Arts and Crufts come together in Poppy Hollman’s Mikron debut A Dog’s Tale

Do NOT be deceived by this picture of Polly Hollman and her canine compadre. Read on…

DON’T tell anyone, but A Dog’s Tale playwright Poppy Hollman prefers cats. Director Rachel Gee, by comparison, is a dog owner.

This evening, Mikron Theatre Company’s touring premiere pitches up at Scarcroft Allotments, Scarcroft Road, York, for a sold-out 6pm performance.

“Well, I’ve tried to keep it hush-hush…but yes, I’m a cat lover and I do have two cats,” admits Poppy. “But we had lovely comments at last Saturday’s opening show at The Holbeck in Leeds, and the loveliest was, ‘Do you know, I’d never have guessed you didn’t have a dog’!”

In their 49th year of touring by canal, river and road, Marsden company Mikron are celebrating (wo)man’s best friend in a musical comedy caper, commissioned from Poppy to “look at canines past and present and the enduring bond between people and their dogs”.

“I genuinely did have to research about dogs, looking to work out why dogs means so much to people,” says Poppy, of her first professional commission. “Over the past year, in the pandemic lockdowns, we’ve really seen that with sales of dogs going through the roof.”

Poppy’s research took her to Crufts, the self-anointed world’s greatest dog show. “You realise the broad appreciation the British have for their dogs, as you see just how much they love them,” she says.

MIkron Theatre Company gathering for rehearsals at Marsden Mechanics

“We close the play with the song I wrote, Be More Dog, about going for a walk and seeing the world through their eyes: their loyalty, their love, the simplicity of everything.”

As one verse goes: “So be more dog/With loyalty and courage we should/Be more dog. Be as they would be to you/Look outside your own head. Take the lead and don’t be led/’Cause doggedness is good for you.”

“Through writing this play, I’ve now got a real understanding of what dogs mean to people,” says Poppy. “I love cats, but we do have a Dogs v. Cats rap battle in the show, where I’m a bit mean about cats because of their aloofness. Dogs will do anything to please their owners, whereas cats will just walk away with their tails in the air.”

What are the characteristics of her two cats? “They’re two ginger toms, Ziggy and Sparky; one is very fluffy, the other is very smooth; one is very greedy; the other is very fussy, so the greedy one eats the other one’s food,” says Poppy.

Exit cats stage left, tales left in the air. We need to talk instead about A Dog’s Tale, wherein Linda and her wayward rescue dog Gary are pursued by security through the halls and history of Crufts, accused of a terrible crime.

In highly competitive world of heroic hounds, pampered pedigrees and naughty nobblers, does Gary have what it takes to win the day?

Lead actors: Mikron Theatre Company cast members James McLean, Rachel Benson, Elizabeth Robin and Thomas Coran going for walkies with a parade of pooches. Picture: Liz Baker

“I spent two fascinating days at Crufts [at the Birmingham NEC in March] last year, eavesdropping on competitors, chatting to people and trying to work out which dog would win in each competition (success rate: zero),” says Poppy.

“People were very friendly and frank in sharing their suspicions about judging bias. ‘Well, you know, that dog will win because it’s Scottish and so is the judge!’ (It did win).

“My impression of Crufts was that while dog participation was on an exclusive basis, a huge variety of humankind was in evidence, on two legs or four wheels.”

This was testament perhaps to the huge importance of dogs to many different people in their roles as pets, medical assistance dogs, working dogs and more, says Poppy. “It’s also true to the founding principles of Charles Cruft, who charged only a penny so that everyone could enter their best friend.”

A cast of actor-musicians, Rachel Benson, Thomas Cotran, James McLean and Elizabeth Robin, will tell Hollman’s stories. “I’ve vwritten over 20 characters to be played by only four actors, but I know they’ll enjoy the challenge of bringing it to life!” says Poppy, who was picked to write the play after participating in Mikron’s 2018 Writers Scheme.

“It’s my first professional commission. It’s been a delight to work for Mikron, a company whose creativity and ethos I love.

Cat, a tonic? Yes, indeed, as the moggies steal a scene from the doggies in A Dog’s Tale. In the feline line-up: Thomas Cotran, Elizabeth Robin and Rachel Benson. Picture: Liz Baker

“From the application process, they selected ten writers to go to Marsden to find out about Mikron, to understand how they work, how they have such a unique playing style.

“They asked us each to write a scene and a song for a show about Crufts, and on the basis of what I wrote, they chose me for the commission.”

How did she feel? “Initially, it was scary, because I knew nothing about Crufts, but actually once I added to that scene, I really got into it, with anything in its extremes tending to comedy.”

Poppy’s research also took her to the Kennel Club archives, Europe’s largest dog library, near Green Park, London. “It was a very nice library to work in on and off for a few weeks, and we do a bit about the Kennel Club in the show because they were the rivals to Charles Cruft, though I hope they don’t think we’ve been mean or unkind!” she says.

From her research, A Dog’s Tale had to emerge in the Mikron style. “Their brief was pretty loose: ‘we like to have a laugh, we like people to learn something, and if we have a cry as well, that’s great’,” summarises Poppy. “Mine is more of a comedy as I found so much joy in the dog world.

“The key Mikron house style is to have no lights, no recorded music, and every show is outdoors this year, because of Covid, and that means that the story really has to motor on to keep the audience’s attention when they’re outdoors.”

Mikron Theatre Company’s poster for the 2021 tour of A Dog’s Tale

Poppy believes she fits the Mikron modus operandi like a glove. “Exploring British life in an irreverent way is manna to the way I write, but I had to re-write what I understand about writing drama,” she says.

In practical terms, she found it impossible to write the script without allocating the parts first, given the need to accommodate 20-plus characters. “I had to think, ‘who’s just come off?’, ‘who can come on now?’, ‘who can do a quick scene here?’.

“So, the main parts take fewer of the side characters, with the other two ending up doing endless changes! James McLean is one of those two: look out for his Sandra Woofhouse, based on the character we love from TV!”

A Dog’s Tale should have wagged last year, but lockdown put paid to Mikron’s travel plans. A year later, “we’ve left the script pretty much as it was,” says Poppy.

“I handed it in February last year when they were about to go into rehearsal, and in a way, I wouldn’t know what to have done to update it, though we’ve seen things like dog prices sky-rocketing over the past year.

“As a writer, I just know they’re going to be creative with what you write for them,” says Poppy Hollman of A Dog’s Tale cast members Elizabeth Robin, left, Thomas Cotran, James McLean and Rachel Benson. Picture: Liz Baker

“We did think about Covid, but actually it’s a light show, and rather than saying what a terrible year we’ve had, it’s time for escapism!”

Before becoming a playwright in rural Bedfordshire, Poppy had a very different career as head of touring exhibitions at the V&A Museum, London, from 2006 to 2013.

“The change wasn’t accidental. I had children and we left London for more space and a more rural life. The practicalities of commuting to London to do a pretty serious and demanding job became more difficult. “I just needed to get out of London. I’d loved the job, but it was necessary to move on.”

Poppy set her heart on creating plays for community audiences. “I decided, with zero experience, that I would write a play about my home village of Turvey – Bells Of Turvey – focusing on a real family from the mid-19th century,” she recalls of her 2017 debut.

“We had a community cast of 40 and a big stage down the middle of Turvey Village Hall, inspired by things like the Mystery Plays and Lark Rise To Candleford.”

Not content with writing a show on such a scale, she also directed the community production. “But I’m not really a director at heart,” she says. “It’s healthy, I think, to have a director to bring something new and magical to the play, and in turn you should stick to your own strengths.”

Out on a lead: Rachel Benson in A Dog’s Tale. Picture: Liz Baker

She loves productions where you can feel the connection between the company and their audiences. “That happens even more with shows on Mikron’s scale. I just love the immediacy of the performances and the incredible talents of the actors, how they perform and play music too,” says Poppy. “As a writer, I just know they’re going to be creative with what you write for them.”

Looking ahead, “I’d love to write another play for Mikron, and I’m now working on a piece about the unrest of the late-15th and 16th century Enclosures, and our relationship with that world now.

“I’m also thinking of writing a play about bird-watching, which would definitely be a comedy. It’s been hard to write over the past year, though I’ve worked on some radio pieces off my own back, but it’s a situation that most writers face after doing their first commission.”

A Dog’s Tale is up and running, as cat-loving playwright Poppy Hollman and dog-owning Mikron director Rachel Gee’s shared vision comes to life.

Have they fought like cats and dogs? “We didn’t really discuss Rachel’s dog,” says Poppy. “We certainly didn’t bring up our differing preferences!”

Aboard narrowboat Tyseley and on land, Mikron Theatre Company are touring Poppy Hollman’s A Dog’s Tale nationally in tandem with Amanda Whittington’s new women’s football play, Atalanta Forever, until September 19. For full tour details and tickets, go to: mikronorg.uk

Mikron Theatre’s future is at risk…unless £48,337 is raised before 50th anniversary

Atalanta Forever…but not for 2020 after Covid-19 showed the red card to Amanda Whittington’s new football play, forcing Mikron Theatre Company to call off this summer’s tour

MIKRON Theatre Company are launching a near-£50,000 fundraising appeal to secure their 50th anniversary year, but under the dark clouds of Coronavirus their future is at risk.

The West Yorkshire company had to cancel this summer’s tours of Amanda Whittington’s Atalanta Forever and Poppy Hollman’s A Dog’s Tale, once the Covid-19 lockdown strictures prevented them from touring by canal, river and road as is their custom.

The stultifying impact of the pandemic has dealt Mikron a “potentially catastrophic blow” and consequently they need help to “ensure that they get back on their feet, back on the road and back on the water”.

No touring from April to October has meant no income from 130 shows, no merchandise, no programmes, no raffle, in the budget, whereupon Mikron are facing a shortfall of £48,337.49.

Atalanta Forever playwright Amanda Whittington

Artistic director Marianne McNamara says: “The entire management team is doing as much as we can to reduce costs month by month, but this simply is not enough. On current budgets, the company will run out of money before our 50th year of touring in 2021.  

“With this in mind, we have no choice but to launch an appeal to raise £48,337.49 by the end of December 2020 to ensure that Mikron has a future within the theatre industry.” 

Should the appeal be successful, next summer Mikron will tour Atalanta Forever, Whittington’s story of women’s football in the 1920s, and Hollman’s canine comedy caper A Dog’s Tale. As ever, York would play host to shows at Scarcroft Allotments and Clements Hall.

After making the decision not to tour in light of the pandemic, Mikron took Arts Council England’s advice and have been helping the community in their home village of Marsden, near Huddersfield.

Coronavirus-cancelled canine comedy capers: MIkron Theatre Company’s poster for A Dog’s Tale

To do so, they have repurposed their office and van to assist with the village Covid-19 mutual aid group Marsden Help and have delivered hundreds of food parcels and prescriptions to self-isolating and vulnerable families.

“We’re so incredibly sad not to be touring,” says Marianne.  “In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak we looked at every possible combination, but none of them were practical.

“What I would not give to see Mikron performing at a canalside venue to a large crowd with the sun setting behind us. We see the same faces in different places year on year and we really miss them but the safety of the cast and crew, venues and, of course, our loyal audiences, had to come first.”

Based in the village of Marsden, at the foot of the Yorkshire Pennines, Mikron tour on board a vintage narrowboat, Tyseley, putting on shows in “places that other theatre companies wouldn’t dream of”.

It could be a play about growing-your-own, staged at  allotments; a play abuzz with bees, performed next to hives, or a play where the  chips are down, served up in a fish and chip restaurant. Add to that list a play celebrating hostelling, booked into YHA Youth hostels and the story of the RNLI, launched from several lifeboat stations on the coast.

Mikron Theatre Company’s summer mode of transport: Tyseley, a vintage narrowboat. Picture: Jon Gascoyne

Since Mikron formed in 1972, they have:

Written 64 original shows;

Composed 384 songs;

Issued 236 actor-musician contracts;

Spent 30,000 boating hours on the inland waterways;

Covered 530,000 road miles;

Performed 5,060 times;

Played to 428,000 people. 

For further information and to donate to the appeal to keep Yorkshire’s narrowboat theatre company afloat, visit mikron.org.uk/appeal. Donations also can be sent to Mikron Theatre, Marsden Huddersfield, HD7 6BW.