Taking trouble at At The Mill to build a community for the arts and the people

Daniel Kitson: Testing out new material in six Outside performances at Stillington Mill

SUMMER At The Mill is returning for a second season of creative, culinary and community events in the gardens of Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York.

“After the spectacular, gorgeous, fun, exciting, beautiful and heart-warming time we had throughout our inaugural summer last year – what a ride! – we’re over the moon to present the mixed bag of goodies that is Summer At The Mill 2.0,” says programmer, theatre director, writer and performer Alexander Flanagan-Wright.

“Until September 4, we’ll be hosting a load of wonderful events all about community, art, food and flipping good times. We’ll have a pop-up café and bar, community gatherings, theatre, music, comedy, supper clubs and special events.”

The “Wright stuff” is the work of outdoor theatre co-builder Alex, sister Abbigail Ollive (Saturday café cuisine queen and supper club supremo) and their retired headteacher parents Maggi and Paul Wright, together with partners Megan Drury and Paul Smith. That “stuff” also takes in weddings, events and shepherd’s hut accommodation: truly a village cottage industry, you could say, albeit somewhat larger than a cottage.

A Supper Club gathering at At The Mill

“We just had a blast summer,” says Alex. “It was kind of by accident. It felt very serendipitous or of its moment, saying, ‘here is a way we can gather safely, our local community and the arts community, post-lockdown’.

“So this summer is a chance to see if people still care, and so far the evidence is that they do, with the return of the busy Saturday café, the Crafty Tales show [The Case Of The Missing Bunny] that sold out, our Pizza & Cocktail Night and the Dance Dance Dance Big Bank Holiday Silent Disco.

“Last year felt like a huge rush of adrenaline, and then you think, ‘OK, where do we go forward this year for beautiful experiences together?’. Already this year, we’re meeting new people coming to the events and the café.”

Summing up the essence of At The Mill, Alex says: “We believe a feeling of community is so important when people want to have an evening out. Whereas commercial theatre can feel merely transactional, with us, the means is the art, but the end result is a sense of community, and that feels the right way round.

Alexander Flanagan-Wright: At the heart of At The Mill

“On top of that, eating outside together, drinking outside together, is a lovely thing to do, and we have the space and setting to do that.”

Where once Stillington Mill’s 18th century mill would produce flour, now the At The Mill combines food with food for thought, new recipes at the Supper Club, new works on stage. “We’re very clear with the artists about that. Everyone we’ve asked, we’ve said, ‘we think you’re cool, we like your work, do you want to come and play with us?’,” says Alex.

“What we have in abundance is space and time, imagination and a community. What we don’t have in abundance is cash, but we find most performers end up walking away with cash in their pocket.

“We don’t say to them, bring a particular show. What you get instead is artists testing out new material, so it becomes a genuine relationship with the audience built around nurturing new work. We’re seeking an equal balance between the two communities, where they care about each other, and if we do our part well in bringing them together, then they will meet in a beautiful way, and hopefully that process is more valuable, than, say, a Q&A session in a theatre.”

The Saturday cafe at At The Mill, baked by Abbigail Ollive

Alex continues: “Hopefully too, we’re going to be able to sustain that culture of being able to welcome artists for whatever they want to try out, and of audiences being continually excited about seeing new work at such an early stage, performed by people they wouldn’t expect to be passing through their village.”

A case in point is Edinburgh Fringe favourite Daniel Kitson, the Denby Dale stand-up comedian, who asked to take part in the Theatre At The Mill programme after he was tipped off by storytelling performer Sam Freeman.

“Daniel got in touch to say hello, could he come and do a show? I don’t know what the show is about; I don’t know if Daniel does yet, but that feels a pretty exciting thing to be going on, and testament to our aim for brilliant performers to test out their work to our community,” says Alex.

“I’m also aware that there will be those who don’t know who Daniel Kitson is and would just see him as someone standing up in a garden! But it feels beautiful to know that his shows in May will be his first in two years and it’s great to be part of that work-in-progress experience.”

Chris Stokes: Storytelling comedy in Lockdown Detective at At The Mill on May 26

Clearly, plenty of people know exactly who Daniel Kitson is: his 8pm performances of Outside on May 23 to 25 have sold out already and his June 8 to 10 run looks close to following suit.

What’s in store from Kitson? Here’s the show blurb: “Daniel hasn’t been on stage for over two years. And, to be entirely honest, he’s not really missed it. It is, however, his actual job and everyone’s gone back to work now. So, he’s picked out a comfy pen, bought a new notebook and booked himself a summer’s worth of outdoor shows to find out whether he can still do his job and what, if anything, he has to say to large groups of people he doesn’t know.”

Given his performing hiatus and lack of practice, Kitson predicts the shows are “likely to be relatively rickety affairs”. “But Daniel’s already written the question ‘Do worms feel fear?’ in his new notebook, so we should be okay,” the blurb adds. “Also, if it gets boring – you can just use the time to look at the sky and feel small.”

At The Mill’s role in nurturing new work ties in with Alex’s own creativity as a writer and director, whether directing The Flanagan Collective, heading off to Australia with songwriter/musician/performer/magician Phil Grainger or spending last September to December in New York, making the immersive piece Tammany Hall for the Soho Playhouse.

Gary Stewart: Hosting regular Folk Club nights at At The Mill

“We meet loads of brilliant people when touring our work, and it’s great that they want to come here to test new pieces,” he says. “We’re delighted that people will hone shows here just before the Edinburgh Fringe kicks off, or will do shows here that aren’t going to Edinburgh but fit that vibe.”

Picking out upcoming highlights, singer-songwriterTom Figgins follows up last summer’s gig – his first in four years – with a return tomorrow; Chris Stokes’s storytelling comedy show, Lockdown Detective, is booked in for May 26, and Scottish musician Gary Stewart, now resident in nearby Easingwold, will host his regular Folk Club night on May 27, June 24 and July 8.

“For his first night, it’ll be just Gary and his guitar, performing Paul Simon songs solo rather than with his Graceland band. It’s lovely for us that a local musician, who’s internationally renowned, came here and said, ‘I want to play here every month and bring acts here regularly’,” says Alex.

At The Mill’s ERII Platinum Jubilee celebrations will take in Jubilee Jubilee, A Very Jubilant Cabaret, on June 3 and A Right Royal Knees Up, with live music and pizza, on June 5.

Maddie Morris: 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, playing a Music At The Mill gig for the first time

Leeds folk duo Maddie Morris & Lilian Grace will make their At The Mill debut on June 12, performing together as Death And The Daughter and playing solo works too. Their 2022 project, The Sticky Monsters, is influenced by the artwork of Swedish artist John Kenn and their compositions deal with childhood, poverty and more general reflections on culture and the idea of fear.

“I saw Maddie, the 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, at The Courthouse, Rural Arts’ home in Thirsk, and she’s an absolute folk musician, studying folk music at Leeds University and looking at contemporary politics through the lens of the folk tradition,” says Alex.

Gemma Curry’s York company Hoglets Theatre will perform the children’s show The Sleep Pirates on June 19 (10am to 1pm); York spoken-word collective Say Owt will host a poetry-writing workshop on June 25 (5pm), followed by an evening showcase (7.30pm); Heady Conduct will combine physical storytelling with live music to tell the Greek myth of Tiresias on July 10, and Paperback Theatre will stage their charming account of roguish Toad’s misadventures, The Wind In The Willows, on July 30 at 2.30pm and 7pm.

Alex himself has a couple of contributions to the season: Monster, a work-in-progress new story, on June 16 and 17, and The Gods The Gods The Gods, the Wright and Grainger show whose Australian premiere tour was curtailed by the pandemic, now making its British debut on July 23, 24, 27 and 28 at 8.45pm.

Gemma Curry in Hoglets Theatre’s The Sleep Pirates

“In its full iteration, it’s a big, heavy show, but this will be a lighter version before we take it to the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Alex of the final work in Wright & Grainger’s trilogy of myths, after Orpheus and Eurydice, both sell-outs at last summer’s At The Mill season.

The Gods The Gods The Gods, with its four stories and 14 compositions, corals big beats, soaring melodies and heart-stopping spoken words as it “calls us to the crossroads where mythology meets real life”.

“The Gods are gathering and you’re invited,” says Alex. “We’re excited about testing it out here, to wrangle up the story, to see that all the text and music works, and then add lights for Edinburgh, where we’ll be doing it in the Assembly’s 200-seat spiegeltent.”

The Mill’s summer programme will continue to add new events, with full details, including tickets, at athemill.org. Shows start at 7.30pm unless stated otherwise.

The Flanagan Collective’s Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Gobbledigook Theatre’s Phil Grainger staging Orpheus and Eurydice at At The Mill’s socially-distanced summer season in 2021. Picture: Charlotte Graham

REVIEW: Alexander Wright, Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism; Michael Lambourne, Black Shuck, at Theatre At The Mill

Alexander Wright: In a field of one in Stillington

Alexander Wright, Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism; Michael Lambourne, Black Shuck: How It Came For Me, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington

THEY take the trouble at The Mill to be innovative.

From deciding no-one was for tennis on a pot-holed court to building an outdoor theatre in its stead; from unicorn ice cream to fairy-lit gardens; from Saturday morning pop-up cafés to supper club nights; from the green shoots of SeedBed try-outs for emerging talent to works in full bloom by Alexander Wright, Phil Grainger, York theatre-makers Anna Soden (Strawberry Lion Theatre) and Gemma Curry (Hoglets Theatre) and music events with Jessa Liversidge and Gary Stewart.

The Wright stuff, getting it right, as parents Paul and Maggi and son and daughter Alex and Abbigail oversee an arts enterprise with community at its heart. Make that two communities, those who live around there and those who work in the arts. Food, soul food and food for thought at the former corn mill.

Your reviewer has long championed the theatre work of both Alexander Wright and Michael Lambourne, sometimes in tandem (The Tempest and The Great Gatsby) or in their own projects. Summer At The Mill has brought an opportunity to see them both in a new light: Alex giving his debut solo performance (with guests) and Michael hatching his storytelling debut.

Alex is a writer, director, actor, musician, visionary, facilitator but… “I’ve never really stood in front of people and performed my own stuff, on my own, for an extended period. So, now, I am…and I’m nervous about it,” he said beforehand, natty for the night in suit, trainers and trilby.

In his hand was a brown envelope, as Alex’s eyes invited immediate interaction. Yours truly took it, and no, checking the content, it wasn’t a bribe. Inside was a poem, Narcissus. Alex had found his first guest to read aloud, and so the informality and unpredictability of Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism had begun, the one certainty being that Alex’s words would not be on his lips alone.

He was in salesman’s mode too. Not snake oil, but those alchemical Wright words bound in a slim volume,  Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism: a collection of poems and stories “put together for a gig I decided to do of my own writing in a theatre I built in my own garden”, with a title coined by Eurydice actor-musician Casey Jay Andrews.

“I’d like to be clear that no-one asked me to print this book, but it is cheaper to print £100’s worth and I have been unemployed for 18 months,” he said.

Unemployed? Building a theatre, writing, presenting and performing shows, more writing, organising Summer At The Mill, more writing. You know what they say, if you need something doing, always ask someone who’s busy.

So busy, in fact, that Alex had memorised only one piece, from his play The Gods The Gods The Gods; the rest of the two sets he would perform with book in hand: an excellent way to advertise its availability. Oh, did Alex tell you, he has a book for sale? Just checking.

Pink stickers marked the poems, short, very short and much longer, that Alex had picked out for the night, three written to his partner, Megan, to close the chasm of her being on the other side of the world in Australia.

“Stop taking notes, Charles,” he pleaded, but the memorable imagery kept coming: “Kissing snowflakes off each other”; “hand-me-down days, secondhand nights”.

Alex is wont to deflect attention from himself, often happy to play the ringmaster with acts to parade.  “I’m not that interested in poetry nights, if I’m honest”, he said, as he invited singer-songwriter Tom Figgins to reveal the fruits of the dormant songwriting gift he had resumed in lockdown for the first time since 2017. Beautiful, Tom, beautiful. He had arrived at 6.30pm, and already Alex had asked him to do the sound. That’s how these At The Mill shows work: off the cuff; heart on the sleeve; go with the flow. Just say ‘Yes’.

Abbigail, marketeer, baker, mother, puppet maker, pop-up café queen, had her party-piece cameo moment too, splitting an apple clean in two by applying just the right pressure. Pip pip.

“Logic and probability would suggest that someone here can play piano,” chanced Alex, knowing full well that childhood friend Jim Harbourne would oblige, already on site at the Mill for a week’s rehearsals to reactivate Beulah with fellow musician and composer Ed Wrenn for the first time in six years.

Alex went on to play drums, piano and guitar himself, but all the while, the words were to the fore, some from 2010/2011, “but most things are new – and I don’t mean that philosophically,” he said.

The interval brought a chance, you guessed it, to buy the book at the bar before a second half where Alex removed jacket and hat and informality reigned again. “**** knows why you get married in English and divorced in Latin,” he observed wryly.

His old school drama teacher joined him on stage; Harbourne and Wren reawakened two wonders from Beulah, Coffee In The Morning and Humans Fly; Abbigail was called on for another solo, this time vaulting a gate at the field’s edge, and no show would be complete without the Phil Grainger & Alex Wright double act.

On this occasion, Alex had written a poem for Megan, Phil, a song for his Aussie girlfriend Angie, and now they became one as Home, with Phil having learnt his closing guitar part on holiday in Cornwall. Alex sat cross-legged for the first time since primary school; crossed fingers might have been more apt, but they never freeze at a challenge, and one of the high points ensued, Damien Rice song references and all.

This night might never be repeated, but that’s the point. Words age on the page but they have their stage, their moment, as they come alive in unpredictable fashion when performed by Wright, his guest performers or audience volunteers. Writing can be solitary, lonely, but Wright writes to communicate with others for their joy, their sharing; their response in the moment. Narcissistic? Absolutely not! Plugging the book again one more time? Of course.

Michael Lambourne: Actor, writer and now storyteller

Wright had talked of pre-show nerves ahead of Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism. Michael Lambourne, on the other hand, radiates supreme confidence on stage, with a voice to set off earthquakes and the presence to draw you to him like a magnet.

He once played Prospero among the trees at Stillington Mill, but would joke in his York theatre days of his propensity to be cast in anthropomorphic roles. Animal magic, as it would always turn out.

Taking up Alex’s “call to arms” to test-drive a new piece at Theatre At The Mill, Michael headed north from the Cambridgeshire Fens with the ink barely dry on a ghost story based on the legend of the Demon Dog of East Anglia: a hound of unnatural size and omen of misfortune to those who encounter its stare.

And yes, he did play the hell hound, or rather he elicited its terrifying growl terrifically terrifyingly, because Michael was in “responsive storytelling experience” mode: a new venture for him and one that surely will be repeated.

He has lit the fire beneath the words of many others; likewise, others have performed his words, but for the first time, here he was giving breath to his own writing, to the manner born, in Black Shuck: How It Came For Me.

Like Alex’s show, Michael began with an air of informality, after a delightful set of transformative Scottish myths of travellers, selkies and winter and summer queens by former York Theatre Royal creative associate Shona Cowie.

In waistcoat and trilby, he explained why he wore his grandfather’s watch, despite it telling the correct time only twice a day, and how he had re-discovered his book of The World Of The Unknown Ghosts, with its scary picture of one-eyed black dog.

That image accompanied the tale of Black Shuck, “a story about the place I’m from”, one that Lowestoft lads The Darkness had highlighted on their debut album with the chorus “Black Shuck, Black Shuck, That dog don’t give a…”. You can fill in the rest.

“To be honest, I hope you don’t enjoy it,” said Michael, pulling the strings of an already rapt audience. He can rhyme with Ian Dury rhythm, spin a yarn with silken imagery, born of the “pancake-flat fields of the Fens”, and he is not averse to a political jibe. “Just like a lie on the side of a bus,” he observed.

Michael has never looked Black Shuck in the red eye, but his choice of Fenland folk tale and its portent of exit stage left or imminent change chimed with his own fate: his diagnosis at 40 with lymphoma, the blood cancer.

“My disease was a game but I couldn’t choose if I’d win or I’d lose…when Black Shuck found me,” he said at the finale. He is now in remission, back on stage, opening a new chapter rather than nearing The End. Long may Michael tell stories and have stories to tell in the voice with boom, not the voice of doom.