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The Impact of Family First Nights

"I decided there and then that like those actors, I wanted to make people feel things. I told myself that my working class roots would not hold me back, and I knew I would make the most of any chances I got." 

Actress Melanie Bright participated in Family First Nights in 1998 and we were lucky enough to meet her (and her wonderful mum!) at the launch of this year’s programme – 20 years on! We caught up with her to ask how life has changed (just a little bit!) for her since that first family theatre trip all those years ago…
Thanks for joining us Melanie – yours is quite a success story! Can you tell us a bit about how you came to participate in Family First Nights?
My family and I lived on the Peabody Trust Estate in Ilford until I was about 12, and it was through this housing association that my Mum first heard about Family First Nights. For us, this meant going to see a top West End Show, something we had not done before, for a fiver each! My mum was delighted, she has always loved the theatre, and so we went as a family to see Blood Brothers at The Phoenix. 
What do you remember about the evening?
We were sat in the third row, near the aisle. I remember how loud the music was when the show started, and I remember being utterly enthralled from the opening line. I also remember the poem, “I wish I was our Sammy… our Sammy’s nearly 10!” because my whole family and I cried laughing at that, especially with that now notorious ‘jumper moment’. I remember the show taking me on this incredible journey, from humour to an incredibly dark, adult second act, and being transfixed throughout. I felt like I daren’t breathe because I might miss part of the story. When, at the end of the show *spoiler alert* members of the cast entered through the auditorium, they were positioned right next to us. Policemen with guns yelling towards the stage; they didn’t feel like actors, it felt real. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen in my life.
How did you feel going into the theatre? Where you nervous? Excited? 
Oh, excited for sure! I remember thinking how great it was that my Dad could come, that he could get the night off work and be with us too as he worked long shifts on the Underground. I remember being incredibly sad it was over, not least because the ending had the entire audience in floods of tears. Grown men and women sobbing around me, it felt like the show had bonded everyone and taught us something about empathy; about how we should be to one another.
How did it influence your decision to pursue a career in acting?
When I saw the adult actors being children, I thought, that looks like the best job in the world! Constant play! But it was the end of the show that did it for me. I watched as this group of actors made an entire theatre of people feel something. Not only that, but this play was about working class people, living on estates not in castles. It was unlike the magic, but aloofness of the books and plays we had read at school. I decided there and then that like those actors, I wanted to make people feel things; to hold a mirror up to society and say, this could/has/will happen. I told myself that my working class roots would not hold me back, and I knew I would make the most of any chances I got.
Tell us about your journey since – it sounds like you’ve worked on some fab shows!
I have been incredibly lucky to do some wonderful work in the years since drama school. The next show my Mum took us to see after Blood Brothers was We Will Rock You. My Dad LOVES Queen!!  So it was no small joy when this show happened to be my first professional job after leaving Mountview. After WWRY I went to Europe with The Who’s Tommy, coming back to the UK and appearing in the world premiere of Lionel Bart’s Quasimodo, and it was here that I met James Orange and auditioned for a little show called Les Miserables. I worked on Les Mis for two years, understudying and playing the role of Fantine. Making my West End and leading lady debut in the same week was something I will never forget!
I also worked on The Wild Party, at the opening of The Other Palace last year. I played Sally, a morphine addict, and she has been my favourite acting role to date. Our director, Drew McOnie, gave us the space and safety in rehearsals to create these incredible characters and really make them our own. It was nerve-wracking at times, to come in and try something in front of the cast without knowing if it would be the right creative choice, but it was incredibly freeing. The set felt like a playground, and every night was different. It is the bravest I have been on a job. It has certainly set a very high bar for whatever comes next!
And what’s next for you?
Blood Brothers. Kidding! Though it is, naturally, still on my ‘to-do’ list. Winky face. 
What would you say to families and children who might be feeling a little bit nervous about the experience, or think that theatre isn’t for them?
Theatre is for everyone. Not just for the elite, or those who can afford the most visits or the best seats. It’s an experience, and one you are likely to remember for a long time. By being in an audience you are sharing a moment with the actors and the people around you. Every night is different, and until you feel that energy for yourself it’s hard not to think of it as a stuffy, controlled environment. But I can assure you it’s not.  Mutual respect of the audience and the actors is important; no one wants to see your face light up if you decide on using your phone during a performance but on the whole the theatre is a free, safe space where magic happens and the audience and actor become equal in the sharing of a story. Who knows, you might even learn something about the world and about yourself... 

"Theatre is for everyone.   It's an experience, and one you are likely to remember for a long time." 

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