Imogen Usherwood meets the Mango Ensemble, one of Durham’s newest troupes, about their methods and ambitions for the future.

When I walk into an Elvet Riverside classroom to visit the Mango Ensemble, there’s no stopping to say hello. The troupe is in full flow, halfway through a drama exercise so intense that I can only sit back and watch. More dynamic than typical student theatre rehearsals, they move seamlessly through a series of exercises: using just each other’s names to communicate; playing a kind of follow the leader; taking turns to put on different music and responding to it; isolating one person and asking them to talk about a personal topic. This carries on for a solid fifteen minutes, with the troupe rarely breaking character; even this, a rehearsal, feels like a dynamic improvised performance, each actor bouncing off the others with ease and creativity. When it comes to an end, they explain that I’ve just seen a culmination of all the games and exercises they’ve learnt this term.

The six-strong troupe comprises Lucy Little, Layla Chowdhury, Maddie Lock, Esther Levin, Tom Murray and Amelia Melvin. From the first twenty minutes alone, it is obvious that a term of rehearsing has paid off – they are a cohesive, instinctive and, crucially, close-knit group of performers and creatives. Little, Development Officer at Squashed Mango Theatre Company (formerly Sightline Productions) and creator of the Ensemble, explains that ‘wework together every week, over the course of the year […] we aim to create innovative theatre which breaks the constraints and preconceived ideas of ‘student theatre’.’

It’s abundantly clear that, even in a theatre community like DST, where every niche from physical theatre to improvised musicals seems to be filled, the Mango Ensemble have made something unique. Little tells me that ‘The idea for the Mango Ensemble grew from a frustration of the quick turn-around of productions in DST. Currently, under the DST model, the process of building an ensemble is continuously repeated with every new show.’ Instead, the troupe meet once a week throughout the year, thus establishing a closer relationship over a less intense period, taking time to work on their skills: ‘The model of our group is based on repertory theatre which was prominent in the seventies and eighties, and was where actors such as Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Imelda Staunton were able to develop their craft.’

Despite such illustrious historical company, the main focus of the rehearsal I attend seems to be experimenting and, crucially, making mistakes. During their first activity, things went wrong or didn’t quite hit the mark, but others felt unique and not out of place in a performance. This is all part of their process; on the board is a timetable for the four-hour rehearsal, including warmups, games and a freewriting session, all of which will ultimately contribute to their Edinburgh Fringe show in 2020. The theme for this, they tell me, is ‘Family’, on the basis that all of the troupe have something to say on the subject, and it is not off-limits to any audience members. Obviously, the show is far from fully-formed – Michaelmas’s focus has been on working together as a team and playing with ideas – but Chowdhury tells me that they have created a bank of monologues this term from their writing exercises, as well as several movement sequences. Their vision for this show, which will have a run in Durham before going to Edinburgh, is a fun, colourful and uplifting conversion of family stories, making resourceful use of stage space (‘a chair will be more than just a chair’). Perhaps Little explains it best: ‘I’d love it if people came out of the show saying “Oh, I really want to phone my sister now”.’

I watch their freewriting session, this week on the theme of Christmas – four minutes of individual focus, during which time no one is allowed to pause for thought – and the devising session which follows. Each member reads the fruits of their labours, covering such various topics as car journeys to visit family, the existence of Santa and even TheMuppets’ Christmas Carol, before getting into pairs and selecting which pieces they like best, then using them as the basis for a chair duet – a physical sequence using two performers and two chairs. It’s remarkable to watch these stories come to life in front of me, when half an hour ago they hadn’t even been written down yet. It really is testament to the close bonds forged between the performers that they can hash out ideas together so quickly and constructively.

At the end, I ask Little how the first term for her brainchild has been: ‘it has been such a joy to see the troupe flourish and develop. The commitment, energy and playfulness which is brought to each rehearsal makes creates a refreshing change to the DST scene. I am so excited to see where the year will take us.’ The Mango Ensemble is certainly unique within DST, and even in the company of so many innovative theatre companies at this university they have found something different entirely. While it is hard to make predictions for such an experimental and new group, I would advise Durham to watch this space – the Mango Ensemble looks like something special.

Photo by Esther Levin