Live Theatre continues to carry the torch for local new writing with plays by Alison Carr (Iris), Shelagh Stephenson (Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing), David Almond (The Savage) and Nina Berry (The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes) during 2016.
Harriet Martineau was the second play in a trilogy Stephenson has been commissioned to write for the theatre, exploring the contemporary relevance of Tyneside’s political and cultural heritage. The first was A Northern Odyssey (2010) which deals with the visit of American painter Winslow Homer to Cullercoats in 1881.
Live also co-produced (with The Marlowe Theatre) the Paper Birds’ Mobile, performed in a caravan in the Live Garden, which went on to tour nationally.
The theatre’s commitment to new writing is shown in its Live Lab initiative, offering support and advice to writers of all abilities, from first-time writers to successful playwrights, through courses, events such as talks by established playwrights, a free Introduction to Playwriting course and a writers’ group. It also has a Writer in Residence post, jointly with Northumbria University.
Also based in Newcastle, of course, is the much larger Northern Stage which presented three major productions in 2016: Torben Betts’s re-working of Get Carter, local writer Lee Mattinson’s version of the film Purely Belter, The Season Ticket, and its Christmas show, David Wood’s version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It co-produced, with West Yorkshire Playhouse, Improbable’s Opening Skinner’s Box.
It also produced Julie, Zinnie Harris’s version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, giving Rebecca Frecknall, Resident Director at Northern Stage as part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme, a chance to shine, an opportunity which she grasped with both hands.
Stage 3, the venue’s smallest auditorium (which used to be the foyer and bar when the theatre first opened some forty-odd years ago), is home to small-scale new writing, including the regular First in 3, works-in-progress being presented for the first time in Stage 3, and Young People’s First in 3, presenting work by 16-25 year olds. Among finished new work shown in the venue in 2016 was Caroline Liversidge’s A Living, a one-woman show developed with support from ARC Stockton. They also make their space and expertise available to emerging artists through their Creative Residencies programme.
Northern Stage takes its responsibility towards the new generation of actors and directors very seriously, providing a range of workshops and masterclasses for actors, including the Young Company for performers aged 16 to 21 and a summer school for 11- to 18-year-olds, and working with the JMK Trust to offer a series of professional development workshops for Young & Emerging Directors in the North.
During 2016 it ran NORTH 2016, a 16-week development programme for emerging actors under the direction of Associate Director Mark Calvert, which culminated in a production of Animal Farm in March.
Also in Newcastle is Alphabetti, housed in the basement of an old, due for redevelopment office block in the city centre. As well as providing a space for much small-scale work (especially new writing) from the region and beyond, Alphabetti is also a producing house and for me this year, outstanding were Richard Stockwell’s Continuum, a revival of its first production; The Frights by Louise Taylor, this time accompanied by two plays (by Amy Mitchell and Arabella Arnott) which it inspired; Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers by Gary Kitching and Steve Byron (which was also used as a stimulus for other writing) and a revival of a concept used in 2015, The Rooms, new writing inspired by parts of the building which most of the public never see. The one-person plays were by Sarah Gonnet, Laura Lindow and Becci Sharrock, were directed by women and performed by men.
Not only is the theatre open to hosting work by local companies, it also runs a fairly regular WriteBack event in which new plays are given rehearsed readings and a (usually) once-a-year 24-Hour Theatre Challenge in which a company arrives, is supplied with caffeine and some stimulus and then has 24 hours to create something. In addition Alphabetti commissions a new ten minute play for its monthly Alphabetti Soup, an evening of comedy, music, spoken word and theatre.
Whilst the Customs House in South Shields has been able to offer a home to local companies, thanks to tight financial circumstances it has only been able to produce one in-house production this year (apart, of course, from their ever popular panto). This was a new musical, The Dolly Mixtures, with book and lyrics by Tom Kelly, whose work the theatre has produced many times over the years, and music by his long-time musical collaborator, John Miles. For the first time in its history, the Customs House took to crowd-funding to finance the show’s production, alongside support from local businesses.
Durham’s Gala returned to producing during the year with two World War I related shows, the Battle of the Somme commemoration 1916: No Turning Back, as much an installation as a play, and The Fighting Bradfords by Carina Rodney, the true story of the wartime service of four brothers from Witton Park in Country Durham.
Stockton’s ARC, in conjunction with a number of similarly sized venues, was instrumental in helping to develop new work during the year and has the most regular work-in-progress evenings of any theatre in the region, the monthly ARCADE scratch night which is closely tied to their performance artist network of the same name, which is a free membership scheme open to professional practitioners.