An access response to ‘Twenty Theatres…’, by Pippa Stacey, June 2020

Pippa Stacey is a chronically ill writer and blogger from Yorkshire. She currently splits her time between content creation in the charity sector, writing articles and opinion pieces for various publications, curating her own blog, and authoring books. In her free time, she enjoys theatre, reading, and fundraising, and can most often be found wearing pyjamas and drinking tea. 

“I’m sure I won’t be the only one craving theatre like never before. These are difficult days for the industry, and I have no doubt those who work in the theatre environment will be missing their patrons as much as we’re missing them.

As such, Amber Massie-Bloomfield’s Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die was ultimately a comforting read. As readers, we’re warmly invited to join the writer in her adventures to iconic theatres across the UK, learning more about the historical and cultural contexts that brought them into existence.

Now, I know it’s unlikely that I’ll manage to visit all twenty of these theatres before I die: having a rather problematic chronic illness does limit my ability to travel, and I began reading this book in the knowledge that it would act as more of a stagey pacifier than a bucket list of my own. However, Massie-Bloomfield’s storytelling abilities do far more than simply paint a picture of the theatres in question. With her words, the author easily plucks you out of your current circumstances and plonks you firmly in the midst of the unfolding stories of each chapter.

From the stony coastal edges of Cornwall to a former Victorian Lavatory in Worcestershire, a stage with a floor made only of Earth in the middle of urban London to the unconventional territories around industrial estates in good old Leeds: within each of the relatively short chapters, you find yourself immersed in the culture of the location and the stories of the individuals who nurtured these performance spaces into existence.

One theme that remained consistently clear throughout this read was the author’s undeniable love and appreciation: not only for the magic of performance that occurred inside each of these unique venues, but for the venues themselves. Massie-Bloomfield’s reflections on the bespoke architecture of each location and how this intertwined with her own lived experiences really hit me… because for the first time, it caused me to reflect on my own relationships with the venues I frequent.

It began to dawn on me that so often, my personal experiences of theatre are shaped only by what takes place inside the building: the performance, the atmosphere, the front of house staff… the various factors that influence me are numerous, but never once have I stopped to reflect on the locations themselves, and how much of a role they play in reflecting the culture and values of wherever they happen to be.

With these thoughts brimming in my mind, I continued to read. It wasn’t until a few chapters later still, towards the middle of the book, where the realisation hit me in full force: the reason I wasn’t so heavily influenced by the architecture of theatre venues is because as a disabled patron, these very buildings in which the magic takes place are often a physical barrier themselves. I haven’t ever fully appreciated this element of theatres, because I’ve somewhat unconsciously been demonising them.

It’s no secret that the theatre industry has a long way to go in becoming inclusive for all. As an ambulatory wheelchair user, I know there can be any number of issues to contend with in reaching my allocated seat. If I’m using my wheelchair, the simple act of getting through the door, contending with disproportionately small ramps and lifts, and identifying accessible facilities can be overwhelming and energy-sapping. If I’m not using my wheelchair, we commence the always high-stakes game of ‘find Pippa a chair before her legs give in for the day’, with bonus points for any tutting or disapproving glances from the elderly population who couldn’t possibly fathom that this invisibly ill twenty-something year old isn’t sitting down in spite or selfishness. Essentially, the journey from A to B in the theatre environment is always the most stressful part of the experience for me; something I just want to get over with as quickly as possible. Until now, it never really occurred to me that I could be missing out on a fundamental part of the experience.

This realisation stayed with me throughout the rest of the book, and from this point, reading about others’ profound connections to the places they experience theatre actually made me acknowledge my feelings disconnect from the industry. As such, it would have been easy simply to write this book off as ‘not inclusive for people like me’ in a huff, but to do so would be ignoring another fundamental element of this read: making the case for radical, quirky, and non-conforming performance spaces.

So much of the appeal of this book, in my opinion, lies in the fact that the author has deliberately connected with and showcased diverse and unconventional settings. Rather than sticking with grand old listed buildings, we’re invited to embrace the more unique theatre environments that have come about due to people creatively problem-solving and doing their best with the tools they have available to them. And as somebody whose everyday life depends pretty heavily on these exact principles, doing what they can with what they have, this appealed to me enormously.

Yes, we still have a huge access and inclusion issue in the theatre industry. I truly believe that intentions are good, and nobody deliberately stigmatises against disabled patrons and those with additional needs, but we’re yet to see these values reflected in practice… and the accessibility of theatre environments is a prime example of this. However, I’d like to believe that Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die makes a compelling case for capturing the magic of theatre in increasingly diverse ways: experimenting with environmental factors and what they can add to a person’s creative work, and how they can contribute to a safe space that’s welcoming and inclusive for all.

As such, I hope that as the industry becomes more and more informed on how best to meet the needs of their disabled performers, it will follow that existing and future performance spaces adapt accordingly. And in the meantime, if you want to reignite your love and appreciation for the creative arts without the inconvenience of leaving the house, I’d highly recommend this book. It truly is a love letter to Britain’s theatres.”

A festival or not – the evolution of Jabberwocky Market Pop-Up Theatre Events, August 2019

When we first established Jabberwocky Markets, they were set up as festivals. We love festivals, they are events that include a load of brilliant things all happening in some way together, they bring artists and audiences together who might not normally mix, they offer opportunities for people who want to see a few things to do that all back to back in the same place, they can be exciting and create loads of unexpected opportunities and synergies and magic.

As well as that they require a lot of energy to run and mean that scarce resources (in this case generally people’s time) are spread really wide, and when audiences want to see loads of things but actually have lots of other commitments and obligations in their lives, they can be time-poor and only manage one event a week or month.

After we’d done 4 festivals of Jabberwocky Market events in the first two years, we realised through talking to our audiences, artists and venues, that our events in this place might actually work better if they were more widely spread, like a season of shows across a few months, so people could come along to more shows and events, and so our team had more time to concentrate on the planning, promotion, support and running of each separate event. In spring 2016 we changed the model from a 4 day festival of over 20 events, to a 3 month season, and it worked brilliantly. Each event happened around a headline show, maybe one we’d programmed in partnership with our national Collaborative Touring Network, or sometimes one that was homegrown or separately programmed, but however it was chosen, that headline show dictated the theme for a small amount of related events, designed to complement the event and provide activities that the main show’s audience would also enjoy, and generally there was a 2-3 week gap between events.

The new model meant that audiences could afford the time and money to see more shows that they wanted to attend and fit that into their busy lives, which meant more tickets were booked and shows had fuller audiences, which means the shows were better because performers and artists love having bigger audiences and everyone has a richer experience. The artists had a better time because our team had more time to welcome and support them when they’re in town, and we enjoyed it more because the little bit more time meant we could do a better job and making other people happy makes us happy.

For a long time though people still used the word festival and that was frustrating because we like to be really clear with visiting artists and audiences about what they can expect when they arrive – if you arrive expecting one thing and find another, whether you’re there to watch or perform, you might be disappointed – even if on reflection you recognise that you had a much more meaningful experience than you’d anticipated, it’s really important to us that we have great first impressions as well.

What we learned through this journey was that in this context we do a really brilliant pop-up theatre event – we can also do a really great festival and sometimes we bring together a series of events into a small space or time and make a festival of events, but whatever we do, we describe in the most appropriate way to ensure people have the best experience.

The next Jabberwocky Market Pop-Up Theatre Event is currently in the planning – it’ll be announced as soon as there’s anything we can share.

Never organise anything, ever… by Dave Windass, March 2019

While we are three weeks away from our twelfth season of Jabberwocky Market pop-up theatre events in Darlington, our colleagues in Hull are doing something very similar and one of them put a few thoughts in a blog. To see the original post see www.headsup.e52.co.uk  or read the words below. We feel similarly and differently about lots of the things, we both love and hate being reminded of that; but ultimately want to share the conversation. Over to Dave…

“With little over a week until the 12th Heads Up Festival, producer Dave Windass shares what’s on his mind.

My advice to wannabe producers, event organisers and promoters is fairly consistent: “Never organise anything, ever.”

For, as much fun as pulling events together might look when you attend, say, four days of theatre, performance and live art, and as much kudos as can be attached to being part of the team behind these things, the reality is that the whole venture is one brimming with pain, suffering, arguments and piss-poor remuneration.

I’ve known this for some time. I ran a monthly night in a warehouse venue for three years that provided theatremakers with an opportunity to scratch their work, and for writers to make the essential development journey from page to stage. We had no budget, the venue was very understanding re the door split, and, despite it being only one night a month, a lot of hours, and several days, went in to pulling everything together. And mostly, I’d be there, and be thinking, before doing some haphazard compering, this night is shit (albeit well-supported and valued by the people that used it for what it was). And at the end of the night, having paid essential overheads out of the meagre net box office takings, I’d be lucky if, on the long, miserable walk home, there was enough loose change remaining to buy a small kebab. And often, there wasn’t, so I’d find a crumb on the kitchen worktop when I got back to the house before crawling into bed and sobbing into my dramatic pillow.

Naturally, after every one of these nights I vowed “never again”. All that energy, that went into that one night a month, could have been used more wisely. I could, for instance, have hit several deadlines, or written something. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t. There’s a simple reason for this – nobody else was doing it, nor seemed prepared to do it. And this is Hull, and, back then, some of us, those of us that could, needed to do something in order that the arts eco-system could improve and not rely on the handful of NPOs that the city has to do it for us.

So, there’s some context. The story of how and why Heads Up Festival came to be has echoes of the above. In the not-too distant past (2011 or thereabouts), Battersea Arts Centre hatched a plan to create a touring circuit for the work that’s produced out of that wonderful place by developing a network of producers in towns and cities deemed ‘cultural cold spots’. And, yes, despite all the fireworks, large-scale spectacles and people painted blue we’ve enjoyed more recently, Hull was very much one of these cultural cold spots eight years ago. So BAC had a chat with Hull’s leading producing theatre but they were too busy sorting out the aftermath of being devoid of an artistic director, money and the means of production that someone there seemed enthusiastic to dismantle, having being appointed in a role akin to Ian MacGregor and his “savage rationalisation” of the British steel industry, to get involved. And somehow, we (E52, as we’re now known, but back then the bafflingly, for some, difficult to pronounce Ensemble 52) were approached to move things forward. And we did, because nobody else was doing it, nor seemed prepared to do it, and if we didn’t, then this opportunity for Hull would have gone elsewhere. And that, my friends, is how we came to be ‘accidental producers’.

We’re now almost at the eve of our 12th festival in six years. Yes, you read that right. 12 festivals. In six years. Only stupid people would organise, produce and promote 12 festivals in six years. And we are stupid. Although we have grown, along with the rest of our Collaborative Touring Network partners, as people, as producers, and as a festival.

It’s fair to say, with confidence, that we knew what we were doing, even from the first festival. None of this fazed us. None of it took us by surprise. It’s just that we forgot, I think, that ventures such as Heads Up brim with pain, suffering, arguments and piss-poor remuneration. And either way we were doing this.

At our first festival, in 2013, having applied for permission to take something into public spaces in the city centre, things majestically and instantly unravelled when the artist at the heart of what was something quite bloody brilliant, as it happens, opted to perform elsewhere in Hull. Sans permission. And I have a lovely recollection of a big spat I had with my co-producer in a lift, when we were both attempting to out-stupid each other, as neither of us are blessed with the high levels of testosterone required to just have a bloody fight and get it over with. And things have pretty much gone on in a similar vein. We’ll let things brew in the run-up, have a row, realise during the festival that what we do, and bring to Hull, is damn good, then forgive each other and, given that two festivals a year is an ever-spinning hamster wheel, prepare to do it all again.

At this point, however, this 12th Heads Up is the last in its current format. Although something, of some sort, will be back, at some point. So after this round of brewing, arguing, and well-earned back-slapping, we can actually draw breath, sit back, and consider what we’ve achieved in those six years. Which I won’t list here, because we’re not there yet, although I can say, in all honesty, we’re incredibly proud of everything that’s been included in the Heads Up artistic programme to date, and this swansong is right up there with our finest moments.

Right now, we’re not quite vowing “never again”. We’re looking at the options, and attempting to raise some much needed funding. And considering the impact that the energy that has been spent on pulling those six years together has had, and whether we might have been better investing our time hitting deadlines, and writing something, or creating something else, or even getting a paper round. Yet we did it, we are proud, and we did it because nobody else was, or did, nor where they prepared to give it a go.

When the history of Hull in this decade is documented, I doubt that Heads Up will get much more than a footnote, at best, but more likely not even a mention. Which is fine, we’re cool with that, because history, as we know, is written by the victors. And in most cases, of course, this is right and just: For example, the history of Hull Truck will not be written by the hatchet man who was appointed by a then very troubled board of directors but by his predecessors, Bradwell, Godber and Tudor Price, and his successor, who’s now writing the next chapter. Yet in the run up to 2017, and the progress that made the artistic and cultural eco-system of this city so buoyant, spare a thought for the many (how do you think those gigs, spoken word nights, comedy nights, other festivals and the like appeared?) that did it because nobody else was doing it. Not for recognition (producers and promoters should be unseen and invisible; it should be about the artists), a large salary and healthy remuneration reflective of the blood, sweat and tears, or for a notch on the CV, or a CBE, but because they were in the right place, at the right time, to do some of the essential legwork that nobody in their right mind should ever contemplate. Never organise anything, ever. Unless, that is, you want to make a difference to and for the place and the people you love.

Hopefully, you’ll come along and join us at the 12th Heads Up Festival to help us go out in style. More information and tickets are available at www.headsuphull.co.uk ” – DAVE WINDASS

In Conversation: touring, April 2015

In spring 2015 we had another discussion event on the topic of Touring and how great that is for the artists who do it and the audiences around the country, featuring director Amy Golding, producer Katie Duffy, performer Adam Farrell and director Nel Crouch, with chair Ayla Huseyinoglu; unfortunately the recording was lost but it looked like this, taking place in Voodoo Cafe.

In Conversation: on social conflict, Oct 2014

How Social Conflict Affects the Development of Theatre, featuring Nir Paldi from Theatre Ad Infinitum with artist Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh and chaired by Stella Hall, Director of Festival of Thrift; taking place in Voodoo Cafe, Darlington.

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My first multidisciplinary show, by Debbie Waistell, March 2014

During Christmas 2012 I had the idea for a piece, inspired by listening to a lot of Celtic music and coming across lots of visual inspiration.  I began to research Celtic tales, folk tales and fairy tales and started talking with a writer about creating a story for dance. The developments since then spiralled into talks with a musician, researching space, playing with movement, and developing design ideas. I had a really strong vision and needed the time and resources to work with a variety of people in order to see if this idea could become a reality.

CELTIC CHRISTMAS (WORKING TITLE) R&D

In December 2013 I received funding from Arts Council England, Creative Darlington and Tees Valley Dance to carry out some research and development towards a site responsive piece for families and young people set at Christmas.  The experience was exactly what I needed in order to experiment with my ideas and vision. The opportunity to work with 3 dancers and the complementary elements we needed, such as music and space, are as highly important as the choreography for this piece.

This brought with it very new challenges and experiences for me, working with a live musician and a dramaturg, creating a piece for an unusual outdoor setting, pulling everything together making sure all aspects complement one another. This, as well as focusing on the integrity of the movement and making sure it wasn’t getting lost amongst everything else!

Placing everything in an unusual setting was so exciting, I chose Darlington Cattle market for its amazing character, scope for promenade, and its semi rural quasi-theatre feel. Working in this non-traditional space really helped create the atmosphere I wanted.

Both the music and the dramaturgy brought the choreography to life exactly how I had hoped, really bringing out the story, making me ask myself questions about the piece and make slight alterations that enhanced its readability. The children at the partner school added mischief and imagination. All of these factors helped the shaping of the piece and made it work.

Working with a producer has enabled me to share the workload of managing the project and helping to make space for the creative team to focus on creating the work.  I have particularly found the advice given and continuous support invaluable.

I have been working individually on this piece for a long time, but the amount that we achieved in just two weeks working with a great team was outstanding and it fills me with confidence that the vision worked, that all the additional elements complement each other and that I can create a really enchanting, engaging piece of new dance theatre. Working on this piece has provided me with new experiences, challenges and development as a choreographer, director and manager and with what I have in mind for the next stage, will hopefully continue to do so.

Now I just need to come up with the title!

 

Debbie is a dancer and choreographer who runs her own company The D Project and works with professional and non-professional dancers.  She is based in Darlington.

Booking the show:     A version of the show of around 20 minutes suitable for found spaces is available to book.  Debbie is also seeking interest from people who would like to see the fully developed show of 45-50 minutes in duration.

Team:  Creative Director and Choreographer Debbie Waistell – Dancers Lissie Connor, Lauren Rafferty, Michaela Wate –  Musicians Mike McGrother and Joe – Dramaturg Bernie C Byrnes – Writers Laura Degnan and Carmen Thompson – Photographer Scott Akoz

 

All photos on this page by Scott Akoz.

Theatre Uncut, by Daniel Bye, November 2012

“In last year’s Theatre Uncut I curated an evening at the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton, and had an absolute blast directing David Greig’s Fragile, which had the entire audience playing one of the parts in a two-hander. In the closing moments, en masse, the audience found themselves chanting “this situation is all fucked up and it has to change”. Tremendous fun, totally outrageous and devastatingly effective. David Greig is one of the foremost playwrights in the world, and for him to contribute a one-off short to something like Theatre Uncut demonstrates how substantial the event was even then, in its first incarnation.

 

Other playwrights (last year and this) include Dennis Kelly, Mark Ravenhill and Neil LaBute. It’s a hell of a roll-call. And what unifies them is anger: at the Government’s response to the economic crisis, at their punishment of the poor and the vulnerable for the crimes of the super-rich, at their ignoring of a growing environmental catastrophe and the many lessons of history, at their sheer maddening stupid venality. They – we – are bloody furious. Fury makes for phenomenal, galvanising art. Think Guernica. Think Mother Courage and Her Children. Think Cathy Come Home.

The onstage role in Fragile was played in last year’s Edinburgh Theatre Uncut by Kieran Hurley, who wrote the piece I’m directing for this year’s event, London 2012: Glasgow. You may not of heard of Kieran, but he’s a bit of an emerging megastar north of the border. His show Beats was named Best Play at this year’s Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, and when his Theatre Uncut play was first read at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Phill Jupitus played one of the parts. His show Hitch is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt and downright enjoyable things I’ve ever seen in a theatre – made all the more meaningful by its subject-matter, Kieran’s own hitch-hike to the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

His Theatre Uncut play London 2012: Glasgow is a brilliant, scabrous satirical romp through some of the politics of national self-presentation (and self-preservation) that made this year’s Olympics, however thrilling the sporting spectacle, a nauseating exercise in the manufacture of corporatist ideology. It superbly nails the puerile metropolitan pomposity behind that massive branding project. Sure, London had a lot to be proud of (although I don’t know that Kieran necessarily agrees). But it also had loads to be ashamed of. That pomposity, that shame, are balloons delightfully popped by Kieran’s wicked satirical play.

What Fragile, London 2012: Glasgow and many of the other Theatre Uncut plays from both years share is a remarkable ability to distill their justified anger into something that gives tremendous artistic pleasure. And it does so while absolutely communicating that anger. You have to go along to your nearest Theatre Uncut event. You might even want to get involved. This situation is all fucked up, and it has to change. So be part of that change.” – Daniel Bye

Theatre Uncut events are taking place across the world from 12-18 November 2012