JORVIK’S Coppergate Woman to come to life in York Theatre Royal’s community play. Actors and backstage team needed

York Theatre Royal co-directors Juliet Forster, second from right, and John R Wilkinson and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK staff members at the recruitment launch for The Coppergate Woman community play

HAVE you ever wondered who was “The Coppergate Woman”, whose remains are displayed in a glass case in the JORVIK Viking Centre in York after being discovered in a shallow pit by the River Foss.

One of only two full skeletons on show from the archaeological dig, she features in model form in the Coppergate visitor attraction, her identity unknown, but now she is to be “brought back to life in modern-day York” in this summer’s York Theatre Royal community project.

Directed by creative director Juliet Forster and associate artist John R Wilkinson, the storytelling show is being written by Hull playwright Maureen Lennon, fleshing out the very barest of bones for four interlinking stories to be performed by a community ensemble of between 80 and 100 from July 30 to August 6 on the main stage.

This week, working in partnership with JORVIK, the Theatre Royal issued a call-out for people to participate in the production, both backstage and on stage, where the company will be led by a yet-to-be-confirmed professional actor in the title role. 

Performers, musicians and those keen to work in stage management, wardrobe, lighting, props, marketing, fundraising and front-of-house are asked to visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk for details of how to sign up for roles on and off stage.

Explaining how  she came to write the play, Maureen says: “Juliet approached me to say they were thinking of doing a community show that engaged with York’s Viking history and how stories of our ancestors might bridge the gap between their world and our world. How might they have an impact on how we live now, and what could we learn from each other?”

Playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Woman

Juliet recalls: “The idea came from thinking about the importance of storytelling in our world and how do we draw people together. The Vikings were storytellers and I started thinking about the Vikings because it’s an area we as a theatre had not explored before and is a very interesting part of our history.

“I’d seen Maureen’s early play Bare Skin On Briny Waters at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and invited her company, Bellow Theatre, to bring it to the Theatre Royal Studio in 2018. She felt the right fit for the play we wanted to do this summer, but we’d never met in person until Monday this week!”

Maureen was delighted to receive the Theatre Royal commission. “Growing up in Hull, I used to really love going to JORVIK as a child, when although it was a museum, it felt like going to a theme park,” she says. “I hadn’t been back for years, but then revisited it to research for the play and I got really interested in the Coppergate Woman.”

Being confronted by her skeleton was a real example of two worlds meeting, says Maureen. “That’s the privilege of storytelling: we get to imagine her story, thinking about who she might have been and what she might say of our world.

“She’s in our world now, whether she likes it or not. I wondered if she was lonely. I wondered who she had been and what she would think about me staring at her now. It felt intimate and yet so much about her was unknown. 

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster with JORVIK’s skeleton of The Coppergate Woman

“I wanted to give her the power to look at us just like I was looking at her in that moment. I wanted her to speak – although obviously in reality I’m glad she didn’t.”

This summer’s play was always envisaged as a project that talked about community, togetherness, and the power of storytelling in our societies, in light of the pandemic, says Maureen.

“That was the jumping-off point for The Coppergate Woman, which weaves myth with contemporary stories. The Vikings had an end-of-the-world story in their mythology, Ragnarok, and in our tale the Coppergate Woman is awakened to try to help four people of York live through their own version of Ragnarok. It’s about hope and heartache and loss – and starting again, together.”

Co-director John R Wilkinson says: “It’s been five years since we last did one of our community plays, but given all that’s gone on in the past couple of years, it’s really necessary and heartening to be able to bring people together again, this time through a storytelling piece.

“I would argue that storytelling has become a slightly underappreciated artform, so it’s interesting to be able to explore it in a community play.”

“Theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling,” says The Coppergate Woman co-director John R Wilkinson

Maureen says: “Storytelling has a flexibility to it that’s perfect for this show, because it’s not a show about one person but about the people of York, who take part in the story as a chorus of ‘Norns’, storytellers who operate in a similar way to the Fates in Greek mythology.”

Juliet rejoins: “That makes it distinctly different from any community production we’ve done in the past. We’ve gone back to the bare bones to conjure a world just with words. That act of coming together collectively to tell a story is something we’ve been really lacking.”

John concurs: “There seems to be a trend for trying to compete with streamed shows, but theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling.”

The last word goes to Maureen, who says: “The Coppergate Woman is a chance to tell a different story about the Viking community when we tend to associate them with invasion, violence and horns.”

The Vikings built bridges in the city, just as her community play builds bridges between York’s past and present through storytelling.

Tickets for The Coppergate Woman will go on sale next month with more details to follow.

Copyright of The Press, York

Barrie Rutter films with the sharks at The Deep for Hull Truck’s online short stories

Hull actor Barrie Rutter filming Sam Caseley’s short story Aquarium at The Deep on December 14. Picture: Sean Spencer/Hull News & Pictures

BARRIE Rutter OBE returns to his home city of Hull to star in Hull Truck Theatre’s mini-film season, Miracle On The Humber, appearing online in Aquarium from 5pm today (22/12/2020).

The Ferensway theatre has joined forces with KCOM to present four festive short stories, written by Maureen Lennon and Sam Caseley expressly as a magical digital experience for families, in particular children aged five upwards, to enjoy for free.

Rutter, founder and former artistic director of Halifax theatre company Northern Broadsides and now Hull Truck patron, recorded Caseley’s tale Aquarium at The Deep, home to 3,000 creatures, from sharks to sawfish, in Tower Street, Hull.

“It’s a little Christmas story set in The Deep, where we filmed it last Monday,” says Barrie, 74-year-old son of a Hull dockworker. “It was brilliant because we had free rein as no-one else was there, filming with the Blacktip Reef Sharks, the big  Rays and the Sawfish behind me and these massive tortoises above me. I’m delighted to be taking part in this project; the films are just five minutes each and they’re fun.”

Aquarium forms part of a series spun around the themes of kindness, joy, family and love, linked by the simple idea of performing or experiencing a Christmas miracle and filmed at such Hull and East Riding locations as The Deep, Ferens Art Gallery and DoubleTree by Hilton Hull.

The mini-films are being released on Hull Truck’s YouTube channel from December 21 to 24, with Rutter, Channel 5’s Milkshake presenter Amy Thompson, Middle Child Theatre regular Josie Morley and Emmerdale, War Horse and Remould Theatre Company actor Matthew Booth each narrating a story to “celebrate our unique region while instilling local pride”.

The series opened yesterday with Lennon’s re-telling of Cinderella, followed by Aquarium today, The Christmas Kitten tomorrow and The Christmas Lights on Christmas Eve. Each can be watched on Hull Truck’s YouTube channel, accessible to online audiences in the East Riding and beyond, free of charge.

In at The Deep end: Barrie Rutter narrating Aquarium, filmed at the Hull attraction for Hull Truck Theatre’s Miracle On The Humber. Picture: Sean Spencer/Hull News & Pictures

Janthi Mills-Ward, Hull Truck’s executive director, says: “We’re delighted to be working with KCOM to deliver this fantastic project for our communities this Christmas. Born from the idea of KCOM’s ‘Father Christmas line’ in the 1950s. the idea was to bring magical storytelling back to life for the digital age.

“This project celebrates Hull Truck’s experience in great storytelling and KCOM’s digital expertise of connecting friends, families and wider communities. We live in a really special corner of the world, and these short films really bring this home.

“All of the venues featured in the films have had a hard year and have been in some way affected by the pandemic. It’s extra special to be able to bring these spaces back to life again, especially at this time of year.”

John Rooney, managing director of KCOM Retail, says: “We’re thrilled to join forces with Hull Truck Theatre for this fantastic online experience this Christmas. After what has been a very challenging year for many people, we hope that our festive-flavoured short stories bring some Christmas magic into homes across our region as parents and children settle down to watch them together.

“Hull Truck Theatre has pulled together a brilliant cast list of local talent to bring these original tales to life, from writers to actors and filmmakers, and I’m sure, after all the trials and tribulations of the past 12 months, these can herald a positive new chapter for the area and the brilliant people who live here.

“Happy Christmas from everyone at KCOM and we hope you enjoy our heart-warming Yuletide stories.”

Each film will be available online from 5pm on its allotted day to be enjoyed as a bedtime story experience.

Review: Focus on female new writing in Northern Girls for Signal Fires Festival

The tree-lit setting for Northern Girls in the YMCA Theatre Car Park in Scarborough. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

Review: Signal Fires Festival, Northern Girls, Pilot Theatre and Arcade, YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough, October 27 and 28

ALAS, we are confined to keeping only the home fires burning as Lockdown 2: The Sequel beds in from Thursday, putting live theatre back in its box for at least a month.

Yet in this desperate year, nights such as the Northern Girls showcase for female voices have risen from the ashes of 2020 to make the Signal Fires Festival a heart-warming herald of how theatre can diversify to survive the stultifying Covid strictures that have left the industry under threat.

Over the years, CharlesHutchPress has reviewed productions staged in York in an echoey multi-storey car park and at a pop-up Elizabethan theatre built on a car park. Now, the Tarmac surface of the Scarborough YMCA Theatre car park can be added to that list, on a Tuesday night of numbing exposure to the autumn elements that made the glowing presence of four fire pits so welcome to complement scarves and the now de rigueur masks.

Ben Cowens’ silvery lighting of a lonely tree added magic to the setting and provided a point of focus for the performers brought together by pioneering York company Pilot Theatre and Arcade, the new Scarborough community producers

Asma Elbadawi performing Girl Next Door for the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

The time-honoured tradition of telling stories at the fireside lies at the heart of Signal Fires, albeit that everyone was keeping their social distance, sitting in pods of two, rather than huddling around the heat, all wearing a headset for clarity of sound, as is the norm at outdoor performances this year.

Each commissioned vignette was a solo piece – a concentrated artform but practical for Covid times – setting free eight stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline, as Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson did when growing up in Redcar until the age of 11. Linking them altogether was the theme of what mattered most to writers and performers alike in 2020.

Here was a chance to see a quickfire new work by fast-rising High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles, setting the bar high with the opening Erosion, performed by professional debutante Holly Surtees-Smith, who returned for Rant, by Amy-May Pell, one of four new writing talents nurtured for Northern Girls by York theatre-maker, playwright and tutor Hannah Davies.

Richardson and Arcade’s Rach Drew spread the net wide along the coastline to fish out stories from Zoe Cooper, from Newcastle (Kat/Cassie, performed by Laura Elsworthy) and Maureen Lennon, from Hull, whose rousing The Scarborough Porpoise marked Northern Girls’ second professional stage debut by the bravura Laura Boughen.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson leading a rehearsal for Northern Girls. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

This frank, fearless, funny and fiery feminist tale was chosen for the finale, such was its potency and desire for freedom, riding the waves amid the porpoises.

British-Sudanese spoken-word artist (and basketball player) Asma Elbadawi performed her own work, The Girl Next Door, reflecting on growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in Bradford.

Lighting the torch for breaking barriers and finding liberation, Northern Girls also introduced new works by Shannon Barker, from Scarborough (First Date), and York College A-level student Ariel Hebditch (Yin And Yang), both performed by Siu-See Hung.

Claire Edwards, writer of the past five Scarborough YMCA Theatre pantomimes, here changed tack to make waves with Waves in a second monologue for the outstanding Laura Elsworthy.

Good news too, Signal Fires will not merely turn to ash. Suitably fired up by Northern Girls, Esther Richardson is keen to roll out this pioneering writing project in other communities too.

Holly Surtees-Smith making her professional debut in Northern Girls amid the smoke and fire of the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photograph

Signal Fires Festival lights torch for Pilot and Arcade’s female stories from the coast

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

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.

Hannah Davies: York writer, spoken-word performer, tutor and actress

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.”

High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles

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

Sophie Drury-Bradey and Rach Drew of Arcade, the new Scarborough community producing company