Freedom Studios - a pioneering voice for Black, Asian and working-class theatre in Bradford

My lockdown profiles of our region’s theatres and companies have taken you around Yorkshire from the Steel City to beside the seaside.

A scene from Freedom Studios production of The Mill City of Dreams. (Picture: Tim Smith).

Today I want to travel somewhere else: back in time.

It’s 2011 and a little Bradford theatre company, just four years old, is about to make a defining and massive leap that will reverberate down the years. Freedom Studios is about to premiere The Mill – City of Dreams, a production that will set off a chain reaction leading the man who makes the show to become the creative director of London’s Southbank Centre, the first Asian person to head up one of Europe’s most important artistic spaces.

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Madani Younis was the man behind The Mill and the first artistic director of Freedom Studios, a company he crafted in his own image after growing it out of the Red Ladder affiliated Asian Theatre School.

Balvinder Sopal, Lucy Hird and Claire-Marie Seddon in Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. Picture: Tim Smith.

“The Mill is still talked about and in many ways came to define one kind of Freedom Studios production. It took over the vast, abandoned Drummond Mills in Bradford to tell an immersive story of the history of mill work and immigration in Bradford,” says Alex Chisholm who, alongside Aisha Khan is the co-artistic director of the company today.

While Freedom Studios grew out of Asian Theatre School, a company that did what it said on the tin, today it has a slightly different focus.

“We are a Bradford theatre company that makes productions of new plays in non-theatre spaces, develops new artists and works with children and young people. The voice and stories of British Asian, Black and working class people from Bradford are still core to our work,” says Khan.

“We’re a theatre company in and for Bradford. We’re proud of this city, its talent and stories. We run a free youth theatre and free training schemes for writers, directors and actors. We make new plays that pop up where you might not expect: we’ve performed in a pub, community centres, schools, a disused food hall, fish and chip shop and City Park in Bradford.”

I’ve been to Bradford a few times during my lockdown profiles, visiting the likes of Theatre in the Mill and Kala Sangam and my return is due to a slight bias towards my home city, but it is also truly because the city is on the way up and there are many different strands to that story. Khan says: “Theatre has many different roles in Bradford and nationally. Maybe because we don’t have a big expensive producing theatre, it is particularly connected to communities and social activism. Theatre brings people together – like in our youth theatre, or in our community celebration day for BD Stories.”

Chisholm adds: “In a world that is increasingly divided and divisive, the stories we tell in theatre have a greater role than ever to fight against inequalities and racism, not add to them. That can only happen when we see many new artists and theatre workers from Black, Asian and working-class backgrounds being supported to make the work they want to make and ensuring that there is opportunity for individuals from all backgrounds to succeed in the arts.”

As well as The Mill, Chisholm and Khan list significant productions Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted by the highly regarded Leeds TV writer Lisa Holdsworth which won impressive reviews on its national tour last year and which told the story of Andrea Dunbar, the woman behind Rita, Sue and Bob Too. There was also BD Stories, a double bill of new one-act plays by first time Bradford playwrights Aina J Khan and Asma Elbadawi which toured to community centres around the city and at Kala Sangam in the city centre.

The idea behind these Lockdown Profiles, which I began in March, was to remind people that the cultural lives we all enjoy doesn’t happen by accident. There are people and organisations, buildings and artists making this art and I wanted to remind people of that. Each week I have asked the people I’ve spoken to what they think awaits the industry on the other side of all of this.

Chisholm says: “Coronavirus has upended what we thought was ‘safe’ about theatre and what we thought was ‘risky’. We hope it leads to more thought and reflection about what is being produced and how. At Freedom Studios we have been experimenting for the last few years in making live digital theatre (the company produced Tajinder Singh Hayer’s North Country on Facebook Live in 2017) and some form of digital/live hybrid is likely to emerge and stay with us in the future.

What we’d really like is a revolution that sees previously marginalised voices put centre stage with lots of money to support them and sustain careers. We’ll see.” Khan says: “Myself and Alex were attracted to the idea of running the company together, our respective experiences and what we were passionate about in theatre seemed to come together in Freedom Studios’ ethos. Core to all our work has been the development of new artists and new plays. Freedom Studios isn’t just about making plays – it’s about giving everyone in Bradford the chance to encounter theatre and develop themselves.”

The encouraging news is that the company plans to keep its commitment to that ethos even during this global pandemic with its writer development programme Street Voices which, it gives me great joy to report, is open for applications.

And that’s the first time in these lockdown profiles I’ve written about something concrete happening in the future.

Playwriting course

Street Voices is a free six-month playwriting course run by Freedom Studios. Under The guidance of previous course attendee playwright Zodwa Nyoni, the company is looking for writers who may have been writing creatively in other forms and are looking to move into writing plays.

Beginning in October 2020 and running until March 2021 applicants must be over 18, based in Yorkshire and have some writing experience.

The deadline for applications to the course is Monday, August 17, 5pm.

For full details log on to www.freedomstudios.co.uk

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