When Barrie Rutter left Northern Broadsides, it was clear the company needed a reboot. Laurie Sansom sets out a vision for the company and reveals how he found inspiration in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu
When Barrie Rutter founded Northern Broadsides in 1992 it was based on a simple but radical idea – to present classic and new plays in the “northern voice”. When I took over the company last year, it was clear it needed a reboot if it was to survive.
Barrie’s resignation followed a very public bust-up with Arts Council England and during a two-year interim period the company found itself under special measures. But it is a much-loved part of the theatre ecosystem, with a fiercely loyal audience. Many of them have told me that when they experienced Shakespeare performed with Yorkshire accents the plays spoke to them for the very first time. So what went wrong?
Barrie was absolutely right that the company was woefully underfunded to deliver two large-cast touring productions a year. Touring in the UK is in crisis and companies travelling from Newcastle to Salisbury with large ensembles and playing to popular audiences are rare. But the company was not connecting with its local community and its understanding of diversity hadn’t progressed beyond colour-blind casting. Although ACE conceded Broadsides was not funded enough to sustain two tours, it felt the company was barely meeting its goals in these areas so no extra funding was forthcoming. Barrie walked.
Many people seemed surprised when I took the post, but after dealing with toxic internal politics in a previous role, I had been reflecting on what really mattered to me as an artistic director and what had drawn me to the theatre in the first place. As a young, gay boy at a large comprehensive school in rural Kent, I felt stranded. I’d been bullied and was made to feel painfully aware that I didn’t belong. My sexuality seemed mixed up with an imaginative life not reflected in the world around me. When I discovered companies such as Complicité and Cheek by Jowl at the local arts centre, it was like a shot of adrenaline. A poster advertising the National Youth Theatre proved to be a lifeline, and a three-week workshop finally made me feel like I belonged somewhere for the first time in my life, with ideas and imagination being celebrated and shared without judgment.
As a director, I’ve worked for arts companies that have inclusivity and social change in their very DNA, but there is still a huge amount of snobbery and elitism in British theatre. I’ve worked for companies that don’t even realise they’ve become exclusive clubs; I’ve even been made to feel like I don’t belong in companies that I’ve been leading.
I hope Broadsides can become a lifeline for people struggling to find their place in the world
I hope in Broadsides I’ve found a new creative home that can become a lifeline for others struggling to find their place in the world. There are some quick wins – the company has created almost no work with local people in Halifax or Calderdale, so we are writing a new creative-engagement strategy. We are piloting a spoken-word project in the homes of South Asian women, and have an ongoing relationship with St Augustine’s Centre, which is one of the only local resources for people seeking sanctuary. At Christmas we devised a show with a local folk singer and two extraordinary musicians seeking asylum from Iran. That feels talismanic for a renewed Broadsides – our mission now is to reflect the multiplicity of northern voices that makes the region a vibrant, complex and evolving place.
Groundbreaking companies such as Slung Low and Fun Palaces have influenced the new and very welcome Arts Council guidelines insisting national portfolio organisations champion everyday creativity and co-creation. But an even bigger inspiration to me has been a company on the other side of the world.
A few years ago I took the gap year I’d never had, finding myself in Vanuatu, a nation of 86 islands in the South Pacific and one of the world’s most beautiful places. It’s also one of the poorest. Next to one of its most deprived settlements I found a theatre company called Wan Smolbag that blew my mind. Director Peter Walker and writer Joanne Dorras founded the company 30 years ago, and it now employs more than 100 local people, including 30 actors on full-time salaries, with several performance spaces on a site that includes a youth centre, hip-hop crew, nutrition centre, disabled-theatre group, sexual health clinic and Pride organisation. It costs 50 vatu to see a play (less than a bus fare) and its films are viewed on mobile phones on the remotest islands.
It has been my privilege to work with the company twice now, last year devising a show called Yu Stap Wea? (that can mean both “you live where?” and “what are you about?” in the national language of Bislama). The company challenges the corruption of its government, traditional or “kastom” practices that endanger the vulnerable, and endemic misogyny and homophobia. It also recognises there are basic needs to be met in the local community and that the theatre company can be a nexus for these services. This company changes lives every day.
For my first production, Quality Street, a surprisingly subversive Regency romcom from JM Barrie, we have put together a “creation squad”, a term I’ve adapted from my time with Wan Smolbag. “Squad! Squad! Squad!” would be the rallying cry bringing people together, and we’re setting ourselves the task of uniting professional artists and local people to make each new Broadsides show. We have been working with five amazing women who between them have more than 150 years of experience working in Halifax’s Quality Street factory, their wit and wisdom framing the action like a live-action Gogglebox. Shortly, we will be announcing a co-production of a new adaptation of a major classic for 2021, with a female playwright of South Asian heritage working with a creation squad of teenage girls from Leeds, Bradford and Halifax.
These creation squads will be made up of people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily see a Broadsides show and may never choose to spend their money on a theatre ticket. I’m delighted we could give free tickets for our Christmas show to the asylum seekers and refugees from St Augustine’s, and that we will have an invited audience of Quality Street factory workers and their families before we go out on tour. In some small way, we are trying to amplify the northern voices that are often not heard, while still championing classic and new theatre writing.
So I find myself back in Yorkshire, a little battered by the corporate structures of our larger national companies, but very happy to be ambitious for a touring company based in Halifax with 3.5 staff and very little money. If we can stay as ambitious as Wan Smolbag about the difference culture can make to people’s lives, then perhaps in due course we’ll have our own thriving hub here in Calderdale with a theatre company at the heart of a cultural project that can have real impact locally, even as it tours the country.