Fringe theatre steps into limelight to show region’s strength

Naomi Rothwell and Beth Caudle in The Dreams of Philomena
Naomi Rothwell and Beth Caudle in The Dreams of Philomena
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The Yorkshire Post recently met the producers behind the boom in Fringe Theatre. Arts Correspondent Nick Ahad talks to the makers.

In 1998 Dick Bonham faced a choice.

Along with seemingly all his university friends, he could leave Leeds and head to London, where you simply “had to be” if you wanted to work in theatre.

Or stay in Yorkshire and try to make something happen here.

“I kept seeing people leave, there was this constant drain of talented people out of Yorkshire, to London,”says Bonham.

“I didn’t want to leave. I like Yorkshire, I’m from here, I could see there were talented people staying and intelligent audiences, so why not stay and try to make work here?

“It also occurred to me that when people kept saying that you had to live in London, well, most people in the UK don’t live in London, so how could that be the case?

“It was about making the decision to stay here and then making the decision to try and make things happen.”

Bonham found himself with a job organising the programme at Leeds Carriageworks theatre and realised he had an opportunity to make a real difference to the talent drain from Yorkshire to the south.

He had a space and a venue where he could help make work happen.

In 2009 he launched Emerge, an artist development programme that began with a week-long festival of new work. Having secured Arts Council funding for the scheme, Emerge enters its fourth year in 2012.

He might have had less than a shoestring for a budget, but he knew there was an energy in Yorkshire and that if he made the space available, the talent in the region could – and would – make use of it.

In January the Yorkshire Post spoke to the producers, the people who run the companies that are behind the boom of Fringe theatre in West Yorkshire, which appears to be going through one of the strongest phases it has ever experienced.

The people who make that work say the recipe is simple: spaces, opportunity, peer support, venue backing and mentoring.

Lawrence Speck is a former drama teacher who is now creating theatre work for children full-time. Originally from London, he faced the question of where to work – and chose Leeds because of the opportunities he saw in West Yorkshire for new theatre work.

Speck was one of four emerging theatre makers we spoke to who have come to the Yorkshire theatre scene through Emerge.

Speck, Ben Tagoe, a writer who has worked on small- scale theatre and recently began working with the BBC, Ellie Harrison, a performer whose work straddles the worlds of theatre and live art, Naomi Rothwell, who creates work for young audiences, and Bonham were the theatre makers we brought together.

All of them tried out work at the Emerge Festival in 2010, where they presented theatre pieces in embryonic form.

Being allowed to try things out, see what works – and being allowed to fail – they say is vital in them becoming the successful creative forces they have, or are beginning to, become.

Naomi Rothwell developed her show Dreams of Philomena, in Spain, before returning to the UK.

She says: “When I came back lots of people were saying that I should go to Bristol, that the scene was really taking off there and it was the best place to be to get things happening. But I heard about Emerge and brought the piece here and it’s turned out to be the best place to be creating new work.

“The thing that makes it so great is the level of support. It goes from being able to ring someone like Dick up and say ‘can we have a meeting?’ or being able to show your work to other theatre makers and get their feedback.

“I had a residency at the Carriageworks, which meant I could develop my piece before it went out.”

Ben Tagoe, now writing for top BBC shows including Casualty and Eastenders, came to Emerge through Red Ladder, the Leeds-based theatre company.

“I’d had a lot of support from Red Ladder and they recommended I do a piece for Emerge in 2010. It was the single biggest step forward in my career, no doubt,” says Tagoe.

“There is a real sense of support from everyone around you with Emerge. It feels like everyone is working together.”

Bonham says: “Some of the best new theatre and performance in Britain is coming out of the north, and Emerge aims to make a big noise about the great work being made in our region.”

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Forthcoming Fringe highlights

Lawrence Speck presents: Once Upon a Time Up The Road: English fairytales retold at The Carriageworks, Leeds, Feb 17, 1.30pm and 4pm. 0113 224 3801.

Naomi Rothwell and Beth Caudle present The Dreams of Philomina at The Lantern Theatre, Sheffield, Feb 18, 12noon, 2.30pm. 0114 225 1776.

Ellie Harrison presents: Etiquette of Grief at Harrogate Theatre, April 27, 7.45pm. 01423 502 116

Awkward Cough presents: Criminy at the Carriageworks Theatre, Feb 23, 7.30pm.