Crediton (population 6,500) held its first community play in 1983 with a cast of 120. The production generated a series of projects in the local drama centre. In 1995, a 400-seat outdoor arena was erected for Henry IV part I in the old Market Square (now the council's cinder car park). This year's choice was Romeo and Juliet with a budget of Pounds l6,000. The most that ticket sales for the four nights could yield was Pounds 6,500 - the rest came from grants from the district council and local businesses, supplemented by fund raising and a subscription from the cast (Pounds 20 waged, Pounds 10 unwaged).
February 10 The launch. For anyone interested in acting, building sets, making music, sewing costumes, doing the legwork. Seventy-five people crowd into the drama studio. Maybe 25 students from Queen Elizabeth's, the community college. Peter (director) sketches the journey ahead and the concept - it's to be the Sarajevo reading of Romeo; or Beirut, Chechnya, Jerusalem. The set's a ruined city, wrecked cars and all. He's itching to get at it. Rod (producer) exudes safe-handedness, tells us we're Pounds 2,500 short of the budget. Phil (music) does a wacky number which will come from whoever we've got and wherever we find it. Oil drums, metal bars, Bulgarian nose flutes, Middle and Far Eastern roots, he thinks. And, as in all our productions, if you want to be in it, you will be.
FebruaryMarch Four three-hour workshops. Excited, often funny, playing with the story, chunks of text, gang brawls. No Am Dram hierarchies - there's a friendly absorption of newcomers. For some, a first encounter with improvisation - and maybe with Shakespeare.
March 30 Get back from a week away. Casting was finalised last Thursday. It's like waiting for A-level results, so I phone Peter. No Romeo yet, but three or four potential Juliets. He chooses Bee - 19, smallish parts in school plays. Peter's worried about a Romeo. He likes to stay within the town, but he's having to ring around. I'm old Capulet. "Not another irascible geriatric, " says Pam, who had to live for a couple of months with devious old Bolingbroke last time.
April 20 We've got a Romeo. Karl's a builder who'd rather be an actor. But he can't rehearse yet - he's in a production of The Rivals for another three weeks. Juliet's been very anxious about meeting Romeo; she's been rehearsing for weeks with people reading in the lines. Finally, Peter nervously gets them together one quiet Saturday afternoon in the drama studio. A bit like introducing pandas at Regent's Park. Early reports are favourable.
May 10 In return for our grant from Mid-Devon, we're doing a 40-minute glimpse of the play at the Tiverton Spring Festival. It's sheeting down, so we do it in the old Pannier Market at 6pm. Not a soul on the streets, but we process about the deserted car park, being extrovert and beating drums. Mercutio irrepressible. Perform to all of 30 people, including the festival committee, and some folk who've probably come in out of the wet. Find myself facing old Montague in total silence. Did someone forget to tell me about this? We swap a few diffident insults and then we get started on what we'd planned and I lose my lines in the middle of the Chopped Logic speech. Never happened before. Go home feeling flat, let people down. Everyone else is very up.
May 14 We move outdoors into the drama centre courtyard. Lovely to let the lines fly into the evening sky. Swifts screaming just above our heads, rooks busy across the road in the churchyard.
May 15 The beaten-up Metro has arrived. The town fire brigade is going to torch it and an Ford Orion on Tuesday, with TV and press coverage. You can't fault Peter for lack of visual ambition - not many people would have thought of playing the balcony scene on top of a torched Metro. Romeo has to go early and Tybalt leaps eagerly in to read R's lines. It's very dark, and T has to have the text up to his face. He can't make it round the page for Juliet's lips. A new dimension to "You kiss by the book".
May 20 The poster is stunning. Done by Daphne, who's a painter. I take posters and flyers up one side of the High Street - maybe 30 shops. No one demurs, no one charges. Rod's crew fly a huge banner across the High Street. Triple ladder balanced on the back of a pick-up truck. Secure one side, then over to the other side of the street. All three men brace the rope taut. A huge lorry thunders up the High Street en route for North Devon and whips the rope away. Rod's hands have a seared trough of weals across them, his side is scorched by the rope. Mick's shoulder is nastily damaged. "Two minutes earlier," says Rod, "I'd very nearly wound it twice round my middle to anchor it tight. My top half would have been on its way to Barnstaple."
May 23 Costumes done already. They're striking, surreal even. The Montagues have Clockwork Orange bowler hats, big boots and braces. White shirts with variations on red diamonds all over them. Old Montague sports two rose-coloured bowler hats, one on top of the other. Capulets are in Renaissance mode; the gang have baggy blue and yellow striped pants. Mine has a Middle Eastern feel with a sharp blue cassock and a sumptuous yellow velvet smoking jacket number. People keep stroking me at the fitting session.
May 27 Nurse, Lady C, Juliet and I have been doing old Cap's Fury scene again and go to the pub with Peter to unwind. There we find Romeo, who's not been rehearsing. A swift half later, R and J stand up, grin a bit and say they'll be off now. Right. We make cautious jokes about Life imitating Art and extra late night rehearsals. I'm wondering if Peter's wondering, what if they fall out as quickly as they seem to have fallen in....before the performances?
June 2 We're doing the scene around Juliet's supposed corpse. I'm getting fond of old Cap now we've abandoned the Mafia Gang Boss version. Poor chap doesn't know what day of the week it is, lost all his other children, can't keep bloody Tybalt on a leash, Paris seems cool about marrying into the family. Suddenly I get caught up in his pain and pause. Am prompted by the corpse.
June 14 Three or four of us find our workshop base in a factory on the trading estate to do a couple of hours of scenery painting. Mick's in charge. He's got 60 doors from the dump. We're to "distress" them some more. He insists we see the designs so we know what we're doing. The last job is to stick photocopied political faces all over them and spray them. They'll be right up at the backs of the stands, reinforcing the space as a cockpit. Mick is incredibly committed to these doors.
June 22-23 It's rained so much. The set's late - scaffolders let us down. So we dress rehearse with the set and lighting crews working around us, and us around them. Rod is balancing rage and bribery with the scaffolders, who suggest he talks to God..
June 25 First night. The clouds lift and we're on. The first brawl's fine, lots of energy. The students have found a real ferocity - they probably needed an audience. The music is a knockout. My bit with Paris is fine. The servants (up the towers) haul banners across the space for the ravefeast. I leap up on to the Metro bonnet in an elderly way for my welcome speech to find myself cloaked in a banner down to my knees. Lose a couple of lines, but it's the only technical glitch on a good night. Audience liked it, including my two drama colleagues, and two visiting Brazilian academics.
June 26 Raining, but 300 people still show up. They get changed in the car parks to watch the show while we're changing in the council offices to perform. Golfing suits, waterproof sleeping bags, hot thermoses. It goes superbly - it's us and the audience versus the weather. Half-time comes and goes, but they all stay. The rain keeps slashing down. Finally, Rod pulls the plug. We go on and clap them and they stand and clap us - it's better than completing the show. Romeo's knees are scraped raw. Apart from a rolling-in-the-sand-and-gravel with Tybalt, he does a running belly flop on to the car roof which no professional actor would touch. He's wearing knee pads but his right leg is badly swollen. Mrs Montague, who knocked off in week 3 to have a baby, has brought him to every rehearsal. Christopher has just learned to grin ear to ear. Several of the boys spend ages chuckling at him; limited interest from the girls.
June 27 Full house, going well. Final monument scene is tricky though, when The Three Little Pigs spews its drunks out on to the square. They're doing a "Romeo, Romeo, oops, sorry Romeo mate!" routine which they find amazingly funny. I get into a discussion about how effing shitty it is to split up with your girlfriend so why would he worry about 400 people in there. "If you wanted to do a play, mate, you'd do it in a field. This is a pub, right? And why have you got a dress on, eh, eh?" Meanwhile the Montagues are belting hell out of the Capulets.
June 28 Last night is still, warmish even. It sings. Audience loving it - they clap the balconyMetro rooftop scene. Stratford this is not. Speeches and sentiments on the set afterwards. As we leave, Joe from the Capulet gang says, "It's been a pleasure to meet you." Well, exactly.
Geoff Fox is a lecturer in education at Exeter University