Yorkshire director builds theatre in family back garden after global tour cancelled in lockdown

When a director’s global tour was cancelled under lockdown, he built a theatre in his family’s back garden instead.

This is culture in creation, from the world’s stage turns to an improvised one. And, in the great British summer of 2021, it’s striking quite the chord.

What began as a lockdown project has resulted in renewed vigour for a village community in rural North Yorkshire Stillington Mill now has a pop-up cafe on Saturdays, with a season of outdoor live music and theatre shows planned for the summer ahead.

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“The arts as an industry never stands still,” said theatre writer and director Alexander Wright, whose show would have been touring Beijing and New York.

A mill has been recorded in Stillington since the days of the Domesday Book, with the present building dating to around 1750. This historic mill was bought as a family venture in 2014, with significant restoration, housing weddings and with holiday cottages. Pictured Alex Wight, Director/Writer near the old Mill.

Instead Ophelia, which Mr Wright describes as an immersive live music storytelling show centred on the ancient Greek myth, has launched a summer of theatre at Stillington Mill.

“In some ways it feels like a positive for us, an opportunity to create something good,” he said. “This show has taken us around the world, it’s nice to bring it home to our own back garden.”

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There has been a mill in Stillington since the Domesday Book was written in 1086, with the current building dating to around the 1750s.

Tom Figgins, Musicia/Artist, who was on tour with Alew Wright, Director/Writer, whilst out in Australia, infront on their temporary outdoor theatre built on a disused tennis court in the grounds of the property to stage the production of Orpheus. Image James Hardisty

Having closed as a working mill in the 1960s, it was bought by the wider family in 2016 as a joint venture, with retired headteacher parents Maggi and Paul Wright running a holiday cottage and shepherd’s hut, daughter Abbigail Ollive organising weddings and events, and son Alexander on global tour.

He had been in Australia when lockdown hit and, having returned to the family home in Stillington, set about building a theatre in the back garden, launching a Saturday community cafe with his sister Ms Ollive.

“The mill has been a really important part of the community for as long as it’s been around,” she said. “While coffee and cake is great, the real opportunity is Alex.

“His creativity, what he brings to the party, takes it up a notch. It’s just incredible. They’ve built a theatre in the garden.”

Tom Figgins, Musicia/Artist, who was on tour with Alew Wright, Director/Writer, whilst out in Australia, infront on their temporary outdoor theatre built on a disused tennis court in the grounds of the property to stage the production of Orpheus. Image James Hardisty

Changing perceptions

Perceptions have changed, said Ms Ollive. Somehow, summer has never felt so good, when a spot of rain doesn’t matter so long as there’s culture and companionship.

“It’s lovely, to sit in the garden, with the birds overhead and the wild garlic growing all around,” she said. “You can’t replace that feeling, of doing something together and live, and that tingle down the spine, with really talented performers.”

For Mr Wright, whose production of The Great Gatsby was London’s longest running immersive theatre show, the community opportunity has proved a “beautiful symbiosis”.

“At the beginning of 2020, we had an international tour booked for 18 months, we would probably be getting back around now,” he reflected. “That feels strange.

“Often theatre and the arts is seen as the end product, something to be consumed,” he added. “At a point where everybody has been so isolated for so long, it feels a theatre is most important in getting people together.”

Summer of theatreq3

A summer of theatre, events and community gatherings has launched at Stillington Mill, alongside a pop-up Saturday cafe and monthly supper clubs.

The season began with Orpheus last Thursday, while there will be live music on June 5 from Tom Figgins. On June 10 is the launch of Foraged and Forged, featuring local musicians and a guest artist for an evening of poetry and music and ideas. June 12 will see a production of musical comedy Dumped.

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