North East theatre in 2017 – a review

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 2nd January, 2018

Otherwise...

Apart from straitened budgets, the region’s theatrical life generally continued much as always. Most of the theatres in the region, from the largest to the smallest, from The Maltings in Berwick in the North to the southernmost Harrogate Theatre, are primarily receiving houses, and even the major producing houses—Northern Stage and Live in Newcastle, for example, and even Alphabetti—devote a significant part of their time to visiting productions.

And generally these visiting productions—plays, musicals, opera and ballet—are well supported.

But this does not mean that new writing is forgotten. Live Theatre encourages the production of new work though its Live Lab Elevator and its Live Lab Bursary, and numerous other opportunities for support, help and advice.

Northern Stage, too, supports new writing through Creative Team, its professional network for artists, through its programming of its smallest auditorium Stage 3 and its regular First in Three and Young Peoples’ First in Three evenings, opportunities to show work in progress in front of a supportive audience.

Alphabetti actively encourages new writing through various events, such as WriteBack (script-in-hand performances of short new pieces) and the 24-Hour Theatre Challenge, and by commissioning short scripts for the monthly Alphabetti Soup. They are also open to discussions about residencies and hosting performances.

Alphabetti is part of NEADN, The North East Artists’ Development Network, an organisation made up of Alnwick Playhouse, Alphabetti, Arts Centre Washington, Bishop Auckland Town Hall Theatre, Caedmon Hall Gateshead, Gala Durham, Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre, Saltburn Arts Theatre. Sunderland MACQ and The Witham, Barnard Castle, which offers financial and other support for new work by individuals or groups.

Scratch Nights, although not as popular as they were a few years ago, are still held, organised by individuals, at Northern Stage (Playing Up: organiser Lewis Cuthbert) and at The Exchange, North Shields (organiser Christopher Strain). Only two venues regularly run scratch nights at the moment, Durham’s Gala and ARC in Stockton.

ARC, in fact, is a tireless proponent of new work though its performance artist network ARCADE, its provision of space and other support, its associated artists scheme, and Cultural Shift, a three-year programme of artistic activity, led by disabled people at ARC, created to challenge perceptions, create new opportunities and introduce new people to the work of disabled artists. It works in conjunction with Little Cog, based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, which specialises in the production of professional Disability Art, working in a number of art forms including theatre, digital film and photography, visual art, temporary installation and living performance intervention.

Its production Butterfly was our choice for best one-person show in our review of the best of 2017.

Mention of Little Cog brings us to the small independent theatre companies which, generally, seem to have been less active this year. The largest concentration, as you would expect, is in Newcastle / Gateshead and include ZENDEH (which has just moved from Dance City to The Schoolhouse at Live Theatre), Curious Monkey (Special Mention in our 2017 awards), Unfolding Theatre, Open Clasp (Best Play this year), Coracle bringing new work to Alphabetti, Greyscale, The Six Twenty, Twenty Seven Productions, The Letter Room and Camisado Club (both of these latter two originated at Northern Stage as part of its NORTH project), and two new arrivals, Blowin’ a Hoolie which produced out Best Revival in 2017, and Workie Ticket Theatre, which aims to celebrate women's writing and support marginalised writers.

In Northumberland, there are well established companies like Northumberland Theatre Company which, in spite of losing its NPO status a few years ago, continues to tour; The November Club which is based in Morpeth; Hexham’s Théâtre sans Frontières, and, becoming increasingly more active (and so bucking the general trend), Prudhoe’s Mortal Fools.

North Tyneside has Cloud Nine, led by the BTG’s Peter Mortimer which usually produces a minimum of two shows a year (mainly, but not exclusively, Mortimer’s own work) whilst South Tyneside has Ion Productions, which tends to focus mainly on middle-of-the-road, quite commercial shows, and Made4Stage Productions which produces the work of its director, Wayne Miller.

Sunderland-based are Cranked Anvil, which is 2017 produced two short football related plays, and Theatre Space NE, best known for its Shakespeare (and other) summer plays in Sunderland parks and at Alnwick Castle.

Although there is considerable amateur theatre activity in County Durham (and student theatre in Durham City), there are just two areas of the county in which a theatre company is based: in the north west in Consett is Mad Alice TC which tours both regionally and nationally, specialising in theatre for children and young people and families, and in the south Darlington with Theatre Hullabaloo and ODDMANOUT.

On Teesside, Stockton has Steelworks, run by playwright and director Gordon Steel, and in Middlesbrough are Less Is More Productions, specialising in new writing, and Northeast Producers, touring summer shows and pantos.

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