Theatre makes a splash as Emma finally conquers her fears

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Theatre artists are exploring unusual spaces for their work. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to a playwright going in at the deep end.

Growing up, Emma Adams had a nemesis in the shape of a five-metre high swimming pool diving board.

The Shipley high diving board caused the playwright feelings of terror that, as an adult, she was still desperate to conquer.

“I was 32 and I decided that I had to jump off it. I went to the pool, climbed up to the board – and I couldn’t do it. I had to climb down the ladder and there were loads of school children, all laughing. Just like when I was a child,” says Adams.

Fortunately for her, as a writer, it was all material and she found the perfect place to share it when in 2011 she was commissioned to write a piece for the Keats House Festival, which celebrates the poet.

Inspired by what she found in Keats’s poetry – “the idea that you must experience life to engage with real emotions” – she decided to revisit her childhood nemesis.

“I had been commissioned to write something inspired by Keats and my response was that I would face my fear of the diving board, engage with the fear, and write something in response.”

She eventually conquered the diving board – or at least, climbed up the ladder and jumped off it, and Adams’ triumph was related in a flip book and story presented at the Keats House Festival. It turned out not to be the end of the story.

“The interesting thing was that whenever I told someone the story about how I finally was able to jump off the diving board, everyone wanted to share their stories about it. Everyone wanted to tell me about the relationship and memories they had of going to those baths and jumping – or not – from the high board,” she says.

Adams realised that the Shipley swimming pool, a municipal facility, held a special place for many. For her it was a nemesis, but she soon realised that the building held an emotional attachment for many others.

When Adams realised how many people had a story about the pool and about the board, she approached two Yorkshire theatre companies who specialise in creating work in unusual places, Chol based in Huddersfield and Slung Low based in Leeds.

Chol commissioned Adams’ idea and Slung Low are helping to realise Northern Big Board.

For the show, Adams will return to Shipley Swimming Pool, the scene of her high board triumph, throughout October and will collaborate with theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin to create a huge, immersive piece of work that will happen on a single day in November.

“We are going to have a huge gala day that will have lots of performance elements, but it will also have people involved from the community. For me the piece is absolutely about the story of the emotional connection people have to the place, but actually that’s a bit of a Trojan Horse for me to talk about how important these places are,” says Adams.

“Places like the Shipley Pool are our municipal secular cathedrals were everyone goes and is together as a community, regardless of things like race or age or gender. Like the arts in this country, which I absolutely argue the case should be subsidised, we need to recognise how important these places are. I wanted to write something that would celebrate the stories of the people who have these emotional connections to the place, but I wanted to celebrate the place itself too.”

From October 12, Adams will become the pool’s artist in residence and will be at the venue every Friday until November 9, in preparation for the gala day and performance on November 18 at the pool.

“I’m going to be talking to people, hearing their stories and working with Hannah Nicklin to turn all of that into the performance,” says Adams.

“I think that by being in the place and again engaging with people, you can do away with the divide. Sometimes people think of the ‘artist’ as someone who kind of stands apart, but by actually being there and engaging with people and people seeing that although I’m writing this piece, I’m there to talk to them and listen to their stories, then I think that the you can get rid of the stupid divide that sometimes exists for the ‘artist’.”

Not only will people share their stories with Adams, every Friday from October 12, but from 6pm to 7.30pm on those days, a diving coach will be on hand to help talk people through diving off the big board. It will all culminate in the performance and gala day of Northern Big Board on November 18. So if the five-metre high board was your nemesis, as it appears to have been for so many, you could finally conquer it.