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Features Published 22 October 2015

Evie Manning: “We’ve gone away and fucking cried sometimes.”

The Common Wealth co-founder and director Evie Manning talks Bradford, TTIP and casting from the community ahead of the company's new performance, The Deal Versus The People.
Alice Saville
Cain Connelly in 'The Deal Versus The People' at Bradford City Hall. Photo credit: Christopher Nunn

Cain Connelly in ‘The Deal Versus The People’ at Bradford City Hall. Photo credit: Christopher Nunn

“We’re driven so much by common emotions, and it feels quite primal in a way. It’s difficult to explain without sounding really grand! There’s some kind of mad old tribal instinct to want to stand in front of a group of people and share something: actors used to be oracles that people would look to for guidance. When you tap into that instinct you surprise yourself.”

Evie Manning, director of Common Wealth, is rushed off her feet tapping into the Bradford community to cast, write, and produce a new piece of theatre about US/UK trade agreement TTIP. Called The Deal Versus The People, which will be staged in the city’s historic Council Chambers. When she talks, it’s like a torrent. You can try to stick your oar in, but you’ll only steer your direction in the loosest way. Words pattern through it: “honest”, “powerful”, “feeling”, “incredible”. She’s in the middle of it all still, she explains, immersed in a process that couldn’t be more vast and human.

Common Wealth are a kind of model of what community theatre could and should be. They don’t use the word “community” as a proxy for “unpaid” or “less good” or “bolted on to get our Arts Council funding” or any of those things that theatres and companies of all sizes are guilty of. Evie Manning explains that “these people are totally new to acting, we don’t want them to call them unprofessional or untrained – they’re none of those things. There’s not a novice, or amateur, or community, some of the terms can be so patronising, they’re doing a complete actor’s job, they’re paid proper Equity rates and they’re a complete professional.”

The company saw hundreds of potential actors in a massive community casting process across multiple locations in Bradford: “we said what emotions do you feel when you think of politics and decision making, and all these words like abandoned, scared, lost, angry, came up. We’ve been thinking about what can we do – do you make a bomb, set yourself on fire in protest, write to your MEP, how can you make your voice heard? One of the girls said I’m all fired up, but how will I make them listen? Some European MEPs are bringing the performance to Brussels. It gives them a massive sense of power that people are listening to what we have to say. But it’s also about relating to each other. We have a really diverse cast, black, white, asian, all different ages, but everyone’s saying the same thing: they’re worried about gap between rich and poor, they want equality and honesty.”

Chatting to cast member Fiona Broadfoot more than confirmed this. “People are so down on Bradford as a city but I am proud to be from here: we’ve been sold down the river but for once we’re doing something positive. The diversity and richness of the people here is so beautiful but there’s this idea we hate each other.” She’s dreamt of being an actor since she was 14, but ended up in the show by accident. “I went along with my son, he’s 18 and into the performing arts. But then the directors wanted me to audition, and I got the part and he didn’t! But he’s been brilliant — he’s in Cats, for the Northern Youth Theatre, so he’s busy too.” The Deal Versus The People couldn’t be further from Webber’s moggy musical: Fiona Broadfoot finds herself drawing on “a lot of my own experiences. I’ve had really hard times because I’ve always been a single mum, I’ve been on benefits. I’m a working class woman and often we’re marginalised in ways, I never got a university education, so there are limits on jobs and what you get paid, and we’re often stuck in zero hours contracts, it’s hard. We don’t live extravagantly at all but even just essentials now are tough to get.” One of her lines is a cry of “I deserve to eat nice food!” — and it cuts to the heart of austerity politics, that are so soundly based on the principle that people who’ve suffered most from the recession deserve it, don’t deserve better.

Manning finds that “Wahida [Kosser], a Muslim woman, will tell a story and Cain [Connelly], a white lad will completely relate to it. It’s about finding acceptance and solidarity amongst us, because you feel more powerful when you’re together. Bradford’s got quite a reputation for being segregated, but in our performance we’re making it like we imagine the world could be, people making this and feeling it together.”

Tyrrell Vanzie, Wahida Kosser, Fiona Broadfoot, and Cain Connelly in 'The Deal Versus The People' at Bradford City Hall. Photo credit: Christopher Nunn.

Tyrrell Vanzie, Wahida Kosser, Fiona Broadfoot, and Cain Connelly in ‘The Deal Versus The People’ at Bradford City Hall. Photo credit: Christopher Nunn.

And the common ground is there. “In terms of being a working class person, we all know how it feels to be poor, what it feels like to have no money, so there’s a really strong voice to the show, we have this shared knowledge in a way, a shared experience.”
Bradford City Chambers are an incredibly symbolic venue for the performance, as a place where “decisions are made in secret…..” And although Common Wealth are used to long wrangles securing venues, rigging a historic building that’s also a working council headquarters for light, sound, audience members has been a huge challenge. “ It’s like we’ve finally gone pro, after years of sort of cobbling things together. We’re surrounding people who are new to theatre with an amazing team of technical experts and they look like fucking heroes in these incredible lighting states. Obviously they are extraordinary, but then you can show them in that way with the beauty of theatre – you can make someone ordinary look extraordinary, the heroes they could be.”

And the city itself is an ideal place to try and understand something like TTIP — that seems so nebulous, distant, baffling. Fiona Broadfoot told me that “in Bradford, we’ve watched what free trade did to us in the 1970s, it shut down the mills. When I left school you could walk into a factory job on the Monday, and if you didn’t like it you could get another one the next day. But now everything’s gone. We’re still living the legacy of Thatcher and now we’ve got another Tory government.” And she’s full of frustration at a political system that’s as distant and unreachable as the civil servants drawing up TTIP. “They think we’re daft, they think we don’t know what’s going on. But I listen to Radio 4, I read the news, I have to know these things because it affects me and my son. I was made redundant in January because of the cuts, and can see the government invest in all these ridiculous things while we don’t protect basic services that keep the country running.”

The way we talk about unemployment in society is so often about inadequacy or deficiency. Unemployed people don’t have the skills, don’t have the experience, don’t have the work ethic. Evie Manning’s people-led approach is an inspiring antidote to this grim narrative. “It’s a waste, it’s a crime. We’ve got this massive thing about opportunity, about the fact that there’s a lot of young people dying who shouldn’t be dying, ending up in prison, and not fulfilling their potential. We’re saying let’s create some opportunities for people to get paid and respected as professionals. With the four main cast members we’re going to be working with them for years, I can feel it. Wahida [Kosser] had never acted, she’s been at home for 15 years looking after her boys, she saw our flyer which said ‘Have you got a lot to say about the world?’ She said ‘I feel like I’ve been simmering, I’d explode if I didn’t get it out.’ She’s this incredible actor with the strongest voice, she can hold you in the palm of your hand.”

'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' at the Edinburgh Fringe.

‘No Guts, No Heart, No Glory’ at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Sometimes it’s strange thinking about what happens next, after people have been involved in transformative community projects. Is there a kind of flatness? Does it set up expectations of an artistic career that the fragile local economy can’t support? Evie Manning’s conviction that she’d keep collaborating with the new actors she’d met was reassuring. She explained that one of the actors from her previous show, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, was busy auditioning for roles in London (“there’s lots of interest, there aren’t many young Muslim girl actors”) after writing and performing a show during the Edinburgh Fringe, while the others were touring the production to Australia.

The performance had a cast of young Muslim women who danced, fought, and spoke from the heart and guts in boxing gyms across the country – winning a Fringe First in Edinburgh. It was a joyous, empowering experience. Completely different to Common Wealth’s first production, Our Glass House, which was immersive again, but took over a series of housing association properties to tell stories of domestic violence in each of its rooms. I saw it and emerged bruised, with the weight of stories of domestic violence from such diverse sources that somehow patterned to one narrative of pain. I can’t imagine what it would be like, being in that house night after night for two years on tour. Evie Manning found it “really exhausting and draining for everyone involved. Often when we were touring we were living in the house, and it felt absolutely charged up as an environment: the stories were so layered up in that space. The actors felt a massive responsibility to do justice to all the people we interviewed: that’s a tough thing to evoke, twice a day, and it always felt quite raw.”

The stories were harrowing – violence, manipulation, sexual abuse. Evie Manning felt that following it up with the teenage energy and ambition of No Guts, No Heart, No Glory became “a bit of a massive life-coaching session for us. We spent a year touring it saying ‘We can do anything! Believe in yourself! and we needed that after Our Glass House which was all about being broken down. It was a remedy, an antidote.”

Common-Wealth-HQ-1600x1066

The window of Common Wealth’s “shop” in Bradford city centre

The Deal Versus The People sounds like an antidote of its own: a kind of mass community therapy, almost. Evie Manning told me that “we’ve worked with hundreds of people in Bradford, and gone away and fucking cried sometimes. They’re literally saying lines from the play, they’re quoting our play but talking about their lives.” Common Wealth has such a big approach – big scale, big hearted. And that means that “We always bumping into everyone now! We’ve had a little shop in town to help talk to people. And now when you walk through town people just want to talk. I call it in reach, not outreach, because everyone’s just there.”

Their influence has helped shape a Bradford story. But it reaches so far outwards, too. “I think with Common Wealth, our work is quite specific but it’s also so universal. People from all backgrounds and say ‘I felt like that was about me’ – young men who’ve seen our work in Australia are saying ‘This is like what’s going on in Perth’. There’s a really common and universal experience of powerlessness and wanting to have a voice. The cast are speaking for so many people.” And the cast have taken that voice, and set it alight. As cast member Fiona Broadfoot says, “we had no idea what we were going into, but what I think is lovely is that they’ve really trusted us: they brought us together, and we’ve written our experiences. It’s started a bit of a fire in our bellies, and I think people are going to really go for it.”

The Deal Versus The People is on at Bradford City Hall from the 21st-24th October. Book tickets via the West Yorkshire Playhouse, here. Read more about the activism side of the project on http://notstupid.co.uk/

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.

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