Bradford has grown tired of being the butt of the joke. It is beginning to feel that the city is gearing up to have the last laugh.
It was announced a couple of weeks ago that Bradford would be throwing its hat into the ring to walk away with the title of City of Culture in 2025.
There are myriad reasons why the city could win. I will list these reasons and more, at length, in the coming months and in these pages (schooled and now living in Bradford, I make no apology for any bias).
This week I want to concentrate on one particular reason the city has the confidence at all to suggest it might be a cultural capital.
That reason is Theatre in the Mill.
One of the most innovative and influential small venues there is in Yorkshire, this is a venue that has been punching above its weight and extending its influence for well over a decade now, under the former artistic director Iain Bloomfield.
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“I remember one afternoon we were making work at Theatre in the Mill, probably about 12 or 15 years ago and at lunchtime there was Al (Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low), Daniel
Bye, whose latest show Arthur has just won yet another Fringe First, Tom Bidwell, who went on to write Watership Down
and My Mad Fat Diary – and us,” says Richard Warburton. At the time Warburton was making work with his own company Invisible Flock, a Leeds-based interactive arts organisation.
Today we’re back at Theatre in the Mill, only Warburton sits in the venue now as the artistic director of the organisation.
“Two years ago last week,” he says, a little incredulous.
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“It’s a bit like having a child in that in some ways you can’t quite believe it’s been two years because it’s flown by, but at the same time I have lived every single day of those two years.”
As the artistic director Warburton leeds a team of four at Theatre in the Mill, a small team that has been absolutely key in making this the special venue it is today.
Ivan Mack, digital arts technician, and Rachel Kaye, arts and marketing co-ordinator, have both been instrumental in creating the building’s ethos over the past decade.
The team is completed by the more recent addition of senior producer Jyothi Giles.
So what is it that makes Theatre in the Mill worthy of this praise? It’s difficult to define.
Based on the University of Bradford campus, you have to make a real effort to seek this place out.
When you do, it’s worth it. The work the venue presents and helps to produce is always challenging and always has something to say about the world.
Warburton says: “The first thing we did when I arrived was put in place our core values which are built around three principle ideas: representation, innovation and inclusion.
“The work we do is centred entirely around the artist. We give the artist what they need to make the piece of work they are trying to create.”
This might sound like the audience isn’t relevant, but it would be a mistake to assume that. The audience is best served by the fact that the artist is creating the work they want to create. It means audiences get to see the very best of the theatre artist making the work.
“What you might see is the genesis of something special.
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We are interested in artists with new ideas who have different and new ways of looking at the world.”
I appreciate that unless you work in the arts this all might seem a little nebulous.
A concrete example.
During the last weekend of July the theatre played host to a full weekend during which audiences could see work in a preview state before it headed to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
From Friday at 7.30pm through until Sunday at 9pm audiences could see eight different shows including Isma Almas’s stand-up show About a Buoy, currently garnering great reviews at the Fringe, and Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids, which has just won a Fringe First Award.
You could also see Drone by Harry Josephine Giles and Co, which was a ‘live jam of music, video and poetry telling the true story of a military drone’s life’ and Demi Nandhra’s Life is No Laughing Matter which was a ‘part personal narrative, part social rant, part mess, an account of living with depression’.
Hopefully that gives you a sense of what you might find at Theatre in the Mill, but the truth is it’s virtually impossible to capture in words what the place is like.
“In some ways the most significant thing we do is simply be a place for artists to meet when they are working on something – like I did when I was making work here all those years ago,” says Warburton.
It’s as good a demonstration as you might get. Not everyone who is making work at Theatre in the Mill will go on to run a company as important as Slung Low, or win awards left, right and centre for their solo shows like Daniel Bye, or write TV shows like Watership Down. But some of them might.
“What we give is a really generous offer to audiences of seeing work when it’s in its very fragile early state when it’s still just about to catch fire and audiences can say that they were there at the start of something. That’s incredibly exciting.”
One of the most innovative things Warburton’s Theatre in the Mill has done is get rid of the performance schedule. Instead of having a regular programme, once every six to eight weeks there will be a full weekend of events, much like the Edinburgh Preview weekend. There will still be ad hoc performances through the year, but most performances are geared to that single weekend. The next is in November, date to be confirmed. Do watch out for it. There’s no telling what you’ll get.
Theatre in the Mill, Bradford. For details call the box office on 01274 233200 or visit theatreinthemill.com.