'Anyone can be a politician' says theatre director turned Yorkshire Party candidate
The 33-year-old theatre director is in the final weeks of rehearsals before her musical, Say Yes To Tess, hits the stage at the Leeds Playhouse.
The show recounts the weird and wonderful string of events when the Ilkley-raised dramatist and lifelong Labour supporter moved back to Yorkshire from London shortly after the EU referendum, and in 2017 stood as a Yorkshire Party candidate in Leeds North East.
A temporary change in careers she never expected to make, Tess has written the show to convey a simple message – anyone can stand in an election if they wish.
"I have always struggled with my Yorkshire identity," she says. "I have never really had a Yorkshire accent."
Tess' move to stand as a candidate in the 2017 general election came as a shock to everyone, including herself.
She had begun researching the Yorkshire Party with the idea of writing a musical about a group of eccentrics' battle for Yorkshire to have its own Parliament, at a time when it would have, she said, "been the last thing on anyone's agenda".
"I decided to go undercover to the party conference," she confesses, with a glint in her eye.
"I went along and it was mental; there was a heated discussion on whether Kes was the right depiction of Yorkshire; there was someone who had been fighting the boundary changes who was about 100 years old."
But in an odd twist, Tess found the more she researched the Party, the more she found herself aligned with its politics.
Being neither pro- nor anti-Brexit, the Yorkshire Party's main agenda is devolution of power to the region so that decisions over matters including education, environment and transport, can be made locally.
In short, anyone can stand to be a candidate.
After Party members encouraged her stand, Tess was told, "you can say what you like while canvassing - as long as it's not racist or anti-Yorkshire".
Standout moments during Tess' campaign included, she said, a seven-foot man dressed head to toe in combat gear who answered the door and claimed that "Oliver Cromwell was the best politician we ever had", and one Labour supporter who seemingly threatened her at a hustings event.
She said: "This guy came up to me at the event I was speaking at. He said, 'you'd better not be taking any votes off Fabian (Hamilton, the Leeds North East Labour candidate)'.
"I told him, 'you can't take votes off people – people choose how they vote'. He replied saying, 'that better be the case because I know where you live'.
"I was so taken aback, I didn't really know what to say. I think I just smiled and laughed in the way women do when they're made to feel uncomfortable."
Despite this, Mr Hamilton secured an easy win, holding his seat. Tess meanwhile got 303 votes.
The bizarre run-in with the Labour supporter also, naturally, features as a scene in the musical.
But what struck her most, Tess says, is the political apathy expressed by residents on the doors while she was canvassing.
"I started growing in confidence and knocking on doors asking people if they felt represented in Westminster and not one of them said 'yes'," she continued.
"I was so shocked at the number of people not voting .
"There was one woman living opposite me who hadn’t voted for 20 years and she was a nurse in the NHS."
Political apathy is about more than just members of the public who don't vote, Tess claims. While knocking doors, she noted a disbelief among constituents that, in her words, "anyone can stand in an election".
"I bumped into two lads who tried to photobomb me while I was out canvassing, so I gave them a flyer and they couldn’t get over the idea that I was standing for election."
She added: "I think our voting system really has a knock-on effect to the way we live.
"We live in a society that has so many nuances, yet the first past the post system breeds division with the idea you can be aligned to one side or the other. I thought, 'why not try to change it?'
"The system we have is so outdated and patriarchal. Did you know, for example, that the table in the House of Commons has been measured wide enough so that two swords can’t meet across it if opposing leaders clash?
"I think they should just shut Westminster down and build one that’s round and big enough for all different people."
Different people is a concept championed in the musical, in line with what its director says is the ethos of the Yorkshire Party.
"I really want the system to change," she says.
"The thing that struck me about the Party was they wanted to change the system.
"There was such a mix of young and old in the candidates. Our youngest candidate was just 19 and used to stand in the market in Pontefract with his Nan. He reminded me of Justin Bieber.
"That just shows how the party encouraged people to take part and have a go."
"I think that's why the musical is called Say Yes To Tess," she continues. "Because it was about me finding my confidence. Everyone has the right to stand in an election.
"I’ve made it specifically for people who think politics isn’t for them. In the show, I’ve got my housemate who was completely anti-politics and thought everything is 'still rubbish either way you vote', but as I stood she got more and more interested.
"My own brother who had never voted in his life voted for the first time, although that was just so he could vote against me to annoy me.
"What I hope will be achieved from this musical is people leaving feeling inspired.
"It’s a homage to people who just get involved and I would love for people to leave the theatre and think, ‘yeah, maybe I could do that’."
Say Yes To Tess opens at Leeds Playhouse on March 26, continuing until April 4. The show will tour at further venues, including York Theatre Royal, Hull Truck Theatre and Cast at Doncaster.
For more information and details on how to get tickets, visit leedsplayhouse.org.uk.