The Together festival - a season of new work by local artists in Sheffield

I had forgotten how difficult it is to choose just one production on which to focus in these pages from the extraordinary plethora we have available to us in Yorkshire in any given week.

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. (James Hardisty).

As we ease our way back to the theatre, buildings around the region are throwing open their doors with barely contained glee. How to choose which production to write about?

Together, a season of new work at Sheffield Theatres feels right. There’s something about the title of the season that appeals to the heart: being together is what we’ve missed this past year.

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We’ve been able to watch all manner of wonderful productions on our individual screens, but being in the same space as other people, breathing the same air as the performers in front of us? That’s the magic.

The Together season does another thing: it throws a lifeline to theatre artists in the region, some of whom are still in the early stages of their careers.

The battering the theatre industry has received over the last year-and-a-bit has hit those artists perhaps harder than anyone, so bravo to Sheffield Theatres for this season that will provide a boost for all kinds of reasons.

The season, which runs from May 24 to June 5, is led by associate artistic director Anthony Lau.

He says: “In showcasing some of the most exciting artists in Sheffield, we wanted to bring all of us back together.

“The Festival is about putting local talent on our stages, front and centre, but it is also about bringing audiences back into our auditorium. It is about the chatter of finding your seat and the collective hush before a show begins.

"It is about sharing laughter and being told a story together as one. It is about the liveness of theatre and being back together after too long apart.

“This past year has been tough for everyone working in the arts; none more so than for the many freelance artists who contribute so much to the stages, screens and cultural fabric of this city. With projects cancelled, ideas curtailed and little opportunity to perform their work, we’re excited to share this new platform.”

There are 13 artists in total who were selected by a panel led by Lau, after a call-out to theatre makers from around the region.

Bradford’s Kafayat Adegoke is bringing her one-woman show PER-SO-NA to the festival and says it is a massive step to be walking on to the Crucible stage, where all the Together season performances will take place.

“Following in the footsteps of so many of my stage idols is surreal and absolutely magical. My show is like comfort food, so it feels like the right thing to welcome people back safely to live theatre,” she says.

That is of course a major part of the Together season; a test of the safety measures that have been put in place in all live venues in an age of a pandemic.

“It will be a learning curve and give me a specific idea of Covid and risk assessments in terms of presenting work and hopefully help me embrace new strategies that will enable me to flourish in this ever-changing creative landscape. It goes without saying that it is a huge relief to be back with a live audience.”

Ray Castleton will be presenting his one-man show Without Malice or Ill Will, an award-winning story of a retired police officer invited to deliver a talk about his career, crime prevention and road safety.

Castleton says: “I’m excited to be part of the Together Festival as, in a sense, it signals what I hope is the beginning of the end of a terrible year for theatre and the arts.

“My play is a local story about a South Yorkshire man, his career, his family and the choices he made during a year that changed his life and his community forever. It tells of a slice of our local history in our language and in our dialect. So, I’m looking forward to performing it on the Crucible stage, to a live Sheffield audience as it’s the perfect setting.”

The two week festival is nothing if not varied. Closing the festival is Sheffield’s former poet laureate Otis Mensah with Existed Once, while the work in between takes in dance and physical theatre, new writing, spoken word, singing, drama, circus and puppets.

The overwhelming feeling when you talk to those artists who are taking part in the season is one of relief to simply be back, sharing stories with an audience.

I’ve been a little surprised at just how much I’ve missed that experience. As a theatre critic for almost 20 years, there was a sense of a welcome break in the first months of lockdown. I’m now itching to get back.

One of the shows coming to Sheffield I’ve seen in a previous iteration, as a play for Leeds company Slung Low.

John Hunter and Nadia Emam’s Monsterproof is an Orson Wellesian Godzilla-inspired B movie of a show.

Hunter says: “It feels great to be a part of a group of theatre-makers who are raring to go the moment performing to live audiences was possible again. While the pandemic closed the curtains on conventional theatre for a year, it’s exciting and a happy relief to know it didn’t stop people from collaborating and creating.

“Seeing your work in front of an audience anywhere is always a treat. However, there’s definite pride and excitement in performing it on your local theatre’s main stage, where you first experienced some of your favourite plays, or where you feel you’ve really grown as an artist.”

Together Festival, May 24-June 5. sheffieldtheatres.co.uk