Theatre at its best can change lives and York-based company Flying Cloud, whose latest production The Book is touring the region, are aiming to do just that.
“We want to empower people through creativity,” says Leandra Ashton, the company’s founder and artistic director. “That may be through our outreach work with community groups or through our communication training with businesses. It’s all about people finding their authentic voice to express themselves.” Their work with the corporate training department at York University has been particularly successful and has, indirectly, enabled them to fund the tour of The Book. “We have been funded by the Arts Council to tour this production but I think the reason we attracted the support was because of everything we had done on our own,” she says. “To be an artist in our time you have to be quite proactive – there isn’t the money around that there once was.”
Ashton, an actor who has worked all over the UK and in Europe and America, set up Flying Cloud in 2010 after deciding to come back to Yorkshire where she grew up. “What I was always struggling with as a jobbing actor was that you act and then it’s over. I thought ‘theatre has so much more potential than that’,” she says. “We are trying to redefine what it can be. For me it has been about bringing people together, challenging myself and my creativity and helping other people to get in touch with theirs.”
It is a theme that comes through strongly in the play, she says, and seemed appropriate for the company as it embarks on the next phase of its development. “We did our first play in 2012 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in the past three years we have really grown. There are three of us now – myself and directors Jennifer Kidd and Marta Isabella Rizi – and it felt right because it is the first play we have all done together.”
The three of them have also co-written The Book which considers human complexity, division and identity – and how we create stories for ourselves. When they were looking into the history of books, they found that they were often connected to division. “There is the obvious example of religious books,” she says. “But there are other more subtle books too. There are so many examples around the world of division and people sticking to a very fixed identity.”
Set in three different eras – 2034, 2014 and 1214 – the play charts the journey of a book over a thousand years and how its message changes according to the people who come across it. The writers’ inspiration came initially from the medieval Islamic state of Al-Andalus in Spain. “At various points in its history the prime minister was Jewish,” says Ashton. “In the 1200s there were amazing discoveries in science and maths which came about through collaboration and being curious. And that is at the heart of what Flying Cloud is about.”
The company is named after a 19th century clipper ship that travelled from New York to San Francisco round Cape Horn in record time – the record was held until 1987.
“The navigator was a young woman called Eleanor Creesy,” says Ashton. “She was my inspiration – if she could do that in the 1800s, we can navigate our Flying Cloud to new horizons.”
Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, June 21; Harrogate Theatre, June 24 & 25, SJT, Scarborough June 27 & 28.