TELLING stories around a fire is an early form of theatre, one that is to be celebrated in the nationwide Signal Fires Festival this autumn.
Among those taking part are York company Pilot Theatre and new Scarborough community producing company Arcade, who are collaborating on Northern Girls, an hour-long, socially distanced, fire-lit outdoor performance on October 27 and 28 in the YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY.
At 7pm each night, Pilot and Arcade will set free the stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline and were encouraged to write and present tales that matter to them most in 2020.
Next week’s performances will feature short commissioned pieces from Asma Elbadawi, Zoe Cooper, Maureen Lennon and Charley Miles, complemented by work created with York spoken-word artist and tutor Hannah Davies and a group of young women from Scarborough, .
A signal fire is defined as “a fire or light set up in a prominent position as a warning, signal, or celebration”, now re-purposed amid the Coronavirus crisis for the arts to “signal the vibrancy of touring theatre and the threat our industry continues to face”.
“This whole Covid situation has made it important to create theatre support networks across the country, with the issues faced by smaller companies, mid-scale companies and larger companies,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson.
“If there has been any upside, it is that the theatre network across the country is far stronger now.”
The idea for the Signal Fires Festival came from English Touring Theatre and Headlong Theatre, building on the original desire to highlight the work of companies who do not have their own theatre base. “We were also thinking about ‘what can we do for freelancers in theatre’ and, most important of all, ‘how can we send out a fire signal that we want to bring back theatre stronger than ever?’,” says Esther.
Pilot’s link-up with Arcade is rooted in Rach Drew and Sophie Drury-Bradey running the Scarborough company. “We knew Rach from her work at York Mediale and I’ve known Sophie for a long time from when she was at the Albany, when she asked me to develop some work with new writers, 15 years ago,” says Esther.
“It was then a coincidence that Sophie had come to Scarborough, but when this project came about, to amplify northern women as leaders as well as writers, it was just a natural progression to say, ‘What do you think, guys, about doing this project together?’.”
The theme of Northern Girls resonated with Esther not only because “Pilot has always been about helping those who are disadvantaged in the community”, but also because of her childhood on the North East coast.
“I lived in Redcar from the age of three to 11, so I’d always had this tug to do something on the coast. I’m someone who left there and has had a career in theatre but I keep in touch with people who live there,” she says.
“I’m aware of the lack of investment in those places, and the direct effect that has on young people and women in particular. So, this project was about creating an opportunity to unlock what people can do when they set their hearts and minds to it.”
Esther was keen to achieve a geographical spread of four female writers, all still in the process of establishing themselves. “Maureen Lennon is from Hull and I was aware of her work for Middle Child Theatre that is full of insight into working-class lives,” she says.
“Asma Elbadawi is a spoken-word artist and professional basketball player Bradford, and she’s someone we’ve been excited about for a while but we hadn’t found a project for her.
“Northern Girls was perfect for her to bring her perspective of growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in West Yorkshire.”
Zoe Cooper is an award-winning playwright from Newcastle. “Again, I’d been aware of her for a while, but if you think about women playwrights from the North, there’s Middle Child’s work in Hull, Charley Miles at Leeds Playhouse, but in the North East, there seems to be a dearth of female writers, so we’re delighted to be featuring Zoe’s work,” says Esther.
Charley Miles, from the Hambleton village of High Kilburn, first came to attention with her lyrical moorland village drama Blackthorn at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, and her all-female Yorkshire Ripper play, There Are No Beginnings, was the first to be staged when the Leeds Playhouse re-opened last October.
“We wanted writers from different places because we want to continue this process, to explore how we might take this writing project to other communities to develop new works,” says Esther.
She is pleased too by the impact of York writer Hannah Davies on the four women she has been working with in Scarborough: Amy-Kay Pell, Shannon Barker, Ariel Hebditch and Claire Edwards.
“Hannah is not just a wonderful writer but also she’s wonderful at working with young writers,” says Esther. “She has a really special gift for inspiring new writers, nurturing them and getting them to nurture themselves, in this case Amy, Shannon, Ariel and Claire.”
Asma Elbadawi will present her own work, while Laura Boughen, Laura Elsworthy, Siu-See Hung and Holly Surtees-Smith will perform the others, working with directors Esther Richardson, Gitika Buttoo, Oliver O’Shea and Maria Crocker.
All the short pieces address the barriers that women face, with each story being “in some sense an act of liberation”. “With everyone writing to the same theme, straight from the heart, some plays are more political, but they all make you think about things you might not have thought about otherwise,” says Esther.
The “fire” setting will be fire pits in the car park. “At first we wanted to do it by the sea, but there are loads of problems doing a show with a fire on the beach, not least the tides!” says Esther.
Pilot Theatre and Arcade present Northern Girls for the Signal Fires Festival, at YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY, on October 27 and 28, 7pm to 8pm.
The recommended age is 14 plus. Please bring headphones. Each £10 ticket is sold for a clearly marked bubble that can seat one or two people. Audience members must wear a mask on arrival and throughout the performance.
For tickets, go to: eventbrite.co.uk/e/northern-girls-signal-fires-festival-tickets-124268972843