Manchester Universities Gilbert and Sullivan Society (MUGSS) are presenting the celebrated comic opera ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at The Union.
We spoke to Ali Dixon, Chair of the MMU Gilbert and Sullivan society, who is currently in her second year of Events Management, and Gussie Urquhart, third year Classical Singing at the Royal College of Music (RNCM) and the director of the production, to find out more.
Tell us a little bit about the Gilbert and Sullivan Society
Ali: So we formed 66 years ago. We are one of the oldest student societies in Manchester, and we are the only student society in Manchester who do productions, as well as building all our own sets and we provide all the lighting and sound as well. We are joint with the University of Manchester, RNCM and MMU. We are quite individual in that we do build all our own sets and we have our own workshop. For this particular production, we have half a boat and a working cannon, which we built ourselves. Last year we had a revolving fireplace and a working river running through the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union. We don’t do small sets!
Gussie: We are quite ambitious! For this production, we are aiming for a post-apocalyptic style, so this is why I chose to go for a big scaffolding tower as the set, so we can get that industrial feel.
Who were Gilbert and Sullivan? Why are they so popular?
Ali: Gilbert and Sullivan were two Victorians who wrote comedic operettas together, though they did do a lot separately too. Gilbert was the librettist, and Sullivan the composer. They are absolute classics, there’s so much based on them, and there is nothing else quite like them. When the society was formed they were really popular - it took them a while to gain popularity in their era.
Gussie: They’ve got a style of their own and it’s this comedic light opera that is a little bit more accessible than some other forms of opera, particularly for students, and it’s just really good fun. They always have sort of silly comedic misunderstandings going on and generally follow this theme of silliness and it’s quite slapstick.
Tell us about what we can expect from your upcoming performances
Gussie: In terms of what it’s about and giving a little hint of the show, the leading role is Frederic, so he’s a young strapping lad whose been apprenticed into a pirate band. The show opens with his 21st birthday and it’s time for him to leave, but unfortunately he gets caught up in a slight misunderstanding, in the sense that his birthday was a leap year, and it turns out he’s got to stay there until he’s 84. That’s the premise! There are a couple of famous classics that I think most audience members will recognise. We’ve got the ‘Modern Major-General’ which is a really fun part of the show and ‘Cat-like Tread’ which comes in Act Two. They’re some of the most famous parts.
Ali: I haven’t had much chance to see much of the show yet as I’m mostly backstage, but I’m really looking forward to the set bits, and to when they fire the cannon, and the pyrotechnics!
How did you find performing at the Student Officer Elections Results Night?
Ali: I was backstage and I really loved seeing us on stage and getting known out there, it was also absolutely terrifying! The Union had so much faith in us so we didn’t want to screw it up. I know speaking to other members of the society that everyone really loved it and it gave everyone a massive buzz and got everyone excited for the show.
Gussie: And excited to be performing in the amazing space as well!
What other events have the society got planned for 2017?
Ali: We will be having another production in November. This show and the location are yet to be confirmed but it will be happening, and we are debating whether it will be here or at the University of Manchester. What we are going to try is alternating shows to split our members. The week after our own show, we have the Manchester University Barbershop Concert, which we are involved with. We will hopefully also have a small improv production done over the summer too.
What do you do outside of rehearsals and performances?
Gussie: We have a big social side of the committee, we are a really tight-knit group. Quite a lot of the society live together. We always say to freshers that we are one big family and really welcoming.
Ali: We actually have three generations of MUGSS! There’s a grandchild whose both sets of grandparents are old MUGSSians. We go to the pub, and do quite a lot of themed parties. We also build sets for other societies. The University of Manchester Drama Society recently put on their mini drama season and we built the set for that. We also have an order in from the University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society, so we are working a lot with them. We do hire out publicly too, so last year we did South Manchester Amateur Operatic Society, building their sets for their production.
How can people get involved in the society?
Gussie: In terms of cast, we’ve got a ‘no audition necessary’ policy for chorus members, so it’s all-inclusive and anyone can join. You have to do a little audition if you are a principal, but it’s not a huge stress at all, and we are all very friendly, so nothing scary. In the production side of things, there’s always roles going, everything really from makeup to hair to tech, we have roles available all the time!
Ali: We’ve got makeup artists, we’ve got lighting, sound engineers, we’ve got a stage management team, five of them this year! We’ve also got set construction, publicity, merchandise, we do everything! The best way to get involved is just come along to one of our sessions, or drop us a message on Facebook, or through the Union’s website.
Book tickets for the Pirates of Penzance here