When I contacted Jemma McDonnell about appearing in this lockdown profile series, she responded by reminding me that she and fellow founder member Kylie Perry now live outside of Yorkshire and The Paper Birds consider themselves a national company.
Would it really be fair for me to include them in my series of articles about ‘Yorkshire theatres and companies’, she wanted to know?
It’s that kind of honesty at all costs that has made The Paper Birds a significant company, one of many created in the North over the past two decades that have gone on to have a national impact.
In fact, that integrity is the reason that, even though they have moved out of the region, I absolutely welcome them into the fold of this series. Forged in the North? That’s enough to qualify.
“We formed as a company after studying at Bretton Hall, then moved directly to Leeds and spent years building ourselves slowly up as a business in the city,” says McDonnell.
“After ten years some of us moved to different parts of the UK, but some have remained in Yorkshire. Now the company is 17 years old, we are dotted all over the place, we tour our shows and workshops nationally and internationally, but we will always be proud of our Northern roots and wouldn’t be who we are if it wasn’t for the theatres, art centres, schools and universities who supported our growth over that first decade.”
The pride is mutual. By forging an individual path, The Paper Birds inspire those who follow as well as audiences who experience their shows. While I tend to think of co-artistic directors McDonnell and Kylie Perry (then Walsh) as The Paper Birds, there were a number who set out on that journey all those years ago at Bretton Hall.
The other founder members of the company were Michelle Folliot, Leonie Moreton, Jenny Robinson, Helen Lindley and composer Shane Durrant, who joined McDonnell and Perry on stage in Broke in 2015, a show which garnered five stars in this newspaper.
“We are a devising theatre company. We use a lot of verbatim within our shows; so interviewing people and using, word for word, a range of real stories and experiences.
This use of a range of real people feels key to us creating rich and diverse arguments and opinions around the subjects we are exploring. We want to encourage agency, action and to empower people,” says McDonnell.
It’s much more than words. I remember a theatrically raw, but emotionally intensely powerful show In A Thousand Pieces, staged in 2010, which gave voice to victims of sex trafficking.
McDonnell, Perry and the other members of the company are those rare creatures: they set out on a journey with a theatre company full of ideas about how they wanted to use theatre to change the world – and have stayed unwavering on their path. Their idealism has stayed intact.
“We have made 13 shows to date. Our last show Ask Me Anything was based on the letters we received from teenagers from all over the UK, and explored young people’s mental health.
"We were about half way through the national tour of the show when Covid hit. We are now going to offer it to young people to watch digitally via schools throughout the UK as we think that isolation has really impacted young people over the last year.”
The idealism and determination to make a difference means they pour a huge amount of their resources into their creative learning department, which is particularly large for a relatively small company.
“We love working with young people and as well as running workshops and facilitating youth projects, we also run lots of teaching training and create as many resources and as much support for teachers as we can.”
When the company was established, the aim, says McDonnell, was to ‘make shows about the here and now, about things that felt relevant and important to us, to our friends, families and communities’.
“In a Thousand Pieces won a few awards and felt pivotal to who we were and wanted to be as a company. But since then we have also challenged ourselves to try to remain useful and relevant, so for example Mobile was a piece set in a caravan; it explored the notion of home, belonging and social mobility.
"The show, and the caravan, travelled the length and breadth of the UK, pulling up in school playgrounds, pub car parks and shopping high streets.
"We tried to bring all the magic of the theatre and pack it into this tiny intimate space so that we could offer people a visual, magical experience, but all the while sharing important real stories about aspiration, community and how we should always be allowed to feel proud of who we are and where we have come from,” she says.
As a multiple award-winning, highly regarded, Yorkshire-born company, The Paper Birds should be more celebrated.
There’s a reason they aren’t. “We are a bit shy. Most of the time we shy away from social media and just prefer to speak to people through our work,” says McDonnell.
“I hope when this is over we will cherish the opportunity to be together even more than we did before. I would also like to see theatres recognise that there should be a space for big social and political shows, as much as there is for musicals or classics.
"We are living in crazy times and we need space to come together to discuss that, unpick it, heal, more forward. Theatre should play a massive role in that.”
The Paper birds – productions
2004: In a Month of Stolen Sundays. Based on the lives of those forced to live and work in the Magdalene Asylums.
2007: Forty Feathered Winks. An exploration of sleep that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe.
2008: In a Thousand Pieces. Scotsman Fringe First Award and Fringe Review Award Winner. Shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.
2011: Thirsty. An exploration of the British relationship with alcohol, this was the production that saw the company first
gain national recognition for its work.