AFTER traversing the city on a trailer for 16 days, the York Theatre Royal circus pitches up back home in St Leonard’s Place from Wednesday for the final run of Around The World In 80 Days.
Among the travelling players for creative director Juliet Forster’ stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is actor, singer, acrobatic and yoga teacher Dora Rubinstein, a North Easterner, originally from Newcastle, who has settled in York.
She has history with Forster, having voiced Mary Magdalene in the York Mystery Plays audio plays for the Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York during lockdown, under Forster’s direction, and then taken on the guise of pioneering Anne Lister, alias Gentleman Jack, for musical theatre composer Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York at the Theatre Royal’s re-opening show, Love Bites, overseen by Forster in May.
“It was so different doing that short piece for Love Bites,” says Dora. “I was approached by Gus, as we had lots of mutual friends who work in musical theatre, and Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in the Gentleman Jack TV series, is not too far away from me in terms of my looks.
“It was lovely to be back in the theatre, as though most of my recent work has been circus based, I still love singing.”
Although Dora had worked with Juliet on the Radio Mystery Plays, Covid restrictions had limited the rehearsals and recordings to being conducted remotely. “That’s why I wasn’t sure if she knew about my circus skills, so I sent her an email, but it turned out she was aware, though I don’t know how, but I’m just happy she did,” she says.
Dora, who runs workshops in acrobalance, handstands, flexibility, contortion and aerial skills in York and Leeds, is now playing The Acrobat and American journalist, industrialist, inventor and charity worker Nellie Bly, who, like the fictional Phileas Fogg in Verne’s story, made a race-against-time trip around the world.
“At the auditions, I had to do an American accent for Nellie Bly; I used a Geordie accent for The Acrobat – my choice – and I also have to play two ship captains, one from Hull, the other, a salty old sea dog,” she says.
All those acrobatic and contortionist skills naturally come in handy for The Acrobat in Around The World In 80 Days, but how come the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts graduate has developed those skills?
“My mum is a visual artist, who makes community pieces, and she was fascinated by how close the circus community was. As part of her research, she went to a trapeze class in Newcastle, and she said she felt like she’d come home,” says Dora, taking the country route in her explanation.
“She was so at home with it, whereas most people, when they first try it, find it incredibly hard. When I came back home from Arts Ed [her musical theatre diploma course in London], she knew how much I’d enjoyed the physical side of it and so she introduced me to circus culture, where I felt I really fitted into that world, the acrobatic world, rather than dance.
“Then, when I later left Mountview, I kept it up even more, doing aerial classes, and it’s since fed into my other work, with more to play with from the devising perspective.”
Dora teaches a “really wide range of people”, whether leading workshops for children and young families or teaching York burlesque performer Freida Nipples flexibility tricks to integrate into her routines.
Even during rehearsals, she has continued to hold workshops at weekends, such as the acro-yoga sessions she leads at The Stables, in Nunmill Street, just off Bishopthorpe Road.
“My mum [Jane Park] is coming down to teach with me; we’re the first mother-and-daughter acro-yoga instructors,” she says.
Dora moved to York two years ago after living in London for a decade. “I felt that was long enough down there,” she says. “A lot of my work was in the north, and though you are fed this idea that you have to be based in London to make a career as a performer, I met this amazing actress, Helen Longworth, when I did two pantomimes at Lancaster.
“She was also doing TV parts and radio in The Archers, had a young child and was living in a village outside Morecambe, and I just thought, ‘why should I spend £1,300 a month on a flat in London?’.”
Why settle on York? “My boyfriend loves taking photographs, so we wanted a city that was beautiful to walk around, with good rail connections, and York really was the only one! We’ve now bought a house, so it looks like we’re staying!
“My grandfather lived in Portland Street, and I grew up seeing plays at York Theatre Royal, when I came here every two or three months. He loved the theatre too, so it’s always felt like home.”
This week will find Dora performing on that Theatre Royal stage, bringing Nellie Bly’s story to the fore as Phileas Fogg’s race against the clock to complete a full circuit of the Earth is interwoven with investigative journalist Nellie’s own record-breaking journey.
“I hadn’t heard of Nellie until I got the audition, though it’s incredible all the amazing things she did leading up to her going around the world,” she says.
“I remember being taught about Queen Elizabeth 1, Queen Victoria and Grace Darling [the English lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who risked her life to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire in 1838], but not about Nellie Bly’s achievements.
“When she submitted an anonymous response to a newspaper article that said women should be in the kitchen, it was so well written that the editor put out a call to discover who it was.
“She became an investigative journalist, going undercover into a mental institution, putting her life on the line to make a difference for others. She had such chutzpah.”
As for Dora’s other principal role as The Acrobat, “Funnily enough, Juliet almost called her ‘The Contortionist’, but she didn’t think she would find one, but there I was all along, doing partner-acrobatic work and some contortion work in Japan, and performing contortion acts at the Durham Juggling Festival and Play Festival in North Wales!” she says .
Looking ahead, after undertaking research work with her mother at Dance City, Newcastle, and working with mentor and dramaturg Sarah Puncheon, Dora is creating her first acrobatics-based piece, Hold Your Own, built around family relationships. “Hopefully we’ll start doing it next year and tour it later in 2022,” she says.
Around The World In 80 Days races around York Theatre Royal from August 25 to 28; performances at 2pm and 7pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Suitable for age seven upwards.