Right Royal experiments in the lab

Bernie C  Byrnes

Bernie C Byrnes

Gosport Mens Shed Shedders presenting HMS Sultan staff with a hand-made uckers board

Shedders make uckers boards and cook stools

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Bernie C Byrnes is fizzing with excitement. Her office has arrived.

‘It’s here. At last!,’ she says, pointing to piles of unopened boxes in a room smelling of freshly-applied paint.

The place is crawling with hard-hatted builders, the corridor filled with high-vis jackets.

There is an air of urgency, not panic. Not yet, anyway.

There is little more than a week to go before the New Theatre Royal, in Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth, finally re-opens.

The Victorian theatre (built 1854) closed in February 2013, has had £4.5m spent on it and among the changes is a huge new fly tower built to replace the one burned down in 1972.

The main auditorium is expanding from 500 to 700 seats and there is an entirely new performance space, The Minghella Studio, named after the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, who came from the Isle of Wight.

And that is what is occupying most of Bernie’s waking hours at the moment.

Yes, its official title might be ‘studio’, but to those running the impressive new space with room for 90 seats, it’s a laboratory, a ‘creative lab’ in which artistic boundaries are hoped to be pushed.

Bernie is an associate artist at the NTR. the one-time professional actor is now an award-winning writer and director. Her job is to make the old playhouse accessible to the entire Portsmouth community, not just for an elite set of drama diehards.

Bernie says: ‘The big thing is about making work here, and that’s what the new Minghella space is all about – there’ll be workshops and development and new people coming in, emerging artists, masterclasses, that kind of thing.

‘It’s something the city hasn’t got, and that’s what’s exciting there.’

She adds: ‘The lab gives us a chance to do some real cutting edge work. Experimental work, whether it’s drama, dance or music, with new artists.’

Bernie is also a creative learning manager which involves taking the theatre into schools and the wider community, working closely with visiting companies, organising masterclasses and running the two in-house companies – the NTR Players and NTR Dancers.

She continues: ‘Since we’ve been dark we’ve been going out into the community with workshops, but now they can come to us – to the Minghella Studio. It’s an amazingly exciting time.’

Bernie is doubly excited because she has come home. She was born here, grew up at North End and returned to her old school, Mayfield, as an English and drama teacher.

‘This is my chance to really put something back into the city I passionately care about.’

She cringes when asked about her stage beginnings. ‘I was always on stage from the age of...’ she looks embarrassed. ‘Two,’ she whispers.

‘OK, yes, I admit it. I was a revolting child actor.

‘But I grew out of that awful chocolate box image very quickly,’ she adds hastily.’

She auditioned for everything going and at 12 joined the Iris Barnes School of Dance and regularly performed at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.

Then she fell under the influence of the late John Offord, who founded the Apollo Theatre Group, and became involved with the New Theatre Royal.

Bernie studied theatre at the University of Roehampton and continued acting for a while. ‘Then I realised it wasn’t for me. I fell out of love with it when one day I looked out at an audience, saw them looking back at me and thought ‘‘this is all very odd’’.’

So off she went to University College Wales to study for a post-graduate certificate in education and came back to Portsmouth to teach at Mayfield.

‘Trouble was, I looked too young. The dinner ladies wouldn’t allow me back on the site at lunchtime because they thought I was one of the students. I had to get a laminated card from the headmaster to prove it.

‘So I thought I’d go away and grow up – live in my face for a bit.’

She went to Newcastle University to do her masters, became a teaching fellow and completed her PhD. To fund it she taught and worked at the city’s Theatre Royal which, like Portsmouth’s, was designed by Frank Matcham

And it was while there that she got her first taste of directing and writing for the stage.

‘As a student company we were booked to go to the Edinburgh Fringe where I was due to direct a new play, but the writer withdrew late in the day. We had the venue booked and a cast so I said I would write it.

‘I did it in a week. It got good reviews and that was the turning point.

‘I realised teaching and directing have so many skills in common. I was spotted and put on a young writers’ programme and through that came an opportunity to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.’

She’s had shows in the West End and her most recent project, Muse of Fire, was put on a Shakespeare’s Globe.

In May her play Fifteen Minutes won awards for best play and best monologue at a 2015, 10-minute play festival in Hollywood.

Bernie says: ‘My mission in life is to persuade people that theatre is not elitist.

‘The New Theatre Royal is in the heart of the community, a community which we want to bring into the theatre. Perhaps some might look at the building and think it’s not for them, but we intend to break down those boundaries.’

COMING UP

The New Theatre Royal reopens next week and has a full programme to the end of the year and beyond. Here are some of the highlights from the next couple of months.

Conversations with Judith Smyth, October 13, 6pm, in the Minghella Studio: Judith Smyth, the chairwoman of the board at NTR, gives the public a sneak preview of the newly-renovated theatre.

The Great Gatsby, October 15-17: Immerse yourself in the decadence of America’s Jazz Age’ as the NTR re-opens with the latest stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby from Blackeyed Theatre.

The Silver Sword, October 19: A musical adaptation based on the classic children’s book set in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Behind the Curtain: The Found Hour, October 24: A free talk and tour on the history of the theatre from 1856 to the present.

Double Bill of Halloween Horror, October 28: New Apollo Theatre Company presents an evening of two terrifying plays based on the short stories of JH Riddell and MR James.

Ruby Wax – Sane New World, November 24: The American comic, actor and writer’s new show.

Show of Hands, November 25: The folk titans will be the first musical act to grace the new stage.

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