It’s the weaving shed that hits you like a punch to the gut.
If the smallest part of your soul is connected to Yorkshire you can’t fail to be deeply moved by the vast empty space where hundreds of men and women once stood, weaving the wool on which much of Yorkshire’s fortune was built. Today the workers are long gone, but as you walk between the vast empty spaces and the small warren of corridors that make up Bradford’s Drummond Mills, the building seems to echo with stories that feel like they link all Yorkshire folk.
It is a feeling to which Madani Younis can relate.
The theatre director moved to Yorkshire more than a decade ago to take up the post of artistic director of the Asian Theatre School (ATS). He is now in charge of Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, which is bringing Drummonds Mill on Lumb Lane in the heart of the Manningham district back to life.
Back in 2002, Younis, then running ATS, spent time in Bradford interviewing families for his play Streets of Rage, which dealt with the city’s riots. It was the first time that he felt the physical and emotional presence of the mills in the city.
“I was struck by the mills and the symbols they had become. They fascinated me from the moment I saw them, the way they had shaped the city in terms of their physical presence, but also by the people who came to work in them,” he says.
“The buildings contained stories. What became of those stories? Who did the stories belong to? How did the narrative continue outside the walls of the mills?
“From that moment it was an aspiration to make a show about the mills.”
More than a decade since he was first moved by the mills to want to make a show about them, Younis finds himself finally ready to create a piece of theatre about these giant icons of Yorkshire’s industrial past: “It was the right time for the project and the right time for us as a company,” says Younis.
The Mill – City of Dreams is a promenade production in which an audience of up to 80 people will be led around Drummonds Mill where they will meet a cast of professional actors and members of the community who will re-animate the space and tell the stories of the mill workers. The project is an enormous undertaking – from selecting the international cast who will play the characters to finding a mill which would not pose a health and safety nightmare. It is also set to be a culturally fascinating piece of work. With a script by internationally renowned writer Jonathan Holmes, whose play about Hurricane Katrina ran for a month in a five-storey warehouse on London’s South Bank, The Mill has also seen the RSC’s voice coach Cicely Berry work with the cast.
The £175,000 project has been funded by Imove, Yorkshire’s arts and culture programme for London 2012, the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund, Bradford Council and the PRS for Music Foundation.
While Younis leads a script rehearsal, stage manager Jenny O’Connell leads me around the building, following the route the audience will take.
The mill is a deeply evocative place. The top floor, where fabrics were sorted and where the management had their offices is also where the audience will stop and listen to the tale of Frank the Caretaker, who provides the anchor of the piece and acts as the audience’s guide.
Younis says: “It has been enormous. We’re working with a community cast of 15 and it has taken us 18 months to pull it together. We could have made a piece of work to be presented in theatres, but I felt very strongly that it had to be in the building, it had to be site specific. There is something very particular about being in the mill. You walk around the space and there is an emotional response. You begin to write your own fiction within the walls of the building.”
Younis has discovered how much the mills mean to the people of Bradford, with a local construction company offering to work for free to make the space ready for an audience. While it may sound sentimental, and one suspects that many audiences will have an emotional response to the play (many who have already bought tickets for the three-week run are former mill workers), Younis is also a very political playwright and theatre maker and the politics of the piece are integral to the stories.
At the height of their industry, the mills were staffed by workers from across the world. In order to create the piece, the creatives met many people who came to Britain to work here. They have found themselves listening to the stories of immigrants from Italy, Ukraine, Poland, Ireland and from across South East Asia brought to Bradford by the dream of work and a better life.
Younis says: “It is by no accident that Bradford has the diversity of population that it has. When we understand the mills, we understand how the people of the city came to be here. For us The Mill is the story not just of a building but of how a city was formed and sculpted and the stories that created it.
“David Cameron attacks the idea of multi-culturalism, but here we celebrate what the immigrant workforce has invested in the fabric of this city. The very proposition of Cameron is that immigrant communities live in isolation, but that is to suggest that these communities never played a part in the building of the wealth of this country and its cities. We talk about politics through the idea of lived experience, the politics of human lives.”
Perhaps most of all, says Younis, the thing that affected him when he began to hear the stories of the people whose lives were centred around the mills was how epic those stories were.
He says: “How ignorant I was of the sacrifices those previous generations made. When you hear the epic nature of their journeys it cannot fail to move you.”
Add the visceral nature of the mills themselves and you have a potent mixture for a powerful piece of theatre.
• The Mill – City of Dreams runs from March 29 to April 16 (Tue-Sat only). Tickets: 01274 432000.
• Information: www.themill-cityofdreams.com. For an exclusive video go to www.yorkshirepost.co.uk
MEMORIES OF LIFE AND WORK AT DRUMMONDS MILL
nelly Jowett left the mill in 1948 when she was 21, when she married Tom, an overlooker: “We started work at Drummond’s when we were 14, and we were there until we got married. All our family worked there together, four brothers and three sisters. We’ve got fond memories, it was a happy time.”
Chris Hyland, 63, a member of the community cast, worked in Joseph Dawson’s Mill as an oiler from 1962 to 1964. “It was noisy and there was the smell of oil, grease and wool in the air all the time. My auntie worked in JW Whitehead mills all her life and never had a day off sick. A couple of times a week she used to come home with bobbins to use as firelighters. They were oily and greasy so they did a great job. She wasn’t a ‘bobbin smuggler’ – it’s what everyone did.”
Anne Selk: “My grandfather Sam (Solomon) Selka bought Drummonds Mill in 1931, but died of cancer aged 56 in 1936, leaving the running of the mill to my father and my uncle, who were both very young men at the time. One of his last acts was to dictate a message to his old friends, co-workers and employees. He said: ‘If I have given a few years of my life to getting Drummonds on its feet again, and securing the livelihood of those dependent on it, I am satisfied. If I have done something for Bradford, for the land of my adoption, the land where my home is, and where my children were born, I feel myself amply repaid for my hard work’.”