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culture: New beginning is dawning for theatre artist; A character called Dawn could represent the dawning of a glittering career, as David Whetstone explains.

Byline: David Whetstone

DAWN first made her appearance when Abigail Moffatt was a student at Bretton Hall, the celebrated West Yorkshire arts and drama college.

Funny, eccentric and more than a little over the top, she resurfaced last year at a showcase for new talent at Northern Stage, Newcastle, and will do so again tonight in a special performance in Hexham of Abigail's show Has Stanley Been In Tonight?

This is part of the process leading up to a fullyfledged performance at Northern Stage in May which could see Abigail properly launched on a career in the theatre.

But leaving Dawn aside for now, what about Abigail?

Now aged 23, she says she was born and brought up in Corbridge and first became interested in acting when she was at school and performing in a junior youth theatre group.

"I took to it like a duck to water and really loved it," she recalls.

From middle school she moved to Queen Elizabeth High in Hexham where she threw herself into the "fabulous drama productions" which were regularly staged.

Then came a truly life-changing experience. Abigail was accepted on to an American project called Bayfest (British American Youth Festival Theatre) which brings together young British and American actors under the leadership of highly-qualified theatre professionals.

"It is run by a man called Robert Shampain and it takes place in different places each year. I was accepted on to the programme when I was 15 and went to Seattle for five weeks.

"It was genuinely life-changing. We had professional directors and voice coaches and we did six performances of a play called The Rake's Progress, four in Seattle and then another couple of performances in Idaho. We performed on a beach and on a pier as well as in a theatre and it was amazing.

"It made me sure about what I wanted to do when I left school."

The following year Abigail was accepted into the National Youth Theatre, travelling to London for an intensive three-week training programme which resulted in a show performed alongside some of Britain's brightest young talent.

After sitting A-levels in drama, history and psychology, she got an unconditional offer of a place at Bretton Hall, joining the acting course.

"While I was in the second year I was in a third-year student's exam piece and created this character called Dawn. It sounds cheesy but she came to me almost like magic. She was somebody I just connected with and was able to create quite easily.

"When I was in my third year we had an exam called Platform where we had to do a 20-minute performance and I took this character and developed her further."

Abigail graduated from Bretton Hall in July last year with first-class honours, just before the place - housed in a mansion near Wakefield - was closed down and its courses taken over by Leeds University (although not acting, meaning Abigail was one of the final graduates from the course).

She returned gladly from West Yorkshire to the North-East, explaining: "I think the arts scene is really good here at the moment."

But unlike earlier graduates who could apply for lowly acting roles in regional repertory companies, Abigail and her generation have to make their own luck.

So when she saw the First in Three programme advertised by Northern Stage, she jumped at it.

Abigail, as Dawn, was accepted on to the programme in September and performed in front of the public and theatre professionals. It was seen by Northern Stage director Annie Rigby who offered Abigail the chance to develop the character further into a full-blown theatre piece.

"I was thrilled at the chance of doing that," says Abigail. "It is now a work in progress which is why I am doing the performance at the Queen's Hall in Hexham.

I'll be gauging the audience reaction and getting as much feedback as I can."

Abigail can't say exactly where Dawn came from.

"Family and friends have said that one of the reasons they find her so amusing is that they see a lot of me in the character.

"But when you are devising work in the theatre, if you are lucky enough, you sometimes strike something which is a bit unexplainable but is like magic. I guess subconsciously there is a lot of myself in her but in a very exaggerated way.

"For example, I'm not a vegetarian and I do enjoy a good steak. But in the character of Dawn this becomes exaggerated and quite extreme."

Abigail says she has never tied the character down to a particular age, class or location but she hazards a guess that she could be about 40.

"I wanted it to be fluid and I wanted people to find their own connections to the character," she explains.

The title of the piece, Has Stanley been In Tonight?, comes from a song by American folk singer Tom Paxton.

I say the piece sounds a little surreal. "Surreal is probably a very good word for it," she agrees.

Abigail, who lives with her father and stepmother and is the youngest of five, although they are now all scattered to the four winds, is delighted to have the chance to display her talents on one of the region's biggest stages in what could be an unforgettable performance.

Meanwhile, Jo Cundall, Northern Stage's participation and programming co-ordinator, says she's thrilled that Abigail and Dawn have progressed so far.

"Our First in Three nights are all about giving emerging artists the chance to try stuff out and get vital feedback.

"We are looking forward to celebrating the success of three nights in May."

For details of the First in Three performances and of Has Stanley Been In Tonight? visit www.northernstage.co.uk

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CREATIVE TALENT: Abigail Moffatt will appear as the character Dawn in Hexham tonight.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 29, 2008
Words:977
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