Take On Me makes a big splash in Surrey leisure centres

Dante or Die in Take On Me

Dante or Die in Take On Me. Photography credit: Justin Jones

Take On Me has been created by Dante or Die, a company who make theatre in unusual spaces, working with writer Andrew Muir. The piece came about through a commission by Arts Partnership Surrey and Farnham Maltings, called ‘not for the likes of me’, to enable a performance for people who might not normally go to the theatre. We caught up with co-creator and Take On Me lifeguard, Terry O’Donovan to find out more.


What originally drew you to the idea of working with local authorities across Surrey?

We had been dreaming of a show in sports & leisure centres since visiting one that was about to be demolished. We were excited about the very fact that these buildings are places where everyone ends up at some point in their life – from children learning to swim, to gym buffs, to older people in rehabilitation. When Arts Partnership Surrey put their call out for ‘not for the likes of me’ commission we immediately recognised that their ambitions for the project fit perfectly with our ideas to create a theatre project that would allow people to bump into a show – or the creation of a show – somewhere unexpected.

So, what’s the play about?

At the heart of the play it’s about self-esteem, body image and how that connects to our psyche; as well as human connection. The story itself is modelled on 80s film plots – with lots of references to movies like The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing and Top Gun – the underdog going on an inner journey to success! We follow a lifeguard who has never saved anyone and a woman in her 50s who is grieving. Their stories intertwine over the 70 minutes via encounters in the changing rooms, the gym, a Jane Fonda-inspired aerobics class and the pool.

Your productions tend to treat the audience as a fly-on-the-wall, so what should people coming to see the show expect?

You get up close-and-personal to the actors in our shows – it’s always exciting to us to create very intimate situations so that you feel like you’re literally in the world of the characters. But as you said, you’re a fly-on-the-wall, so you’re safe in the knowledge that you can be right next to the actor at a very personal moment but you’re a voyeur. Which is a lot of fun!

For this show we have two incredibly talented musicians who lead you on the journey from one space to another – you’re in safe hands with them. We’ve re-interpreted some classic pop hits like Flashdance, Faith and of course Take On Me so as you’re wandering the corridors of the leisure centre you’ll hopefully hear the lyrics and the emotional drive behind these songs in new ways.

You’re not only performing in leisure centres, but also did most of the writing, creating and rehearsing in them; I imagine that’s been great fun, but not without its challenges. How have you found working in such an unconventional space?

It has been a huge challenge. We’ve made shows in working hotels and self-storage buildings before but most of the time that’s meant we’re in spaces to ourselves. Rehearsing this show has meant trying to create it around people working out and having showers. The trickiest things have been trying to create the scenes in changing rooms – the director, Daphna, is female, and one of the musicians in the male changing room scene is a woman. So it was like guerilla theatre-making. I’d jump in, check there were no men and say GO! We’d rehearse for 5 minutes and then a guy would come in and need to get changed so we’d have to leave. Although some guys didn’t mind – we did a whole scene with The Karate Kid popping up and Ellie singing and playing her keytar as an older gent had his shower and got dressed around us. It was brilliant.

Alongside the professional actors, musicians and directors, you’ve also got community cast from Surrey. How did you get different groups involved and how does the piece benefit from having them involved?

Our participation cast are amazing. We ran workshops at all of the partner leisure centres inviting people to learn about the show and the different ways to be involved – a core participation cast rehearsed with us and perform at every venue. We also have different people from each centre in the aerobics scene every week and members of a choir that change weekly as well. We worked with Farnham Maltings’ associate producer Christine Lee to get word out to as many people as possible, popped into Legs, Bums and Tums groups – I ended up doing a Clubercise class in de Stafford Sports Centre (Caterham) having chatted to the ladies about the show.

The show has always been inspired the community aspect of leisure centres – unexpected friendships growing. When we finished our first performance and almost 30 people took a bow together – a choir, some aerobics members we’d only met the day before, and the cast of people who had invested in our crazy idea it really did feel like a celebration of taking a leap into the unknown. It’s what the show is all about.


You can catch Take On Me at Farnham Leisure Centre on Saturday 8 October, and on tour in Surrey throughout October. Read the 4* review (The Stage).

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