The Power of Politics and Place on Stage

There were a number of reasons I chose to focus my PhD on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre.

Primarily, as a regional theatre maker myself, I have often felt that being based in the provinces has both supported and restricted my career. On the one hand, if I a piece of my work is put on in Plymouth, its fairly unlikely Rufus Norris is going to walk through the door and suggest it does a couple of week in the Cottesloe.

But by the same measure I am certain that, had I been based in a city with far more theatre artists working in it, many of the things I have been able to make happen with the support of Arts Council England and other organisations in Plymouth would either already have been happening already or at the very least I would have faced far more competition to leverage the resources needed for those projects.

Although it hadn’t crossed my mind at the time — it seemed only natural when writing the pieces — I also have something of a track record in making work which engages with either what we might call the “regional experience”.

Parliament Town by myself (New Model Theatre)

When I wrote Parliament Town (2014), I was certainly driven by a desire to contemplate what the city of Plymouth means or at least meant to a specific character at that time.

While the narratives relayed by the City Museum — and I’m not holding out much hope that this might change when the new History Centre is built — is one of sea-faring colonisers and military lives, I was keen to highlight the cities many flirtations with English radicalism.

Not only was the city a hold-out for Parliamentarianism during the English Revolution — the main focus of Parliament Town — it was also the place from which the Tolpuddle Martyrs were cast off to Australia and the site of their return as well as more recently the birthplace and first constituency of Michael Foot. 

Port by Simon Stephens (National Theatre)

Simon Stephens says of his play Port (2013), set in Stockport, that ‘suggesting that lives of people living in Manchester then, are worthy of drama, was a political gesture’ (National Theatre, 2015).

There is a tendency in our storytelling to assume that anything of note will always take place in one metropolis or other, that if a butterfly flaps its wings in London the breeze will be felt in Birmingham but that the breeze generated by a Brummie butterfly will dissipate somewhere along the proposed path of HS2.

Theatre is a necessarily local act, taking place in a specific place at a specific time and, so it seems to me, has an ability to address the politics and weight of space in a very direct way.

Much of the academic literature that exists on these issues focusses heavily on site-specific work. And yet to suggest that narratives employing regional locales can only be relevant to those with an existing relationship— be it work, residence or touristic—with that place seems only to feed into the neuroses of regional textual inferiority.

As such, I have decided to focus exclusively on auditorium-based work, that which can be lifted from Birmingham and placed into a theatre in Leeds, Hull or Exeter so as to express a story founded in one city to another.

A Line-Up of Regional Theatre in 2017

My last few days, then, have been spent navigating — with various degrees of ease *cough* ATG *cough* — the websites of England’s regional civic theatres in order to seek out productions which seek, in a direct or subtle way, to engage with a specific regional English city.

What has been particularly interesting is how all or nothing the approach of regional theatres to such a pursuit is.

Hull Truck, for example, will mount the third instalment in its ‘Hull Trilogy’ in July 2016, Mighty Atoms. Alongside this two of their community productions Defiance and Our Mutual Friend also have a direct relationship with the city.

Liverpool Royal Court’s 2017 programme also features a number of locally-rooted productions including a Christmas show Scouse of the Rising Sun and, later in the year The Royal and YNWA.

Touched by Stephen Lowe (Nottingham Playhouse)

Nottingham Playhouse, in February will offer up Touched, set in the city during the 100 days between peace in Europe and Japan at the close of the Second World War.

And Bristol Old Vic boasts two productions in their upcoming season, Junkyard and Pink Mist, both of which are set at least partially within the theatre’s own jurisdiction.

It is worth pointing out that this is only a selection of the work I have come across, there are a number of notable examples which I have left out mainly for reasons of space. Due to the focus of my research, I was also not searching for work set in towns, though in many cases the difference between town and city is little more than descriptive terminology.

A Community Speaking to Itself

What also struck was that many theatres’ excursions into their surrounding streets was often carried out exclusively in community work. While it makes sense that, in engaging local people, a focus on narratives of local significance might add social value to the undertaking, it also says something that a similar stance is less likely to be taken in a professional production.

I would hope it would be entirely cynical to pursue a line of thinking that suggests a large-scale, populist, locally-based production with a volunteer cast likely to provide a fair bit of free publicity and advocacy for the show might be as good for a theatre bottom line as for the social cohesion of the local community.

And, while any separation between professional and amateur work in terms of the performance text itself would be false and elitist, it is clear that a professional production is more likely to have a life beyond that within its own city boundaries and thus has a larger chance of being able to share that narrative further.

Finally, does it not reveal the value a theatre sees in the communal identity of its location that some will hire the likes of Vicky McClure to star in a telling of a local narrative or commission Jack Thorne or Bryony Lavery to interpret it for the stage while others will channel such professional talents to work which lacks such site-specific baggage?

Moving Forward

I am really looking forward to gallivanting across the country to catch some of the work which is engaging in the representation of regional civic communities. My endeavours over the past few days have thrown up a long list of really exciting productions.

If anyone knows of any work taking place over the next couple of years which does engage in regional English cities that I might have missed, it would be great to hear about.

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