How Bradford's Bent Architect theatre company 'explores issues of the voiceless'
I declare, once again, an interest ahead of this week’s profile piece.
As a mixed race, Bradford-born playwright, you might think my declaration is to do with Bent Architect’s new play about growing up mixed race in Bradford but my vested interest here is to do with the city.
As a proud Bradfordian and someone who really does want to see my home city take the title of UK City of Culture for 2025, my concern is that you’ll start to think I’ve shown Bradford bias in these profile pieces as we return once again to the city.
It’s something of a chicken and egg situation, in truth. Bradford has had a bubbling-under-the-surface arts and cultural scene for many years – I should know, I’ve been part of it for two decades. It’s one of the reasons there’s such confidence in the city around the 2025 bid. Is the recent increased arts activity in the city a result of the bid, or has the bid happened because of the increased activity?
Either way, Bent Architect is a part of the story.
Established in 2006 by Mick Martin and Jude Wright, the company is ‘interested in exploring issues of the voiceless, those who society feels uncomfortable with’.
Jude Wright says: “There’s always an element of surprise with our work. People are never quite sure what to expect other than that hopefully they will have a great night out which will stay with them and resonate in unexpected ways.”
One of the things that most impresses about Bent Architect is that it is still here, approaching its 15th anniversary. That’s not to be patronising; it’s impressive for any company to reach a decade and a half, but for a company as label-defying as Bent Architect, it’s doubly so.
“We do this purely because we are artists. The whole point of the company is to give us the creative freedom and autonomy to explore and make the work we want to on our own terms,” says Wright.
“There’s no administrator, artistic director, CEO, NPO or any of that; just two people who want to make the best work in the best way at the right time. Every piece is a risk, is different. We don’t fall back on ‘house style’ and we’re never formulaic.”
Given this resistance to traditional ways of making theatre, it is impressive, then, to list just some of the projects Bent Architect has created over the years, including Women of Aktion, This Space is Occupied, The Northern School and England, Arise and that the company has worked over the years with Manchester’s Contact Theatre, the Brick Box Collective and Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre.
“What defines us is a willingness to play and take risks and step outside of what we know how to do,” says Wright.
“We like every production we create to feel unique, whether that’s taking over a disused pub and turning it into a 1970s arts commune, or telling a real-life story about growing up mixed race on the Canterbury estate in Bradford. It’s always new writing.”
Recently the company has focussed more on its home city of Bradford – another example of the city’s burgeoning cultural confidence.
“Our work has explored the city’s rich and often untold stories. There’s something for us in the specificity which makes for greater universality. We love finding tidbits of Northern history and, through lots of research and plenty of imagination, creating a looking glass which can both shine a light on our shared past while talking to us about who we are today and how we got here.
“Our piece England, Arise! explored the story of conscientious objectors to World War One from Huddersfield, real stories of men who refused to
kill other working men and the early suffragettes who supported them.
“The piece also asked questions about today, about how far we are willing to go to stand up for what we truly believe in and what sacrifices we are prepared to make for our convictions.”
The themes of exploring Bradford’s ‘untold’ story continues with its latest production, Full English.
Written by actor Natalie Davis, it is set to be staged this summer.
“We’ve been working with Natalie, who hails from Bradford, for a number of years now. We are collaborating with her on this show to tell her very personal story about understanding her mixed-race heritage,” says Wright.
“It will celebrate the enormous strength, courage, humour and verve of women from her nan’s generation who had children with Pakistani men when that was taboo, while exploring what the legacy is for Natalie and her own daughter today.”
As I have done for the past year, I ask what Wright thinks theatre will look like once all of this is over.
“There needs to be a greater emphasis on those who make and deliver the work. Of course there’s a case to be made for buildings, but the monolithic approach doesn’t feel right any more. In a society this fractured, theatre needs to connect with people to be relevant and that means stepping outside of comfort zones.
“We’ve taken the challenges posed by Covid as exactly that: a challenge, but also a chance to rethink how we work and step out of our comfort zone. We’re creating a new digital piece for Full English, which will blow open the whole idea of access.
“I guess we hope everyone grabs this opportunity to push their own boundaries and take more risks, while holding on to the idea that the shared experience is what makes theatre work.”