Daniel Bye on Northern Stage at St Stephen's and its contribution to the regional theatre ecology.
It took Stewart Lee’s article in the Guardian to remind me that it’s not always like this. A blissfully straightforward tech with an army of brilliant technicians and regular visits from the artistic director bearing cake. Tickets flying off the shelves – I sold more in advance of this Fringe than I’ve sold by the end of some others. Even the flat seems to be in full working order. It’s bloody weird.
Northern Stage have done us proud. You could almost forget this is an Edinburgh venue – even though when I turned up for my tech in space two, they were still building space one. There’s a real sense of pride in the venue, in a venue programmed with a meaningful sense of something the artists have in common beyond their ability to pay to hire the space. That this is nothing more than geographical coincidence might make it appear a thin commonality at best. Not so. There’s a common set of experiences and values born of making work at a distance from the capital. Northern Stage have recognised the particular challenges of that distance and built a programme around it.
And they’ve taken the risk. None of us have had to pay anything beyond what it costs to get to Edinburgh and actually do the show. Northern Stage have arranged everything: press, marketing, box office, even accommodation. If I weren’t on at 11.30am, I’d think this was a venue on the touring circuit, not the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
My first instinct is that it makes a pleasant change this way round: theatremakers from the north getting the support, rather than everything happening for them in that London. As Annie Rigby, director of the brilliant Best in the World, said at Northern Stage’s venue launch last month, it can be hard for theatre-makers so far from the capital to get the national attention their work deserves. When something at a London Fringe theatre will get reviewed in every national paper, and something at a major northern venue will be lucky to get reviewed in one, what chance have emerging artists got? So huge credit to Northern Stage for bringing so many of us to a genuinely national festival and making us feel at home.
My first instinct, though, is wrong. In fact, it’s easier for theatremakers to emerge outside of London. I’ve always been bewildered by the drift of artists to the Big Smoke after graduation, towards doubled living costs and quadrupled competition. Having lived (for family reasons) in London for eighteen months, I’m even more bewildered. What possible advantage accrues to emerging artists by being somewhere so huge, expensive and impersonal? Venues like Northern Stage have always made it easier for artists to develop work and careers.
But you can be a major artist within your region, yet virtually unknown beyond it. Gary Kitching’s show Me and Mr C is a highlight of the Northern Stage programme, but I bet you’d never heard of him before unless you live in the North East. Likewise Unfolding Theatre’s Best in the World.
So what Northern Stage are doing makes a phenomenal contribution to the regional theatre ecology. Non-London-based theatremakers have always been enabled by local support to emerge just so far. Then they often remain stuck, half-butterfly, half-chrysalis, unable to take that next step. Initiatives like Northern Stage at St Stephen’s help stem the talent drain to London, where the talent often remains just as stuck, too busy filing empty documents or pulling four-pound pints to get around to making that breakthrough show.
And it would be a mistake to say that the work is united only by its having been made in the North of England. Only one or two of the shows are centrally about their point of origin – there’s nothing parochial about What I Heard About the World or Best in the World, for example. And they’re just the ones whose titles make that most obvious.
Which isn’t to say that the work isn’t rooted in its regionality in other, more complex ways. My show The Price of Everything isn’t about Middlesbrough, but the second half of the show is a story set there. The show is about what we value and how we measure that value, but its roots are my roots; my work emerges from a troubled relationship with a hometown I love and loathe, even when that’s not the work’s subject.
Only by going back to our socio-cultural roots, I might be suggesting, can we discover and perhaps change the behavioural loops in which we are collectively stuck. I also think that change – real, radical change – tends to develop in parts of society that are considered marginal. The peasants’ revolt, the Jarrow march, the miners’ strike – all started some way from the capital. The imaginary utopia I hallucinate in the second half of The Price of Everything, it seems to me, just couldn’t grow anywhere the powers-that-be were really paying attention.
In myriad ways, the other work at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s also seems to me to be marinated in its distance from the cultural centre. Best in the World isn’t about Gateshead, where Unfolding Theatre are based. But whereas Martin Amis, the iconic metropolitan, uses darts in London Fields to signify a sort of disgusting otherness, Best in the World uses the sport to signify a potential even the most ordinary among us has for greatness. “If you believe in democracy, you believe in darts.” The show is studded with sporting (and other) greats from the North East and Scotland.
Meanwhile, What I Heard About the World takes as its very premise a distance from the many places in the world about which we think we know something. It uncovers the sort of marginalia for other countries and cultures that work about Sheffield might be seen as by London. Its makers’ situation away from the centre of events, and from the centre of where such knowledge is produced, seems encoded into its thinking.
I’m pleased that discussion of the work at this venue has focused on its quality, rather than its regionality. It may be the chip on my shoulder speaking, but I bet that if the work had been less successful, its regionality would have been more widely discussed. So let’s take a moment to remember that all of these terrific shows are the work of northern artists, and that’s not a coincidence. Their northern-ness is part of what makes them good.