Earlier this year, 25 people appeared on stage at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton. Their performances were deeply personal, written by themselves about themselves. Had they known two months previously what they would be doing, many would have run a mile. Some people barely had the confidence to walk through the door of the first workshop. “The first time I came in, I cried and couldn’t even get up to say my name,” said one participant.
It’s a while since I’ve been in the rehearsal room; much of my role as Co-Director of Theatre at Take Art has been to support others in making theatre. So I’m itching to get going.
One of Word/Play’s aspirations is to give people the confidence to say what they want to say – in public.
For some of the participants, walking through the door to the first workshop was tough enough. Who’d have imagined that, two months later, they’d be standing in front of a microphone performing work they’d written themselves, about themselves, to an audience of over seventy friends, family members and supporters?
I’m getting a warm buzzy feeling when people let me know what Word/Play is doing for them. A voice in my head goes ‘yes, hoorah, they get it!’ *PunchTheAir!* What I mean is: Word/Play seems to be making a difference, and in ways that I hadn’t dared imagine.
The strapline for Word/Play describes how we want to use the power of language to make change happen. Straplines are always difficult to come up with because you want to try and encapsulate a big idea in a few words. Words are powerful little beings. Especially when spoken out loud by people who have taken a huge risk to step out of their comfort zone.
And that is happening.
I’m a little bit scared. But in a good way. After nearly 18 months of planning, fundraising and hard thinking, Take Art’s new initiative, Word/Play, is about to start.
Word/Play brings together theatre, spoken word and digital media to create change. It’s for people in Somerset: individuals, groups and communities. Anyone, in fact, who wants their voice to be heard, to feel better about themselves or to make a difference to their quality of life.
Any new idea is bound to be informed by our own beliefs and passions. For me, it’s simple: theatre is about change. It’s about doing things to people and enabling people to do things for themselves. That may range from a show in a village hall brightening our mood to the profound behavioural changes inspired by a forum theatre project.
I first met Maxwell Golden in 2009 at Lit Up, a live literature and spoken word showcase and conference at the Bristol Old Vic. He pitched an idea for a show he wanted to create and was looking for partners (anyone: commissioners, producers, venues…) to help make it happen. I can’t remember all the ins and outs of how the relationships came about – you’ll have to ask Max. But over the following months, he drew together a team of people who shared his dream. This included Baba Israel, artistic director of Contact, Manchester (who had been at the same event in Bristol); Mark Wallace, director of Beaford Arts; musician and producer Dan Gale Hayes; and me, Co-Director of Theatre at Take Art.
But before we even reached that stage, several other people had been instrumental in nudging the process along, including Paula Hammond, director of The Merlin in Frome at the time, and Hannah Ashwell, programming and events manager at Beaford Arts. A lot of people wanted the show to happen.
We all brought different things to the party: Contact was keen to produce the show (thanks Oliver!) and Baba to direct it. Beaford Arts provided space and resources at its beautiful centre in North Devon for research and development and I headed up an Arts Council G4A application and played a dramaturgical role. My colleague Sarah Peterkin, director of Take Art’s Live rural touring scheme, worked with Beaford and Contact to promote and market the show. A strong partnership all round.
rural and urban audiences
The idea behind CountryBoy’s Struggle was simple: a fish out of water story of a young MC who leaves his home in Cornwall to pursue his dreams in London. Through this, Max wanted to mix hip hop, comedy and physical theatre to make a show that could capture the universal themes of isolation and acceptance in a foreign environment.
We set ourselves the challenge of creating a show that could work successfully for both rural and urban audiences. We wanted to explore the aesthetics, relationships and tensions between what is meant by ‘rural’ and ‘urban’. How would a show, more usually at home in a studio space in Manchester or London, be received by village audiences in rural Somerset and Devon?
CountryBoy’s Struggle opened in October last year at the biennial Made in Somerset festival. It then went on to tour the south west and other venues across the UK. The response was phenomenal: audiences in village halls, schools, arts centres and theatres were captivated by Max’s portrayal of over 40 different characters to tell CountryBoy’s story.
CountryBoy’s Struggle Online is also currently viewing on The Space, Arts Council England and the BBC’s new online digital arts platform. And, supported by the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Fund, the show will embark on a 70-date tour this autumn in partnership with the NRTF (National Rural Touring Forum) and working with 20 rural touring schemes across the UK.
Obviously I have a vested interest in promoting the show. Maybe this is more of a plug than a blog. But I want people to see CountryBoy’s Struggle because, not only is it an extraordinary piece of work, it’s also a powerful testament to collaboration, shared risk and generosity of spirit.
CountryBoy has reached Edinburgh, but he still has a long journey ahead. And that offers plenty of opportunity to build on the tremendous progress achieved already in pushing the boundaries of work made and toured to rural venues across the UK.