I have just seen one of the most exhilarating productions and inspiring participatory projects of recent years:
60 actors aged between 12 and 85 performing the work of 18 writers – from Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, to the Guardian’s Not the Booker winner Michael Stewart, to Third Angel’s Chris Thorpe, plus many new, emerging, and established dramatists in between. 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield, directed by Andrew Loretto in the Sheffield Crucible Studio, is a triumph. Poignant and political, filled with satire, laughter, caged disco dancing and lyrical reminiscence, here is a city in dialogue with itself, revelling in its diversity and the minutiae of experience.
Sheffield’s People’s theatre (SPT) was set up by Loretto over 18 months ago, and the entire run of this, its second production, sold out even before the cast list went up. The company’s first production, Richard Hurford’s Lives in Art was both a commercial and critical success, with Loretto’s production getting a 4 star review in the Guardian – the first time I have seen a full ‘community production’ professionally and so successfully reviewed in the national press. This new production looks set to achieve the same accolades and links to today’s outstanding reviews are at the end of this post.
Amidst the celebration and pride at the achievement of the community company on press night (including actor Richard Wilson insisting on doing the rounds and congratulating each performer personally) there was a palpable sadness: this production is the swansong of creative producer Andrew Loretto, whose post, it was announced last week, has just been made redundant. Many of the cast I spoke to are understandably angry and upset about this decision and also fearful for the future of community engagement at the Theatre. As one of the actors said to me, ‘the drawbridge is about to go back up again.’
It’s a deeply depressing turn of events in what has been a major success story in developing new audiences and engagement in the arts. We all know what increasingly difficult times we inhabit and are probably beginning to harden ourselves in preparation for the many cuts which will happen across the board as money gets tighter. I don’t envy those whose job it is to make these decisions – they have a thankless task and will invariably be damned whatever they decide – although this decision is particularly perplexing.
With the best will in the world Sheffield Theatres are promising delivery of future projects, but the overwhelming concern on press night was how this will be possible given the axing of its dedicated staff member responsible for community and learning. No new posts seem to be on the horizon and few can believe the work can simply be added to the already taxing demands on what is a popular and successful creative team. The hopes are that any funding for freelance workers to deliver the programme will be offered to Andrew Loretto, should he be available, so he may finish the work he initiated and secured funding for. Only time will tell and many, including me, will be watching Sheffield Theatres anxiously to see how this difficult situation will be played out.
For something very wonderful has been created in Sheffield with its People’s Theatre, an initiative inspiring loyalty and regard, which is why I am particularly pained at this turn of events after being involved in 20 Tiny Plays as a writer.
I sat in the auditorium the other night and saw a coterie of actors aged 12 to 76 collaborate on Shim Shams for Blind Hummer Bees, my 5 minute contribution to this theatrical smorgasbord. I stood in the bar for hours afterwards talking to the fantastic actors this project has brought together – passionate, funny and concerned individuals, who feel something is about to be taken away from them when it’s only been theirs for 18 months.
And it worries me. I am increasingly perturbed by the decisions being made in this austerity climate. I know there will always be losers in the cruel game of ‘cuts’ – but time and again I see the areas being culled are those for learning, community engagement, and participation. I fear that the arts are being taken away from us, moved from being an essential to a supplementary extra; that increasingly cultural activity and engagement is the first candidate for cuts. Engagement in the arts as consumers and creators should not be a luxury, with increasingly difficult access to all but the financially independent. I feel we have to take a stand now we’re getting a sense in which direction the wind is blowing. And it is getting chillier and chillier.
Reviews for 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield: