Making a ‘Soap’ – The Otter Inn
When one finishes a longer-term piece of work, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, there is often a kind of impasse and a ‘what next?’ feeling. When I asked the group what they would like to embark upon next, the popular theme of ‘Soaps’ initially arose. My suggestion of creating a soap with everyone acting out the parts was eagerly seized upon by the soap fans in the group and it gradually began to unfold into a new project.
Initially I brought in pictures depicting people displaying a range of positive and negative emotions. Some examples included: two men triumphantly holding an award above their heads; a woman with hand over her mouth looking frightened; someone who was looking very surprised plus several others. The initial task was to create stories around these pictures: we asked ourselves: What had happened and why? What was going to happen next? And what was the eventual outcome? Gradually stories emerged which were acted out during drama: the woman had seen a ghost and asked for help to hunt for it. The men had won a prestigious award. The surprised person was 100 years old and received a surprise visit from the Queen etc. Soon we had several story lines and continued to work on the stories these each week. To add some variety we also continued to work on some of the more enjoyable traditional stories which kept everyone involved and interested.
In parallel to working on the stories we began thinking around how our soap would work in practice. In addition to peoples’ homes, every soap has at least one place where the characters gather, new people make their entrance and where the story-line unfolds. In our case a pub seemed the obvious choice and as a consequence our stories began to be centred on ‘The Otter Inn’. We gradually assembled props in order to make our pub look genuine and, in this endeavour, Otterhayes staff were supportive as usual: Jenny Carter painted an excellent ‘bar’ back drop and Justin made some decent looking beer pumps which we placed on our bar (created from a pasting table). A local company loaned us a working till, the RD&E helped with a stethoscope and ‘scrubs’ and the Community Police Constable for the Wonford Area of Exeter got hold of a police uniform for us, complete with hat and utilities vest. At later times we also procured more costumes, a darts board, disco equipment, a life-like baby, and baby clothes, a baby buggy, electric guitar and amp, piano, small tables, table cloths, beer mats, and many other items. Chief among these was a full drum kit loaned by an Exeter Pub. I considered that the pub should be as authentic as possible and that, to this end, the ‘customers’ should be able to buy their own drinks, useful of course in enhancing residents’ practical life- skills. During rehearsals, therefore, we made use of ‘toy’ money but when we were filming I added a £100.00 float to the till and people used real money to buy their drinks. Later we made use of looped ‘pub’ crowd sound effects to give an authentic pub ambience and gradually our stories developed in this ‘pub’ environment. Of course, everyone was keen to have an authentic selection of drinks in our pub and so bitter-shandy was the order of the day, accompanied by a selection of crisps. The idea of Pub Food was also popular and during sessions we created a pub menu of everyone’s favourite meals. Expanding on this I created a plate of imitation steak, chips and peas which was delivered to a customer during one episode.
The plan from the beginning was that The Otter Inn should be filmed and in this respect this project took me completely out of my comfort zone. I was used to working through the medium of drama with various groups and had filmed shadow theatre and documentaries previously but filming actual people acting in their own ‘soap’ was a departure for me. The fact that no-one could read from a script meant that everything has to be improvised with the basic narrative structures of the stories being learnt by heart. The more I tried to structure these stories and the dialogue for the actors the more difficult things became – everyone involved became tense and wooden as they tried to follow my instructions and the project began to unravel. The solution was to let go of formal dialogue and to let things unfold more spontaneously and naturally. From the beginning the video cameras had been set up in the room which helped people relax with its presence, and rather than being rigid with the scripts I just allowed people to be completely natural and say what they wanted in front of the camera. The stories gradually evolved more successfully using this format and so I continued to let the stories develop along these lines.
Over time we developed four stories and two themed events in the pub with everyone taking on the key roles. The first ‘episode’ introduced all the soap characters and subsequent ones focused on one or more residents with everyone else supporting the unfolding narrative. Over time, things began to work well and the stories gradually developed and deepened to a point where we could begin filming the various episodes. The developed stories, as they were finally adopted, were orientated around each person’s individual personality aspirations and circumstances in order to be appropriate for them. Filming days were a departure from the usual routine: I generally arrived an hour early to set everything up the Otter Inn and we began filming as soon as everyone arrived and we had gone through a shortened version of our warm-up routine. Despite the agenda for a relaxed atmosphere, filming days were definitely more stressful but everyone accepted that I was going to be a bit more bossy than usual (!) and things generally worked reasonably well. We would spend several weeks working on a particular story-line and once it had been filmed we moved on to rehearsing and developing the next narrative. The rehearsal for each of episode consistently took some time to accomplish but eventually all the story-lines were completed and all episodes filmed.
Since we have finished the last episode there has been a slowly developing sense of achievement from everyone and we have been focussing on closures. As part of this process I created a letter from property developers telling the Landlord that the Otter Inn would be closed and the site redeveloped which became our drama theme for the day. The final job is time consuming task of editing down all the episodes of the soap to a good standard, adding a music soundtrack and any special effects and that may be required and finally burning DVD’s and presenting them in the best possible way.
The Otter Inn was very much a pub run by and for people with learning difficulties: it had a certain quirkiness and charm and there was a good atmosphere arising from all the actors. I think everyone was pleased with the end results.