2016 was a bit packed by anyone’s standards. And somewhere amongst the change in Prime Minister, EU Referendum, sporadic events of mass-mourning and the US Presidential Election, Manchester company Powder Keg also found time to win the Royal Exchange’s Hodgkiss Award. 2017 finds them off to no sedate start neither – I meet up with Josh Coates and Emma Geraghty, midway through their run of Morale is High (Since We Gave Up Hope) at HOME’s PUSH Festival, with dates at Camden People’s Theatre the following week.
Powder Keg left last year in a very different place to how they entered it. “It felt like 2016 was the year when art stuff, for us – for me – took off,” Emma tells me, “With working on Morale is High, getting to work with the Royal Exchange, loads of stuff happened. Then nearly everything that happened in the world in general at large seemed to affect everything we were doing.” As far as how that affects them as a company, “It’s all been a lot more concrete,” says Josh. “We know what we’re doing as Powder Keg. We want it to have a ‘good night out’ feel to it. I like to think that’s something that, as 2016 progressed, especially with Morale is High, we focused on a lot.”
The piece views the politics of the future through a crystal ball which may well itself have been through a tumble drier first; Ross McCaffrey returns from the future, with a shiny new jacket and a host of stories about what we can expect. As Josh puts it, “The time travel motif is so fucking dumb. It’s a bit weird.” Behind the farce of the premise, Josh emphasises the piece’s relationship to political affect. “The show had its origins in 2015, as a response to essentially losing the general election, and the seismic shock of that. And I think it was at first going to be some sort of act of public mourning. I see the left’s – everyone’s – response to the 2015 general election as some form of mourning, in some shape or another. I see that as a loss of predictability that people are mourning.”
The unpredictable politics of 2016 also had a substantial influence on the making process, Emma explains, “We had the script, we’d finished the script, we’d edited the script. Then we came into rehearsals and everyone had quit politics and we’d left the EU and everything happened, within a couple of days. It really kept us on our toes – the show wouldn’t be anything like it is now if all of the political stuff hadn’t happened in 2016, on the week that we were rehearsing.”
Though Morale is High largely makes a point of orienting itself from a position of political impotence, Powder Keg have not excused themselves from taking action. The company have teamed up with The Trussell Trust to collect for local foodbanks after their performances. “We decided to start doing it because we have a platform,” explains Emma, “so we might as well use it to do some immediate good. It’s not directly tackled in Morale is High but it’s definitely something people have felt the effects of, given all the changes in politics that’ve happened over the last two years.”
This sense of social responsibility carries through to the premise of Bears, the show proposal which won them the Hodgkiss commission. “It’s a self-destructive piece of theatre about climate change,” Josh starts in, “to talk about it normally like a real human being and not someone writing copy, it’s about what we as theatre makers can do to make a more sustainable practice towards making art, especially with theatres.” The company are also working with Manchester Climate Change Agency.
News of the Hodgkiss Award win came in the midst of Powder Keg’s preparations for a tour of Morale is High to pubs, basements and gig venues around Greater Manchester. The resulting commission, Bears, will premiere in the Royal Exchange Studio, receiving development support and £4,000 cash, as well as a production budget and rehearsal space, a dramatic jump in scale for the company.
“I cried,” says Josh, “It makes it feel like a job now. It’s nice to feel validated. We must be doing something right.” For Josh in particular, the Exchange has played a fundamental role in his artistic development – from 2015-16, he was Supported Artist at the Exchange. “It gave me the opportunity to meet loads of other artists in the area and run workshops, and develop my practice in that way. To develop me as an artist as a role. It’s been really really lovely. And I’ve not been – as soon as my year was finished – chucked out. I’ve still been in there, either just for a brew with Producer Amy Clewes – just gossiping about stuff, or having a meeting with [Artistic Director] Sarah Frankcom. It was nice not to feel like they were done with me.”
The Royal Exchange’s support of Powder Keg and the development of Bears has had implications for the company beyond artistic development, too. “It gave us a really good vote of confidence in what we were doing,” says Emma. “Since uni everyone’s had to work, and pay rent, and do other things. Having a venue like the Royal Exchange say “yes, we definitely think you’re good enough, we’ll commission you”, is such a boost for us as a company. We all got very emotional when we got the news and it was fantastic.”
Powder Keg straddle a gap between two distinct models of theatre making in Manchester today: small, sporadic independent tours, shows and periods of development, and endorsement and support from a leading production house. Whether the future of theatre in Manchester will see multiple companies adopting this dual existence, or the gap between the two will narrow, is for us to wait and see. Either way, Manchester’s multiple venues have a crucial sway in how the city’s theatre ecology is nurtured. No doubt, with the one hundred and ten million pound Factory on the horizon, Manchester is set for changes. The next few years, for all their projects and projections, are anything but predictable.
Emma is positive for the future. “There is still an element of uncertainty but it’s better. No matter how long you’ve been making theatre for, you find there’s always the sense you don’t really know what’s going to happen next. For 2017, as long as we’re still mates, then things should go pretty well.”