Angelic amateurs hit the big time

Tobias and the Angel is taking flight across the country, thanks to new recruits from local communities
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The Independent Culture

It will be a navigational feat for the choreographer and assistant director Ben Wright to get his horde of amateur performers on to a smallish stage for a production of the composer Jonathan Dove's community opera, Tobias and the Angel.

It will be a navigational feat for the choreographer and assistant director Ben Wright to get his horde of amateur performers on to a smallish stage for a production of the composer Jonathan Dove's community opera, Tobias and the Angel.

The allegorical tale from the Apocrypha's Book of Tobit premiered at the Almeida Opera Festival in 2000. It was commissioned for a cast of professional and amateur performers, including a chorus of children who undertake the parts of angels, sparrows, wedding guests, the voices of trees, mountains and rivers - and a big fish.

Now, in collaboration with English Touring Opera (ETO) and the Young Vic, Tobias and the Angel will tour nationally, recruiting amateurs along the way, from Exeter to Alderton. "By the end of the week, we will have integrated the professionals and amateurs in the London rehearsals," says Wright.

The Young Vic has been very busy recruiting the London community cast from Lambeth and Southwark to perform the first night in St John's Church, Waterloo. Some of the adult choir has never even done any performing before.

"I have been giving them a crash course in everything," says Wright, a former dancer who trained at Ballet Rambert and then made his acting debut as the Golden Monkey in Nicholas Hytner's production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials at the National Theatre.

Wright has been keen to pass on his experience to the amateur performers when it comes to subjects such as "spatial awareness" on stage. "You take a lot for granted when you perform professionally," he says. "I have had to unpick all the things that make a performance work. You can't, for example, suddenly turn around because you will whack someone in the face."

He has even suggested that the newcomers watch Disney's Finding Nemo to pick up tips on playing fish convincingly.

But struggling with the London performance is just the tip of the iceberg. As the assistant director, it is Wright's job to take the opera on the road afterwards. "I will be trying to re-create the opera in five different cities, each with a different set of local amateur performers," he says. Luckily, they have been found in advance of his arrival. "I couldn't go through another Pop Idol-style audition process, as happened in Lambeth, when several hundred children and adults turned upwanting parts."

Wright has worked with many top dance companies including the London Contemporary and the Richard Alston Dance Company. In 2002, he was awarded a Jerwood Choreographic Prize and The Bonnie Bird choreographic award. Now, however, he is giving lessons to complete beginners - and he is finding the process very enlightening.

"It is beneficial to one's soul to be part of something that is being created. Through people's endeavours, you make it happen," he says. "To bring people in that are not usually part of that process is refreshing and keeps your feet on the ground as a professional."

St John's Church, London SE1 (020-7928 6363) 7 to 11 September, then touring (020-7833 2555; www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)

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