In the Autumn of 2009 I was asked by Erica Whyman, the Artistic Director of Northern Stage, Newcastle, to be involved in their ‘Northern Stages’ project, a year-long, international ‘conversation about Northernness’, which the theatre was embarking on as part of their 2010 40th anniversary celebrations. I was very flattered and touched to be asked. Northern Stage was where I was first exposed to theatre and where I discovered it might just be possible to do this theatre-lark for a living. Erica has worked wonders in re-energising the place: apart from the great theatre that they’re producing and presenting, they’re offering emerging artists from the region meaningful opportunities to learn and grow. And it’s the only theatre in the country with the words ‘L O V E L Y’ in big, bright, neon lights above the bar. Here are those lights in their original incarnation:
Little touches like that make a difference. She’s a very inspiring person, Erica. Erica’s brief to me back in 2009: to curate and direct a piece which brought together northern voices/writing, to be staged within a Northern Stage 40th birthday evening on their main stage in November 2010. As ‘Northern Stages’ involved the work of different international companies with a geographical or artistic relationship to ‘the North’, she felt that this piece might enable the project to conclude in an interesting way: in a sense, by landing back home. My suggestions were that the piece should not only encompass theatre writing, but also poetry and prose writing, and that the extracts should be from the last 40 years. She agreed. Great. Let’s go.
What actually is a northern voice? Does it mean a writer born in the North of England? But what if their writing doesn’t possess a strong sense of place? And what if they don’t live or write within the North of England anymore? Do they still then qualify as a ‘northern’ voice?
To help narrow my focus, I gave myself some restrictions…
- There should be a geographical spread (North East, North West, North Yorks, South Yorks, Humberside) of voices.
- Each extract should – if possible – include place specific language or dialect.
- Each extract should be located within, and conjure up, a specific geographical landscape within the North of England.
- (And to help focus things a bit more) Each extract should explore a youthful rite of passage. In other words, say something about the experience of growing up.
…and then I read stuff. Loads of stuff. I loved it. To read so many voices in a condensed period of time, all expressing experiences and landscapes and people that I recognised, in a way that I related to, was exhilarating. The project began to feel personal. When I first began working professionally as a director twelve years ago my first two jobs were in central London, quickly followed by another in Stratford-Upon-Avon with the RSC. In theory, theatre’s a great leveller – you can encounter, work alongside and forge relationships with people from all walks of life and from all areas of the country. That’s occasionally true, but in my experience it’s a bit more complicated than that. The theatre industry really isn’t the broadest church culturally, geographically, educationally and – yep – class/social background-wise (and with growing numbers of unpaid ‘trainee-ships’ offered by theatre organisations and recent rises in tuition fees it’s getting noticeably worse). In these early jobs I felt, for the first time, a sense of ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. Later, I moved to London to work for a couple of years, eventually coming back home to work at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. ‘Coming back’? I’d never lived in Manchester before. I’m a Durham lad. But immediately, when I got off the train at Piccadilly, it felt like I had come home. I was working alongside kindred spirits. Manchester – its landscape, its people, its spirit – it felt like home. Those feelings came to the surface again when reading these voices.
The eventual piece that we created was titled ‘Northern Spirit: A Pop Art Anthology About Growing Up In The North’ and was really well received. Here’s the original logo designed by John Disley of Northern Stage, inspired by Peter Blake and Jamie Reid:
I was lucky in that we gathered together a highly inventive, playful and spirited ensemble of young actors from across the North of England – Neil Grainger, Sally Hodgkiss, David Judge and Iris Roberts – and it was an unusual treat to hear a range of contemporary North of England dialects in one theatre space.
Beckie Darlington, who is producing this project and project managed the ‘Northern Stages’ year, did a remarkable job in obtaining permissions. Through her many phone calls and emails the performance collage eventually featured writing from, among others, Shelagh Delaney, Matthew Dunster, Paul Farley, Jarvis Cocker, Andrea Dunbar, Barry Hines, Chloe Moss, Simon Stephens, Jacob Polley, Mark Hodkinson, John Cooper Clarke, Sid Chaplin and Helen Walsh. Not a bad line-up. And although each extract was place specific, common values, shared reference points, thematic threads and a particular attitude and spirit clearly emerged. Working on the project enabled me to consider, for the first time, how the part of the world where I feel I’m from, and where I feel most at home, has influenced not only the kind of work that I make, but also how I go about making it. I began to wonder what it would mean to collaborate with other artists who have an affinity for this part of the world and how it might enrich and inspire our work together.
“I approached Chris originally because I thought he had a unique, generous and imaginative perspective on the North of England. The piece of work which he developed far exceeded our initial expectations, bringing together a fascinating range of young Northern voices, exploring the relationship between contemporary prose and the stage and encouraging outstanding performances from the young actors. ‘Northern Spirit’ embodied our belief that there are rich creative dialogues possible and necessary between different cities and regions in the Greater North. I’m excited and intrigued by where this experience has led Chris in his thinking both about cross-artform work and in his desire to bring to the stage an image and a story about the North which firmly belongs to a new generation, challenges stereotypes and celebrates the gritty, witty optimism of this part of the UK.”
When choosing extracts for this original version of Northern Spirit I was surprised and saddened by how difficult it was to find positive dramatic stories for the theatre located in contemporary North of England settings. Prose, poetry, song lyrics – no problem at all. A sentimentalised North of the past preserved in aspic; a contemporary North of struggle, hardship and social deprivation; a place to escape from, or a place to return to and look down upon; a generalised ‘north’ made up of cliché and habits of imagination, with no acknowledgement of its extraordinary diversity. If the theatre expresses the North at all, it will be in one of these ways. It’s a big image problem that can’t be tackled by one North of England region alone.
Northern Spirit: Imagining the North Now is the name of our company. Northern Spirit the title of this endeavour. Northern Spirit is a community of multi-disciplinary artists and theatre writers from across the North of England, working together in collaboration. Theatre is a great meeting point for different art forms and different kinds of artists.
We feel it’s time to see the North in a new light, with fresh eyes, and want to present a fresh and surprising idea of what North of England-located theatrical drama can be. We want to invest the landscape and the experiences that you can have here with a sense of magic, joy and excitement, with a wide-screen intensity, with glamour and with romance. We want to celebrate the variety and beauty of the linguistic North. We want to present a more positive, more complex, more energetic and more surprising theatrical idea of the North to the world. Economic growth/cultural confidence is strongly, and obviously, connected to how the North is perceived externally and by its own self-image. Northern Spirit can make a very positive and lively contribution to a positive change. This project will provide space and opportunity for multi-disciplinary artists, theatre-makers and writers with an emotional and imaginative relationship to the North of England to make collaborative work within this part of the world. It encourages them to make work that is inspired by and which celebrates North of England landscapes and experiences. It actively encourages them to challenge the clichés and habits of imagination that tend to dominate how the North of England is expressed dramatically. We feel that this is important.
But this new idea of the North can’t be imagined by one region alone.
And it can’t be created through a closed conversation between artists.
Creating an opportunity for open cross-city region conversation is what this digital space is all about….
Northern Spirit is – above all else – a big, open, creative, cross-regional conversation - between artists, writers, makers and creators, and imaginative people who don’t see themselves as artists – facilitated by digital technologies. Digital peer-to-peer systems are the contemporary equivalent of canals and railways, technologies that facilitated interaction and the sharing of ideas that ultimately enabled the North of England to be, for a period of time, the international centre of innovation. We think the North of England’s a bit like a digital space – built up of hundreds of separate parts that come together to make a whole. And, equally, a community that’s open to everyone.
The North’s a really huge, diverse place – so just for starters we’re focusing on four areas: the Manchester City Region, the Sheffield City Region, the Liverpool City Region and Tyne and Wear. We’re using the notion of ‘city regions’ throughout our work, partly because we’re inspired by the 2004 devolution strategy ‘The Northern Way’ – which defined these regions to help focus on issues important for the whole of the North, issues that couldn’t be tackled by one region alone. But also because ‘city regions’ allows us to broaden our artistic focus to the dramatically under-looked places that surround city-centers.
The Northern Spirit conversation is about how we all see a part of the world that we love and how we’re inspired by its different landscapes. It’s about celebrating all that’s surprising and under-looked, and about discovering the points of connection between different regions and places across the North. The theatre art form is the meeting point for this conversation. The project’s theatrical outcome - A Wondrous Place - its distilled expression. Five theatre/new writing organisations from across the North – Northern Stage, Newcastle; Sheffield Crucible, The Royal Exchange, Manchester; New Writing North and the Unity Theatre, Liverpool – are mentoring the project and will join us in the creative conversation.
Most of all, we’d love you to join us.
Chris Meads – Northern Spirit Director.
All images from the original version of ‘Northern Spirit’ by Topher McGrillis