Boisterous Theatre Company is the brainchild of writer Maurice Bessman and director Miriam Mussa. They felt that, despite improvements, creatives from ethnic minority backgrounds like them still weren’t being represented in Liverpool’s theatre community. Catherine Love finds out how, after more than 10 years of collaboration, they finally feel like they are making a difference
Boisterous Theatre Company was set up in Liverpool last year to nurture and promote black, Asian and minority ethnic creatives and at the same time bring the experience of live theatre to a non-traditional audience.
The company’s first show, Bouncers, was staged at the city’s Royal Court last summer and more than a third of its tickets were bought by people who had never set foot inside the theatre before. Now, building on the work of the past 12 months, the company is preparing for its latest production, as well as setting out its ambitions for the future.
Boisterous was founded by director Miriam Mussa and writer Maurice Bessman under the Royal Court’s producing umbrella. Mussa is currently community education manager at the theatre on Roe Street, while Bessman’s previous work includes writing for TV shows Brookside, Hollyoaks and Casualty, as well as a number of stage shows including Terriers, which deals with gang culture and has been seen by more than 120,000 schoolchildren in the past decade.
The pair’s working relationship goes back more than 20 years and Boisterous is not the first time they have started a theatre company. In 1997, they founded Nyeusi, which received Arts Council backing and the support of Royal Court executive producer Kevin Fearon, who was general manager of the Liverpool Everyman at the time.
The company staged two Bessman plays – Cleo and That Golden Moment – at the Everyman and later took them to Edinburgh. It also worked in collaboration with Liverpool Football Club’s community unit.
Nyeusi proved to be short-lived – partly because its founders became busy with other projects and partly due to the challenge of securing funding during the early years of New Labour when, Bessman suggests, “it felt like consensus politics, that everything was okay”.
Despite an increasing profile for BAME practitioners – the Black Theatre Live consortium supported the work of 210 diverse companies from 2015 to 2018, for example – Mussa says that 20 years on from Nyeusi, she and Bessman still felt they weren’t seeing themselves “represented on stage as creatives. Still not as much as they should be.”
Fearon, meanwhile, admits he didn’t realise he had also supported Nyeusi at its inception but adds: “It’s just that each time when they’re doing this, you think: ‘This is a good thing, let’s help them.’ It’s a no-brainer. It’s on three levels: friendship with Miriam and Maurice, developing black talent and developing black audiences. You couldn’t say no.”
Choosing John Godber’s classic play as Boisterous’ inaugural production was designed to show the diverse skills of the cast, and also to avoid being stereotyped as a company concerned solely with BAME-related issues or, in Mussa’s words, existing to “shout political stuff”.
Godber gave Bessman the go-ahead to rework his script, and Mussa enlisted actor and movement director Zain Salim to inject a physical energy into the remix-style production, which also featured a live set by Liverpool’s DJ Spykatcha. Bouncers enjoyed a sell-out run in the theatre’s 150-seat basement studio before transferring – with a partial cast change – to the main stage last August and playing to houses made up partly of Royal Court regulars and partly theatre first-timers.
Although the Royal Court doesn’t ask people to identify their ethnicity, there is strong evidence to suggest a positive response from Liverpool’s BAME communities to Boisterous’ work. Mussa, who was at almost every show, points out: “You can’t ask your audience, but you can see the postcodes.” She talks of meeting a woman from the local black community: “She was 50 and it was her first visit to any theatre. She told me: ‘I’m a theatre virgin’, and that she didn’t know it could be like that.”
“An audience member thought it would be posh people talking about Shakespeare. He’d never been to a theatre before and was blown away” – Maurice Bessman
Bessman, in turn, was struck by the words of a man who came in thinking it was just going to be “‘posh people talking about Shakespeare’. He’d never been to a theatre before and was blown away”. Along with attracting a new and more diverse audience, Boisterous also aims to support actors who might not usually get the chance to perform on a city stage.
Mussa says one of the reasons for starting Nyeusi in the 1990s was because they knew of up-and-coming local black actors who were struggling to find work, finally taking “nine-to-five jobs and giving up”.
Salim, who played the dual role of Ralph and Suzy in both productions of Bouncers, points out that the show gave at least three cast members an opportunity that was otherwise not on offer. Two had already given up acting for more regular work.
1. The company is named Boisterous because it wanted to say something about the type of work it plans to do – and because as a child, writer Maurice Bessman was always told: “Just don’t be so boisterous.”
2. While Boisterous creates its own shows, financially and technically they are currently produced under the umbrella of Liverpool’s Royal Court.
3. Director Miriam Mussa and playwright Maurice Bessman have worked together on projects since 1996.
4. Of 12 cast members to be featured in shows so far, eight had previously left the acting profession due to a lack of opportunities in the city. Rehearsal schedules are flexible so they work around actors’ day jobs.
5. Thirty-five percent of tickets sold for Bouncers were bought by people who had never seen a play at Liverpool’s Royal Court before.
While opportunities for BAME creatives have arguably improved in the past two decades, the team feels strongly that companies like Boisterous still have an important role to play. Salim says that BAME actors are being cast more frequently, “but when you’re not used to seeing it, I think two or three people seems like a lot”.
The Royal Court itself employs colour-blind casting, but Fearon says that, until now, its regular casting process has not brought it into contact with many black actors based in the region. He hopes one of the knock-on effects of Boisterous nurturing black creatives and giving them a platform will be evident in the theatre’s own programming.
Boisterous’ latest production, Misunderstood?, opens on May 31 in the Royal Court’s Studio. The play, with original music by playwright Barbara Phillips, was first staged by performing arts training and production company Positive Impact at the Everyman in 2005. Coincidently, a teenage Salim appeared in it as the narrator.
This revival is a collaboration with the training company, and young songwriters are involved in updating the music alongside Phillips, who had previously worked with Bessman on Brookside.
As for the future, Fearon says he would ultimately love to see Boisterous become an important national touring company. “But until everything is in place for that, I think showcasing what they can do here in Liverpool comes first.”
Mussa and Bessman are thinking along the same lines, with ambitions to work on co-productions with other companies and venues. Bessman has an idea for a major historical piece in collaboration with a Toxteth-based Capoeira (a form of Brazilian martial arts, dance and movement) arts group, while there are also discussions about special scratch nights at the Royal Court.
Above all, they want to bring people from all backgrounds together in memorable shared experiences. “A musician and actor I know said it was fantastic to come to the theatre as a young, black man and see everybody laughing at the same thing,” says Mussa of Bouncers. “All of us, in our diversity, have the same sense of humour. And I thought: ‘Yes, that’s great, that’s what theatre can do.’”
Artistic director: Miriam Mussa
Number of performances in 2018: 34
Audience figures in 2018: 7,904
Turnover: £81,000 from ticket receipts
Funding: £10,000 from the Liverpool Mayoral Fund. Support in kind from Royal Court Liverpool through its ACE NPO status.
Key contacts: Miriam Mussa – firstname.lastname@example.org