GREEN Hammerton company Badapple Theatre set off on their winter travels tomorrow with Farmer Scrooge’s Christmas Carol, starring York actors James Lewis-Knight and Emily Chattle.
Billed as “classic Badapple: Dickens with a Yorkshire twist, puppets, songs and music by Jez Lowe and all the jokes we can handle at this time of year,” writer-director Kate Bramley’s new family show will play across Yorkshire as well as Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Northumberland, Cumbria, County Durham and Oxfordshire.
Starting out at Tockwith Village Hall, near York, tomorrow at 7pm, Badapple’s tour van will take in 22 performances between December 1 and 30 as Bramley’s itinerant band of actors heads to venues on their Yorkshire doorstep and beyond with her comedy slant on Charles Dickens’s 180-year-old story, now set in and around Scrooge’s farm and bedroom in 1959.
“Have a good chuckle while the blustering, skin-flint farmer Ebeneezer Scrooge gets his comeuppance and is forced to see the error of his penny-pinching ways,” says Kate of a production that marks Badapple’s 25th anniversary of touring.
James will play Fred, Scrooge, Shep and Elvis, yes, Elvis; Emily’s multi-role playing will stretch to Ginger, Bert the feed man, Mrs Cratchitt, Niece (Josie), Marley, Belle, Mrs Feziweg, Mr Feziweg, assorted Cratchitts, Undertaker, Mrs Dilbert and Girl. (Please note, name spelling may diversify from other versions, whether Cratchit or Fezziwig).
“Full of local stories and carols, puppets and mayhem, and original songs by Sony Award-winner Jez Lowe, plus a whacking great dose of seasonal bonhomie, this is a winter warmer to put a smile on everyone’s face this Christmas.”
Don’t take only Kate’s word for it. Clare Granger, High Sheriff of North Yorkshire, is a Badapple devotee. “It’s wonderful to spend a joyous evening with Badapple Theatre Company in a small rural village hall,” she says. “Kate Bramley is absolutely fulfilling her ambition to bring the arts into the community and the uplifting effect on the audience of what the theatre company does is palpable.”
Badapple’s mission is to venture out to the smallest and hardest-to-reach village halls and community venues to bring professional theatre to all. “We all know that isolation and loneliness are major issues in our rural communities and that maintaining good mental health is proving more and more of a challenge for the general population,” says the High Sheriff.
“It is hard to overestimate the positive benefits of getting out of the house and attending a joyful, inexpensive, communal event in your own locality. Badapple Theatre Company is providing just this experience.”
This year, James has appeared in York company Next Door But One’s tour of Operation Hummingbird, Matthew Harper-Hardcastle’s “humorous and uplifting exploration of grief, loss and noticing just how far you’ve come”, while Emily did the milk rounds in Badapple’s tour of Eddie And The Gold Tops, Bramley’s comedy of a milkman turning into the cream of Sixties pop stars.
Farmer Scrooge’s Christmas Carol: Yorkshire dates
December 1: Tockwith Village Hall, 7pm. Box office: 01423 331304
December 2: Harpham & Lowthorpe Village Hall YO25 4QZ, 7.30pm. Box office: 07867 692616.
December 3: The Old Girls’ School, Sherburn in Elmet, LS25 6BL, 7pm. Box office: 01977 685178.
December 13: Bishop Monkton Village Hall, near Harrogate, HG3 3QG, 7.30pm. Box office: 01423 331304.
December 19: Green Hammerton Village Hall, near York, YO26 8AB, 7pm. Box office: 01423 331304.
December 20: Burton Fleming Village Hall, East Yorkshire, YO25 3LL, 6.30pm. Box
December 27: Sutton under Whitestonecliffe Village Hall, Hambleton, YO7 2PS, 4.30pm. Box office: 01423 331304.
December 29: East Cottingwith Village Hall, near York, YO42 2TL, 4pm. Box office: 07866 024009 or 07973 699145.
YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are taking part in the 2023 TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal next week, performing a revival of Operation Hummingbird.
NDB1 premiered artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s one-act two-hander to sold-out audiences in the socially distanced summer of 2021. Now, buoyed by being among 984 arts organisations to be granted National Portfolio (NPO) status by Arts Council England and winning the award for Resilience and Innovation at the 2023 Visit York Tourism Awards, they have launched their new programme.
“It’s quite apt that our first touring production as an NPO is Operation Hummingbird,” says Matt. “‘We’ve spent ten years working hard, dreaming big and forging fruitful partnerships. That’s how we got here. Now we’re looking into the future and are so excited for what the next three years hold. A reflective, hopeful story about looking back and looking ahead feels perfect for now.”
Already this month NDB1 have staged Operation Hummingbird in library performances York Explore, Haxby Explore, Clifton Explore, Tang Hall Explore and Acomb Explore, from May 9 to 12, and now they are heading to the theatre and arts centre circuit.
Midday and 7pm performances on May 23 and 24 on York Theatre Royal’s main stage will be followed by Pocklington Arts Centre on May 25 and Helmsley Arts Centre on June 2, both at 7.30pm.
“I realised it could work as a main-house piece when I watched Pilot Theatre’s Run Rebel, when they had sold only the stalls, but there was something nice about playing a performance to the stalls,” says Matt. “We’ll make it intimate by using only the front half of the stage, working with a new lighting designer, Abi Turner, from London, who has designed previously for the Donmar Warehouse.”
Based on his own memoir of living with loss, Matt’s two-hander tells the story of teenager Jimmy, who is dealing with his mum’s terminal diagnosis by diving into computer games. Through this virtual reality, he meets his future self and asks: will everything turn out OK?
“Operation Hummingbird is a humorous and uplifting exploration of grief, loss and noticing just how far you’ve come,” says Matt, whose cast features NDB1 associate artist James Lewis-Knight, returning in the role of Jimmy, and Scarborough actor David Lomond, joining the company for the first time to play James, the future version of Jimmy, 35 more years on the clock.
“For me, the concept is: this play is a really specific look at terminal illness, death and bereavement, but the narrative is universal. If we could fast-forward time and then be able to go back, older and wise, to stop our younger self by passing on advice. We’ve all had those questions that our older selves would like to have been able to give the answer to our younger selves.”
The two-hander format is ideal, suggests Matt. “After Covid, people are wanting shorter shows – this one is only 50 minutes – where you don’t have to travel far to see it and you could even see it at lunchtime if you went to a library performance.
“We’ve brought Operation Hummingbird back after we had brilliant feedback from the first run, when we had only just come out of Covid restrictions and so only small, socially distanced audiences were allowed.
“For the 2023 revival, we decided we’d go to the satellite Explore York libraries we didn’t play before. Now we’ve been able to pick up the project and say, ‘we know it works but what’s the full iteration?’.
“That means also performing it on the Theatre Royal main stage and taking it to Pocklington and Helmsley. It’s actually our first ever show at the Theatre Royal because we’ve never looked into doing one there before, as the heart of our work is taking it to the community, places on people’s doorsteps, such as libraries, community centres and the Camphill Village Trust (with our show The Firework-Maker’s Daughter).”
Matt continues: “It feels like a significant moment of growth for us. We’re known to the communities we engage with, like the Snappy Trust and York Carers Centre, who appreciate our values, and this revival is an introductory chance for us to say, ‘if you don’t know our work, this is what we do’.
“One of the first pieces of feedback we had was someone saying, ‘I can’t believe how much you can tell in a story with so little. We’re the opposite of doing big-scale theatre productions. It’s still a big story, about death and bereavement, and for me, as a director, the main thing has to be the story.
“You could detract from it with a big set and a light show, so we tell a story with three boxes, a few props and two actors and no blackouts of the auditorium. The focus is on the story.”
Matt concludes: “There’s something in this show for everyone. I hope I have turned a story that started from a very personal place – with the sudden death of my mum in 2016 – into something that we can all relate to. I know that audiences in 2021 left entertained and reflective about their own life. I hope we can achieve the same this time, but reach an even bigger audience across the region.”
Tickets for all venues can be booked at www.nextdoorbutone.co.uk.Also: York Theatre Royal, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Pocklington, 01759 301547 or pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk; Helmsley, 01439 771700 or helmsleyarts.co.uk.
NEXT Door But One may be new to Art Council England’s National Portfolio, but this York community interest company (CIC) has been a familiar, welcoming face to many in the community for ten years.
When Arts Council England announced its £446 million investment in 990 organisations each year from 2023 to 2026, to “bring art, culture and creativity to more people in more place across the country”, six York organisations were given funding, alongside such big hitters as the Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company.
Maintaining their previous NPO status are York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre, while Next Door But One (NDB1) and Explore York/York Explore Library and Archive both join for the first time.
“It might sound bizarre, but it’s OK if people haven’t heard of us yet,” says NDB1 founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. “We’ve been busy in residential settings, youth centres, pub courtyards and even the odd portable cabin or two – making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them.
“People have always come first, and profile second. But now becoming an NPO allows us to shout louder about our work and reach out to even more people.”
Set up by Matt in 2013, the applied theatre company cum community arts collective began by using improvisation to tell the stories of women’s groups, Muslim families and people new to York.
“Soon our storytelling was being used to make research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and enabling City of York’s training programmes to be more engaging and accessible,” he says.
“Our original productions were then showcased at York Disability Pride, the Great Yorkshire Fringe and York’s Dead Good Festival. From 2016, we’d honed our model of co-production and created partnerships with Camphill Village Trust, The Snappy Trust, York Carers Centre and Converge, to name a few.
“In the last year, we engaged more than 600 participants and 2,000 audience members. Something that, as a part-time team of five, we’re incredibly proud of.”
At the height of the Covid pandemic, NDB1’s activity went up by 61 per cent. “This was due to our community partners turning to us and saying ‘Can you help keep our communities connected and creative?’,” says creative producer El Stannage.
“So, we made digital performances for neurodivergent young people, online Forum Theatre to support the wellbeing of adults with learning disabilities and ran three online theatre courses for adults accessing mental health services, LGBTQ+ teenagers and unpaid carers.
“The need for our work has not decreased, even once lockdown restrictions were lifted, and that’s why we applied to be an NPO; to sustain our increased programme and to reassure our community groups that we’re still going to be there for them.”
This work’s impact on the York community has been acknowledged with formal recognition and awards from the Lord Mayor of York, the Archbishop of York and as a finalist in the Visit York Tourism Awards for “Innovation and Resilience”.
Anne Stamp, service manager at The Snappy Trust, is delighted that NDB1 are to become an NPO, helping to continue their long-standing collaboration. “Next Door But One is a much-needed service in York: a great resource for many and a service that helps to provide children and young people with a wider range of experiences, enabling them to learn, grow and have fun,” she says.
NDB1 are finalising their plans for 2023 but are working already on revivals of performances that toured to their fellow NPO, York Explore, including The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Operation Hummingbird, as well as expanding their professional development offer for local performing arts professionals that originally produced Yorkshire Trios at The Gillygate pub in April 2021; the first live, in-person performances that year in York once lockdown restrictions were lifted.
“All NPOs must go into a negotiation phase with Arts Council England until early 2023, but for now what Next Door But One are saying is, ‘We are here and we can’t wait to continue working with communities across York or meet new people for the first time, and create together,” says Matt.
Artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on what lies ahead for Next Door But One, York’s community arts collective
From Harrogate Theatre to Pocklington Arts Centre and English National Opera, venues and companies have suffered blows in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio awards for 2023-2026. What were the factors that meant Next Door But One NDB1) was selected as one of the new recipients in a climate where ACE talked of “levelling up” in its allocations?
“While we’re delighted to receive the NPO support, we are equally devastated for our peers across the industry who did not receive the support they had hoped for.
“We see us receiving the funding as validation for our community-driven approach, which makes our work inclusive and relevant to those we serve, while also taking on the responsibility to support our peers and create partnerships with those who aren’t part of the portfolio, so we can all continue to deliver our equally valuable work.”
York has come out of the NPO awards with tails up: York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre retaining NPO status; Next Door But One and York Explore Library and Archive joining for the first time. What does that say about the health and diversity of arts provision in York?
“I think we’ve known for a long time just how much the city is steeped in arts a culture, and as you suggest, this goes towards celebrating that – and what a diversity of offerings York will have over the coming three years.
“From central building-based theatres, to touring companies, music, museums, libraries and a nimble participatory company like us, there really is going to be something for everyone, and we’re proud to be contributing to that collective.”
What are the benefits to NDB1 of acquiring NPO status?
“The main benefit for us is sustainability. Over the years, we’ve been able to do what we do by working hard on securing project grant funding, but this can become time consuming and resource heavy.
“Knowing that we have our core funds secured for three years means we can really invest in current delivery while also having more headspace to think strategically about how we continue even further into the future.
“On the day we got the funding announcement [November 4], I phoned or emailed every partner we work with to tell them ‘We will still be here for you’ and that’s what it really means to us to become an NPO.”
Being a participatory arts and community-focused performance organisation gives you a different profile to other arts organisations in the city. All that with a part-time team of five. Discuss…
“It does, and I think that’s the real joy of the portfolio, particularly in York. We’re part of this great network of arts and culture creators, all approaching it from different angles, which should mean that everyone in York can access the things they want in a way that works for them.
“There can be a mistake when there are lots of organisations doing similar things into viewing it as ‘competition’, when it’s not. It’s complementary and collaborative. In fact, we’ve already had many discussions and meetings with fellow NPOs to see how we can support one another; how our work can go to their venue or how our participatory approach can strengthen a certain one of their projects.
“As for the part-time team, it’s great to have stability in our roles, which means we can grow both in terms of impact and by working with more York freelancers on upcoming projects.
“Even though it’s a full-time passion, we see our ‘part-timeness’ as a real strength; among our team we have those that in other areas of their working week are arts and mental health programme managers, music specialists, campaigners and directors of other theatre companies. All that additional skill and insight is really welcomed into NDB1.”
Is this the key: “Making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them. People have always come first, and profile second”?
“Yes, we pride ourselves on meeting people where they are, in terms of geography but also in terms of experience and aspiration. So, whether that is taking performances to community libraries or residential gardens, or workshops to children’s centres and support groups, we go to where we’re needed, connect and create together.
“This can often mean we don’t inhabit large, prolific buildings or that our work has huge visibility, but as long as we remain meaningful to those we do engage, then that’s what counts to us. And being an NPO will enable us to sustain this work while also reaching out to new communities and asking them what they want from us.”
Within the York community, you involve people who would not otherwise participate in the arts. Discuss…
“Well, rather than saying ‘We have this thing and you need to get involved’, we approach it the other way around by saying ‘We know about theatre, you tell us how you want that to work for you’.
“For example, our programme of Forum Theatre came about through communities of people with learning disabilities, their support staff and family wanting safe yet productive ways of exploring independent living.
“So, we worked with members of The Snappy Trust and Camphill Village Trust to gather the tricky situations that they wanted to explore, trialled the format with them, evaluated together and now this has become an embedded process and programme of engagement.
“This has been the same with us using storytelling and performance skills to increase the self-confidence of unpaid carers wanting to apply for volunteering and employed work, or offering online creative writing sessions to keep LGBTQ+ young people connected and openly exploring topics important to them.
“Our approach is for the community to identify what they want, and then our responsibility is to shape the theatre with them to meet that goal.”
Lastly, Matt, put some flesh on the bones of what you have planned for next year…
“So, as every NPO now must do, we’re in a negotiation phase until the end of January 2023 to confirm the first year of plans with ACE, but in short, both programmes of Forum Theatre for people with disabilities will continue and increase, as will our training course in Playback Theatre for adults with mental ill health.
“We’ll also be remounting our 2021 production of Operation Hummingbird with York Explore, creating new audiences with our adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, building on our relationships with schools and universities with a new tour of She Was Walking Home and supporting a cohort of local performing arts professionals with a series of mentoring and skills-based workshops.”
She Was Walking Home: the back story
PROMPTED by the kidnap and murder of York-born Sarah Everard in March 2021, Next Door But One mounted a city-centre audio walk last year, in response to “the reaction from women in our community and the unfortunate subsequent attacks and murders”.
Subsequently, it was expanded by Rachel Price into a live adaptation this spring, performed by a cast of four women at York Explore on May 5, Theatre@41, Monkgate, on May 20, The Gillygate pub, May 26, and University of York, June 14.
“She Was Walking Home aims to put the focus on the voices of local women, but not the responsibility or accountability for their safety,” says NDB1 associate director Kate Veysey.
Last year, for the first time, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data on how safe people feel in different public settings. One in two women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home, or in a busy public place, and two out of three women aged 16 to 34 experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months.
“Behind every one of these statistics is a true story of harassment, abuse, rape or even murder – a life changed forever,” says Kate. “We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience.”
She Was Walking Home takes the form of a series of monologues created from the testimonies of women living, working and studying in York. “We created this production in response to the heart-breaking murder of Sarah Everard and the understandable shock and uncertainty it caused in our local community,” says Kate.
“We wanted to amplify the voices of local women, while also prompting conversations around where responsibility and accountability lies for their safety. Since the original audio walk, listened to by almost 800 people, there have been further attacks and murders of women, including Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy, and still the rhetoric seems to be skewed towards rape alarms, trackers, self-defence classes and dress codes being the solution. We needed to continue and challenge this conversation.”
The 2022 tour to libraries, pubs, theatres and universities in May and June aimed to “bring this very real issue home with the experiences encountered on the very streets that make up York. “The invitation was to come and watch, listen, but also to think ‘What is it that I can do in making the women in our community safer?’,” says Kate.
Alongside the touring performance, Next Door But One have created a digital pack for schools and community groups, including a recording of the performance and a workbook containing prompts for debate and conversations that will lead to change.
“As a company, we want the theatre we make to be as useful as it can be; a tool that supports people in the ways they need,” says creative producer El Stannage.
“The tour reached different communities through the venues we visited, but equally the digital pack can be used to evoke conversations now, for change that will be seen into the future; empowering girls to report experiences of abuse and harassment and raising awareness of how boys and young men can be better allies in keeping women safe, for example.”
Watch this space for details of the upcoming performances in 2023.
GO forth and multiply the chance to see the summer spurt of theatre, musicals and outdoor shows, urges Charles Hutchinson, who also highlights big gig news for autumn and March 2022.
Breaking the library hush: Next Door But One in Operation Hummingbird, in York, today and August 12
YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are teaming up with Explore York for a library tour of Matt Harper-Harcastle’s 45-minute play Operation Hummingbird.
James Lewis Knight plays Jimmy and Matt Stradling, James, in a one-act two-hander that takes the form of a conversation across the decades about a sudden family death, realising an opportunity that we all wish we could do at some point in our life: to go back and talk to our younger self.
Today’s Covid-safe performances are at 3.30pm at New Earswick Folk Hall and 7pm, Dringhouses Library; August 12, York Explore, 2pm, and Hungate Reading Café, 7pm. Box office: nextdoorbutone.co.uk.
Play launch of the week outside York: Esk Valley Theatre in Shirley Valentine, Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, tonight until August 28
ESK Valley Theatre complete a hattrick of Willy Russell plays with Shirley Valentine from tonight, under the direction of artistic director Mark Stratton as usual.
In Russell’s one-woman show, Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan plays middle-aged, bored Liverpool housewife Shirley in a story of self-discovery as she takes a holiday to Greece with a friend, who promptly abandons her for a holiday romance. Left alone, Shirley meets charming taverna owner Costas. Box office: 01947 897587 or at eskvalleytheatre.co.uk.
Musical of the week outside Leeds, Heathers The Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, tonight until August 14
HEATHERS The Musical launches its touring production in Leeds from tonight with choreography by Gary Lloyd, who choreographed the debut York Stage pantomime last Christmas.
Produced by Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills and directed by American screen and stage director Andy Fickman, this high-octane, dark-humoured rock musical is based on the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater cult teen movie.
The premise: Westerberg High pupil Veronica Sawyer (Rebecca Wickes) is just another nobody dreaming of a better day, until she joins the impossibly cruel Heathers, whereupon mysterious teen rebel JD (Simon Gordon) teaches her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it is murder being a somebody. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsheritagetheatres.co.uk.
Art event of the week: Ryedale Open Studios, Saturday and Sunday and next weekend, 10am to 5pm each day
THE newly formed Vault Arts Centre community interest company, in Kirkbymoorside, is coordinating this inaugural Ryedale Open Studios event, celebrating the creativity and artistic talent of Ryedale and the North York Moors.
Artists, makers and creators will be offering both an exclusive glimpse into their workplaces and the opportunity to buy art works directly. Full details of all 33 artists can be found at ryedaleopenstudios.com; a downloadable map at ryedaleopenstudios.com/map.
Hit and myth show of the week: Eurydice, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, Saturday and Sunday, 7.30pm
THIS weekend, Serena Manteghi returns to the play she helped to create with writer Alexander Wright, composer Phil Grainger and fellow performer Casey Jane Andrews with Fringe award-winning success in Australia in 2019.
Manteghi, a tour de force in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Build A Rocket, will be joined by Grainger for the tale about being a daily superhero and not giving in to the stories we tell ourselves.
Woven from spoken word and soaring live music, Eurydice is the stand-alone sister show to Orpheus; her untold story imagined and reimagined for the modern-day and told from her perspective. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/.
Yorkshire gig of the week outside York: Kaiser Chiefs, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, Sunday, gates open at 6pm
LEEDS lads Kaiser Chiefs promise a “no-holds-barred rock’n’roll celebration” on their much-requested return to Scarborough OAT after their May 27 2017 debut.
“We cannot wait to get back to playing live shows again and it will be great to return to this stunning Yorkshire venue,” says frontman Ricky Wilson. “We had a cracking night there in 2017, so roll on August 8!”
Expect a Sunday night of such Yorkshire anthems as Oh My God, I Predict A Riot, Everyday I Love You Less And Less, Ruby, Never Miss A Beat and Hole In My Soul. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.
Comedy gig announcement of the week: Simon Amstell, Spirit Hole, Grand Opera House, York, September 25, 8pm
INTROSPECTIVE, abjectly honest comedian Simon Amstell will play the Grand Opera House, York, for the first time since 2012 on his 38-date Spirit Hole autumn tour.
Agent provocateur Amstell, 41, will deliver a “blissful, spiritual, sensational exploration of love, sex, shame mushrooms and more” on a tour with further Yorkshire gigs at The Leadmill, Sheffield, on September 12 and Leeds Town Hall on October 1.
York tickets are on sale at atgtickets.com/venues/grand-opera-house-york/; York, Sheffield and Leeds at ticketmaster.com.
York gig announcement of the week: Joe Jackson, York Barbican, March 17 2022
JOE Jackson will play York for only the second time in his 43-year career on his Sing, You Sinners! tour next year.
Jackson, who turns 67 on August 11, will perform both solo and with a band at York Barbican in the only Yorkshire show of his 29-date British and European tour, promising hits and new material.
“We’ve been dealing with two viruses over the past two years, and the worst – the one we really need to put behind us – is Fear,” he says. “Love is the opposite of fear, so if you love live music, come out and support it!” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are teaming up with Explore York for a library tour of Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s Operation Hummingbird from Thursday.
James Lewis Knight will play Jimmy and Matt Stradling, James, in a one-act two-hander that takes the form of a conversation across the decades about a sudden family death, realising an opportunity that we all wish we could do at some point in our life: to go back to talk to our younger self.
Death, dying and bereavement have been prevalent factors in Next Door But One’s artistic programme for many years now, led by artistic director Matt’s own loss in 2016.
“When my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my whole family turned to what they did best: some looking after all the paperwork, others the planning of appointments and medication, while I turned to what I knew, telling stories,” he says.
“From keeping a blog up to date so that friends and family were in the loop of what was going on, to telling stories of my mum to keep her memory alive”.
This quickly transferred to the stage in 2016 when Next Door But One produced Matt’s autobiographical play about his relationship with his mum, Any Mother Would. “The reaction to this relatively low-key performance was quite remarkable, with audiences saying they wished they had the space and tools to share memories and process their own grief in this way,” he recalls.
This set in motion a core strand of activity for Next Door But One, who ran a series of creative Death Cafés; hosted Playback Theatre performances for people to share stories of loved ones who had died; ran art and bereavement workshops for carers and produced Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here as part of York’s Dead Good Festival 2019.
Alongside this, Matt’s original blog was published as a book by The Writing Tree under the title of The Day The Alien Came. In response to this memoir of his mother’s death and his experience of living with loss, “people were then asking, ‘do you think your book will ever become a play?’,” he says.
“I didn’t feel I could make it into a play but wanted to create something from the book’s themes and the parallels between the different experiences that have been shared with Next Door But One over the years”.
The result is Operation Hummingbird, to be performed on August 5 at New Earswick Folk Hall at 3.30pm and Dringhouses Library at 7pm and on August 12 at York Explore, 2pm, and Hungate Reading Café, 7pm. Seating will be limited to ensure Covid safety.
The mini-tour will finish in September with a closed performance, hosted by The Gillygate pub, in Gillygate, specifically for members of York Carers Centre, who have recent experiences of loss. Tickets are on sale at: nextdoorbutone.co.uk/Operation-Hummingbird.php
Commenting on the partnership with Explore York, creative producer El Stannage says: “We felt it made sense to partner with Explore on this production, as not only is the play connected to a story and a book, but after 18 months we have all experienced different losses through the pandemic.
“This way we are able to connect with audiences to the north, south and centre of York, providing them with a heartfelt portrayal of an experience we hope they can relate to.”
Next Door But One are not only excited to be taking their work out into the community once more, but also buoyed by taking up resident status at The Gillygate after re-launching live performances in Step 2 lockdown-eased York with Yorkshire Trios in the new outdoor theatre space in Brian Furey’s pub garden on April 23 and 24.
“We now have a home, a place to create and rehearse in the heart of the city, and with the support of The Gillygate, and their shared ethos of community engagement, our potential is rapidly expanding,” says Matt.
Ahead of Thursday’s opening performance, Matt answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on play titles, dealing with death, talking to our younger selves, Hamlet versus King Lear, working with Explore York and taking up a residency at The Gillygate.
What is the significance of the title Operation Hummingbird, Matt?
“The title alludes to the central character’s childhood coping mechanism for dealing with his mother’s terminal diagnosis; rather than trying to grapple with medical terminology he draws parallels to battles he is more familiar with, like those on his games console.
“The hummingbird is a reference to who the character’s mum hopes she can become ‘afterwards’. So together, ‘Operation Hummingbird’ is the character’s fight to save his mum, which turns into his journey of living with loss.”
Death is a difficult subject to discuss; for some it is still taboo. Yet facing up to your mother’s death instead has awoken the need for you to contemplate grief in myriad ways. What has been the impact of all that creativity, both on others and on yourself?
“Well, it’s been a real snowball effect. We’re not good at talking about death, even though deep down we know we need to. Many people just need an opportunity presented to them that feels safe and more recognisable.
“People came to watch Any Mother Would and wanted to write their own stories, which led to us running the Death Cafés and Playback Theatre on loss, which gained momentum and put us at the heart of York’s Dead Good Fest 2019.
“The experience of grief can be a very lonely and isolating one and the main impact we’ve seen from participants and audiences is reassurance that their feelings are valid and shared by others.
“For me personally, I thought I would be completely consumed by the grief of my mam’s death, but through creativity, I’ve been able to own it and take control over how it manifests itself in my life. So, strength is the impact it’s had on me.”
Given how widely you have addressed this theme already, what new elements are you looking to bring out in Operation Hummingbird?
“In writing the play, even though I’ve leaned into themes and emotions I’ve experienced myself, it’s been really important to weave in all the stories of death, dying and bereavement that have been shared with us over the years so that they are represented as the collective they’ve become.
“In terms of how Operation Hummingbird complements our existing repertoire on this topic…we’ve had the celebration of a life lived (Any Mother Would), the reaction to a terminal diagnosis (Colder Than Here) and now we are looking at the long-term impact of bereavement and the role it plays in shaping our identity as we age (Operation Hummingbird).
“So, quite serendipitously, we’ve ended up with almost a trilogy of death, dying and bereavement spanning from 2016 to the current day.”
Knowing that we can’t go back to talk to our younger selves, but wish we could, why do we wish it? Some would see it as a futile exercise, but here you are devoting a play to that theme. For what reason? Are you addressing other selves who are still young?
“It’s actually the futility you mention that is central to the narrative; often we wish we could fast forward grief, that someone could give us an end date, or that someone has all the answers on how we ‘get over it’. When, in reality, the only way to deal with grief is to live through it, to feel every emotion, to articulate what’s going on and find a way to live alongside it.
“I guess that’s the take-away message of the play. Even when presented with this unachievable opportunity, our older character struggles with how much to tell his younger self for fear of changing the person he becomes.”
How did you settle on the play’s structure of a conversation across the decades (about a sudden family death)?
“As you said before, we can’t actually have this conversation between younger and older self, so there’s something really freeing as a writer to set a play in this liminal, non-attainable space where the usual rules of time and conversation can be blurred.
“I’ve always found inspiration in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’; the cold hard truth given to us directly can make us disengage, but set reality on a fictional foundation and look at it through a creative lens and it becomes easier to digest. Meaning that something classed as ‘taboo’ can be moved closer toward, rather than running away from.”
In Operation Hummingbird, you ask: “Does our grief age as we do?”.As I grow older, King Lear is becoming more significant to me than Hamlet, and yet Ian McKellen is playing Hamlet at 82, having already played Lear. Interesting! Discuss!
“Very interesting! Maybe it’s just because I’m in the throes of Operation Hummingbird, but maybe casting McKellen as Hamlet is to show the power that grief and loss can hold over us at any age?
“I wonder what the interpretation of a 28-year-old Lear would be? Discuss!”
How long will the show be?
“The play is 45 minutes in length. I think lockdown has solidified my preference for a one-act play.”
What is the significance of linking up with Explore York for this library tour?
“There are three key reasons. Firstly, we wanted to bring live theatre closer to people, especially in light of Covid. So, having performances to the north and south of the city, as well as centrally, should hopefully give a space for everyone.
“Secondly, libraries are buildings that exist to house stories, so why not make a live one happen there too.
“Thirdly, some slight inspiration from my late mam. She was a librarian in west Cumbria and saw the building as central to the community. It’s where people connect with others, learn skills, tap into new interests, seek help, understand the area they live in, and that’s true to the ethos of Next Door But One’s work, so it seemed like the perfect partnership.”
The Gillygate’s Brian Furey is a good friend to the arts, whether putting on Alexander Wright’s shows, both indoors and in a tent, or your York Trios shows. How did you cement the relationship to become the company in residence? What benefits will it bring to Next Door But One?
“There’s a genuine generosity that The Gillygate has to its staff and community that we admire. Little did we know that the Fureys were also admiring the same qualities in us when supporting Yorkshire Trios.
“The residency was cemented by us both discussing the fundamentals of what we were trying to achieve and realising that it was the same; we want to bring members of the community together to enjoy and benefit from a shared experience.
“So, in its simplest form, ‘two heads (or companies) are better than one’ when there’s a shared goal. As a company it now means that we have a home; we have office, rehearsal and performance space, giving us more autonomy over our programming.
“But above all, partnering with The Gillygate means we have a real community champion in our corner and that’s invaluable.”
NEXT Door But One, the York community arts collective, will stream its 2017 production of Any Mother Would in its YouTube premiere from 7pm tonight.
Written and directed by director Matt Harper-Hardcastle, the hour-long play will then be available online until September, both on YouTube and via the collective’s website, nextdoorbutone.co.uk.
“We’re taking a slightly National Theatre at Home approach to it,” says Matt. “If it’s good enough for the National Theatre in lockdown, then it’s good enough for us.
“It’s completely free to watch, but what we’ve done is set up a Go Funding page, almost as a Pay What You Think, for the YouTube streaming, and whatever we make from donations will make us stronger for the future.”
Any Mother Would marked Next Door But One’s shift into public performance in 2017, “making theatre out of the untold, poignant stories that had been shared with us and that we believe create the foundations of our community, so felt they needed taking to a larger stage.”
This sold-out first venture into the public field featured as part of York Disability Pride 2017 and the Great Yorkshire Fringe 2018 festival.
Public performance is on hold in these Coronavirus-clouded times but, supported by public funding from Arts Council England, Next Door But One is able to continue workshops and performances through its Covid-19 response project, Distant Neighbours.
“We want to ensure that we can sustain our relationships with participants and audiences beyond this current pandemic and also support our freelance artists through this difficult time,” says Matt.
“This means our artistic programme that connects with neuro-diverse children, adults with mental health problems, community groups of people with learning disabilities, and services supporting those who are experiencing grief, will continue.”
When confronted by the Coronavirus lockdown, “initially we looked at all the work we had planned between now and September,” says Matt. “Mainly we considered all the people we were already working with and how we could stay connected, having built up many relationships with community groups and organisations, such as Snappy, Camphill Village Trust and St Leonard’s Hospice.
“With the heightened scenarios brought about in lockdown, we wanted to ensure we could keep it going, and have life after this time, and we felt it was important that people had opportunities for education, for involvement, for expression, for so much more than just entertainment, like learning about navigating through life at Camphill Village.
“We have already begun an online R&D [research and development] of our adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, hosted our first Playback Theatre workshop over Zoom, and soon we’ll be able to offer a rehearsed reading of our latest play, written for May’s cancelled York’s Dead Good Festival.”
Next Door But One applied for an Arts Council emergency fund in in late-April, all tied up in a fortnight, and already Matt had contacted eight freelance theatre-makers to be involved in projects now to be conducted online and on Zoom.
“We know how hard hit the freelance cohort has been in lockdown, me included, so we’ve now been able to honour our contracts in a slightly different way,” he says.
“We’ve also been able to ring-fence the original money granted for the scratch performances and we can give work to our artists once more when we can do that.
“Between now and September, we can keep people working, and after we received just under £6,000, we can do so much more than we first thought we would.”
Next Door But One also applied for Comic Relief funding towards next year’s work, receiving just under £5,000. “We put that application in at the same time, and this allows us to run another year’s work with Converge [at the University of York St John], doing our Discover Playback course.”
Discover Playback brings together performers and those with experiences of mental ill health, with the focus on learning, creativity and being artists together.
“We’re now going to be able to continue our work with Converge, in this mental health field, when otherwise those people would have had to face five months’ withdrawal from our services and their well-being might well have been affected so much that we might have had to start all over again from scratch,” says Matt.
“Instead, we’re working on our Discover Playback workshops through the summer and through the next academic year too.
“The funding means that not only can we support our artists through this awful time, but also those people we have worked with for three years when this work feels more important than ever.”
As mentioned by Matt earlier, research and development work is continuing on The Firework-Maker’s Daughter on Zoom. “That brings its own wonderments and challenges when we can’t work in our usual ways with Snappy and York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre, but now we can record a Zoom version and podcast version and send them out to continue our work,” he says.
“The original plan was that we would be taking our scratch version to York Theatre Royal’s De Grey Rooms ballroom at the end of June, and to Snappy too, but that can’t happen.
“So now we’re doing the R&D workshops in a reduced form on Zoom, working with people with sensory needs and autism, and we’re having to look at different ways for these young people to interact with the screen.
“That’s why we’re making the video (Zoom) version, podcast version, and we’re looking at using Makaton, a version of sign language that uses key symbols, so it’s more of a visual aid.”
Matt continues: “We’re ploughing ahead with this, and a video and audio recording should be ready by July to send out to Snappy and to any parents who think it might be useful for their child.
“Our live performances combine a hybrid of participatory elements that we can now include in the recorded version, with worksheets, activity packs, drawing materials, the chance to do music within it, but now doing everything individually at home.”
Coming next from Next Door But One will be a rehearsed reading of a shortened version of Operation Hummingbird, a play Matt has written in the wake of publishing The Day The Alien Came, his book on his bereavement experience after losing his mother to cancer.
“I did a few book readings and author talks and lots of people said, ‘You should make this into a play’, but writing the book was a big feat in itself, so I’d never considered doing a play,” he says.
“But then I thought about making a piece for the Dead Good Festival, so I’ve taken a fictionalised story, looking at how grief and the feelings of grief change, starting with feelings of loss as a child and how that then changes, and how our memories of things change over time; what we hold on to; how what we think of as painful changes; how it becomes a discussion between our self now and our younger self.
“We haven’t fixed a date for the rehearsed reading yet, but hopefully it will be in July.”