Quirky venue that provides space for new work

Iain Bloomfield
Iain Bloomfield
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It is one of the smaller theatre venues in the Yorkshire but punches way above its weight. Nick Ahad on Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill.

There has been an argument against the cutting of funding to the arts that goes something like this: if you don’t fund the smaller theatre shows and companies, the base of the pyramid, then the big shows – War Horse, Lion King and the like, the top of the pyramid – won’t exist.

If you don’t give theatre artists the opportunity to try things, to experiment, learn their craft, then they will never get to the level where they are able to create the next The History Boys or One Man Two Guvnors . Theatre remains one of our truly great exports, it should be valued and protected. A microcosm of this world view exists right here in Yorkshire.

Bradford University’s campus is home to one of the most experimental theatre spaces in the region. At Theatre in the Mill, artistic director Iain Bloomfield provides a space where artists can follow the old advice – it is a place where they can fail, fail again, fail better.

Bloomfield has been the man in charge for a decade and as a leader for the arts in Yorkshire, he is seriously important.

He was the one who gave Slung Low a space in which to create their work, way before they were the internationally touring, National Theatre visiting Slung Low. Over the past 10 years he has given an opportunity to scores of artists who have passed through the doors of his quirky venue.

“When I arrived, Theatre in the Mill had a good reputation for staging new writing and providing a good platform for that sort of work,” says Bloomfield.

“But there was a real issue. We are way, out of the way, on a campus of a university that doesn’t always engage with the city. If we just staged the small scale touring work that is already out there, we just wouldn’t stand a chance. We had to stage work that no-one else had.”

Rome was not built in a day, but the fact that the venue is small and adaptable meant Bloomfield and his team could be light on their feet.

The artistic vision started to slot into place quickly and the theatre was soon staging some of the most bold and challenging work audiences can see in the region. Two weeks ago, the theatre was host to an idea originated by the Paper Birds theatre company. Blind involved a woman beatboxer, Grace Savage, performing rap about the misogyny she faces as a woman performing in that world. It was also a show about being visually impaired.

The work you see at Theatre in the Mill is never a passive, easy night out at the theatre.

Shortly before Christmas The Wake by Jane Packman company involved the audience sitting at small tables in a cabaret style set up, writing on sheets of paper the things that happened in 2013, before being involved in a performance that bade farewell to the year.

The coming season will see a typically eclectic collection of work, from theatre at a very early stage of development, performance artists working alongside multi-instrumentalists, and a one-woman show.

“What are we? I think that Theatre in the Mill is a radical development space that puts audiences at the heart of the work,” says Bloomfield.

“We don’t just tell artists to go off and play. We always work with artists and remind them that when they are making work, they always should be thinking about the audience being at the centre of the piece – but our audiences also know that they will see work here that is at different stages of its development.” This idea of putting the audience at the centre is vital to Bloomfield. He is aware that some of the work he chooses to stage at his theatre might be a little challenging. That doesn’t mean audiences should be scared.

He also thinks that the coming season is “as close to perfect as we’ve got”. And that’s not just because of Caramel, a “cross between a dance-making session and the process of cooking caramel, stimulating all five senses”.

Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low knows the worth of Bloomfield’s theatre. “Iain was the first person to really have any faith in Slung Low. Before anyone else, even before us, Iain was seeing the potential in a very young, inexperienced group of people,” says Lane. “I think his real talent is knowing exactly how much support to give at what point – so the Mill is never holding you up but you never feel like you are on your own. What has been brilliant in the last few years is to see a wider part of the theatre ecology recognise the quietly clever and bold way Iain has led the Mill over the years, and the huge impact that has had on the theatre scene. Slung Low could not have done any of the things it has in recent years without the Mill, it’s as simple as that.”

Highlights of the coming season

Caramel by Instant Dissidence: It almost defies description. Feb 22.

Prelude to a Number by Geddes Loom: A group of performing artists featuring poet and beatboxer Ben Mellor, singer, writer and cellist Léonie Higgins, and multi-instrumentalist, Dan Steele. Feb 7, 8.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig by Daniel Bye: A playful, provocative show about protest. Feb 28 to March 1.

The theatre is running a Love Theatre in February scheme – buy a ticket for a show in Feburary and get another half price. Full details of all shows www.brad.ac.uk/theatre tickets 01274 233200.