The headlining stories

Live Theatre—then without a theatre of their own but performing in whatever spaces would take them—was started in 1973 by a group of actors led by playwright, director, teacher and TiE activist Geoff Gilham, who died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 55. Most of that group would go on to become major names in NE theatre. Round about 1976/7 Max Roberts joined as an actor but later moved on, returning to become Artistic Director in 1985.

“My first production in '85 was The Long Line by Tom Hadaway where Robson Green made his professional debut,” he says. “The show also featured Val McLane, Annie Orwin, Davy Whittaker and Sammy Johnson.”

Last year, Roberts stepped down from the post to become Emeritus AD and Joe Douglas, who has worked with Dundee Rep, the National Theatre of Scotland and The Traverse, Edinburgh. His first production at Live was Clear White Light but he is also celebrated by people in the business for his institution of open networking sessions for independent theatre makers every first and third Friday in the Undercroft where there’s often also a lunchtime talk about what's on or creative opportunities at Live, or the chance to speak with visiting artists about their work and practice.

Theatre and the arts are no longer an important part of regional newspapers. In fact, none of the regional dailies now have an arts / entertainment / culture editor. Viv Hardwick’s last stories for The Northern Echo ran in January, and then during the year David Whetstone (The Journal) and Gordon Barr (The Chronicle) were made redundant. All three titles still run reviews, but they are provided by unpaid freelances (Northern Echo) or general news staff (Journal and Chron).

The departure of Whetstone would seem to be accompanied by the demise of the Journal Culture Awards (twelve years old last year).

Local papers, such as the Sunderland Echo and Shields Gazette, also have no specialist editors and what reviews they print are by general news staff. Regular weekly theatre / entertainment coverage no longer seems to happen.

Now the only regular reviewers of North East theatre are bloggers and online publications such as the BTG—and, of course, Chris Collett of The Stage.

We learn that work on the new auditorium, part of The Old Fire Station complex next to Sunderland Empire, will start very soon. Situated in Garden Place and Dun Cow Street, the venue will have retractable seating for 450 and will also be able to host 700 people standing. There will also be an outdoor stage and open area music and performance space to the rear of the Fire Station.

Quietly, during the year, I began to hear rumours of a new professional theatre company based in Durham City. This was quite exciting news as there hasn’t been a professional company based in the city since the demise of the Durham Theatre Company in the mid-nineties. The DTC had been one of a number of similar groups: Pocket Theatre in Cumbria, Cleveland Theatre (which eventually became Theatre Hullabaloo) and Northumberland Theatre Company (which still manages to keep going in spite of the loss some years ago of its Arts Council NPO status).

With one foot in Manchester and the other in Durham, the Elysium Theatre Company began performances in small venues in 2017. Its first production was J P Miller's Days of Wine and Roses in a new version by Owen McCafferty, which played at the Assembly Rooms, a Durham University venue, in Durham and then in Manchester in October 2017. Next came the Northern première of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the A Train, also at the Assembly Rooms for one night in May 2018 before moving to Home, Manchester, where David Chadderton reviewed it. Also at the Assembly Rooms was Two by Beckett. Its first major NE production was Jez Butterworth’s The River at the City Theatre, an amateur company’s venue, in November. In March it will tour Strindberg’s Miss Julie, including one performance at the Gala in Durham on 23 March.

Mention of NTC (Northumberland Theatre Company) reminds us that it left its home of thirty years, Alnwick Playhouse, and moved to the Dovecot Centre in Amble at the beginning of the year where it has just presented the town’s first home-grown professional panto.

Cloud Nine Theatre Company and balletLORENT celebrated significant anniversaries during 2018.

Its first production was 20 years ago, a comic fantasy called The Trip, and Cloud Nine’s founder and artistic director Peter Mortimer said, “we like to think we are unique in that we only do new commissioned work and only from northern writers. In those two decades, we have walked and performed a play the length of the Roman Wall, performed theatre on the Tyne Ferry, in prestigious venues such as Sage, in tiny back bars of pubs, on a station platform, in people’s living rooms and at festivals in this country and abroad.”

The company celebrated at The Exchange in North Shields in November with a reprise of two short plays, Making Plans for Jessica by Kitty Fitzgerald, a poignant comedy set in a care home, and The Battling Ettricks by Mary Pickin, a short, sharp, slapstick affair about an 18th century warring couple.

Also in November, balletLORENT celebrated its 25th anniversary at Northern Stage with After Dark, which focused on what Liv Lorent calls its “heritage of adult and site specific work” and features elements of la nuit intime (2006), Designer Body (2008) and The Night Ball (2013).

Early in the year, Fertile Ground, the region’s early career dance company which provides professional experience for young dancers from the region or who have been trained in the North East, had a change of Artistic Director. Dora Frankel, who founded the company in 2014, stepped down, feeling that she had contributed all she could to the company and wishing to concentrate on her freelance work as a choreographer, and her place was taken by joint directors Malgorzata Dzierzon and Renaud Wiser.

In March, a new £60 million, 7-year programme to transform Sunderland’s cultural life was unveiled. Twenty Four Seven, which will run through to 2024, aims to strengthen the city’s creative economy and increase the number of Wearsiders taking part in arts and culture. Its work aims to incorporate and build on the track record and current activity delivered by National Glass Centre and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, Sunderland Stages, Sunderland Cultural Partnership, Arts Centre Washington and The Fire Station.

On 1 April, Sunderland Culture, a company set up by the University of Sunderland, the city council and Sunderland Music Arts and Culture (MAC), became an Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation and will manage and operate all major cultural venues owned by the three partners and develop and deliver large-scale cultural projects.