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Middle Child: ‘We want to push the boundaries of what gig theatre can do’

Audience members at a performance of Middle Child’s I Hate Alone (2017). Photo: Sarah Beth Audience members at a performance of Middle Child’s I Hate Alone (2017). Photo: Sarah Beth
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Support from Hull City of Culture and becoming an NPO meant 2017 was a breakout year for the theatre company. Artistic director Paul Smith tells Natasha Tripney how the new status will allow Middle Child to make more work and support other artists in the city…

Since acquiring national portfolio organisation status last year, Hull-based gig-theatre specialists Middle Child has been on a roll. The results have vindicated the company’s determination to use the funding as creatively as possible, as a springboard for a large number of ambitious projects and schemes.

For one thing, the funding has allowed them to make more work, explains the company’s energetic artistic director Paul Smith: three shows a year now, including one for Hull audiences, a ‘plug-and-play’ touring show and an alternative pantomime.

It has also allowed Middle Child, says Smith with enthusiasm, to do what it had long wanted to do and set up an artist development programme to “give back to the community and make sure everyone benefits from this, not just us as a company”.

This programme includes a writers’ group, set up in association with the Royal Court Theatre in London, something Smith believes has been much needed in Hull. There’s also a play-text library for Hull residents, and a match-fund scheme that allows Middle Child to invest in other people making work in the city. “One of the things we found really difficult before [being an] NPO is core running costs, and how you pay yourselves, so we’re keen to help other companies overcome those obstacles,” Smith says.

‘This is just our first year as an NPO. We’re going to keep adding things. We’re going to do more’ – artistic director Paul Smith

Middle Child artistic director Paul Smith. Photo: Sarah Beth

There’s a career kick-starter fund that pays for headshots and Spotlight membership for up-and-coming actors, to help remove financial barriers for working-class artists in the city. And there’s a new critics’ programme for mentoring and supporting critics in the city that has included workshops from critics including Lyn Gardner and Exeunt’s Alice Saville.

“I’m a massive believer that everyone benefits from good criticism,” says Smith. “Up until recently, there hasn’t been much of a criticism culture in Hull. What I’m craving, as an artist, is for the work to be interrogated by the people that live here. I don’t want to feel like we have to go to Edinburgh to have our work spoken about. Good criticism helps you understand what you’ve made, what you’ve put out into the world and how it’s made people feel.”

He hopes the scheme can facilitate a thriving blogging culture in Hull. He admits some might find the idea of a theatre company supporting criticism questionable, but stands by it. “Artists benefit from criticism. If [the scheme’s participants] feel the need to pan one of our shows, that’s part of it, that’s the point.”

Smith cites David Byrne, artistic director of London’s New Diorama, winner of The Stage’s 2017 fringe theatre of the year award for its work supporting emerging theatremakers, as a key influence in the generous way Middle Child is using its NPO investment. Helping other artists is central to this, as is the need to follow through on ideas, to be proactive, Smith says. “It can be so difficult in a city like Hull to launch a career, to grow and develop. We’re trying to make an actual, practical difference. All it takes is a bit of creative thinking.”

If you want something to change, then talking is not enough. “You need to do it, change it, make it happen,” he says. “This is just our first year. We’re going to keep adding things. We’re going to do more.”

Middle Child formed in 2011. Though Smith and the other company members met at university, the idea of starting a company in Hull came later. While Smith was at LAMDA, Hull Truck founder Mike Bradwell ran a session in which he told students the “time is right to squat a building and make some art”. This message resonated with Smith so much that it inspired him to write a manifesto.

“We love the city, we care about it, so let’s go back and make something happen. We started with the idea of making capital-P political theatre,” Smith says.

The coalition government had just been formed and they were angry and scared about the future. But, Smith admits, the work wasn’t great. “We were trying to sound clever. We were trying to make work the industry would like rather than work we cared about.”

Scene from Middle Child’s I Hate Alone. Photo: Sarah Beth

Eventually they realised the people they wanted to engage with weren’t going to the theatre, and they “certainly weren’t going to our theatre”. The audience they craved was going to gigs instead. To reach those people, Middle Child had to change the form of the work it was making. The solution: gig theatre. Though as Smith takes pains to point out, gig theatre means more than just a show with a guitar in it. “It’s about the entire atmosphere created by the piece. It’s about the venues you choose and your pricing strategy.”

Shows such as the euphoric Weekend Rockstars and Ten Storey Love Song fused music and new writing in inventive ways. Then there was the Luke Barnes-scripted All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, which was presented in a very different way in Hull to the version people saw in Edinburgh. Middle Child put it on in a nightclub as a promenade piece with scenes taking place throughout the club. Each act of the play functioned as a short episode and in the gaps between they programmed local bands.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything review at the Welly Club, Hull – ‘surreal and exhilarating’

“We hooked up with Humber Street Sesh, a local music festival, and programmed a mini-festival around the show so each night there would be a different band,” Smith says.

Making work in spaces people feel comfortable in, featuring bands they like, attracts people who might ordinarily baulk at the idea of going to the theatre, the artistic director says. He cites a moment that encapsulates what the company hopes to achieve: two men who were taking the piss out of each other in the gents at the start of the evening for coming to the ‘theatre’ got so into it by the end of the show they were crying.

The company’s new touring piece One Life Stand sees Middle Child once again combining new writing with an original score. But, says Smith, it will have an entirely different feel to last year’s show. “We want to keep pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved through gig theatre,” he says. “I want each new Middle Child show to mirror that feeling when your favourite band bring out their latest album; the style is familiar but the content and form is entirely new.”


Paul Smith on…

… Delaying a performance of One Life Stand for the England versus Croatia World Cup semi-final:

“It was really nice to have our own mini-community for the night, people feeling the emotions of both the football and the theatre together. Not an easy task for the actors though, not knowing when they’re going on and having to do so after extra time and much later than advertised. We got a mix of reactions to changing the time for the football, but on balance it felt like the right decision.”

Written by Eve Nicol, it is a piece about people’s desire for connection and the fact that young people are having less sex than previous generations despite the fact that people are more connected than ever. Working with musician James Frewer and Glasgow band Honeyblood, they set about creating a score that reflected “all the complexities and anxieties of the digital age, while also celebrating the positive effects of making the world smaller”.

It’s clear from speaking to Smith that Hull City of Culture 2017 had a real impact on the company. “They identified us as someone they wanted to support and invest in. There’s a clear line from the time we met with them to where we are now as an NPO. They made us think bigger and demanded more from us.”

This “upscaling of ambition” played a key part in the creation of All We Ever Wanted. It also made Smith think about ways in which Middle Child could build on the experience. “The year changed how the city viewed itself. It made people feel that, yes, we have a lot to be proud of.”

Smith is interested in what happens next. “The frustrating thing about legacy is that people think it’s something that happens to them rather than something they can create,” he says. “The city needs to carry on the feeling there was last year. Hull has changed and we need to capitalise on that. If we believe it was a one-off, then we’re doomed. We need to be the legacy.”

One Life Stand is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, from August 1-26; All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is at the Bush Theatre, London, from October 31 to November 24. middlechildtheatre.co.uk

Middle Child profile

Artistic director: Paul Smith
Executive director: Mungo Beaumont
Number of staff: Four full-time, plus freelances
Projected turnover 2018/19: £300,000-£350,000
Funding level (in 2018/19): £150,000 from Arts Council England, £40,000 from Absolutely Cultured and
Hull City Council
Contact: Middle Child Theatre, Darley’s, Porter Street, Hull HU1 2JE
Phone: 01482 221857

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