Focus: Sheffield serves up Shakespeare for, by and with the people in A Dream
A balmy spring evening in Sheffield and Tudor Square, outside the Crucible Theatre, is packed. Sheffield People’s Theatre is performing Camelot: The Shining City, a large-scale collaboration with Slung Low, and about 100 people are parading through the public space: teenagers twirling flags, pensioners waving. A Land Rover swoops into view. Hundreds more are watching, fluttering St George’s Crosses and cheering from the sidelines. Even if I was wary of some of its imagery, there was no denying the force of that mass participation. This was theatre for, by and with the people.
Now Sheffield People’s Theatre is back, just over a year on, with its latest production. Chris Bush’s Shakespearean mash-up A Dream will feature a cast of 80 local residents, many taking on some of the most iconic roles in the Complete Works.
When Daniel Evans took over Sheffield Theatres seven years ago, he sought to restore its civic role and, in doing so, return the theatre to its city and its local community. Driving that was an essay he’d read a couple of years earlier: Charles Leadbeater’s The Art of With – a think piece that argued that participation would become pivotal to the arts in the 21st century.
Sheffield People’s Theatre has been central to that mission. The Crucible had long had its own youth theatre but, when the building reopened in 2009, there were lengthy waiting lists. “We wanted to open the theatre up a bit more,” remembers Emily Hutchinson, creative projects manager at Sheffield Theatres, now directing A Dream. “We wanted to make sure that everybody – across every generation – was getting the opportunity to be part of their theatre and create work on that stage.”
As part of the Crucible’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2011, Sheffield People’s Theatre was launched. Its opening salvo was a big boo-sucks to those who objected to the theatre back in 1971, bemoaning it as a brutalist eyesore in the city centre. Richard Hurford’s Lives in Art imagined the city without its theatre, banned by politicos, and allowed its cast of 60 local residents their rebellion – a kind of industrial town We Will Rock You. “From that point on, we’ve just grown.”
Infused with regional pride and local colour, the company’s subsequent shows – The Sheffield Mysteries and Camelot – have all set out to celebrate the city of Sheffield. It is the one thing every participant has in common, serving to draw a diverse group closer together. A Dream, however, marks a break. It’s set in Sheffield, though not an expression of it per se. As Bush says: “We’re very proud of our city, but we’ve explored it.”
That move came from the members, Hutchinson says. “They want to create work in its own right and just because they’re all from the city, they don’t always have to tell stories about the city.” A Dream, then, might be the moment participation comes into its own – as art, not just as activity.
Certainly, Bush is adamant that process and product have to go hand in hand. “They’re one and the same thing. People can tell whether what they’re making is any good, and they’ll have a lot more fun if it is.”
Set in a general hospital, against the backdrop of a local festival, Bush’s play borrows from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – its lovers, in particular – and swirls in a whole heap of other Shakespearean figures. Beatrice and Benedick, married 30 years, face being split up by surgery. Romeo is waiting for Juliet to come out of a coma. Miranda is in to pick up Prospero. Think of it as a kind of Bardic remix: Into the Wards, if you like.
The Mysteries, Camelot and now Shakespeare – these projects all have something of a folk feeling about them. All are hardwired into this country’s culture; stories that register with us not just as stories, but as part of our shared identity. “We feel like we know these stories,” says Bush. I’d go further: we feel like we own them.
3 other examples of participatory theatre
1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation
The Royal Shakespeare Company teamed up with amateur groups around the country for its nationwide tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Local actors played the Mechanicals alongside an RSC cast.
2. Camelot: The Shining City
Slung Low worked with Sheffield People’s Theatre in 2015 to create a large-scale, city-wide spectacular ( pictured above) that culminated in a mock battle fought in Peace Gardens. A cast of almost 100 local people took part.
3. The Passion of Port Talbot
National Theatre Wales’ weekend-long event in Port Talbot remains one of the most iconic instances of large-scale participatory theatre to date. With local hero Michael Sheen in the role of Jesus, community groups from across the town created individual events that fed into the whole narrative.
That’s perhaps debatable with Shakespeare, whose words, yes, launch Olympic opening ceremonies and BBC World Cup coverage, but whose plays can also seem remote and elitist. Handing them over to amateur actors, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did with its recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a great way to counter that. In fact, the push towards Shakespeare came from participants themselves. After each Sheffield People’s Theatre project, members complete a survey about what the company might do next. Last time, Shakespeare ranked highly, but that raised problems – partly the question of accessibility, partly plain logistics. “There’s not a lot of Shakespeare that can cater for casts of up to 100,” Hutchinson points out. The solution was a new play based on the playwright.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream offered a few benefits. First of all, familiarity – it’s the Shakespeare that serves as an introduction for so many of us – but also a wealth of parts. “You don’t have a single protagonist,” says Bush. “It has a really great company feel to it with lots of juicy parts.” That’s something Bush most enjoys, the chance to write for a large company: more than 70 this time. “Being told the more the merrier is a wonderfully liberating thing. I can’t think of any professional theatre company that could produce work on this scale.”
That benefits the Crucible as a whole, Hutchinson points out. “Those people become committed ambassadors of the theatre. They come to shows, bring members of their family, help us find people in their community who might be interested in what we’re doing here.” It is, again, a question of ownership and civic pride and that feeds back into the organisation itself. She talks of a “buzz” in the corridors when the company is around. “Sheffield People’s Theatre is now a community in its own right. They have their own Facebook page (642 members) and share details of other opportunities and arts events in the city.”
Sheffield People’s Theatre has changed the way the Crucible is seen. “It’s become much more relatable, much more welcoming, much more involved and invested in its community,” says Helen Oxley, 49, a People’s Theatre first-timer. Having taken part in the Mysteries, her 14-year-old son wanted to return for A Dream and, this time, she joined him. “I thought, why not have a go?”
It has, she says, been somewhat revelatory – “hard work, as you really have to invest a lot of yourself in it” – but rewarding, both artistically and socially. Participants rehearse two evenings a week and Saturdays between May and July. “There were so many people from so many diverse backgrounds, and because they don’t take on the same people year after year, it’s not cliquey at all. It just felt very welcoming.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship, essentially: a matter of a theatre that values its community itself being valued. “You want your theatre to be a hub, to be properly rooted in its community,” says Bush. “It’s great if a show that starts in Sheffield ends up in the West End, but a theatre has got to be, first and foremost, for its local audience.”
Production: A Dream
Venue: Sheffield Crucible
Starts: July 13
Ends: July 16
Press night: July 13
Author: Chris Bush
Director: Emily Hutchinson
Designer: Kevin Jenkins
Lighting: Gary Longfield
Sound: Nick Greenhill
Costume: Designed by Kevin Jenkins, created by Sheffield Theatres’ wardrobe department
Video: Nick Greenhill
Stage manager: Sarah Gentle
Production manager: Stuart West
Producer: Sheffield Theatres
Ticket prices: All performances £15, concessions £12.50
Production budget: £70,000