For the past 5 years I have been working on projects alongside Prof. Steve Bottoms in Shipley & Saltaire as part of the Multi Story Water project. It has been a really important part of the journey for me, and Common Chorus owes a lot to the ideas and ways of doing things that I developed on MSW projects. All good things must come to an end, but I am really pleased that I have had a chance to direct this one last, and personal favorite, piece ‘This Islands Mine’. I very much enjoyed directing Steve for the first time, and also working again with the excellent Kat Martin. But it was my favourite because it was simultaneously so engaging and yet so simple. Many of the previous pieces were epic in their scale, but this was great because it managed to be rooted in the site and the place, whilst it taking place on a pub table. The show captures the absurd and finite wonder of theatre; an art form that exists in a moment for whoever happens to be there – and then it is gone forever.
In it Steve and Kat play Danny and Barb, two adults who begin by reminiscing about their childhood growing up around the industrial waterways of Dockfield in Shipley. Before long the story takes us through their ad hoc research project they have been working on, mostly to distract Danny from his father’s death. Through their story the entire history of Dockfield is revealed and mapped using sharpies and household items.
I’ve never directed such an intimate and charming show before. Designed for pubs and folks homes, it tells a heartfelt story about how we relate to the places we grew up and both the good and bad that comes when the new replaces the old. If the audience sat and watched then it was only half an hour long, but they were invited to add their own stories into the conversation, and so it was often much longer. In particular in Woodbottom Working Mens Club our show became a conversation that went on for hours.
It was such a pleasant way of getting people talking about the place they live. For me, if theatre can get people talking and having a good time whilst they do it, then it is a win all round.
Drink with a Chimp was devised with professional actors in response to a community theatre production Recovery Stories. Unpacking the truth of lived experiences of recovery from addiction and featuring original interview material from Dr Steve Peters, author of the Chimp Paradox, the show toured to theatres and community spaces in Yorkshire in the summer of 2015.
“This company has got under the skin to develop a play that has found both the misery of addiction and the communal hope – even joy – of those that are rediscovering dignity and self-worth” – The Public Reviews.
For more info see this short video that includes live footage from the show and interviews with artists and recovery workers at Spacious Places.
After the Flood was a site based theatre performance commissioned by Multi Story Water for the Leeds Waterfront Festival 2016. Set six months after the devastating Christmas time floods in Leeds (and many other places) we were tasked with creating a performance that responded not just to what happened, but also how people have responded for better and worse in the clean up and beyond. Oh, and it had to be suitable for a family audience at a festival.
After the Flood was actually the third piece in a series of collaborations between myself and Prof. Steve Bottoms and his Multi Story Water project, but the first to come under a Common Chorus banner. What made this project unique for me was how we brought together stories of those affected by the floods with the experiences of people whose job it is to mitigate against flooding; so a fusion of micro and macro responses to the tragedy.
The show starts with the experiences of a community organiser pulling together the coalface response, based upon the experiences of Phil Marken of Open Source Arts; one of the inspirations behind the real life Kirkstall Flood Cleanup Group. We then move onto the very personal story of The Tagine Machine, a restaurant we created to host the stories of numerous small business owners who livelihoods and dreams went under flood water. We then hear from Engineers planning the new Leeds Flood Defences, environmentalists looking for more nuanced and creative (and affordable) solutions, before we move on to witness an insight into the role of the media and the Environment Agency’s juggling act to keep ‘the people’ happy (Jake does some very good actual juggling in this one). Finally we come full circle to return to the owner of the Tagine Machine, six months After the Flood, we hear whether or not she managed to navigate the sea of paperwork to get her small business back afloat.
We have had some lovely audience feedback, and I think I am most proud of how we used props like the flooded dolls house, comedy, interaction and circus skills to bring a difficult subject to life for young people and their parents. We received a really nice email from a University Lecturer who said that:
“It made me think of the city differently, it made me realise what an amazing project Leeds as a city is in trying to manage the nature on which it is built, it made me think about the connection between the city and the surrounding countryside – which I know quite well – and the journey of the water that humans have tried to control/manage,etc. It was great. It did all this in a clever, funny and gentle way, without forcing a message on to the audience.”
Richee Mathwin of Big Media Film filmed the piece and is currently editing it together. I am not exactly sure where people will be able to see it when he is done, I will update this when I find out, but if you are impatient tweet Steve and he will know.
We also had a really lovely team of artists and volunteers who came together quickly and really helped look after each other. Things are fairly early on in the Common Chorus journey, but there was something really right about the way that that team functioned, and I just wish it hadn’t all been over so quickly.
The Common Chorus ensemble for After The Flood was:
Simon Brewis – Director
Steve Bottoms – Lead Writer and Dramaturgy
Hannah Sabai – Designer
Antoinette Sargent – Assistant Director
Film soon to be made by Richee Mathwin of Big Media Film
Supporters, Contributors, Stewards and Amazingy helpful and lovely people –
Sue Jennings, Lucy Meredith at Leeds Waterfront Festival and Trevor Roberts at Canal Connections. The Environment Agency, Direct Line Insurance (Leeds), Leeds Train Station. Phil Marken at Open Source Arts, various anonymous others, our wonderful stewards, Tabita, Steve, Myke, Daisy, Sam, Rebecca and Theo.
This weekend it is six months since the Boxing day floods. From what I understand there was flooding in many parts of the country, but to have flooding like that in Leeds was pretty much unheard of. Three memories spring to mind when I think about it. The first was a terrifying drive home from my Dad’s place near Harrogate to Leeds on Boxing day. The second is seeing places that I go to regularly on the national news – under water. The third is what seems to be a fairly infamous ‘good news’ story about the community cleanup response to the disaster; the most vivid memory being the picture on facebook for Lucy Meredith at Open Source Arts with Jeremy Corbyn (pic below).
When Steve Bottoms and I met early in 2016 to talk about a potential promenade performance piece for the Leeds Waterfront Festival I think a response to the floods was inevitable before we even knew it.
I quite like making work about … well difficult things. If I look back at the last few shows I have made themes include; gender identity crisis, addiction, teenage pregnancy and the holocaust to name a few delightful topics. But I am drawn to search out the light in the darkness – both by making the show entertaining enough so that people are glad that they have come to see it, and by trying to find something helpful to say. This is why the new show is called ‘After’ the Flood. The show does tell the tragic story of people who have been directly affected, although at its heart this is a show about the various positive responses that have happened in the six months since the crisis.
Me and Steve approached the research from different angles, so After the Flood is in many ways a story of two responses. I spoke with people like Phil Markin from Open Source Arts whose ‘Kirkstall Flood Cleanup’ facebook group formed at least one of the beating hearts of the response on the ground. John Liversedge from the Kirkstall Valley Community Association had invaluable thoughts to share about the impact on local businesses and livelihoods. Steve on the other hand took what I now see as, strangely, the less obvious path. He spoke with water engineers, town planners and the Environment Agency – giving us a fascinating insight into the people whose working life is flood mitigation. Strangely I have come to realise the the expert voice is sometimes an underrepresented voice when a story is being told about human catastrophe in the news. So After the Flood looks at how both the people on the ground, and the clever people in suits have been responding, which I hope is going to make it something a bit different.
It features an all star cast of local actors, storytellers and circus performers. With design by Hannah Sibai and performers Matthew Bellwood (365 Leeds Stories / An Icy Man), Kat Martin (of Sneaky Experience fame), Libby Wattis (The Cleverest Thief), Jake England Johns (Serious Mischief Theatre and our last show Drink with a Chimp) are joined by fresh young faces Joe Large and Nick De Jong and I am also really pleased to be working with Pete Freeth and Antionette Sargent on the piece.
So please join us for a wonderful day out at Leeds Waterfront Festival 2016 for a journey around Granary Wharf to meet circus performers, storytellers and hydro heroes along the way. Starting beside Lock 1 of the Leeds and Liverpool canal at Granary Wharf (click for map). Suitable for all, it is free to explore on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th June from 12 noon -4pm and takes approx. 50 mins to complete. Also, we have a sister show at the Festival; a revival of last years successful ‘Seven Bridges Leeds’ which Steve is performing.
Looking forward to a great weekend, and hopefully good weather!
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Watch the mini documentary about the show above.
“There is a sense that this company has got ‘under the skin’ to develop a play that has found both the misery of addiction and the communal hope – even joy – of those that are rediscovering dignity and self-worth. Those that literally have been given back their lives. … You don’t have to be an addict to recognise its relevance to all of our experiences.” – The Public Reviews
Recovery Stories and Drink with a Chimp are two linked shows that formed Common Chorus Theatre’s first endeavour. Over the course of 18 months we made two community theatre pieces with clients at Spacious Places Recovery Centre in Leeds. The second was a standalone half hour performance which we directed and a collective of clients performed to an audience of family members and peers from the Recovery Community. It was an amazing success.
Following on from this we put together a team of artists and performers to create Drink With a Chimp, a performance that could tour to recovery centres and studio theatres in response to the clients stories. ‘The Chimp’ was inspired by Dr Steve Peters bestselling self-development book ‘The Chimp Paradox‘ which forms a core part of the Spacious Places recovery programme. Steve Peters actually gave us an interview for the show and featured as a character in it!
Drink With a Chimp toured in West and North Yorkshire in the summer of 2016 with six shows at five venues and received great feedback, particularly from the recovery community. We also had a fabulous review here.