Rod’s Blog 15.07.14
I’ve just come back from the Durham Miner’s Gala where we opened Boff’s new hard hitting comedy musical ‘We’re Not Going Back’. After four weeks rehearsal this has been one of the most collaborative processes ever – with all four performers (3 actors and a musician) working together to develop the script and embrace Boff’s invitation to make the dialogue as realistic and conversational as possible. Along with Beccy Owen’s really brilliant arrangements of Boff’s songs (all gorgeous three and four part harmonies and blends) – the final show is a really moving and empowering comedy which does not shy away from the politics of the miner’s strike. We heard an interview with another theatre company making a piece about the strike and the director said that it’s a complicated subject – it wasn’t “black and white”. In our view he couldn’t be more wrong – it was definitely black and white, it was the nearest we came to civil war in this country since Cromwell’s time. This week in Durham we attended various meeting and talks about the miner’s strike arranged alongside our performance and tales of the brutality and violence that the mining communities suffered were both shocking and upsetting. To call the strike an organised attack on working class unionised communities is really not an exaggeration.
‘We’re Not Going Back’ is a beautiful piece of work. The play follows the lives of three sisters in 1984 starting with Isabel’s 18th birthday and ending with her 19th at the end of the strike in 1985. The three sisters are so different and so mismatched that you wonder if they can ever get over their differences. The strike brings them together in a powerful way and this story becomes less about the miner’s strike and more about community, family and the core values that cement those. Consequently, audiences do not have to be remotely interested in the strike to enjoy the play – it is much deeper than that. The music is simply breathtaking – and in several places the audience was stunned or snuffling back tears. Karen Reay, Unite’s Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East Regional Secretary had commissioned us to make a piece of theatre specifically for the 130th Gala and the 30th anniversary of the strike. At every step of the process I was worried – not because I don’t trust Boff as a writer or the actors as highly skilled professionals – but because the responsibility to tell this story truthfully without it becoming over-burdened with facts was, is, huge. By the time we had finished technical rehearsals we all knew we had made a good piece of work – but I was still petrified when the hall filled with over 300 trade unionists and ex-miners. Many of these people lived through the struggle, those that didn’t know a great deal about it. We were given one main condition – we were not to mention Arthur Scargill. He does get a mention but the gag before this mention stimulated such a roar of laughter that his mention was drowned out! My fears were quickly allayed – the audience laughed at every gag, every political snipe, every swipe at politicians. Boff writes an account of events at Orgreave against the comic backdrop of the fish counter at Kwiksave. Over three hundred people sat in tense silence at the end of a beautiful song entitled ‘This Was War’ – the silence was only seconds but it felt like minutes. Then a voice shouted “Bravo!” and the audience erupted into applause and whistles and shouts – it really shook the actors who were playing ‘emotional’ but then the reaction caused them to really feel the power of their own performances. Moments like that are rare in theatre – I will cherish that moment for the rest of my life.
After the performance Beccy Owen, our musician and musical director, announced that all the proceeds from the post cards we are selling as ‘programmes’ will be donated to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and then she announced that Red Ladder have suffered a 100% cut in our Arts Council funding.
This news shocked the audience and lots of people came up to donate to our ‘Save Red Ladder‘ campaign. An MEP for Labour in the north east said she would donate all her expenses – from September once she is in Brussels – which is incredibly generous – and shows how much she was moved by the show.
Our funding cut is a massive blow. We all felt our bid was well written and met all the Arts Council goals strongly. The impact of this cut will be far reaching. We will have to move out of our offices in Yorkshire Dance. This will mean Dick Bonham’s company ‘Little Mighty’ will be thrown out – so our support of his organisation will go. We can no longer offer our free actor training Red Grit – which has been going now for seven years and which recruits itself now. Several hundred people have been through the course and more than several have used it to get professional acting jobs or places at drama school.
But every cloud has a tinge of silver. Back in 2006 several people were surprised when I told them I had taken over the directorship of Red Ladder – not surprised that they’d given me the job (!) but surprised the company were still in existence because they hadn’t heard of them for years. On July 1st when we broke the news that we were not in the NPO the outpouring from across the country has been considerable – and we were recognised by the national media as being one of the ‘high profile’ cuts to theatre. We are a much better company than three years ago when we lost £90,000 of our funding. We have been reviewed nationally and shows like ‘Big Society’ with Phill Jupitus put us back in the national profile – with our smallest show ‘Wrong ‘Un’ being given four and five star reviews in the regional and national press. Indeed one of our first donations came from Clare Brennan from The Observer who had loved ‘Wrong Un’. Since then we have received donations from right across the nation and some people have given far more than ‘a tenner’ to our ‘Gisatenner’ campaign – some donations in the hundreds. I suppose really we need people to send Alan Davey at Arts Council a short email explaining that the decision is a grave mistake and asking him to guarantee that we will continue to receive Arts Council support through Grants for the Arts or the Strategic Touring funds. We genuinely tour strategically – a tour of a play to rugby league clubs is really taking work to a new audience. That audience tends to be people who buy lottery tickets and as much of the NPO funding will come from lottery ticket sales it seems wrong that those people cannot access or afford a lot of the ‘great art’ that the Arts Council are funding. That Opera North were given a massive uplift (in real terms nearly £3 million) was a surprise to say the least – and I can’t imagine many working class lottery ticket buyers can afford to go to the opera.
If you want to help – go to www.saveredladder.co.uk to see our simple three steps to supporting us – we will go on somehow!
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.