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Encore Theatre Group - behind the scenes

Encore Theatre Group - behind the scenes

The small village of Loulay in Charente Maritime is a focal point for amateur dramatics in English and French, thanks to the successful theatre group 'Encore Theatre' set up by Jan and Bruce Morris in 2002

Encore Theatre Group on stage

Jan and Bruce Morris thought they would retire to France gracefully. Little did they know that some years later they’d be singing ‘Roll out the Barrel’ from a stretch limousine with a man dressed as a London policeman walking in front of them during a street festival in Saintes, and working on musicals that would dazzle French and expat audiences alike.

But as it turned out, their background was exactly the thing that would help them and many others feel at home in the country. "We thought about what we could bring to the community here in France, and we realised that what we’re good at is theatre!" Bruce says.

They set up Encore Theatre, an amateur dramatics group, in 2002, and were soon joined by a professional musician and an ex-BBC scriptwriter. The group now has 70 members who work both on stage and behind the scenes.

Encore-Theatre-Bruce-JanBruce had sung with male voice choirs and performed in shows with a theatre group in Cheltenham, and Jan’s background is in choreography and theatre. "I’ve been in dance all my life. My parents were professional ballroom dancers and ran a studio, and I was sent to ballet school," Jan says. Taking over a dance studio, Jan decided to do drama there, too, and gradually made her way into amateur dramatics and then professional theatre.

Yet for the majority of members, Encore Theatre is their first experience of being on stage. "Only half a dozen had ever appeared on stage before, everyone else has learned and we’ve really seen a difference since we began," Bruce says. One of the company’s biggest shows, ‘Eleanor’, based on Eleanor of Aquitaine – who was queen of France and of England – was written by members of the company. "We try to write our own music and words," Bruce adds. Last year’s performance of ‘Showstoppers’ was one of Encore Theatre’s biggest shows so far. It went down so well that the company is now working on a similarly themed performance of excerpts and sketches from musicals and original songs from shows for the month of May; Act One will see sketches based on Guys & Dolls and Calamity Jane, and Act Two, My Fair Lady, High Society and Oliver.

From the beginning, Jan and Bruce knew they wanted the theatre group to be open to everybody. "There are not many French people in the society, although we did try," says Bruce. "Nearly all the people in the group speak French, some get by and some speak it brilliantly. I have many French friends who love the theatre and the musicals and it really pleases me that they enjoy our performances too," Jan adds.

The couple’s life in Loulay began in 1998 after Bruce was made redundant from his marketing job. "We had a house here for the holidays and we decided to move over," Bruce says. "But we really thought we’d left all the performances behind!" Jan adds. Almost ten years on and the group is still going strong. "All of us work very hard and it has been lovely to do it," Jan says. "It has changed many people’s lives – people who didn’t know if they wanted to stay in France and then found they loved doing this." With fetes, quiz evenings and even murder mystery evenings, there is an important social side to the association. "The idea behind it is friendship and achievement in the community," Bruce says.

Encore Theatre aims to put on one major musical a year, as well as taking part in festivals, and even doing carol singing. Fortunately, the mayor of Loulay in Charente Maritime allowed them to use the 220-seat theatre. "We have two rehearsals a week, and more in the run-up to a performance," Bruce says. "Some people travel up to an hour to get here, which shows real dedication." The company holds auditions for the roles: "A huge percentage of people want to be on stage," says Bruce. "We make our own costumes, some get involved with the admin side, others with the staging. The beauty of it is that people bring their own special skills to the company," says Bruce, adding: "It also keeps people off the streets!" Except, of course, when it’s festival time!



UPDATE: * Sadly Bruce died very suddenly in March 2011. He played a huge role in both founding and developing the company and is very much missed. Many tributes have been paid to his larger-than-life character, sense of humour and, of course, his beautiful tenor voice.


Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes April 2011.

Words Rebecca Lawn

Photos: Encore Theatre