Forget booking a seat in the stalls, some of the country’s most interesting theatre is to be found in the back room of pubs, clubs and even the odd allotment. Sarah Freeman reports.
This week in a couple of Cleckheaton pubs the regulars will be joined at the bar by a company of actors. They will be there to stage a show called Chip Shop Chips and as part of the performances the audience will also be served a generous helping of Britain’s national dish, complete with scraps.
A similar thing happened at various West Yorkshire rugby clubs when Red Ladder polled up with a production of Anthony Clavane’s Playing the Joker, inspired by the life and times of commentator Eddie Waring. Then earlier this year Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel was reimagined as Jane Hair Restyled and brought to the cutting room of a Bradford salon.
Even with Arts Council support, running a theatre is a notoriously expensive business and with more organisations competing for the same funding streams than ever before, it may explain why an increasing number of companies are now opting for the nomadic approach.
“Engagement with the arts is low in this part of Yorkshire,” says Vicky Holliday, producer of Creative Scene which works in North Kirklees. “Despite the size of the area there isn’t a traditional art space here, so right from the start that meant we have had to be more imaginative about where we put work on.”
Working with Box of Tricks theatre company, Creative Scene is behind this week’s run of Chip Shop Chips and with all three shows having sold out there is clearly an appetite for plays in a pub.
“Our aim has always been to make art part of everyday life, so actually a pub works really well,” adds Vicky. “Also because we don’t have all the overheads associated with a mainstream theatre it means that we can keep ticket prices affordable. If you don’t have a huge amount of disposable income, the cost of going to the theatre can be off-putting and it certainly makes you less willing to take risks about what you see. However, if you can spend £7 and get dinner thrown in that suddenly makes it an affordable night out.”
With funding up until 2020, Creative Scene is committed to North Kirklees for the next three years and with the pubs it works with keeping the bar takings, the relationship should prove mutually beneficial.
“We have a room for hire and it’s good for us to put on different events,” says Steve Hemingway, owner and chief brewer at the Brewery Tap, which will host the final performance of Chip Shop Chips. “We already have open mic nights, so when we were approached by Creative Scene about staging some theatre I couldn’t think of a reason why not. “We did our first play last year and Chip Shop Chips has already sold out, so together we are obviously doing something right. Theatre does bring in some new faces and hopefully once they have seen what we do here, then it will encourage them to come back.”
Those looking for a masterclass in staging work in unusual places could do worse than look to Bradford-based Freedom Studios. Established in 2007, over the last 11 years its actors have performed in a redundant Marks and Spencer’s shop, Bradford Interchange and an old mill building. Last summer they unveiled Ice Cream: The Opera in the middle of Bradford’s City Park and in April they will bring their latest show When We Are Brothers to the Underground music venue.
“There’s no two ways about it, looking outside of traditional theatres does make life more difficult, but the rewards are much greater,” says Freedom Studios’ co-artistic director Alex Chisholm. “If you are putting on a play set in a bus station, why not stage it one? For me, it really heightens that sense of place and I love the fact that it is unexpected.
“Something like Ice Cream: The Opera is a great example. It was an outdoor production and it meant people could just stumble across it. A medium like opera can feel niche and there is a tendency for people to think ‘that’s not something for me’. But if you perform it with a couple of ice cream vans in the middle of a city centre then without dumbing anything down it becomes instantly accessible.
“I hope our work and the places we put it on also demonstrates a ‘can do attitude’ because I think that is important for the next generation of directors, playwrights and actors to see. Yes, we need theatres to support new writing and emerging artists, but there are other ways of telling stories.”
For Marsden-based Mikron Theatre, one of the veterans of staging work in unusual spaces, the rise in the number of performances taking place outside traditional auditoriums is proof of what they already knew. The company began in 1963 when jobbing actor Mike Lucas embarked on a mission to take theatre to places which were deemed too ‘out of the way’ for regular touring companies and has been ploughing its own furrow ever since.
“In those early days it was really unusual to see plays outside of traditional theatres,” says artistic director Marianne McNamara. “It was our unique selling point, but the fact that now there are many more companies staging work in unusual places, has to be a good thing. It means more people are getting to see theatre.”
McNamara joined Mikron 14 years ago as one of that season’s cast of actors and having since overseen shows in youth hostels, WI headquarters and lifeboat sheds, admits that it’s a format which is challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
“Last year we took a play called Into the Deep to a series of RNLI lifeboat stations and that was really magical. Research for the show had been done at Lytham St Anne’s and I think the lads who man the lifeboat there really didn’t know what to make us. “We were nervous too. Our work often tells the story of a particular chapter of British history and we wanted to do the RNLI justice. They turned up to one of the performances and seeing how moved they were was just lovely.
“Would they have gone to the same production had it been in a theatre in town? Maybe, but I suspect most of them would have given it a miss. Staging work in familiar surroundings means you can attract a very local audience and the trick then is giving them something they don’t expect.”
This year, Mikron, who just to make life even more difficult tour the country on a narowboat, will be unveiling two new productions - Revolting Women, inspired by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and Get Well Soon, a tribute to and a celebration of the NHS at 70.
“With these kind of performances, you do have a much closer relationship with the audience. From the moment we arrive, the company is there selling tickets, giving directions to the toilets, showing people to their seats.
“The other year, I was watching one of our allotment shows with an actor who we’d worked with before. At one point he turned to me and said, ‘It’s funny, but all the things that irritated me when I was on stage, are actually what make the performance’. He was right, it is much more of shared experience.”