Common Wealth Theatre - pushing the boundaries of what theatre is and who it is for

So far in this lockdown series I’ve avoided the kind of pronouncements I’m about to make, partly to sidestep hyperbole, and partly because I don’t want to be seen choosing favourites.

Peaceophobia, scheduled for next year. (Picture:Karol Wyszynski).
Peaceophobia, scheduled for next year. (Picture:Karol Wyszynski).

Having said that, I am happy to pin my colours to the mast and say I don’t think there’s a theatre company in Yorkshire, possibly the country, making work quite like Common Wealth.

While other companies make site-specific work and look to unearth untold stories, Common Wealth seriously walks the walk.

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“Our work is political and experimental, the content is as important as the form, so it’s about making work about the here and now and about things that need to change and then elevating that artistically by working with contemporary visual artists and composers to find the emotional connection to what we make,” says Evie Manning, one of the company’s founders.

Rehearsals for No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, Common Wealth’s 2014 production about young Muslim women boxers. (Picture: Christopher Nunn).

“We usually don’t work with actors: we co-create work with people who have lived experience. A lot of theatres talk about working with ‘the community’ as if the community is one thing. With each play we make, we ask the question ‘who is the best person to tell this story?’ and it’s usually not actors, so we will find and meet people who have very direct connections to what it is we’re exploring. That could mean working with steelworkers, ex-soldiers or Muslim female boxers.”

It is a thrilling idea and it means whenever you see a piece of work made by Common Wealth, there is always a frisson of excitement and even danger. The work is always fully committed, if not overly polished. I remember first coming across the company as they were starting to make No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, a piece of theatre about young Muslim women boxers stage in 2014 and one that remains a highlight of my 20 years of theatre reviewing.

Bradford-based Manning co-founded Common Wealth with Rhiannon White, based in Cardiff, in part as a reaction against the status quo.

“I co-founded Common Wealth with Rhiannon in 2008 because we were sick of theatre feeling like it belonged to the middle classes and like it was stuck in hierarchies, talking about middle class concerns, we wanted to make change and we feel theatre is a space you can do that,” she says.

One question I always ask of the theatres and companies for these profiles is ‘what defines you?’.

Manning has a fascinating answer. “I think what defines us is our name, Common Wealth – common as in poor and having things in common and the wealth that that experience brings. We make site-specific theatre that happens outside of theatres, places that non-theatre going audiences might go to, a boxing gym, a residential house, a social club. We love spaces and what they hold, the ghosts and the layers within every space that compliment the work.”

That notion has been manifest in work like No Guts, which I saw where it began at Huggy’s Boxing Gym on Manchester Road in Bradford.

“That went on to tour the world from Australia to Finland and was filmed for BBC4,” says Manning.

“Our Glass House was monumental to us, a site-specific immersive play staged in a residential house that explored domestic abuse and toured around the UK and was seen by residents, midwives and social services. The Scottish Chief of Police came to that show and then changed how community policing approached domestic abuse which was like a dream for us.”

The company has been working on what Manning believes is shaping up to be another significant show. Peaceophobia, due to be staged in April next year, will take place in a car park and explores an aspect of the city which Bradfordians know well: souped up cars.

Manning says: “We’ve held socially distanced rehearsals over the last few months and created the script and it feels so special and important already. It’s a play staged in a car park co-created by drivers from the Bradford Modified Club and Speakers Corner and explores Islamophobia, Islam and car culture and is co-written by amazing poet and writer Zia Ahmed.

“Common Wealth feels important in Bradford because it feels like the spirit of how we work is like the spirit of the city – Bradford hasn’t had much investment and it’s defined itself by people working together, building things at a grassroots level and doing things differently – people investing in the city rather than big businesses or outside interests – which feels very much in tune with how Common Wealth work, that spirit of independence and people and politics.

"It feels like Common Wealth is important within a national and international picture because we’re challenging some of the age-old narratives about who makes theatre, who gets to be an artist and whose story and experiences are valued – challenging some of the power dynamics that are intrinsic in how lots of theatre is made around the world and the UK.”

You see why they say that Common Wealth is definitely, defiantly, doing something different.

Manning is clearly going to keep going. “The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the inequalities that exist at every level of our society, including in theatre, and has shown us what really matters. I hope there will be some big rethinking done, when we come out of this, about who and what theatre is for.”

Moving forward

Common Wealth has moved into a new building in Bradford, a former youth employment centre. Evie Manning says: “We’re working towards making it a creative, political, social space and will launch an exhibition next year called ‘There is An Alternative’ which will explore alternative ways

of thinking and organising to make change.”

To find out more about the work of Common Wealth theatre company you can follow them on Twitter

@Common_WealthHQ and for more details visit their website www.commonwealththeatre.co.uk

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