POLICE officer Richard Wilshaw (54) can often be seen going undercover for Maltby Musical Theatre Group and Rotherham Rep. The Parkgate dad-of-three has been entertaining audiences since he was 12. We hauled him in for questioning in lockdown.
Q: How did you first get into musical theatre? Do you have any memories of your first rehearsals, roles or performances?
A: I didn't get any opportunities at the schools I attended but I spent many hours in rehearsal rooms when I was a young lad. My dad was a teacher and he directed the school plays and musicals where he worked. The school halls and school theatres became my playground and the star pupils became my idols. The biggest star of all though was my dad. He was a fine actor. Being in my house now is just like it was for me as a child. My dad became the character he was playing — Fagin, The King in King and I, Vontrap, Tevy — whatever the part our house would be full of quotes and songs. My first proper outing was in Kiss me Kate in 1988 with Maltby Amateur Operatic Society. I played one of the gangsters alongside one of Maltby's founding members Ozzy Richards. This should have paved the way for many years of performing at the Civic but personal circumstances and a new job resulted in a 20 year gap before returning to the stage as Philias Fogg in Around The World In 80 Days in 2008.
Q: Were you nervous before curtain-up or did you relish the spotlight?
A: I don't think I fully understood what I was doing in 1988. There were no local drama schools or theatre groups for kids when I was growing up. My dad ran a small drama group at Herringthorpe United Reform Church and that is where I learned the basics but when I stepped out on stage it was a bit like painting by numbers. I followed the directions I was given and used whatever natural talent I had but it was all a bit of a blur.
Q: When, how and why did you decide to make the leap from performer to director? Was it tough going from taking instructions to giving them and do you enjoy performing or directing most?
A: Because of the 20-year hiatus I knew that my opportunities for leading roles in musicals would start to dry up. I have been fortunate to play some great roles over the last few years but I have also studied the production methods employed by the various directors with a view to directing when the chance came. I am definitely not hanging up my acting boots but I am relishing the opportunity to direct my first musical. I am very grateful to my other theatre family, the Rotherham Rep, who trusted me to direct three of their productions. My debut as a director was Perfect Pitch by John Godber quickly followed by A Perfect Murder by Peter James and more recently another Godber play, Happy Families. I hope my efforts as a director have hit the mark although, in truth, I have been blessed with superb casts for each production which makes it a tad easier.
Q: Who have been your favourite people to work with over the years — have there been some memorable characters?
A: My brother-in-law, the late Richard Badger, introduced me to the wonderful world of stage crewing. I would always advise young actors to have a go at stage crewing. You appreciate the theatre more when you understand the mechanics of it. Richard taught me so much in such a short space of time and we had the best of times with loads of laughs. A little bit melancholic, but there are two people I always think of before a show week, Richard and my dad.
Q: Why are you passionate about community theatre?
A: When you share a stage with someone you create a bond. Acquaintances become lifelong friends overnight and you define your memories by the year of a show or the time you played a certain role or performed in a certain theatre. It has been my privilege to sit and chat with some of our long-serving members over the years and when you hear their stories you become acutely aware of the history of it all. I personally feel we have a responsibility to keep it going and protect their legacy. Rotherham has a huge amateur theatre legacy to protect and it saddens me that societies are on a knife edge with their very existence under threat from increasing costs and dwindling audience figures.
Q: What have been your most memorable shows at the Civic and why? What is your fondest memory on stage or in theatre? Are any family members involved with performing as members of MMTG or otherwise? If so, is this enjoyable or stressful?
A: Three questions with one family-related answer: In 1982 my father played Tevye in Maltby's production of Fiddler on the Roof. Thirty years later I was given the part of Tevye in Maltby's 2012 production but this time there was an additional family connection. My father, who was receiving treatment for cancer at the time, played the role of Lazer Wolf, my wife Anita payed the role of my daughter Hodel and my eldest son Antony played the role of Fyedka. As you would expect this was an emotional rollercoaster and it was the last time I shared a stage with my dad, who lost his battle with cancer two years later.
I still share the stage with my wife Anita. We met through Maltby Musical Theatre Group and we have been lucky to play opposite each other a couple of times in South Pacific and The Producers. We have a nine-year-old son who is itching to get on stage. He knows every line in the play by the time we go on stage and can often be heard singing along in the audience.
Q: Have you had any particularly funny experiences or moments on stage or backstage?
A: At the dress rehearsal for The Full Monty we had just done the full strip. At a key moment lights shine into the audience so that they don't get a full view. We then exited the stage to put on dressing gowns so that we could cover up for the bows. It was at this moment that we realised that there were six women holding our dressing gowns and one of them was my mother-in-law. We rapidly tried to cover ourselves up and it was all a bit embarrassing. On the Friday night the lights didn't work so everyone in the audience got a full view and by Saturday we didn't care.
Q: Coronavirus has caused huge disruption to theatre companies. How are you coping with this and keeping morale up?
A: Maltby were fortunate to perform Barnum before the theatre shut and although the virus did impact on our ticket sales we still managed to get some much-needed revenue. Despite the many unknowns we have managed to keep things ticking over with the appointment of a production team for our next show Curtains. We are also auditioning during the summer with people sending in videos of specified monologues and songs. All being well we will cast the show during the summer and, hopefully, if restrictions ease we may get to rehearse in the autumn and perform in March.
Q: What would be your message to someone who thinks they might like to be on the stage but isn't sure how to start.
A: Sometimes people find it a little bit intimidating when they walk into a rehearsal room for the first time. We all have to start somewhere and usually there will be someone to hand who will give you help and advice. All the local groups will have contact details so my advice would be to drop them a line and find out what their plans are for their next production. An amateur theatre group will have people from all walks of life with varied levels of training and experience. So just go along and get involved and have fun.