BWW Interview: Three Creatives Preview Hull's Back To Ours Festival
As part of Hull UK City of Culture, the Back to Ours festival transforms local venues - including schools, shopping centres and social clubs - into performance spaces for everything from theatre, music and comedy to dance and cabaret. In order to give all residents an opportunity to see the work, ticket prices begin from as little as £2.50. Three participants give us a sneak preview.
BEN PETTITT-WADE, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF HIJINX THEATRE - MEET FRED
What the origins of Hijinx?
Hijinx was founded in 1984 as a small-scale touring theatre company, taking productions into communities in small venues and village halls - what used to be known as rural touring. We believed, and still believe, it is important for everyone to be able to see live theatre, whether you live in a big city or a small village.
Did you see a need for inclusive theatre?
The company was set up over 30 years ago and initially we were not an inclusive company, but over the years we've developed into the inclusive company we are today - all our productions now include actors with learning disability.
Rather than seeing a need it was just something we became more and more passionate about, and the more we worked with our performers with learning disability the more potential we saw for creating some fantastic theatre. The impetus was always creative rather than a feeling that there "should" be more inclusive theatre. Working inclusively was just what excited us.
Tell us a bit about the Bunraku puppetry used in Meet Fred
Put simply, Bunraku is a form of puppetry which requires three people to manipulate the puppet. It can seem very lifelike - by using three puppeteers the puppet has full use of all limbs, body and head.
The style that we use was taught to us by the wonderful Blind Summit puppetry company, who are our partners on this project. Something Blind Summit always ask when developing a show is "Why use a puppet?" - could the show be just as effective if there was an actor in that role?
I think in Fred's case it makes a huge difference that he is a puppet. The audience feels an immediate empathy with the struggles he faces, and though the situations are very real for many people, the fact it is all happening to a puppet make them seem all the more ridiculous and outrageous, something that absolutely helps to make the piece very entertaining.
We also play with the parallels between the support a lot of people with learning disability need to live full and independent lives, and the support Fred needs from his puppeteers simply to function.
Do you have younger audiences as well as adults?
Meet Fred is most definitely for adult audiences. Our guidance is 14-plus, mainly because Fred gets a bit sweary the more frustrated he becomes with his lot. That said, due to the inclusive nature of our work, we often find that our audiences tend to be quite inclusive too.
How topical is Meet Fred? Are you responding to particular Government policies?
At the time we were making the show a lot of our Academy students were going through changes to their support packages, as Disability Living Allowance became PIPS. Many had their support reduced and one of the actors in the piece had his completely cut (thankfully reinstated after appeal).
It was these real life situations that the performers and devisers were going through that led to the content of Meet Fred. You could say the show is in direct response to the cutbacks, the humiliating assessment processes and the changes to Disability Benefit in this country that have left some feel they have had no option but to take their own lives.
What does Hull's Back To Ours mean to you? Does it fit with your ethos?
Since its inception Hijinx has always been about making the arts available to everyone, first of all in rural communities, and later with a focus on the inclusion of learning disabled artists and audiences. It is what we are all about.
Therefore we are immensely proud to be involved in an event like Back to Ours, and be part of a programme of incredible artists performing at the heart of communities all over Hull. We can't wait for you to Meet Fred!
MARK THOMAS, COMEDIAN AND PLAYWRIGHT - THE RED SHED
What first sparked The Red Shed?
The Red Shed is ostensibly a Labour Club and is literally a wooden, single-storey, 47ft-long socialist shed. It's in Wakefield and it's where I went as a young student activist. It became an incredibly important part of me, a place where politically I came of age during the miners' strike and where I first performed in public. It's a place I have always gone back to and still have friends and comrades there - in many ways a talisman for me.
I loved the Shed from the off. It felt exciting and friendly; as a political activist it felt that this was the place to be, and at the time it was. In the mid Eighties the Shed was the coalface of political work on the left in Wakefield. It was a place that I wanted to feel that I belonged to.
Have you had any funny or weird experiences getting people up on stage?
This show has been written so it cannot work unless the audience helps with singing, noises, physically coming on stage to play the parts of the people in the show. I have had great experiences so far - everyone seems to get into the spirit of it. But that's not to say there haven't been a few strange moments, especially the driving skills of some people. You'll need to come see it to see what I mean...
How does it feel presenting the piece in the current political climate?
Comedy is one of the few places where freedom of speech allows us to say what we want, indeed it encourages us and expects us to do that. To quote my old mate and fellow comic Bob Boyton, "Comedy clubs and toilet walls are the last bastion of free speech." It feels important, and a part of me, to continue in what I do, and it's even more relevant today than it has ever been.
Do you think theatre has a duty to tell these stories and keep them alive?
Absolutely. What I do is make rather odd little shows which are a mix of theatre, stand-up, journalism and activism. This show is about remembering, and what better way to help people remember than through theatre?
What can the viewers expect from The Red Shed?
Anyone who has seen my shows Bravo Figaro or Cuckooed will know that they are a mix of theatre and stand-up. It's set in the Red Shed, and it's about how my mates try and help me find a memory. The story focuses on the mining communities and the left, what happened to those communities the Labour leadership decided to ignore, and it's about personal and class history. It's a play or a monologue depending on your point of view. But it is funny and original. Won awards an' all that, doncha' know.
What did you enjoy most about developing the show?
Hanging out with friends and comrades AND talking to people I was on nodding terms with and finding their amazing stories. Everyone in the club has done something remarkable. The chap who collects pots and always turns up to help move chairs sat and told me about his involvement in the 1972 builders strike. Amazing. And silly of me not to expect this to be the case.
What does Back To Ours mean to you? Are you hoping to reach new audiences, offer a different theatrical experience?
What's really great about doing the show is that I love making people laugh, taking them on a journey and making them cry. I love making people laugh at things they did not think they would laugh at and creating a show that speaks to working-class audiences.
LUCY JANE PARKINSON, DRAG KING - JOAN
How did your drag act begin?
Back whilst studying for my Masters, I was struggling with my gender identity and wanted to create a piece which reflected that. So I made LoUis CYfer. He was originally American and a fallen angel reporter investigating who was the superior sexuality.
What sort of reaction do you get? Are audiences generally quite accepting now?
At first people aren't sure if I am male, but they are much more accepting of a female drag artist on stage now. I found it very difficult at first because people didn't know what to expect or how to interact with the character, but the more with do it the more I realise I get to create those "rules" surrounding the performance and deconstruction of masculinity.
Does performing Joan's story show how much we have or haven't progressed in our attitudes to gender?
I think Joan has served as a perfect starting point for people of all stages and all ages to approach and explore the topic of gender further. Some people in their sixties have asked me questions about transgenderism, and some people in their teens have taken the character of Joan as an idol for strength for them on their own journey. There is still much work to be done, but I feel Joan is a fabulously poignant but non-threatening way to get the ball rolling.
Do you enjoy roping in audience members?
I love it! That's when I get to bring out all my cabaret skills and make elements of the show original and ephemeral. I've had hilarious experiences, but I would say one that will always stick out in my mind was in Edinburgh when a member of the audience tried to have me arrested after the show... that's all I'm saying!
What does Back To Ours mean to you? Do you think we could do more to welcome in diverse audiences, open up our idea of theatre?
I think Back To Ours is doing a fantastic job. As a fellow Northerner I think sometimes we fail to really experience good solid theatre outside of panto, so to see Hull giving the people an opportunity like this it makes me very proud!
Back to Ours at Hull UK City of Culture runs 22-25 February. For more information and show times, visit www.hull2017.co.uk