Liverpool-based theatremaker Luke Barnes tells Nick Awde about the recent Stories of the North open town hall, which encouraged northern artists to consider their identities and the changes they want to see
Last month, people in theatre, TV and film took part in an artist-led forum on Zoom to discuss how those in the north of England can take artistic power back. The artist-led open town hall, called Stories of the North, asked if there was such a thing as a northern identity and if so, how it defined artists and their work.
It asked what should northern stories look like and how can northern artists be useful? It’s a familiar conversation, but this time the coronavirus crisis offered a unique virtual space for people to create a tangible step forward.
The economic, social and cultural divide between north and south was established long ago, and the imbalance was particularly highlighted by Brexit and the 2019 general election. With the politicians and captains of industry still failing to revive the north with dead-end initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse and the HS2 rail link, can the performing arts come up with a plan for a sea change in parity in the face of an uncertain future?
Of course, the north has a string of mighty theatre organisations and companies such as Northern Stage, Opera North, Home, Manchester International Festival, Hull Truck, Middle Child, Red Ladder and so many other groundbreaking organisations, companies and festivals – alongside the BBC’s MediaCityUK. However, the way things stood pre-crisis there was no cohesive network that brought them all together.
“The idea was to keep the discussion artistic, to look into that shared commonality,” says Luke Barnes, the Liverpool-based writer and actor who organised Stories of the North, “and not to descend into a decimation of the responsibilities of theatres, drama schools, TV and film companies. It’s unfair to criticise our institutions for not trying to make changes at the moment because most of them are not in a position to do anything because of the crisis.”
He adds: “There were two main reasons I wanted to do the open town hall. The first was obviously from me personally not really knowing what ‘northern’ meant or how useful it was. The second came from my interest in what a ‘National Theatre of the north without walls’ would look like, how it would function culturally and practically, what work it would make.”
Barnes moved back to his hometown of Liverpool last year after being in London for a decade and the change of perspective made him look at the problem of creative and artistic retention in the north, how to empower people to stay and make work without having to go to London.
“You see so many artists, who are awesome, who go down there and get swallowed up and then give up. When actually they can have more impact and even make more money and have a better lifestyle if they actually stayed in one of the cities across the north. So right now, how can we empower people to do that?”
That brain drain to London was a concern that ran through the whole open town hall, all leading back to the north’s lack of access to money, exposure and culture. A telling comment on the pre-crisis state of the country was that everywhere is the north if you’re not in London or the South East.
‘People still have this idea of theatre being the altar to the genius’
“A lot of this is about finding ways of telling stories that don’t really exist within the parameters of what the public hears in the overpriced semi-irrelevant static storytelling that we often have,” says Barnes. “There was the opinion that we’re going to see a rise in storytelling happen outside of theatre spaces for a lot of reasons, one being that theatre outside of a traditional space can be like an event, which means it’s more accessible to audiences. So, there’s the worry that theatres will take even fewer risks post-crisis, while the more radical younger people will make work outside the buildings.”
While the need was obvious to all at the open town hall for a wider cultural relationship between the north and south, people pointed at the constant barriers provoked by the national media in pushing cultural preconceptions and stereotypes of northernness on to artists – flat caps, tracksuits, industrial grimness, depressed housing estates and so on.
Barnes saw that narrative decisively flipped when he worked in Hull on Middle Child’s production of his All We Ever Wanted Was Everything for the city’s year as UK Capital of Culture in 2017. “A mad thing happened. You went to Hull and everyone was like: ‘Hull’s shit, but it’s home. Like it’s shit, but it’s our shit.’ And then the Capital of Culture happened and they were going: ‘I like it here.’ It was a big shift. It sounds stupid but it changed the entire mentality of the city. The minute people start going: ‘I like it here’, bars pop up, cafes open, artists start making work, theatre is happening.”
That celebrates the idea of ‘value-added north’ but in terms of making work the consensus was that money remains the barrier – it’s a nationwide issue but it does pose a particular problem for the north if only because of geography. If the mathematics means the Arts Council England gives more money to the London borough of Islington than to all the former coalfield towns in the country, there’s clearly an imbalance.
Another major concern that came out of the open town hall was the increasing lack of press coverage. “The well-trodden model for theatremakers is that you have to take work to a festival or to London in order to get a few critics in. That’s the only way you can get a bit of attention and use it to instil confidence in producers to collaborate with you. In fact, that’s sadly going to be the case wherever you live in the country.”
‘The idea was to keep the discussion artistic, to look into that shared commonality’
Stories of the North has clearly hit a nerve with grassroots artists and crystallised what practitioners have known for a long time. Here were the opinions and visions of informed, experienced people who genuinely have the collective power to make a difference through action, having the means as a sector to create the opportunity if no one else creates it. But like all the other remote conversations in this particular moment, the danger is that when it all goes back to ‘normal’ post crisis, for many that will mean exactly the same problems as before and the opportunity will be lost.
“That is definitely my biggest concern,” says Barnes. “People are asking for the sort of revolutions that have been happening in Europe – the Milo Raus and Thomas Ostermeiers – but who’s going to be the person to do something? Our responsibility as artists is to ask: what can I physically control? What can I do to empower others? It has to be thinking on those terms because, personally, I’m not one of those people who says: ‘I’m going to topple power and burn it all down.’”
So how important is theatre as a tool for that revolution? “Not important enough, if I’m entirely honest, and that’s not a Liverpool thing, that’s a national thing. The reason being that people think of theatre as something that is for them or is fun or is a good thing to do. People still have this idea of theatre being the altar to the genius where you go and see the best actor do the best part of the best play.
“Maybe that’s well and good for some of the theatre sector but it can’t be the sum total. We have to find ways to make work that is socially, politically, philosophically and humanly resonant in a way that is accessible and sounds like something people would do. And it’s not about waiting for permission from anyone else do that.”
Slung Low, Leeds
Company making outdoors work, currently coordinating community care during the coronavirus crisis.
Centre for international contemporary art, theatre and film in Manchester.
Middle Child, Hull
Company creating gig theatre that tells untold stories.
Red Ladder, Leeds
Company producing and touring new work contributing to social change and global justice.
Newcastle Largest producing theatre company in the North East.
Forced Entertainment, Sheffield
Experimental theatre company with a strong presence internationally.
The UK’s leading black-led touring company.
Young Everyman Playhouse
Theatremaking for young people aged 14-25 across six different strands at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres.
Opera North, Leeds
English opera company based at the Leeds Grand Theatre and with regular seasons at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, Manchester’s Lowry Centre, and Theatre Royal Newcastle.
Northern Broadsides, Halifax
Company producing plays that reflect the diversity and multiplicity of voices in the north.