Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • JUDE WRIGHT • Spitting Feathers • 2002

spitting-feathersFor many years, theatre involving young people has been associated with stark issues, usually drugs, drink, or under-age sex or, more likely, all three together with a back beat of chart music. If youth theatre wasn’t this, it was cheesy musicals for aspiring Bonnie Langfords and, unless you were a parent or doing a review for the local paper, you wouldn’t go there. Look around and you’ll still see this sort of set-up. It does kids’, theatre – musical or otherwise, no favours. It does the people who take the yearly subs off the parents, quite a few. There are exceptions, Anna Scher being the most famous, but there are others, trying to do something different, not falling into the tramlines, but making their own road. Enter the youth arm of Northern Broadsides.

Northern Broadsides is what theatre should be about, what theatre looks like when it’s wrenched away from those who have had a stranglehold on it for so long. It was set up in 1992 by actor Barrie Rutter whom I first saw in a TV series in the seventies called The Dustbinmen, who didn’t take the money and run by moving into the world of soaps and cop and docs rubbish; he formed his owned theatre company and did it his way. The company is known mostly for productions of Shakespeare ‘done quickly and with a northern accent’ – at least, that’s the perception. The reality is classical theatre done with real, live – alive – warm, pulsating, human voices, not the long, drawn-out, hammed-up speeches we see so often; with these, quite frankly, I lose the will to live halfway through. Is it any wonder I and many others were put off Shakespeare and the classics delivered in this alien way?

Northern Broadsides is based in Halifax, in an old mill and what better place for theatre. Atmosphere on tap without a word spoken. Compare this to some of the barren blocks around the country which are nothing more than herding points to the bar and ticket office.

It gets better, you don’t have to go to Halifax to see Broadsides since they tour – though not everyone gets a bit of them as the tours aren’t that comprehensive.

So what is theatre without new blood? Where exactly is the next audience coming from? We’ve had generations put off by panto – and I certainly don’t subscribe to the opinion that panto pulls youngsters into theatre. Baron Hard-Up and dames in wigs will not pull a teenager off the street, nor will Shakespeare in slo mo, murder mysteries, patronising, issue-based twaddle, or stringing together ill-thought-out ideas with a dance beat. The soaps and weak, insipid drama now showing on a TV station near you will definitely not inspire anyone to be an actor, writer or director.

In that kind of environment, you need an instigator, someone who has the passion and the bloody-mindedness to bring out the sparks of creativity that are already there, those sharp shards of imagination that need to be picked up and used before they’re dropped and shattered, and then to steer all that creativity into something that seems to come out of the wild blue yonder, but is really out of some serious soul-searching. If that something is fresh, new and different, and speaks not just to the immediate community but to a much wider audience, then it’s not just worthwhile, it’s life changing.

Jude Wright, a director at Northern Broadsides, has been working with a group of teenagers on a piece to be performed on 10th and 12th of October at The Viaduct, in Halifax – Spitting Feathers.

Reading the responses to my questions below [ conducted by email ], I immediately picked up on the interest in conscientious objectors during the First World War. Many years ago, when I was recording interviews with some of the men who fought in that war, I came across soldiers who were in the mutiny of 1917, unspoken of for years because the men were sworn to secrecy, frightened into secrecy. The whole affair was hushed up by the British Army and the press of the day complied. There were other, smaller mutinies in WW1, but it’s the one in 1917 that brought about some of the much-needed changes to a soldier’s lot. Leave, pay, parade ground brutality and recognition of physical and mental stress now had to be looked at.

The Manningham Riots refer to the uproar between workers and employees at Listers Mill in Bradford where the riot act was read on the city steps. Troops were brought in – troops with bayonets charging the retreating strikers. This event was the catalyst for industrial reform, although it would take a good while for the reforms to be brought about. It was from these beginnings in 1891 that the independent labour party grew.

In the summer of 2001, there were further riots in Bradford, in the Manningham area. An independent inquiry stated the causes were ‘high unemployment and racial tension’. This time, it seems social change has not been brought about, or even the beginnings of a shift in thought. One thing that can begin to make a difference is exploring all of this through drama by the people who lived, and are living through, some of these events.

Innovative drama was once given a chance on TV, and some of it made a difference to the way we perceived things of which we had no previous knowledge, and some of it just turned the world upside down and shook it about a bit, which as a teenager I wanted to do – and still want to do. I can’t see the trite, patronising mush currently under the banner of TV drama having any effect except a soporific one on teenagers in 2002.

Spitting Feathers is the official opening of Young Broadsides, what have the young broadsiders been up to before this?

Barrie Rutter, the Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, initially commissioned Ian McMillan to write a play that he directed with young people from The Ridings School and North Halifax High School back in ’99. It was called The Final Score and was a huge success here at the Viaduct.

I joined the company in 2000 and ran a Summer School for young people in Halifax with the support of the Halifax Learning Zone. The school lasted a week and we looked at the play that Northern Broadsides were playing at the time – Blake Morrison’s Oedipus.

We worked with Ian again in 2001 and he produced a piece called The Kind of Folks We Are which was made up from stories told by older people in Halifax. I directed the piece and this was the real pilot project for Young Broadsides. It was performed here at the Viaduct in February this year.

We were lucky enough to receive funding for another Summer School, and this time I was interested in creating a piece of theatre which the participants felt a real sense of ownership of. I went into the project with various ideas to start us all off, and very soon the young people took over and it really did become their play!

What age range are the young broadsiders?

14-16 years old in this production.

Did you have an idea or a theme that might be interesting to explore beforehand, or did it all come completely out of what happened in those two weeks?

The idea that we started with was looking at the conscientious objector movement in the early 1900s. The areas around Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford were termed ‘hotbeds of pacifism’ during the WWI. I went over to Leeds University and spoke to Cyril Pearce who had written a book called Comrades in Conscience. This was the original material I went into the project with.

The company then set about looking at things that they wanted to make a statement about. We decided to parallel the 1891 Manningham Mills riots with those of 2001 as we could see really clearly how people were making similar mistakes over and over again.

What happens in Spitting Feathers?

The play parallels common threads surrounding the 1891 Manningham Mill Riots and the Bradford riots of last summer. One of the themes is looking at unwritten histories. The play tells the story of conscientious objectors, from the beginnings of the Socialist movement to the start of WWI, with research into the unwritten history of Socialist conscientious objectors in Huddersfield and Halifax during WWI, and recent regional and international events that have a direct impact locally, including September 11th.

Northern Broadsides has a reputation for stark sets, with the focus being on the words – nice for a writer to hear, maybe not such good news for set designers! Are the Young Broadsides productions going to be in a similar vein?

Our productions aim to be exactly what it says on the tin – a young version of Northern Broadsides. Also, we have to work with limited funds and so elaborate sets would be out of our budget range. I’d much rather invest in the people than a few gadgets, which is also Barrie Rutter’s attitude.

John Godber wrote some of his productions to encompass all the youngsters in his group or class. As someone working with groups of young people, do you find a role for everyone, and if you do, how easy or difficult is that?

It may be harder to give everyone parts, but when you’re working with young people, it’s essential. It’s one of the things that annoys me when I see and read theatre written for young people – a few big parts for the strongest performers and the rest stand about being trees! Not in our group they don’t. Okay, so you will have a range of talent in any group, but surely it’s the director’s job to make everyone shine.

When I write with young people, I base the plays on Greek Theatre, which may sound rather heavy, but it’s the oldest and (in my opinion) the best form going. You can have choruses of as many people as you like, and everyone shares the performance, rather than most of them being stuck on the side lines.

I know that some youth theatre is smirked at and compared to Legs Akimbo T.C. as portrayed by The League of Gentlemen. Obviously, Broadsides isn’t like that, but how would you describe what happens in a youth theatre such as yours?

Theatre with young people does get a really rough deal in just about everyone’s eyes and there was a reason for it – badly written plays, badly produced work, flaccid improvisation work being presented as theatre and Am Dram mentality. We don’t have any of the above.

What we’re interested in is re-injecting the spirit of youth into theatre. You wouldn’t mock people their age producing music – you’d probably go out and buy it and think yourself all cutting edge. Theatre itself needs to really address itself and start investing in all forms of theatre so we can produce good quality theatre with young people. Theatre can and shouldbe cutting edge and we should never make excuses for ourselves.

What would you say Broadsides does that other youth groups aren’t doing?

Northern Broadsides has its international reputation because of the quality and style of theatre which we produce. This is what we are mirroring with Young Broadsides. When they are involved in a project, they learn exactly what professional actors learn when they work with us. We don’t teach the people we work with drama, we work at producing a certain style of theatre – and well.

How important is the region you’re working in, and the rich accent you’re working with, to the work you are doing? For example, if you had stand-ins, could they be cockney or Scottish?!

Halifax is essential to Young Broadsides, as that’s where the members of the company are from. We are also investing in the area with which we are so closely associated. It’s not easy when you’re on tour for so much of the year but we still manage to make an impact!

The Young Broadsides company is made up of a variety of cultural backgrounds and consequently different voices. Like Northern Broadsides, we don’t work in accent, we work at allowing the natural voice to resonate. This is achieved by working very intensely on language and the story-telling aspect of theatre and so as long as you live in Halifax, we don’t mind what your voice is like.

Tell me it isn’t so, Jude, tell me youth theatre isn’t all issue-based. Tell me it’s more about looking at things, not in a different way but in fifty million different ways, and sometimes finding something that is so profound, you’ve no idea what it is. Go on, make my day!

What youth theatre isn’t about is sticking your head up your own arse – a practice that was commonplace in youth theatre. It’s also not about sticking your head in the sand – a practice commonplace amongst older people when faced with issues, as you term them, that are relevant to all of us but generally only young people have the guts to chuck metaphorical bricks through imaginary windows. Of course, there’s a journey involved for everyone in this project, but profound is pushing it a little. And you can quote me on that.

The youngsters you are working with, what plays are they reading and seeing, what are they enjoying, and getting a new experience out of, to make them want to be involved in theatre? What do the youngsters in your group aspire to, what drives them to perfom? I can’t imagine any current TV drama inspiring anyone – so where does it come from? Or is it more about the group experience and putting a show together that is the main interest for some of them?

I inspire them. And from that, the theatre that they create and scripts they work with inspires them. But let’s face it, they’re kids from Halifax, they aren’t exactly exposed to a plethora of culture and theatre doesn’t exactly rank as a massive influence in their world until it comes to them. Our task is to involve them in a creative process that has energy and honesty. And respect. Lots of it.

Finally, what can we expect from the Northern Broadsides youth in the future?

A lot.

Lynne Harvey © 09-10-02

Originally published on R&V 09-10-02

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