Guest Blog: Kieran Knowles On CHICKEN SOUP. At Sheffield Crucible
The first thing I should say is: this story isn't mine. I found it in a pub in October 2016 in the shape of a 68-year-old actor and playwright called Ray Castleton.
He had been to an artist's development performance of Operation Crucible in the Crucible's Studio Theatre in Sheffield, and he was telling me about himself and a play he had written for a project called Experience Barnsley.
To be honest, at first, I was mainly interested in the man. At the age of 60 he had a bit of a breakdown (or epiphany) and as a result he jacked in a successful carpet company to go and study acting at Leeds University; his wife, Linda, carried on working for three years past her retirement date to facilitate this. And since then he had worked as an actor, and had written stories about the industrial history of the North.
It was love at first anecdote, and Ray is never short of an anecdote.
This one was about a two-handed play he had written which was set in a food bank in 2016, with two women looking back on their memories of opening and running a soup kitchen during the miners' strike in 1984.
Though it has evolved in complexity, the structure of that original concept is still very much at the heart of Chicken Soup., a play which we have developed together and which last week had its world premiere at the Sheffield Crucible.
Why we chose to write this story now is the easiest question to answer. In 1984 the wives of striking miners opened soup kitchens to aid the effort, and currently (2016 in the play) the centres are being used as food banks for their kids' generation, for public sector workers and because we still have 14 million people living below the poverty line.
But the play isn't about the politics. It can't be, because the politics are so complex and our opinions on them might differ entirely from those in the community we are depicting; besides, watching a play about the rights and wrongs could be incredibly dull.
So - it's about five women shifting boxes. It's about them rolling up their sleeves; it's about community and friendship. It's about their politicisation, their career trajectories, their independence, their camaraderie and their spirit.
The politics and the political landscape are merely the punctuation points that end a chapter in their life, or act as a propellant for the coming years. It's about rose-tinting the past and locating what's missing from the present.
It's about Linda, about my gran, her sister, my sister, my mum, my wife, our daughter, Ray's daughters, and granddaughters and all the women who have inspired, coloured and influenced our lives.
And not in a cheesy way; it's not an Oscar speech, it is literally about them. We wanted to write a play with all female, working-class protagonists, all fighting domestic and global complexities, and all strong, powerful and completely unique.
The play has been written by two men, but it has been brought to life by an incredible bunch of women with the incomparable Bryony Shanahan at the helm, a team of wonderful female creatives and stage managers, and an astonishing cast of actors, who have each brought their own fight, bite and soul to their parts.
In that insecure period in the run-up to a press night it's hard to gauge the outcome of this process or what would be deemed a success, but all I can say is that I've never been more excited to open a play.
Photo credit: Maisie Burn