Writer, director, musician, theatre maker, actor, but still Alex is nervous about tonight

In a field of one: Alexander Wright, playwright, poet, storyteller, musician, director, facilitator, theatre builder…and now solo performer

ALEXANDER Wright is nervous about tonight, but why?

Let Alex tell the story: “In a potentially remarkable act of narcissism, I am doing a solo gig of my own work in a theatre I built [with Gobbledigook Theatre’s Phil Grainger and dad Paul Wright] in my back garden at 7.30pm. 

“It’s the first time I have ever done a solo gig. I write lots of stuff, direct lots of stuff, tour Orpheus, Eurydice & The Gods The Gods The Gods to hundreds of places.

“I’ve released Half Man//Half Bull, a double narrative-led album, with Phil and Olivier Tilney. My production of The Great Gatsby has been performed across the UK, in Belgium, Ireland, and Korea to hundreds and thousands of audience members.

“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.”

Double at t’ Mill: Phil Grainger and Alexander Wright at Stillington Mill last August when performing a week of shows back on home turf in Alex’s “back garden”. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Expect beautiful stories, beautiful poems, a few beautiful special guests and hopefully a beautiful sunset under the sails of the At The Mill outdoor theatre on the re-appropriated disused tennis court at Stillington Mill, Mill Lane, Stillington, near York.

Tongue in cheek in its title, Alex’s Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism night is part of the anything but narcissistic inaugural Summer At The Mill season at At The Mill, the Wrights’ family-run business at the mid-18th century former corn mill.

Not only theatre, children’s shows, spoken word and concerts have found a home here but so too has a Saturday morning pop-up café with unicorn ice cream and blissful cakes spun from the culinary imagination of Alex’s sister, Abbigail, and a welcoming wood-burner in the corner.

Then add supper clubs (up next, Tom Smith, from Oxfordshire, cooking an entire lamb on July 17, tickets available); special events; community gatherings; weddings and accommodation in a fairy-lit woodland shepherd’s hut or the two-bedroom Mill Cottage in a converted cow byre.

The stage is set for a night of Theatre At The Mill

Stillington Mill’s pond-side grounds have housed magical performances in previous years, whether on the woodland grass or under canvas, but the outdoor theatre is new for 2021, all because of a vow witnessed one August night by CharlesHutchPress among others at a Grainger and Wright performance in the first socially distanced summer of Covid.

“Phil has a habit of saying what he’s thinking out loud in public, and then being beholden to it. I’m fine with that and so is Phil!”, says Alex, recalling how best friend Phil had announced that a massive pile of wood had just arrived at the mill from G H Brooks, the timber merchants up the road.

They would build a theatre, he promptly promised, with a boldness worthy of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald pronouncing he would construct an opera house in the middle of a jungle in Werner Herzog’s infamously trouble-beset 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. Thankfully, the task proved less arduous, and no-one behaved like loose-cannon prima-donna lead actor Klaus Kinski.

“I think it’s important to get on with stuff, whatever the circumstances you face, and we’ve always done that. If you wait for people to give you permission, it will never happen, but we had the space to create a theatre, so we have,” says Alex.

Alexander Wright performing Orpheus at At The Mill earlier this summer. Picture: Fair Dinkum Film

“There’s something wonderful about an old tennis court making way for a stage, especially in a village where the mill has long been a focal point for the community. There’s been a mill here since being recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 and the house was built in 1754.

“It’s lovely to keep allowing these buildings to be central to the community, and even though it’s no longer flour, I hope it’s still some form of nourishment, whether it’s cake and sausage sandwiches or theatre and music. It’s good to have an industry of sorts still going on here.”

Phil built the wooden stage and the benches – in his own self-deprecating words “making good-quality wood look like palettes” – with help from his Australian partner Angie Alle, while Alex and father Paul did all the structures above, the pillars and posts and sails. “So, if you fall off the stage, it’s Phil’s fault; if something falls on you, it’s my dad’s and my fault,” Alex jokes.

“Some of it’s trial and error, like having to re-enforce the pillar structures, but we’re always trying to do something that’s beyond what we would normally do. Others might find that intimidating, but I like stretching my capacities.”

Courtly love: Out goes tennis, in comes a theatre, game set and match at Stillington Mill

Reflecting on changing times for theatre and performance under the cloud of Covid, changes that have seen Alex and Phil rooted in North Yorkshire, rather than travelling to New York and the Edinburgh Fringe after returning early from Australia last February, Alex says: “I’m sure lots of people have had the profound realisation in the past 16 months that theatre and the arts are a function or a means to the end,  rather than an end in themselves.

“We get tied up in theatre being something we consume, when in fact it is so much more valuable as a means for people to gather, to hear news, to share stories, to start conversations, and when we’ve not been gathering for 16 months, it’s such a vital tool for doing that – and I think it’s the gathering that’s most important.”

Alex continues: “I love meeting communities, meeting other people, and I feel that everywhere I go, we always leave having learned something. We always play by the same rules: performers and audience, we are together for two hours, and that sense of hanging out together is more important right now than what we see.

“But when we were setting up Summer At The Mill, I was very clear that it needed to serve the communities I care about: the local rural community and the wider, sprawling arts community.

“We’ve made what I hope is a very honest invitation to artists, to encourage them to ask if they want to come here and play, with either a new piece of work or an old piece that they’re getting back on its feet, or maybe for a collaboration, and it’s felt really nice to be able to do that.

A different writing task for playwright and poet Alexander Wright as he works a shift on At The Mill’s Saturday morning pop-up cafe (which turn into a bar for shows, by the way)

“Phil and I see loads of brilliant mates making work around the world, and we’ll hang around with them for a month. Then, six month later, there’ll be another festival, again with all these acclaimed international artists, and it’s kind of amazing when we say, ‘do you want to muck around in our back garden?’ and they’ll say ‘Yes, I’ll try out some new ideas’, and so they’ll play to a new audience, testing out new material. There’s a nice alchemy to it, and it’s a level playing field.

“We’re even talking to a couple of artists about the possibility of doing short residencies, for a week or a weekend, hosting them to let them road-test something new.”

Tonight, meanwhile, it will be Alex’s own turn to do that in a night of spoken word, storytelling and poetry…and, yes, he’s still nervous!

Alexander Wright: Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York, tonight (10/7/2021) at 7.30pm. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/538906.

In the spotlight…Joe Wawrzyniak, chair of Theatre @41 Monkgate, York

“Theatre has always been my passion and I realised that I had an opportunity to lead a team and make a difference to this incredible building and charity,” says Joe Wawrzyniak. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkgate Photography

Why did you take on the role of chair for Theatre @41, Joe?

“As we were approaching last year’s annual general meeting, our incumbent chair, Jim Welsman, decided to step down and I agreed to take on the chair as a temporary role. Very quickly it became clear that there was a big job to do with the charity from an operational and developmental point of view.

“Theatre has always been my passion and I realised that I had an opportunity to lead a team and make a difference to this incredible building and charity.”

What does Monkgate mean to you?

“Creativity. Every experience I’ve had with Monkgate has been a creative one, from the very first moment I stepped foot in there with the University of York St John, to all the rehearsals I’ve been part of and then finally as part of the board of trustees. Creativity has been the one constant that remains.” 

York theatre-goers will know you from major roles in myriad productions but do you have any experience of theatre behind the scenes too?

“Surprisingly, I have lots of experience behind the scenes. I’ve stage-managed productions and directed many musicals and plays. My favourite musical was The Phantom Of The Opera, which I staged in 2014 – my favourite show and a great success.

“I’ve also worked professionally at York Theatre Royal and Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, in Halifax, in marketing and administration, so I have lots of experience and knowledge working for charitable organisations.

“Most notably, I worked at the Theatre Royal during their capital renovation project and some of their other major events, such as The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum, The York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens and their season in the round – I helped with the production of shows and front of house.

“For a long time, theatre was my whole life, having studied performance theatre at York St John, concentrating on live art and acting/directing.”    

What challenges have you faced since taking on the role of chair?

“The biggest challenge is running the charity with a full-time job too. The charity in itself has a heavy workload which impacts on people’s time. This is why it’s really important that we build our volunteer community so they can be part of the developments and to ensure that the charity is running effectively.” 

Joe Wawrzyniak, as Tick, left, starring alongside Jacob Husband, as Adam, and Alex Weatherhill, as Bernadette, in York Stage Musicals’ 2017 production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, The Musical at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Benedict Tomlinson

How did the board of trustees come together and how is it working?

“With a lot of hard work. Three of us were existing members of the previous board and everyone else was a new recruit.

“Because the profile of Theatre@41 is not as big as we would like, there was a challenge getting people to, firstly, know who we are and, secondly, understand why or how they could make a difference. Through a lot of networking, we have finally found a cohort of people who, day after day, make a difference to this charity.”

Who is serving on the board?

“Myself as chair, looking after all the governance of the charity and leading the board to achieve their short and long-term goals.

“Joanna Hird and Susannah Baines are joint secretaries; Joanna is responsible for administration and Susannah is responsible for our membership, though they do cross over a lot!

“Philip Barton is our treasurer, Jack Hooper is our marketing, branding and communications trustee; Alan Park is responsible for fundraising and business development; Kaeli Wishart is a new addition, responsible for our volunteer strategy, and Emma Godivala, of York Gin, is a trustee too.” 

What has the new board achieved already to fill you with pride?

“When you’re part of a project, it’s really hard to see the developments that you’ve made. So, when we wrote the annual report this year, I was astounded by how much we’ve achieved in such a short time. I’m proud of everything that we do as a board.

“Most of all, I’m proud of the team we have become and how we continue to operate. Achieving something of this magnitude is impossible with just one person. It can’t be done. You have to have an effective and engaged team… which we do.”

York actor David Bradley: One of the six Theatre @41 patrons announced in May

Game Of Thrones star David Bradley, comedian Rosie Jones, actors Karen Henthorn and John McArdle, former chairman Jim Welsman and founder John Cooper’s daughter, Felicity, became patrons in May. What do you hope they will bring to Theatre @41?

“I think the primary purpose of high-profile patrons is about raising our own profile. Part of our five-year strategy is to build the awareness of our charity and building. We face a disadvantage as we’re physically hidden from passers-by and then, secondly, we aren’t at the top of people’s minds when it comes to theatre spaces in York.

“We don’t want to be number one; this isn’t about stealing the audience from other venues, but we do want to be in people’s consideration when they’re thinking about theatre experiences, either as an audience member or as a hirer.

“We’re hoping that having patrons who are not only high profile but actively involved in our theatre will help raise our profile and attract people into our building.”

What do you want to achieve in the next year?

“Most importantly, we hope to re-open successfully and start to build our hires again to ensure the financial stability of the charity. That is our first goal.

“After that, we’re focusing on creating a comprehensive pack of governing policies to ensure that we’re  operationally effective; building a bank of volunteers to help us with the day-to-day running of the charity and venue; building a brand identity to make sure our name lasts long into the future; looking at our artistic offer and raising funds for our roof. These are just a few of the many tasks we have to achieve.”

What would you like the brand identity of Theatre @41 Monkgate to be?

“We want our identity to exhibit creativity. Our tagline is ‘Just Add Imagination’ and our identity should reflect that. However, we also want it to incorporate our history. We shouldn’t forget where we have come from and we have a great story to tell.”

How has the Covid-19 lockdown affected your plans?

“Aside from our theatre being closed, lockdown has, in a strange way, let us to concentrate on a lot of activities that we were struggling to complete when our building was open. So, actually, in one way it has positively affected our plans and given us the breathing space we needed to carry on with building the foundations of this incredible charity.”

The late John Cooper, who converted Trinity Methodist Church Hall into the 41 Monkgate theatre from scratch

What are the practical questions facing Theatre @41 in relation to re-opening?

“I think that the lack of direction from the Government on re-opening is slightly frustrating as it isn’t allowing for any future planning. Though we completely understand these are unprecedented times and I’m sure there is a lot the Government are working through.

“Operationally, there is probably less impact for our building due to the flexibility of seating and the fact it has a natural one-way system we can implement very quickly.

“I think our biggest challenge will be having hirers back in the building. At the moment, as we understand, amateur performance is still not advised to go ahead, which means that for the foreseeable future we will have no income. Like other businesses and charities though, we must have a think about how we adapt to this in the new world.”

Once the Government says “Yes” to indoor performances, is there any viable possibility of re-opening with reduced-capacity social distancing?

“We haven’t done the calculations as yet. However, working on an average audience size, I don’t foresee there being any issue with seating arrangements.”

But is it more practical to stay closed until Theatre @41 can re-open at full capacity?

“Not really. We really need to be open to continue bringing in money to our charity. We don’t receive any regular funding from bodies to help with our operating costs, so being open would help with our cash flow.” 

Given the need to address the upkeep of the building, what makes Theatre @41 worth fighting for?

No other theatre in York offers what we offer. When a hirer enters our building, they’re allowed to take over the whole space and have full creative control, from rehearsal rooms to the black box studio.

Amie Burns Walker’s Daisy Buchanan and Oliver Tilney’s Jay Gatsby on the Theatre @41 stairway in The Guild Of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby in December 2016. Picture: Steven Eric Parker

“Back in 2016 and 2018 we had The Guild Of Misrule bring Alexander Flanagan-Wright’s immersive production of The Great Gatsby to us. They took over the entire building and every room was transformed into a 1920s’ setting so that the audience stepped back in time as soon as they came through the front door.

“We’re also the perfect size for local companies to stage new or daring shows and not take too much of a financial risk. Our space allows companies to produce well-known pieces in new and exciting ways and, finally, we’re exactly what York is lacking: a Fringe venue.

“Possibilities are endless in our building, whereas in other theatres there may be a lot more restriction.” 

What does the board see as the priority with the building’s maintenance?

“The biggest priority is to fix the roof. There are other tasks to undertake but our biggest priority is the roof, for which we have already started fundraising.”

How is the proposal to mark the legacy of 41 Monkgate founder John Cooper progressing?

“We obviously unveiled a plaque a few years ago and had a brown sign erected outside our building for the John Cooper Studio. The next step is to include the memory of John and immortalise him in the fabric of our brand identity and story-telling.”

Amid the uncertainty brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, why is the arts scene so important in York?

“In a city so small it absolutely amazes me that we can house five major theatres and one large concert venue, plus support all of the many different groups that produce in York.

“We are so lucky that we have such a diverse group of arts-makers and they are all, in the majority, successful. From large-scale musicals to Shakespeare and everything in between, you’d be hard pushed to find another place like this outside of London.

“However, there are a few things that aren’t catered for that I would like to experiment with and expand the horizons in York. Watch this space!”

I’ll Try And See You Sometimes, say Alex and Phil in their five-pronged art attack

Oh, you are Orpheus: Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger, one notebook, one guitar, shoes off (out of picture) are here to entertain you “on people’s streets, at their front windows and in parks and gardens”

LIVE theatre is back, all over North Yorkshire, at your invitation.

Step forward York theatre-makers Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger, who are finding new ways of telling stories and creating art and theatre this summer.

As part of the duo’s five-pronged art attack under the banner I’ll Try And See You Sometimes, they are presenting Orpheus – A Hyper Local Tour, a show whose 325 two-hander performances before the Covid curse had taken Alex and Phil across the globe, let alone to Castle Howard.

As of today, announced by Culture Secretary at the Downing Street briefing on Thursday, outdoor performances can return, whether socially distanced theatre, opera, dance or music.

Alex and Phil have been ahead of the Government curve, however, setting I’ll Try And See You Sometimes in motion in mid-June.

“We’re taking Orpheus on an outdoor tour around North Yorkshire’s local lanes, villages, and towns, performing with social distancing in place and abiding by Government guidelines on how many people can meet at any one time,” says Alex.

“The shows can take place on people’s streets, at their front windows and in parks and gardens,” says Phil. “Instead of announcing a show that the public can book tickets for, we’re asking for people to pop on to flanagancollective.com and book a suitable slot and the whole show will be brought to them.”

The I’ll Try And See You Sometimes season is bringing together Wright’s company The Flanagan Collective, Grainger’s Gobbledigook Theatre and industry friends.

“We’re taking theatre and the arts to the people of Yorkshire, keeping spirits up and people connected during these times of social distancing to help combat loneliness, something needed more than ever in the Covid-19 climate,” they say.

“Some of it is hyper local, some of it is spread far further afield, some of it is music, some of it is stories, none of it is digital.”  

All the world’s a stage for Orpheus, whether in New York, on the Ouse Cruise boat in York or out in Australia

The duo’s five-hand of analogue works are: Orpheus – A Hyper Local Tour; Oh, To Be So Lonely – A Pen Pal Project; This Story Is For You – A New Story With Guest Illustrators; Half Man, Half Bull – Two Myths Over A Double Album and The Odyssey – An International Adaptation.

Both theatre-makers attended school in rural North Yorkshire, and still live there, five miles apart, Alexander at a converted 17th century corn mill in Stillington, Phil in Easingwold.

Usually, however, they spend most of their time away from home, touring theatre across the globe, but Covid-19 and the lockdown has brought them back to Yorkshire, where they are pooling their skills, experience and creativity.

“When the lockdown hit, we were touring in Australia and about to head to New Zealand,” says Alex. “We’ve been touring our adaptation of Orpheus for a few years now, taking it across the UK, around Australia, New Zealand, Bali and over to New York.”

Alex and Phil made a sister show, Eurydice, created with performers Serena Manteghi and Casey Jay Andrews, and this year added The Gods The Gods The Gods to their repertoire, premiered in Australia.

“All three shows were lined up for UK and international touring for the next 18 months or so, including a season at the Edinburgh Fringe. But obviously that has all changed now,” says Alex.

“I’ve been keeping up with the wider industry conversations – the difficulty in using auditoriums, the need for government assistance, the huge case for our industry to be saved – and we agree with all of it and we’ve also been aware of the need to do something.”

Hence the launch of I’ll Try And See You Sometimes, showing initiative, imagination, an eye for innovation and a need for adventure that marked out writer, director, musician and performer Alex’s best-known work: the Guild of Misrule’s immersive, jazz-age hit show The Great Gatsby that began at a closed York pub.

In a nutshell, he and musician, singer, composer, actor, director and sound designer Phil make and deliver work outside of the usual physical four walls. “We have shaped, created, railed against, built, torn down, raised and radicalised perceptions of what theatre, narrative, storytelling and a relationship with an audience can be,” says Alex.

“We’re now finding ways to keep telling stories. It’s not about re-imagining shows we wanted to do live, in rooms full of hundreds of people and, instead, try and fit them on Zoom.

Phil Grainger in a performance of Orpheus in pre-Coronavirus times

“There are wonderful digital storytellers and artists in the world, but we’re not one of them. So, we’ve come up with a season of analogue work: a season of work where you get tangible things, which seeks to connect people, deliver narratives, and tell stories.”

The quintet of works can be booked in North Yorkshire and accessed regionally, nationally and internationally as the season plays across a various outdoor spaces and will be available to download.

Run by Alex and his sister Abbigail Ollive’s Lonely Arts Club, Oh, To Be So Lonely is a pen pal project, whereby those who sign up will receive a letter saying hello, with a bit of chat and reading, listening and watching recommendations.

“Those who wish for their contact details to be shared with others in the group will have the opportunity to write and share their lockdown experiences with others wanting to reconnect with the community,” says Alex. 

This Story Is For You is a “typically sad” new story written by Alex with a soundtrack by Phil and artwork by guest illustrators. “We’ve teamed up with a bunch of pals and asked them to turn the story into a book, and to create unique artworks to go alongside the story,” says Phil. “Audiences will then get the story, the artwork, and the music to keep.”

For the Half Man, Half Bull double album, Alex and Phil have linked up with Ollie Tilney, from The Great Gatsby cast, and Streatham Space Project to retell two ancient Greek myths.

“We’re writing the story of Theseus & The Minotaur and Daedelus & Icarus as a double album release on vinyl, CD and for digital download,” says Phil. “Two stories, told together, made to be listened to.”

The Odyssey – An International Adaptation involves Alex and Phil teaming up with friends in the north, London, Amsterdam, New York, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Wellington to create an adaptation of Homer’s Greek epic poem, told through a series of one-on-one/small-scale encounters.

Those who book a ticket will be told to meet in a certain place at a certain time, to be joined there by a storyteller and or a musician

Details of the full season are available at theflanagancollective.com, where bookings can be made too.

Has notebook, will take bookings: Alexander Flanagan-Wright in Orpheus