve never met before, then all the adults and the support team. Most of the support team have been participants, we know what’s it like and try to make that less scary as possible and they feel they can talk to somebody.

GE: It’s good to help participants in the same way I was helped. The main part for me is making sure everybody is happy. It’s their summer holiday so if you’re not having fun then… There’s a real sense of pride when people get to see the final performance, it’s just incredible watching them grow – especially over years as well. You’ve got some kids in on the first year and they’re really shy but a few years later they’re one of the biggest voices.

What have you got out of being part of the Big Summer Production?

JM: I was really quiet and shy when I started at The Garage. That’s probably why my mum wanted me to do it. I’m still not the loudest person in any room I go into but I’m much more confident. I would credit The Garage largely for my being able to go straight into employment from finishing college. Having the skills to feel like I could’ve done that. It improved my acting quite a lot too and I ended up doing drama as a GCSE. Those two weeks are also about encouraging people to just be themselves. The development we see from some of the participants is unbelievable. They walk in on day one and won’t even want to tell you their name. Less than two weeks later they’re on a stage in front of 100-odd people, they’ve developed this whole character, their whole style of performing. It’s incredibly rewarding for us and hopefully incredibly rewarding for them and their families who can see what they’ve been able to do.

JH: I was really shy, I wouldn’t speak to many people. I found acting to be a way of bringing me out of my shell and gain those social life skills that I think are sometimes missing these days, with social media and online stuff. Actually coming together and making something, having that creative input is really important.

James, this is your last year with the Big Summer Production?

JM: I’m a lot busier at work and for the last three years I’ve helped support the Youth Forum with Adam Yaxley too. He decided at the end of this year it was his time to let somebody else take that on so it felt like a good time for me to say I’ve done that for 10 years, it’s a nice round number. I’m really sad. I’m worried I’ll be in tears at the end of every day because it’s been a huge part of my life growing up. I was in Year Eight when I started and now I’m in a full-time job.

Jake, you’re the assistant director; what makes the Big Summer Production so special?

JH: There’s a lot packed in… We have people come back every year which means obviously they enjoy it. It’s hard, throughout the years it’s been getting that balance between having fun but also that professionalism in the theatre. When we’re blocking a scene we try to get participants involved, try to make a game of it rather than me and Tom Fox (the director) going “you’re going to say here, say that line, wander over here”. Having their ideas shared makes them more engaged and we encourage them to get the most out of it.

Everybody makes their different friendship groups throughout the two weeks. It’s almost like a yearly get together. Every year, when we get to that last show, that last day, we get so many people crying because they’re not going to see each other for another year. It’s amazing to see they’re so emotional about it because it makes us feel like we’ve done a good job.

I think this production stands out because of the scale and ambition of it. Having around 50 kids singing, dancing, acting, having a process where it’s very collaborative… I don’t think many people do that within the time-frame of just two weeks; having that comedy aspect that the children come up with themselves. We structure it but at the end of the day it’s not really our show it’s theirs. Having parents and other people come and see what an amazing show it is, I think it’s just incredible.

The Big Summer Production of Aladdin takes the stage Friday 16 August and Saturday 17 August. 

Creative director Carrie Mansfield, who wrote and produced it, said: “They did an absolutely amazing job. When you consider they turn up, not all knowing each other and create a show in just seven sessions. It’s been a true collaboration between them, the director Tom Fox and the rest of the professional production team in terms of the script and the characters.

“They may not want to become an actor or dancer, that’s fine. The aim is to give young people from across Norfolk a great two weeks of their summer holiday, something they look back on and go ‘do you remember when we did this, wasn’t that great?’

“Underneath it all, it’s about giving them confidence, getting them used to making new friends and to give them role models; people they can look at and go ‘isn’t what they do cool’ and show them they can do anything they want growing up.”

Tom said: “I’m so proud of what we all achieved and we couldn’t have done it without every single one of you. Long live The Garage’s ethos of bringing young people together in a safe, creative environment and making quality art with them.”

He’ll be back at The Garage October 24-25 with Lamphouse Theatre’s production of Wild Boy, the true story of how a feral child found in the woods of Hanover, Germany, came to be an inmate at Norwich Prison. Visit www.www.thegarage.org.uk for the venue’s autumn season line-up.

We’d also like to say an immense thank you to everybody’s who’s been part of the Big Summer Production these part 10 years. We couldn’t do it without you and we’re proud of the success you’ve made of it.

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