Campaign of choc and awe

A very different kind of theatre show is set to take over the streets of York. Nick Ahad goes behind the scenes of Blood + Chocolate.

Marc Thompson and Cat Lyth. Picture: John Saunders
Marc Thompson and Cat Lyth. Picture: John Saunders

York is preparing to take a new look at itself.

In marketing speech the phrase “theatrical experience” has been overused to the point of inanity, and yet there is nothing else that really encapsulates what is about to happen in the historic city.

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The story actually begins in early 2011.

Slung Low, a Leeds theatre company, was starting not just to push at theatrical boundaries but was, after several years exploring its craft, smashing through them.

Led by artistic director Alan Lane, Slung Low staged a piece of work as part of the Cultural Olympiad called Mapping the City. Leading a small audience around the streets of Hull, everyone wore headphones and the actors microphones, so even the quietest whisper could be heard. It turned the whole city into an spectacular theatre set.

Marcus Romer, artistic director of York-based theatre company Pilot, was one of those who saw Mapping the City. Blown away by the concept, he started speaking with Slung Low, York Theatre Royal and between the two of them and his own theatre company, a powerful alliance was formed that will be responsible for changing the way the city is seen in October.

“We have a stage a mile wide, over 190 in the cast, around 30 stage managers, a 100-strong choir and a set that features some of the most iconic venues in York,” says Liam Evans-Ford, producer of Blood and Chocolate. “I’ve been working on this for the past 11 months, but now to see it finally actually coming together in the city is an amazing moment.”

As producer he is the man charged with turning the vision of Slung Low, Pilot and York Theatre Royal into reality. As the man who produced the York Mystery Plays, Evans-Ford has been here before. It is little wonder that there is a pause in our interview while he stops for a coffee. The man is possibly in need of caffeine more than anyone else in York right now. How he is marshalling a team as big as the one that is making Blood and Chocolate would be beyond the wit of most men.

“It’s about getting the team right. The team is enormous, but we have some brilliant people at the top and as director Alan has an ability to inspire people and get them to lead him.”

Blood and Chocolate, written by multi-award winning York-based writer Mike Kenny, tells the true story of what happened in 1914, when the Lord Mayor of York sent out a chocolate tin, designed and made at the city’s Rowntree’s factory, to every soldier from York who fought at the front in the First World War.

At the same time, the face of the city itself was changing forever, with women stepping into the roles traditionally held by men – men who were away fighting at the front. Kenny has delved deep into the archives to research the stories of the men and women affected by the First World War in York.

The woman charged with making over 100 costumes for the cast that will fill the streets of York is Anna Gooch.

“In any theatre production there are challenges and problems that need to be overcome. This just presents a unique set of problems,” she says.

Gooch was the woman in charge when the York Mystery Plays, with its own epic cast, was staged in the city last year. She is working alongside an army of volunteers who are sewing and creating costumes for the almost 200 volunteers cast members. “It’s epic – and when you see 180 people in First World War costumes standing together – I think it’s going to look pretty spectacular.”

The community involvement continues to extend outwards. While the volunteer cast are the most obvious of those involved, there are then those behind the scenes working on the production, designing costumes, all pulling together to create this epic work.

Dozens of local people have been recruited to document the whole process, working as photographers.

One of them is Steven Eric Parker, who describes himself as a “semi-professional photographer”. He has been working over the past few months, watching rehearsals, get togethers, behind the scenes meetings, capturing all through his lens.

“It feels like one of those projects that is bringing people from around the city together,” he says.

“All the photographers have been working together – there is a schedule at the beginning of each month with the different events that are happening and that need to be covered, you put your name down for which one you want to do and record it. By the end we’re going to have a massive archive of photographs of the whole project from start to finish.

“At this point we have thousands of images. I think we are all waiting for the first dress rehearsal now. I think everyone wants to be chosen to photograph that. With the city as the backdrop, it is going to look spectacular.”

He can’t wait. And nor can the other legion of volunteers who suddenly have an entirely new relationship with the city in which they live.

Evans-Ford has seen this look on people’s faces previously. It happened when he was in charge of leading the Mystery Plays last year. It is a look that says they know they are involved in something that will change their city for good – and change the way they look at it.

“We are using some of the most iconic venues in one of the North’s most iconic cities, but we will be using them in a way that no one will have seen before and that will completely amaze people,” he says.

“It’s going to be spectacular.”

Blood + Chocolate, 
York, Oct 3 to 20. 01904 623568, www.pilot-theatre.com

In next week’s Saturday Magazine, Alan Lane on a career which has seen him take theatre off the stage and onto the streets.