Interview with Workie Ticket Theatre & Dr Alice Cree; Magnolia Walls, military lives and theatre as a means to amplify voices and demand change. #BeAWorkieTicket

Working with and celebrating unashamedly bold, brave and brilliant folks is one the reasons I set up The Culture Vulture and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning with a spring in my step. Strong empowered women, empower women and my favourite empowered women are ones that use their power to enable, platform and amplify unheard voices. For me, it’s all about building that type of community – ecosystem over egosystem every day of the week.

One of the theatre companies that I connected with early on in my Culture Vulture journey is Workie Ticket Theatre. They caught my eye for the name Workie Ticket – being a workie ticket in the North-East means you misbehave, but progressively it’s been a really positive term that alludes to the fact you disrupt the norm, challenge convention and not afraid to speak your mind; absolutely all about that. Workie Ticket Theatre are just that – an extremely talented bunch of workie tickets, enabling stories of unheard women and their (often) everyday forms of social activism to be heard. And they continued to do just that across the pandemic, through a project Womxn Up! (more on that later!).

Ahead of Workie Ticket Theatre’s new show – Magnolia Walls at Northern Stage 24th – 25th June, I thought it was time for another Culture Vulture interview – as you all need to know about this theatre company, their ethos and amazing work – especially the Artistic Director JoJo; she’s not only a brilliantly talented human, she’s also grown into a gorgeous friend of mine.

Magnolia Walls shines a light on the impact of war and military life, based on research by Newcastle University. Set in Northumberland, this play follows the tumultuous lives of Roxie and Pen, two military wives who form an unlikely ‘Thelma and Louise’ style friendship. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, and a series of theatre-based workshops with a group of 35 military partners, ex-partners, and widows from across the country, the research sheds a light on the long-term consequences of war and military service on personal relationships between armed forces personnel and their spouses and families.

As you’d expect, the play tackles important topics such as domestic abuse, trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicide, and racism. It also exposes the isolation and lack of community support experienced by many military spouses and partners, most of whom are women. But it does this in a very real human way, there is light within that darkness.

‘Magnolia Walls’ is based on research by Newcastle University’s Dr Alice Cree and Dr Hannah West, in collaboration with Workie Ticket Theatre CIC and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

It is hoped ‘Magnolia Walls’ will help start a conversation about what it really means to be a military spouse in 2022. And that is what really interested with this project – the idea that academic research, can be used to underpin a theatre show that shares the real-life experiences of military wives. Theatre becomes the creative tool to communicate and bring to life real academic research, making it meaningful, more accessible and a powerful vehicle for social change.

I can’t wait to see Magnolia Wallsthere are limited tickets left ; get them HERE – read on to hear more from Team Magnolia Walls – Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University……

Workie Ticket Theatre Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University

Hi both, first up – can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures….

JoJo- I’m JoJo Kirtley, the artistic director of Workie Ticket Theatre. I write and produce plays, facilitate workshops and I’m a mam to three little workie tickets! Workie Ticket is a female-led, Tyneside-based theatre company. We provide a platform for women to have their say through drama and amplifies unheard voices and stories. My own work has been performed at big venues such as The Lowry but you can’t beat working in community centres and putting on plays above pubs.

Alice– I’m Alice Cree, I’m a researcher at Newcastle University based in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. My work focuses on gender and the military, particularly the use of creative methods in military research. I’m the research lead for the Conflict & Intimacy project which our play Magnolia Walls is part of.

Artistic Director JoJo Kirtley and Dr Alice Cree from Newcastle University //
photography credit: Denise Kidger

What does being a “workie ticket” mean in 2022?

JoJo – Being a ‘Workie Ticket’ in 2022 is very different to what it was when I first set up Workie Ticket in 2017. Lots has happened and the World has changed. My World has changed too; I was a mam of boys then and now I have a little girl too. I guess seeing the #MeToo movement unfold in different industries, the pandemic’s impact on women, Reclaim the Streets etc… changes everything. Seeing all that has made me want to push harder, not give up and definitely not shut up. My Grandad Joe used to call me a ‘Workie Ticket’ so I adopted this as the name to reflect the fact that I wanted to shake things up a bit; but now…. I want to shake things up A LOT.

I loved your project Womxn Up – it was such an important project and you all can access the audio plays and recordings now HERE! For those that don’t know – What was Womxn Up? and how did it come about?

JoJo – Womxn Up? was such an immense project and I am so proud of it and grateful that we got to create during the pandemic. Womxn Up? was our response to pandemic, it highlighted North-East women’s stories through a series of audio plays and real-life interviews. We also made a film called ‘Her Primal Scream’ – you can watch that HERE.

For this project, we explored the impact the pandemic has had on women at home, work, in the community, on our mental health and on our bodies. Our Womxn Up? Project consisted of three, brand-new audio response plays all inspired by our research which were written, performed, directed and produced by women from the North-East. My play was about my Nana. I wanted to explore how it must have felt for our elderly watching the World fall apart but also questioning what was going on too.

What did you learn through the Womxn Up? project and listening to the experience of all those women?

JoJo – I learned how broken we all have become because of the pandemic. Me included. I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

Although (and sadly) I expected the bullshit misogyny and the massive impact it had on women; the Handmaid’s Tale horror stories but I underestimated how tough and rough it would be for so many. That kind of broke me…

I remember interviewing these sex workers in South Shields with Lauren (Workie Ticket producer and Womxn Up? editor) and we both came out shaking our heads in disgust; these women had been treated terribly and taken advantage of by men during the pandemic.

Whilst there were many terribly sad and tragic stories that came out of our research but there were actually some lovely positives; like socially-isolated, lonely women finding connections with others online and real community champions who worked tirelessly to support others. One story, I loved, was a couple who fell in love with each other again because they got a chance to spend time together and re-engage with each other.

Well that makes my heart sing – Womxn Up? has been submitted into a museum archive – you’ve enabled these stories to have a life and place forever….

JoJo – This is going to happen this Autumn with the Feminist Archive in London which is at the Bishopgate Library. It’s exciting. I love how they don’t just want to archive our transcripts or recordings; they’re also after notebooks, photos, workshop sessions and a branded T’shirt!

A little team of Workie Tickets will be heading down South to accession the project and all that we have learned about the pandemic and its impact on women in the North-East. This will be preserved so in hundreds of years’ time…our ancestors will learn about the pandemic through our stories, Herstories.

In your opinion, how do you think the pandemic impacted womxn?

JoJo – Globally, an increase in domestic violence and sexual exploitation occurred during the pandemic …women were denied access to maternity appointments, labouring on their own, some being forced to wear masks whilst doing so. Women were being forced to miscarry on their own…just horrible situations. Family courts were taking place in homes via Zoom.  I don’t know what genius thought this was acceptable when survivors of abuse were having to zoom their abusers into their own living rooms with their children next door, most likely listening but it happened and shouldn’t have.

We heard stories from women denied contraception and sexual health appointments…they were juggling parenting, home-schooling, adapting to working from home without support in the form of childcare. Health including mental health was sacrificed while prioritising their children and family needs, loss of income, employment, wages, prospects and increased extra caring responsibilities…

It was a big step backwards for women and I think it’s only the beginning of what is to come.

The world is a difficult shit show for women’s rights at the moment – you have a little girl – what do you hope for her future?

JoJo – I hope Luna turns out to be a ‘workie ticket’ just like her Mam and gets to be who she wants to be. Most importantly, I want Luna and her friends to be able to do what they want with their bodies, without being dictated to; that would be my ideal future for them all.

Workie Ticket Luna

Tell me about Magnolia Walls – what is the piece of theatre/story?

Alice‘Magnolia Walls’ is based on 2 years’ worth of research by myself and Hannah West at Newcastle University as part of the ‘Conflict & Intimacy’ project, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. What we’ve been trying to do is look at the military home as a site of military violence. Exploring the question: ‘how does war impact home life and intimate relationships?’ So, what are some of the unseen, positive but also maybe not-so-positive impacts of military service on their families? What does it really mean to be the partner of someone in the forces today?

‘Magnolia Walls’ is a way of telling some of those stories and asking us to rethink some of our assumptions about military family life.

JoJo ‘Magnolia Walls’ challenges the stereotypes of the military partner and explores how home life and personal relationships are impacted by war. We wanted to set the play in the North-East so it’s set in different areas such as Blyth beach. We also wanted to create characters that represented our real military partners and came up with Roxie and Pen who form a ‘Thelma and Louise’ style friendship.

Roxie is this rocker, a self-proclaimed ‘Geordie’ Stevie Nicks and she instantly bonds with Pen the wanna-be writer, veteran and naval officer’s wife. Both have supported their husbands in their careers and choices, but now it’s time for them to shine…or rebel! We love a female rebellion!

Professional actors – Alex Tahnee and Rachel Brownstein //
photography credit: Denise Kidger

Why military partners? What is it about their voices and experience you want to explore and share?

Alice – People have always been interested in war stories, but we don’t often hear from the perspective of their military families. And when we do, those stories are very heavily politicised and geared around narratives of heroism and sacrifice. We wanted to shed a light on the kinds of experiences that we don’t usually hear about, ones that perhaps challenge or complicate our understanding of life in a military family.

I think something that is often not recognised is that militaries absolutely rely on the unpaid labour of military spouses. So that’s stuff like childcare, looking after the house and the home, but also the emotional labour of providing love and support during difficult periods of deployment.

And, because of the make-up of the armed forces, that labour is mostly undertaken by women (although of course, not exclusively!) Plus, spouses are at the very ‘front line’ when it comes to providing support for mental health problems experienced by a lot of veterans and serving members of the armed forces. Without all of that work, the military wouldn’t be able to do what they do. Effectively you’ve got this massive, complex institution that is all about state power and security, but at the root of it all, holding it all together are the (mostly) women who do it because they love their partners. Which is really interesting.

Something that I hope will come through when watching Magnolia Walls, is the diversity of experiences that our participants have had. This ranges from struggling with the expectations of being a ‘military wife’ when they have chronic health problems or disabilities, to navigating the constant presence of the military in their homes, their sex lives, their relationships with their children.

They are an amazing group of people and I really hope we have done them justice!

What do you want the audience to take away?

JoJo – I generally think they’re going to take away a lot of warmth and love from this play. But the audience will also be shocked at some of the themes we are exploring. I think you’ll all genuinely fall in love with the women who we have worked with. Essentially Magnolia Walls is a sort of love letter to them, thanking them for being so courageous when sharing their stories with us.

How are you feeling about staging the play, the first for several years due to the pandemic?

JoJo – Lucky to have the opportunity. Nervous. Fingers crossed for me.

Can you tell me about the research element of the project?

Alice – This has been a big piece of research involving nearly 40 participants who we have worked with quite intensively since the project officially started in August 2020. Hannah and I conducted 1:1 interviews with everyone, and then we had a series of about 20 theatre-based, discussion-based, and writing-based workshops that were facilitated by Workie Ticket Theatre Company.

By the end of the process, we had a HUGE amount of material; we will probably spend the next ten years publishing! The biggest piece of learning that came out of the research was that the military often has a controlling and even violent presence in the lives of military spouses – and in ways you might not immediately expect.

But you’ll have to see the play to hear more!

What is it like being a military partner in 2022 – what resources and services are available for support?

Alice – In many ways, it is the same as it has always been; very few institutions change as slowly as the military! Much of the support for partners and families is provided by charities. There is still a lot of work to be done in making sure folks can get the kind of support they really need.

JoJo – The problem is, where the funding is going and if the right organisations are receiving it. That has to be addressed too.

Tell me about the characters Roxie and Pen and their relationship? How did those characters develop?

JoJo – I was really interested in exploring female friendships as a whole and also what it was like to have friendships, that you had to give up suddenly because your family was being posted somewhere else. I remember when Alice and I had our first writing meeting and I said…we need two characters that embody the women we’ve been working with; one of them needs to kick-arse and the other one learns how to kick-arse like Thelma and Louise, so we created Roxie and Pen.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

Tell me about the chorus element of the show?

JoJo – The chorus are a pre-recorded element of Magnolia Walls and are made up of our real military wives (and a husband!). Originally, the idea was for them to perform on stage but the pandemic stopped that, so we decided to fuse film and theatre together. They’re very excited to be part of the show and have spent some time rehearsing and learning performance skills. They’ve been amazing and I am so proud of them.

Alice – They are people who have been involved in the project since the beginning; people who have been so honest and brave in sharing their experiences with us. So, it’s been really amazing to see them use their own voices to tell those stories. It is very powerful.

Team Magnolia Walls & chorus // photography credit: Denise Kidger

Tell me about the creative team behind Magnolia Walls?

JoJo – We have a lush creative team and I am so proud of them.  We did the usual auditioning and recruitment.

When we appointed Corinne as Director, I was so happy. I’ve worked with her a few times before and she is one of the best directors in the North-East. There is no BS with Corinne, she cracks on and gets things done. Just the way I like it.

I also had to take on extra producers to assist me -Ashlea Sanderson and Lauren Sanderson who have been ace. We have a consultant Helen-Marie who is a real military wife too. We have Simon Cole designing our lights and film-wise we’ve been working with the Young Women’s Film Academy.

Our professional actors are Alex Tahnee and Rachel Brownstein who came to an audition we held in April. There was a spark between them, so I knew they had to be our Pen and Rox. We are also really excited to be working with The Set Guise who are creating our ‘magnolia wall’.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

What do you hope happens as a result of the show? What do you want the legacy of this work to be?

JoJo – I want the women to feel empowered and listened to. I hope we can turn this into a film and maybe tour the play. We’ve also talked about a festival…

Alice – We also ultimately want people in positions of power and influence to sit up and listen. Military partners and spouses put up with a lot of shit, and they are not getting the support that they need. I hope that the play will help move that conversation forward.

Team Magnolia Walls // photography credit: Denise Kidger

This piece digs into military home lives and the impact of war and being in the military has on the day to day. Across the pandemic and lockdowns, we can all relate to feeling that work and the impact of pandemic stress, impacted our homelives – like a pressure cooker. That’s how I imagine, it must feel all the time for military partners – rollercoaster of emotions, trying to do your fucking best and hold the shit together, feeling isolated but stuck together at moments of stress and so much more. This makes this piece relatable and relevant to all.

Alice – I think that’s absolutely right. Our participants also said a few times that the pandemic forced people to get comfortable with plans being changed or cancelled at the last minute – something that military spouses are very familiar with! What’s also really interesting is that in the pandemic, we’ve seen the ‘front line’ take a different shape, and suddenly it became doctors, nurses, paramedics, hospital cleaners and so on who were the ones risking their lives to keep us safe. And I think our research and the play both potentially raise really interesting questions about what the long-term impacts of that might be for NHS workers and their families. Our participants talked not only about how their partners changed after traumatic military experiences, but also their own lingering kind of ‘PTSD’ attached to difficult periods of deployment or their spouses going off to war. Is that going to be the same for the families of doctors and nurses?

Time will tell, I suppose.

You hinted at an upcoming project you got a small pot of funding for – can you tell us more?

JoJo – We have two new projects. One of them is an extension of the Womxn Up? project. It’s called #AllMenCan and aims to engage boys and men to fight against VAWG.

And the other is our ‘Drama for Wellbeing’ programme which I started in 2019; pre-pandemic and delivered a lovely session to a group of female veterans. It’s a fusion of a programme I delivered years ago for Manchester Adult Education, a self -care course and drama activities. Our launch is in my hairdressers- All That Sass. Bringing drama to people in unexpected places. I want to show how you can use drama to support better mental health and self-care.

Then what’s next for you and Workie Ticket – do you have another project on the horizon?

JoJo – Always! We hope to maybe look at the female veteran project again and we’re working on another bid to explore what it means to be a ‘Geordie’ woman in 2022.

Anything else you want to tell me about?

JoJo – I am really proud of Magnolia Walls and the work we have done to make it happen. It’s been an immensely tough year for me personally and to get to this point is very overwhelming. I promised myself during the pandemic that I’d never take this job for granted so I’m happy at whatever outcome. I’m lucky to have had this opportunity and can’t thank Alice enough for being so encouraging and supportive throughout this process.

Thank you JoJo and Alice – fascinating interview and I can’t wait to see it. There are still some limited tickets for Magnolia Walls at Northern Stage – you can nab them via: https://northernstage.co.uk/whats-on/magnolia-walls/ Friday 24th June, Newcastle University welcomes the audience to a Q & A after the performance. Friday show is live captioned and Saturday show has BSL interpreter.

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Interview with Matt Jamie – we chat theatre, current production Pod, podcasts, music videos & Bedlington Terriers.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with director, actor, videographer, photographer and creative Matt Jamie….well for a good few years now on various projects! As is with the weirdness of the world – we’ve never actually met in person. I met him digitally as a videographer, but like many freelancers, has a never ending bag of skills and tricks like Felix The Cat.

I was delighted to be invited to support Matt’s current production – Pod; Matt is the Director. Pod is a brilliant theatre production that tells a brilliant contemporary story. This play has been in the making for some time – the initial run was cancelled due to the pandemic and I’m thrilled it is getting the space it deserves to connect with audiences. And I’m so excited to see it – it is the first production of the Alphabetti Theatre new season and it is my first time back in a theatre, actually watching a play for pleasure!

Pod is about a family gathered together, sharing more than just a cramped camping pod and a bottle of gin.  Secrets are revealed and they find answers to questions nobody was expecting to be asked.  Audiences will feel uplifted, moved, amused and ready to visit the bar! Pod runs from 31st August – 18th September at Alphabetti Theatre; Pay What You Feel tickets available now via: www.alphabettitheatre.co.uk/pod

It has been a privilege to champion Pod and get to know some of the Pod creative team – some old friends and some new creative peers! It has also been brilliant to get to know Matt better professionally too and as my jam is all about championing and celebrating creatives – I thought it was the perfect time for a little Culture Vulture blog post.

So without delay – an interview with Matt Jamie!

Matt Jamie

Hi Matt, let’s start with an introduction!

I’m Matt Jamie – I trained as an actor (actually I trained in Biomedical sciences first and ditched a PhD to go to drama school…sensible move?) – but now I work mainly as a theatre director, photographer and film maker, and producer of audio work.

Very sensible decision! Tell us more about your journey into creative industries?

When I was studying sciences, I joined the theatre group at university (Bradford University Theatre Group at Theatre In The Mill which is now an excellent fringe venue) and got the taste for it there. I’d always enjoyed theatre but never imagined working in it.  I then got a job and PhD placement doing research into diabetes but alongside that was pursuing places at drama school – figured if I didn’t get a place I’d carry on and now I’d be Doctor Jamie.  Instead, I’m now working in the arts in the North East!  I spent 13 years in London working mostly as an actor (some terrible commercials and music videos exist online) and an actor’s headshot photographer, with occasional dips into directing, before moving to the North East and taking on more production / direction work.

You’re a theatre maker, director, actor, film maker and a podcast/audio drama maker – that’s quite a rare mix….can you tell me a little bit about that? Are you like me and just refuse to be pinned down into one thing?

Working in the arts its useful to diversify.  I’ve been lucky enough to find other jobs which are connected to the arts but also possible to earn money from! (For a while in London I did work in a call centre selling theatre tickets…).  At one point I was an actor / photographer / film maker / composer / graphic designer / director.  I figured it was time to streamline a bit into the things I was more skilled in or enjoyed more.  I usually go with some kind of hyphenated description, depending who’s asking.

Tell me about your theatre company Coracle? How and why did it start as a company?

Coracle began in London; I came on board as a film maker for their first piece of development work at Battersea Arts Centre – a sort of abstract physical dance piece created by my friend Lucinda Lloyd.  Then Sarita Plowman joined Lucinda on a course at the City Lit and they wrote a short piece of text which eventually we developed into Coracle’s first full production “Bird Of Pray”.  It was a mix of theatre, movement and film and really one of the darkest things I’ve ever worked on as far as content went – some people walked out of the show, as it was so much…! But it was well received and went on to the “Branching Out” Festival in London.  We then all took some time out pursuing solo careers until I formed Coracle North East with writer and actor Arabella Arnott in 2017 – with more of a focus on new writing (though I might come back to more abstract / physical / multimedia work in the future).  You can see some clips of Coracle’s early work on our website.

Matt Jamie

Coracle highlight project so far?

We started in the North East with a double bill of plays, called “Trajectory” including Arabella’s first full length play “Life After” and a short by Steve Byron called “Bricks and Mortar”.  This was our first collaboration with Alphabetti Theatre as Coracle (though I’d been involved in various things before).  It was also the last play to perform in Alphabetti’s old venue on New Bridge Street before it was demolished!  We then had the pleasure of bringing the first play to Alphabetti’s new venue on St James Boulevard with “Overdue” by Arabella – which won Best At Fringe (North East Theatre Guide) and was nominated Best North East Play (British Theatre Guide) as well as five star reviews.

Tell us about your personal career highlight so far?

I was very proud of the work on “Overdue”, but probably appearing in the music video for the 2004 remix of “The Key The Secret” – which reached I think number 187 in the charts, probably no thanks to the video – was my finest hour / 3 minutes as an actor.

That music video is just BRILLIANT. Music videos used to be so good…..Anyhoo – how did your relationship with Alphabetti start?

I think I first directed a reading of a play at The Central which Ben Dickenson was organising.  He then introduced me to Alphabetti Theatre, and I can’t actually remember what the first thing I worked on there was.  They used to run an event called “Soup” which was a mix of short form pieces and I directed several short plays for them there, and some reaction plays which I really enjoyed.  Artistic Director Ali Pritchard also cast me in “Continuum” – which was a terrifying experience (I was playing a man who had a head injury and basically talked non-stop for 60 minutes in rambling nonsense, and we only had 6 days rehearsal.  The scene changes were only marked by the lights shifting between the bed and the two chairs but the lighting desk was faulty so it would regularly skip cues and we’d have to guess what scene we were in.  One night I skipped an entire scene with some fairly crucial plot information in it.  Spent the rest of the play wondering if any of it would make sense…

Pod at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle

There is something so magical about lo-fi theatre though – I bliddy love ‘Betti! What is the context of your relationship now?

Coracle is an associate company of Alphabetti and has been involved in some of their new writing programmes.  I also do freelance work for them producing trailers, audio description work and producing audio plays.

Why are theatres like Alphabetti important in the region? To audiences and to our sector?

Alphabetti is the only “Fringe” venue in Newcastle and has a unique place in the arts scene making art/theatre as accessible as possible – keeping tickets almost entirely ‘Pay What You Feel’.  Also the nature of the space and the way it’s staffed means people who love theatre and people who might never go to the theatre will all feel at home there.  And the unique talent and personality of the Artistic Director, Ali Pritchard are a big draw.

You’ve mentioned your audio play work….tell us about Playstream? Why should folx check them out?

Playstream is Coracle’s podcast which is home to our audio drama work.  A lot of our work is accompanied by ‘reaction pieces’ – responding to the themes of the production we are working on – and these have often taken the form of audio work or been recorded for audio after they’ve had a live production.  Our new production “Pod” is accompanied by some audio drama pieces, including plays written by Alison Carr (well known in the region for her writing) and Claire-Marie Perry.  Also worth a listen is Wendy Erringtons “Saluting Magpies” which is a longer – form drama which was originally due to be produced at Alphabetti but became an audio drama because of the pandemic.  Degna Stone’s “Probably” – is “a sharply written monologue on age, race and fear” (The Stage) and is another strong piece we recorded after she performed it alongside our 2019 production of “Down to Zero” by Lizi Patch.

Podcasts and audio plays had a huge upswell across the pandemic – what podcasts // audio plays were you listening to?

I’d been listening to “RadioLab” for a long while and it’s always excellent – a mixture of current affairs, science and tech but not in any way dry and as dull as I just made it sound!  I really enjoyed the drama serial “Homecoming”, and for pure stupidness, Bob Mortimers “Althletico Mince” should be listened to whenever normality takes over.

Now I’ve brought up the pandemic topic – I may as well ask, how has freelance life been for you across the pandemic?

Like everyone else most work took a nose-dive when the pandemic hit.  Arabella and I had just done the dress rehearsal for a play directed by Alex Elliott and then theatres were closed the next day – and we were about to start rehearsing for “Pod” (originally due in May 2020).  I managed to keep some work as a voice artist (audiobooks and other bits and pieces going) since audio recording was one of the few things still possible remotely.  I’m happy to be getting back into actual buildings with actual people.

Happy you’re still with us as a creative freelancer! Right, so tell me about Pod? What is it? What is it about?

“Pod” is a play about a family coming together for a weekend away in a camping Pod.  The mother, Iris, and two grown up daughters Rose and Daisy are there to celebrate the birthday of husband / dad Geoff, who is sadly no longer with them.  Along for the trip is Dan, married to Rose and he’d rather be training for his marathon than being in the middle of the sometimes tense family dynamics.  It’s about dealing with grief, about family secrets, about identity and forgiveness… but it’s also very funny! Daisy thinks she knows something about the family she hasn’t been told… she’s also got something to tell them.  But it turns out there are more secrets under the surface which come out over a few gins and some cake.

I love the character Daisy – from the snippets. She feels very familiar. You created and cast pod before the pandemic? What is the process like bringing something back after all this time?

It was difficult to have to put the production away, not knowing when or if it would ever see the light of day.  Happily we’ve now got a three week run coming up.  We’ve had some time with it to get back into the swing and polish it – it’s been great!

Kylie Ann Ford as Daisy at Alphabetti Theatre

And as we speak – it is open for a run at Alphabetti Theatre until 18th September!?

Amazingly we’re actually now programmed for longer than the original run would have been if the pandemic hadn’t hit – so we’ve got the luxury of three weeks.  There should also be online screenings available too at some point.

You directed the piece – for folx not familiar with theatre, what is the role of the director? What did you do as director on Pod?

Theatre is a very collaborative process between the actors and director (and designer and writer).  My role as the director is to give some kind of shape to the piece – in some ways literally: finding ways to make the play work on the stage, where people should be, how the scene works best and makes most sense.  Alphabetti is actually quite a challenging space to direct for with the audience on both sides so it’s important often to keep the action moving on stage so everyone can see.  As well as those more physical elements the director also is the outside eye on the piece in terms of pace, tone, where the highs and lows of a scene might work best… the ‘journey through the play’ and so on.  A lot of the ideas will come from the actors and the text, and I’m really there to fine tune things – I suppose a little like a conductor if you’ve ever watched an orchestra: just lifting bits here, changing the pace there and so on.  In many ways with a piece like this ideally the audience shouldn’t really notice the directing.  If the play flows well, and the story is told and people have a good time that’s my job done!

David Raynor as Dan and Pod writer Arabella Arnott as Rose in Pod at Alphabetti Theatre

Interestingly a lot of the themes of the play – really resonate with the pandemic so lots of folx will be able to relate – being stuck together with family, unexpected conversations, tested relationships, heightened emotions?

Yes, we wondered coming back to it if we’d need to add anything in or take anything out to make it work “post-pandemic” but everything seemed to fit surprisingly well.  Even the whole set up of a camping trip made sense in the scheme of things. We’ll be interested to hear how people relate to it.

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?

We hope people will find the play funny and moving – it’s about coming together through difficult times and finding common ground with wildly differing views… something people might be familiar with! 

Why should folx go and see it?

It’s a great night out, a fun and relevant play with a great cast of North East actors, at an excellent venue and it’s Pay What You Feel so what’s to lose!?

Kylie Ann Ford as Daisy and Judi Earl as Iris in Pod at Alphabetti Theatre

After all this time and working on it – how do you feel sharing it with audiences?

Very excited to share this with audiences after all this time.  The set looks amazing (we’ve built an actual camping pod!) and the performances will be top notch.

And what’s next for you? Next project?

What’s next is a complete unknown.  There are a few projects we’d started to look at back in 2020 which I’ll dust off and see if we want to produce them in 2022.  Meanwhile I’ll be carrying on the many-hyphenated jobs I do for other people’s plays and productions!

Where can audiences keep up to date with you? And your work?

More about coracle on www.coracleproductions.com.  Our podcast is on all podcast platforms and our website – search PlayStream wherever you normally listen.  And if you’re looking for a director, photographer, film maker or audio creator, head to www.mattjamie.co.uk

Anything else you want to tell me about?

Bedlington Terriers are excellent dogs. I recommend them.

Strong dog choice – good to know. As someone who has worked with Matt – absolutely thoroughly recommend him for everything he listed above.

I am really excited to see Pod and will be sharing what I thought on my Facebook page – so keep an eye out! Pod runs from 31st August – 18th September at Alphabetti Theatre; Pay What You Feel tickets available now via: www.alphabettitheatre.co.uk/pod

Interview with North East upcoming musician Lizzie Esau; live streaming, song writing as therapy & indie pop.

I’m buzzing to currently be working with much -loved corner stone of the regional music industry, Polestar Studios on their run of live streamed Polestar Live Sessions; celebrating and showcasing North East musicians and bands and their pandemic resilience.

Polestar Studios has been supporting the North East music scene to make great music since the early 90s. Nestled on the edge of the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle, this rehearsal and recording studio in Byker, was established in 1990 by Pauline Murray; singer of iconic punk band Penetration. Thousands of bands and musicians have used the facility in its long history.

I’m supporting Polestar Studios on their run of Polestar Live sessions, high production quality live streamed gig featuring the hottest grassroots’ North East music. I have the benefit of getting to know and interview all the brilliant musical talent, who are making waves regionally, Nationally and many Internationally in their niche too.

Tonight’s live stream gig is the turn of North East singer-song writer Lizzie Esau and her band, who are set to serve an alt-pop set with beautifully honest lyrics. Lizzie’s music has demanded the attention of not just regional music lovers, but also record labels, producers, DJs, festivals and BBC Introducing. Her latest single ‘What If I Just Kept Driving’ got me through the most Monday of Mondays this week and came to Lizzie in a matter of minutes. With its’ Lo-Fi Bedroom pop vibe and major chords, the song juxtaposes the highs of the music with the lows of the lyrics.

Polestar Live Session – Lizzie Esau

Lizzie’s live stream will be centre “stage” at 7.30pm tonight (Thursday 15 July) on Polestar Studios Facebook page and I can’t wait. It’s free to tune in but you do have the option to donate – all donations go directly to the artist, who is of course being appropriately paid, but a donation to a musician after the year they’ve had, really means the world and supports them get back out there.

So, in my quest to champion Northern talent and brilliance, I thought I’d nab Lizzie for a little Culture Vulture interview and find out more about her career so far, ambition and her music writing inspo! Let’s get to it, here is Lizzie Esau!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Hi Lizzie, right let’s get to it – can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures? Who are you?

I’m Lizzie Esau, a singer songwriter from the North East.

Can you tell us about your journey so far into the music industry?

I’ve always written little tunes and melodies ever since I can remember, probably from the age of around five or six. It’s something I have always had as a part of my life which for many years fell into the background but across the last three years something changed, and I decided to prioritise what I love and take music seriously.

Through connecting with my manager a few years ago I have now been able to make some great contacts in the industry and had the chance to work with other artists as well as releasing my own music in the last year, which has been so fulfilling.

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t listened to it before?

My music is a fusion of everything I love and that interests me. If I had to describe the sound, I’d say it’s a hip-hop alternative/ indie pop with honest lyrics and real instrumentation.

Where do you seek inspiration? What’s your music writing process like?

I’m mostly inspired by everyday life and the stresses and joy that it can bring. My writing is very reflective and as cheesy as it sounds, I often use it as a way of therapy which I’m sure is something other creatives can relate to.

The writing process normally consists of a random idea floating around in my head for a while which comes together as a song after sitting at my piano and on logic for a while working out new melodies and parts to the track. After my demo is created the song will then be sent off to the producer I’m working with right now, Steve Grainger, who elevates the track, and then after a bit of backwards and forwards discussion, the track is ready to go out!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Who is in your band? How did you pull them together/meet them?

The drummer Alex and I got in touch via social media quite a few years ago and he became part of a band that unfortunately faded out. After connecting with my manager and doing some solo gigs to throw myself into performing, I then reached out again just before the pandemic to create a new band around the music. As soon as we were able to, we started rehearsals again around the new tracks and Alex brought along the bass player Joe who fitted into the band so well being a great friend of his. We have had a few people stand in as guitarist during the time we have been playing together, who have all been such great musicians, and hopefully one day a permanent position will be filled. I feel so lucky to be able to have such professional and dedicated musicians as part of this project and we just can’t wait to get out and play live now!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

I love your new single, ‘What If I Just Kept Driving’ ; tell us a bit about it? (It’s available to listen to now on all streaming platforms)

The new single is an indie pop track about escaping from the stresses of life through the act of performing mindless activities. The idea for the track came about when I was driving (hahaha!) and all came together very quickly; form the writing process to the production.

The music is lively and upbeat which I think is a nice contrast to the honest and more downbeat lyrics describing how I was feeling at the time. The choruses are a little more positive and talk about getting help for these life stresses, putting more of an optimistic spin on things.

I love the video – where did the concept come from?

The video concept came from the director, Sel Mclean, who took into consideration so well who I was as an artist and the style of things that would work best for the track. I loved his idea to have skateboarders there and to have it by the beach at sunrise, I think the whole thing came together so well and everything for the releases seemed to really work together. The whole team were so amazing and made my first ever professional video shoot experience so enjoyable and memorable.

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

The song really speaks to me about the noise of modern life and using driving as a means to escape, self-care and freedom; this is such an important thing in the current context of the pandemic. How have you found the pandemic as a creative?

Just before the pandemic is when I really started to be proactive and get myself out playing solo shows and writing more, so when the pandemic hit it was very disheartening, as I’m sure it was for all creatives especially ones just starting off. But through this time I have connected with my wonderful band and started collaborating with many artists as well as writing more than I ever have before, so in many ways it allowed me the time to put everything into music which I really loved.

However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this pandemic has been so hard on everyone and that no one is alone in feeling like they have had low points, but I’m glad to see us coming out of it all now! (fingers crossed Haha!).

How did tonight’s live stream gig with Polestar Studios come about?

This gig came about due to the bass player, Joe, being in contact with them and therefore when an opportunity came about to play there, we were all really keen to get involved and get the songs out there for more people to hear!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

What can people expect from your Polestar Live Session tonight at 7.30pm via Polestar Facebook page and why should people tune in?

You can expect to hear lots of new unreleased music, perhaps even a sneak peek at upcoming singles as well as a cover, which I never tend to do but I couldn’t resist with this one! I will be with a full band on the night so expect big sounding tracks and lots of energy! We can’t wait for it!

Why are organisations like Polestar Studios important to the North East music scene?

I think they’re so important! They give up and coming artists a platform to share their music to a wider audience, especially since they stream the gigs via social media which enables anyone to be able to discover new music. It’s great to have such supportive organisations that enjoy promoting artists and love to watch them succeed; without this so many people would go undiscovered!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

How do you feel about live streaming gigs? Why are they important?

I think it’s so important to adapt and carry on regardless in any way that we can, so to see so many live stream events and socially distanced performances is so reassuring that music can still be shared no matter what. I think especially in the times we have had, music is so vital to keep everyone’s spirits high and keep optimistic.

How does it feel to be getting featured by BBC Introducing? (It has been ace to hear you on the radio waves!)

It feels so amazing! The support I’ve had from BBC introducing ever since putting out my first demo onto Soundcloud in 2018 has been so wonderful and everything I’ve uploaded has been shown so much love by them! I really loved doing a session for BBC introducing in the North East around my debut official release ‘Young Mind Run Blind’, this was something I have always wanted to do and to do it around my first proper release was really amazing! From then on, every single was so amazingly promoted by them with my third and most recent release being played on radio 1 introducing as Gemma Bradley’s tip of the week meaning all the local radios around the country played it also which was so crazy to hear!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

What do you think of the North East music scene?

I think the North East music scene is such a supportive space and everyone loves to see one another do well and get to where they want to be. There is so much amazing talent around right now and so many people getting National radio plays which is so amazing to see! Just looking forward to getting out and seeing all of these band and artists I have discovered in lockdown live now!

Who on the scene do you admire/should I check out?

I’m really loving so many artists form the North East right now I think everyone is really thriving! Off the top of my head I’m loving Nadedja, Jodie Nicholson, Martha Hill, Georgia May, Luke Royalty, Future Humans and so many more!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Good selection of people there! Can you share any advice for aspiring folx wanting to get into the music industry?

I think my biggest piece of advice is to connect with as many people as you can and to be good at networking, or like I did find a wonderful manager who is great at it, hahaha! I think as soon as I started reaching out to people to collaborate and venues to play at is when things started happening, so just remember to always be proactive and keep writing as much as you can!

Highlight of 2021 so far?

My 2021 highlight so far has to be hearing my new single ‘What If I Just Kept Driving’ on radio 1! It was so surreal as I always have I on in my car so to hear my own music getting played on my favourite radio station was just the best feeling and has already led to some exciting conversations and interest from new listeners!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Do you have a moment in mind/visual moment, when you think – “I’ve made it!”?

I’ve always dreamed of headlining Glastonbury or playing on the main stage, I’d definitely know I’ve made it then! But to be honest just playing anywhere at Glastonbury would be such a great feeling for me, and I think the day I see a load of people I don’t know in a crowd singing my lyrics back to me will be so surreal and I’ll know I’ve made an impact on them for sure!

So, what’s next for you?

I have so many new tracks, ideas and possible collaborations happening which makes me so excited for what’s coming in my career! I think the next thing you’ll hear from me will be a bit of a surprise so keep an eye out! I’m also playing live lots and I really hope to continue that and grow the amount of people listening to my music as we move out of the pandemic!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Anything else you want to tell my readers about?

Yes! Lots of gigs happening soon! I am particularly excited for the Cluny on the 23rd of July which is an event with Urban Kingdom and Generation W where I’ll be playing alongside three other amazing female artists. I’ve also got lots of gigs lined up in September including my debut headline show on the 18th at Head of Steam in Newcastle with the band which we are so excited for! As well as this, I’ll be playing a few exciting support slots so make sure to check out my socials to find out about it all!

Lizzie Esau – Photo credit: Victoria Wai Photography

Well thank you Lizzie and if you can, make sure you check out her live stream tonight at 7.30pm from Polestar Studios Facebook page!

You can also connect with Lizzie via:

Instagram: @lizzieesau

Facebook: @lizzieesau.music

Tik Tok: @lizzieesau

SoundCloud

YouTube

Spotify

Interview with Mercury Prize nominated Sunderland band Field Music’s David Brewis.

I’m absolutely BUZZING with this interview – as someone who was once a bit of an indie kid, back in the day (before that I had an emo phase, before that a goth phase, before that a chav phase….); think Stonelove at Digital and Bulletproof at The Academy, obsessed with boys in skinny jeans and big hair, going to gigs every week, firmly in love with the North East music scene and listening constantly to bands like Mercury Prize nominated Sunderland band Field Music. I think about that period of my life, with such nostalgia!

I LOVE Sunderland band Field Music. Listening to them makes me think of a time in my life, that I was really super happy and was having a lot of fun! It is great to see how they’ve gone from strength to strength, continuing to release music, such a valuable asset to the music scene and I just love their twitter account.

Field Music – photography credit: Andy Martin

I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with Field Music a bit recently. I’ve been supporting Paint The Town In Sound, Sunderland Culture’s online exhibition exploring the timeless relationship between art and music and the direct links forged between musicians and artists. The exhibition is curated in collaboration with Field Music, takes their own collaborations as a starting point to explore wider themes. The artworks in Paint the Town in Sound, are drawn from the Arts Council Collection and offer a fascinating insight into the musical heritage of our region providing a route to examine our own cultural identity and its relationship to class, politics and place. You can visit the exhibition here and experience the virtual walk through here.

Paint The Town In Sound exhibition

Like the little hustler that I am, I took the opportunity of working with and connecting with Field Music and nabbed a weee Culture Vulture interview with Field Music member David Brewis. They’ve got a new album coming out and a tour in the works….we chat live music in a pod COVID world, their new album, Paint the Town in Sound, art and other musicians to check out….

Well hello David, let’s do this, let’s start with an intro!

I’m David Brewis. My brother Peter and I have been making records as Field Music since 2004 from our own studio in Sunderland. I’ve also made a much of records on my own as School of Language.

How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t listened to it?

I tend to avoid doing that but essentially, it’s weird pop music which doesn’t sound much like contemporary pop music but also doesn’t sound much like the pop music of any other era either.

Field Music – Photography credit: Chris Owens

Tell my fellow Culture Vultures about your journey into music? Why music?

The idea of playing music took hold of us when we were 10/11 and that was it. Mostly we were just pinching things from our parents’ record collection – Led Zeppelin, Free, Fleetwood Mac. We started playing covers in pubs in 1994 which was a great way to really learn. And we were “peer educators” helping to run the music workshops for Dave Murray’s youth project at the Bunker in Sunderland around the same time. It was there that we met Barry Hyde (later of The Futureheads), who was clearly really talented but also, because of his dad, had a knowledge of music beyond what we knew, – Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Wire, John Coltrane. It became a kind of trade – we showed Barry how to be in a band and he showed us how to listen to music! If anything, we became even more obsessive about music then and even more determined to make something unique.

We had applied for the very first round of National Lottery arts funding in 1997 to help set up a short-term community recording studio and after that, it felt essential to have our own studio space. That – and the fact that we could never really explain to anyone what we were trying to do – is how we ended up self-producing music right from the very beginning.

Field Music. Photography Credit: Andy Martin

You’re releasing a new album soon….tell us more! What was it inspired by?

The next Field Music album is called Flat White Moon and it’s due out in April. A lot of it was inspired by our mam passing away in 2018. I think we both felt we needed to write about it and about her and our memories of her; but we weren’t really ready until now. Our last album, Making A New World, which came out last year turned out to be a good way to use the creative parts of our brain without getting stuck in the mental fug we were in when we wrote it, because that was all based on stories and research related to the first world war. We didn’t have to deal with ourselves and I don’t think we could have at that time. The new record isn’t overly gloomy though – we were keen to make music, which was freeing and fun to play, after a couple of albums which were quite tricky to play live.

Field Music new album

And you’re touring later in the year…..are you excited to be on the road playing to actual people in real life?

Excited and anxious, but I think that’s how the audience will feel as well. Whenever live music starts happening again, I think it’s going to be a very emotional, cathartic experience all round.

Absolutely agree – speaking of live music, can you tell us about your favourite gig or festival you’ve ever played?

We played a lot of festivals in 2016 and quite a few of them were not a lot of fun. Winning over ambling crowds of people drinking Pimms is not really our forte – our music is too knotty and our sense of humour is too dry to work in that situation. But then the last festival of that summer was in the big tent at Green Man Festival. I’m not sure what I was expecting but we came out and the tent was packed and the atmosphere was really special. It was wonderful.

I truly hope so. On the plus side, the people who run and book small independent venues are some of the most resourceful, creative and bloody-minded people I know. They will find a way to make things work. But small-scale live music has never been a money-spinner so if there are restrictions on gatherings for another whole year or more, it’ll be extremely difficult for small venues to survive. As with everything else, we’re dependent on how the health crisis is handled first and after that on how businesses are supported. Also, because the whole industry is basically run by freelancers, who’ve been among the least-well-supported financially through all this, there’s an awful chance we’ll have lost thousands of skilled people who’ve been forced to find work in other sectors.

Field Music. Photography credit: Andy Martin

What do you think of the music scene in Sunderland/North East? And any suggestions of folx to check out/ones to watch?

Honestly, I find it difficult to keep up. And I’m now old enough where I don’t feel guilty about it! It has been pleasing to see how active Independent have been in putting on shows that aren’t just lads in bands (though Roxy Girls are an outstanding band made up of lads). It has been interesting and exciting to do a little bit of studio work with Sunderland Young Musicians Project, who seem to have a whole production line of talented, outrageously-young songwriters, some of whom are already getting out there in a serious way like Faye Fantarrow and some of whom, like Ami McGuinness, Lottie Willis and Eve Cole, are just a step or two away from that too. There’s greatness to be mined if young people have the opportunity and the support.

Field Music. Photography credit: Chris Owens

Absolutely agree! Tell us about Paint the Town In Sound online exhibition?

When Jonathan from Sunderland Museum first got in touch with us to act as guest curators, the brief was pretty open. We knew that the majority of the works in the exhibition had to come from the Arts Council Collection but that was about it! So, we started poring through ACC catalogues and decided to use the exhibition as a way to look at how music, art and identity feed into each other and that ended up touching on fandom, pop iconography, sleeve art and punk as a community movement. We were very fortunate, to have Jonathan guiding us through the process and being so accommodating to our ideas.

Field Music. Photography credit: Andy Martin

Why should folx check out the exhibition and what can they expect?

The hope is that if you go to the exhibition you’ll see some reflection of yourself in there. We all use pop culture as a way to self-identify and while we can’t represent EVERY pop tribe, we hope it’ll show a bit of how that self-identification happens and why it’s so interesting and important. I’m over the moon that we have some great work from NE-based artists – the likes of Narbi Price, Laura Lancaster and Graeme Hopper in there – alongside Peter Blake and Anthea Hamilton. I think people will find the items from the Bunker archive really interesting – handwritten letters, posters and newsletters from the first flourish of punk organising in Sunderland. And I personally really enjoyed putting together the display of NE-linked record sleeves and researching the artists and designers who created them – it’s like an alternative history of music and design. And it took AGES.

Field Music. Photography credit: Andy Martin

What I love about the exhibition is that it really showcases how music and art can blend together and create something quite magical….. how has art affected your music? What type of art are you into?

One of the things that became really apparent in compiling the sleeve art display is that the styles of art and design used always say something about the artist, even if it’s the artist deliberately trying to steer you away from a particular interpretation of their music. So with us, the art we tend to like and tend to use is a lot like our music – we want it to be comprehensible without a lot of explanation but we want it to hold details and references which you’ll hopefully discover the more time you spend with it. We often want it to have an element of humour or self-deprecation. We like things which cast a bit of wry eye at luxury and commerce and we like to subvert symbolism. I also like things where it feels like the artist is struggling a bit to communicate something just out of reach. And conversely, with both visual art and music, I tend to glaze over a bit if it feels like making it or conceiving it was too easy.

Field Music new album

One of the things, I love about being The Culture Vulture, is that I have the privilege of going behind the scenes and getting my mits on things before everyone else (which is mad because it’s just Horts from Gateshead!) – you had that experience a bit seeing the Arts Council Collection stuff? What was that like?

Sadly, because everything was done under some level of covid restrictions we didn’t get to see anything for real before the installation. We were entirely dependent on the ACC catalogues. Which did mean, for instance, that we didn’t release quite how risqué Anthea Hamilton’s Leg Chair was until it was in situ!

What else are you working on? Anything else you want to share?

In between the frustrations of homeschooling, we’re having to spend a lot of time thinking about how we promote a record when we can’t go out and play; it’s difficult to rehearse and we can’t go anywhere. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who used the phrase “visual content” but here we are. We’ve also been working on songs for a commission for next year which has involved some fascinating historical research. More on that soon!

Very exciting! Thank you so much David!

Field Music. Photography credit: Chris Owens

Keep an eye out on Field Music social media for the album drop on 23rd April.

To view Paint The Town In Sound visit HERE.

To experience the virtual walk through of Paint The Town In Sound visit HERE.

And finally, keep an eye out for Paint The Town In Sound Podcast series, as it will be launching soon!

Coming soon – Field Music PtTiS Podcast series

Interview with writer, director, actor, content creator & fave human – Eilish Stout-Cairns, ahead of her theatre directorial debut TONIGHT!

I’ve been looking forward to this interview for AGES as it is with one of my favourite pals in the entire world, but first some context! Today, Monday 25th January, is the premiere of the theatre performance The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust.  This production is free to watch and will premiere tonight at 7pm– streamed live over on Gosforth Civic Theatre Facebook page.

This theatre show tells the remarkable true story of two eccentric, opera loving lasses from Sunderland who achieved truly extraordinary things! The sisters, who lived to travel the world to listen to their favourite opera performers sing, used this passion as a cover, to secretly work to bring Jews out of Nazi Europe. In total, the Sunderland sisters, Ida and Louise, saved the lives of 29 Jews during the Holocaust and this theatre show tells that courageous story. Extraordinary lasses who did extraordinary things!

Graphic advertising The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust

This production is part of Brundibár Arts Festival; the first annual Festival in the UK dedicated to the Music and Arts of the Holocaust. I’ve supported Brundibár Arts Festival for the last few years – it’s a super important and special festival; it seeks to find new ways to positively document the astonishing achievements of artists under adversity, and to keep their stories alive through music and the arts. They will be back (hopefully) with an in-person festival in 2022!

I’m so excited to watch The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust tonight and not just because it is part of Brundibár Arts Festival or because it is amazing two amazing North East women, I’m super excited because it is Culture Vulture pal Eilish Stout-Cairns directorial debut! YAS! Eilish is such a glorious and talented creative chameleon and one to watch with a bright future ahead.

I recently caught up with Eilish for this lush interview – we chatted Cook sisters, mental health, social media, Melva and online trolls….over to you Eilish!

Eilish Stout-Cairns head shot on a beach

Can you introduce yourself for my readers? 

My name is Eilish Stout-Cairns and I’m a 24 year old actor and creative freelancer from the North East.

Well hello Eilish! Can you describe what you do?

Goodness, second question and it’s already a tough one! I act, I work as a content creator for two online companies- with that I also video produce, I work as a facilitator for young people, I just wrote my first show last month and I guess now here I am directing The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust. It’s a big mixed bag!

Picture of Eilish Stout-Cairns performing

Questions like that also send me into an existential crisis! How did you get into creative industries?

As far back as I can remember I wanted to act. I loved being on stage, even if one of my earlier roles in life was ‘Window Number Two’ in a Youth Theatre production of PeterPan- I made that window my own! I jest. But I truly can’t imagine doing anything else.

I left sixth form at 18 and went on to work in makeup, all the while still auditioning- without having a clue what I was doing, then I went on and trained at Project A at the Theatre Royal when I was 20, since then I’ve been in the professional industry.  

Eilish leading a workshop as Feggis in a school

People don’t really understand the fact that us creative freelancers – do A LOT. Multiple projects, jobs, businesses, freelance shenanigans. I think your portfolio of work sums that up……can you briefly describe the melting pot of wonderful things you do? 

Wow, Okay!  Being an actor was always my main job, even if, at the start, that didn’t necessarily make me that much money. So, then I had to put my eggs in other baskets. I trained to become a spray tanner in April 2019, bought the kit and I am now a Silver Level Professional Mobile Spray Tanner! But of course, that was also freelance, I then because a facilitator for theatre, drama and creative learning company Mortal Fools and started working with them on some of their projects for young people such as: Future Ready, a project they do with Collingwood School in Morpeth. I then started to work for them as a youth theatre practitioner and still am to this day.

Back in June last year, I applied to be a content creator for an online company Latest Deals, they hired me and 4 weeks later, so did their sister company- Latest Free Stuff, with them I make short videos, I do Facebook Lives, run competitions etc. It’s a bit like QVC but in a more modern way!

Eilish in character

What is the Brundibár Arts Festival? What’s been your involvement in it?

The Brundibár Arts Festival is the first annual Festival in the UK dedicated to the Music and Arts of the Holocaust. And that topic is something that personally I never learnt much about. I didn’t know about the music associated with the Holocaust and we should, as it’s such an amazing way to keep individuals’ stories alive.

I was part of the Festival last year as an actor in the performance- The Last Cyclist, and this year, myself and Northumberland Theatre Company had an idea- we approached the festival and here I am directing this year’s show!

Brundibár Arts Festival is important because, it shows us some of the great works of art that emerged from such horrific circumstances.  We should be educated on these things; the art we see in the festival is often a lesser known story and we’re truly giving it an important platform and telling human stories of creative courage.

Eilish performing at Gosforth Civic Theatre – The Last Cyclist – Brundibár Arts Festival 2020

Tell me about this year’s production – The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust?

The production is all about The Cook Sisters; two ordinary lasses from Sunderland who achieved extraordinary things. And that’s not me calling them ordinary- they called themselves that. It’s such a gorgeous local story about two young women who saved the lives of 29 Jews, that a lot of people may not know about.

Why is it important to shine a light on lesser-known courageous stories of women like this?

Because often, when you think of wars or fighting or courage, you may think of a male dominated picture. And that’s not the case. For years. We learnt from male dominated history books and it’s time that that was changed.

When I was at school, I can’t remember learning about one woman who wasn’t a wife of a man. Apart from maybe Cleopatra and we glossed over her. – The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust isn’t a story of royalty, it’s about two ORDINARY lasses who were young and passionate, and the things they achieved are worth knowing and celebrating.  These women saved lives.

What do you hope people take away from The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust?

I want people to sit, enjoy it and to allow themselves feel – then to go away and learn more about the sisters.

Why should people tune in later today at 7pm to see the production? 

If you don’t know the real story of Ida and Louise Cook- you need to watch it! You’ll wanna learn. And even if you do know their story, still watch it- feel proud that you know this story and that you’re a part of it. The performance is littered with music, opera and it’s uplifting. There’s something for everyone.

I’m so excited to tune in later to see your directorial debut! Right so tell me about your role at Mortal Fools?

I started working with Mortal Fools back in 2017 with their first production of Melva and then toured a new version in 2019/20. And now it has been made into Melva Mapletree & the Quest for Barnabas Boggle, an interactive, online storytelling game and one-stop resource to support children’s everyday worries and anxiety

Then I started working as a facilitator for them in January 2020 working with various schools, running the younger Youth Theatre sessions and participating in their audio theatre experience When The World Is Loud back in August. They can’t get rid of me!

Team Melva during 2017 show run in Prudhoe

Tell me about Melva and your involvement? And the big Q, who is Feggis?

Melva is a show for children (and their parents/carers) and it’s all about mental health! Worries are “worrits” in the show and Melva is dealing with a lot of them and it is giving her  anxiety. Melva approaches these subjects in a light-hearted, accessible and child friendly way and it invites young people to talk openly about their own worries and thinking about how they might manage them. Melva also shows that grown-ups get these worries too- and that that’s okay!

Feggis! Yes, one of my roles in Melva (There’s 6 in total- 4 in one scene!) is Feggis the talking, fainting goat. Feggis went to goat school and that’s why they can talk but not write. Feggis helps Melva be calm and chill out- showing her how to breathe! Feggis is an audience favourite and pretty adorable.

Eilish as Feggis during a Melva workshop at a North East school

Melva Mapletree & the Quest for Barnabas Boggle, Mortal Fools’ interactive, online storytelling game launches to schools TODAY! What was your involvement in the game?

I’ve played it and it’s fun! It did leave me going- Is that really my voice?! And seeing this character, I’ve worked on for three years in animation is so weird, but in a wonderful way! We had quite heavy involvement in the game development, from the very beginning with some of our initial ideas being brought in to the final project, It was lovely for it to be done this way and was so collaborative! The Melva cast are so rooted in the characters and the story, so having a say in this next chapter felt vital.

Graphic depicting Melva game

And you managed to find time in 2020 to write a Christmas show?  Tell us more!

Eeeek, This was big! I wrote my very first show the back end of last year- The Elf Who Saved Santa. It all stemmed from a casual chat with Northumberland Theatre Company about a silly Christmas idea I had, to which they said- write it! And I did!

The show centres around Bubblegum, a little elf with a big heart who tries really hard but might not actually be great at what she does- apart from music! It tells the story of Santa feeling lonely, jumpy, grumpy and lost because of everything that was happening in the world and COVID-19- so Bubblegum tries to show him that the Christmas spirit still exists. It touches on some mental health topics too and it shows that even the people we least expect can feel sad sometimes.

Eilish as Bubblegum

What was it like being able to bring something magical (and very contemporary) to families at such a challenging time?

We got some brilliant feedback, which was so rewarding with it being my first show! It was filmed and put online; not getting that initial audience reaction like you get in a live show, just left me unknowing and worried that people wouldn’t like it! But it was well received with some people even saying it helped their children understand adults’ emotions better.

I think it gave everyone some much needed relief at this odd time. I think it’s important that there was something out there to help families have conversations about their emotions at the moment. Life is weird and none of us REALLY know what we’re doing- so talking about it can offer a bit of relief. I’m pleased I was able to help some people do that.

Eilish performing Christmas 2020

You’re a gigging actor, theatre practitioner, writer and now Director – what’s the impact been of COVID to you personally? Has it made you “pivot” at all? 

COVID-19 definitely made me re-think some things. I had two tours cancelled and multiple shows- like many others! I was fortunate enough to be working online for the Mortal Fools Youth Theatre when this first started- so that kept me busy. I’m not going to lie to you though, I’m sick of the sight of Zoom! I can’t wait to never use it again!

Because of COVID- I applied for the content creator job- something I probably would never had had time for, as prior to the pandemic I was working at the O2 Academy Newcastle and the Airport. (Both of which I’ve now been made redundant from) So now I spend Monday-Friday (usually) filming, editing, being on social media and it’s taught me so much! I’ve done multiple social media courses, I’ve became a Mental Health First Aider, I even did an Excel course! I guess having all this time made me want to better my skills. I’m now pretty capable in editing and have done a few fellow actors showreels, I’ve learnt how to use greenscreens and done a lot more VoiceOver work. It’s made me adapt and grow the skills that I maybe didn’t use so much.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given the jobs that I have had during this time. But I’ve also worked my arse off for them and created my own work- I ain’t waiting for anyone else, I’ve gotta make work for me!

Eilish as Feggis performing in Melva with actress Katie Powell (Melva)

What do you think the theatre landscape will look like beyond COVID?

Well, this is a question and a half! I think streamed performances will be common, and to be honest I don’t really know about the wider landscape. I’d like to think there’d be more appreciation for theatre, and for artists. Because people have gone so long without them. Maybe people won’t be on their phone during a performance anymore or look down on our jobs and stop saying “yeah but what’s your real job? or “what else do you do to support that?”.

2020 has oddly been the first year I’ve been able to support myself financially solely by being a creative! From a professional perspective, I think casting directors are being more lenient with self-tapes and imperfect zoom backgrounds. If I was being sickly positive, I’d say this has forced us to use our brains in a different way, a new way of accessing and making theatre- and that’s not a bad thing. That being said, I cannot bloody wait to be sat front row in an auditorium again!

One hope personally in 2021? 

I want to achieve a better work/life balance. 2020 was an odd year and I don’t think I took enough time for me, when realistically that’s all I had to do. I’ve set boundaries and I’m hoping to stick to them, 2020 has taught me that ultimately family and friend comes first. They are the people who matter. There’s no point being consumed in work if you’re not happy with yourself at the end of the day. I want to get that happiness back! I also want to do music more; I play ukulele and guitar and I was gifted a piano early last year- I don’t play or sing half as much as I used to and I miss that.

Eilish playing her Uke

Work life balance….what is that!? You work on social media like me…..social media is a brilliant place but also TOXIC AF. How do you manage trolls? Any advice to aspiring content creators in this area?

Oh my goodness! Learn and accept that people can be stupid and are bored right now so have time to type silly comments! I’ve had hate because I ordered a medium meal at McDonalds instead of a large! Or that I wore the same top 2 days in a row! (Most of the hate came from middle aged white men).

I usually laugh at it, but sometimes- especially if it’s a wide viewed video- the hate can come thick and fast. I did a 60 second video on Doritos once and I never knew people could get so angry about those chilli heatwave triangles of deliciousness!

MY advice is to sit in the sadness for a minute, then try to brush it off- ultimately those people don’t know YOU and you wouldn’t want them too. It’s worth noting that whenever I’ve had those comments- there’s always a stranger or 5 sticking up for me, which is so beautiful.

Wider career advice wise, LEARN EVERYTHING! If you can film, edit, voice record, do admin, graphic design, know the best times to upload on different platforms and understand algorithms- even just basic on all of that- that’s AMAZING! You can never have enough skills; social media is ever-changing and it’s changing fast! The quicker you can adapt and keep up- the better. But also, don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s enough people trying to do that for you! Keep that chin up and be you, unapologetically!

Eilish laughing

Any other new projects/happenings on the horizon for Eilish in 2021?

Aside from Heroines! Melva is coming back! We’re filming the show (oops, am I allowed to say that?!) and I couldn’t be more excited. I also have my first Adult Panto tour booked in for this year March-July (fingers crossed) where I’m playing two characters- I’m starting to see a multi-character theme here. I’m beyond excited for the show and we’re playing in some gorgeous venues like the Darlington Hippodrome! I’m still writing, as and when, and who knows, those thoughts could become another show! There are a few things pending which I know I’m DEFINITELY not allowed to talk about- so, if you’re interested- WATCH THIS SPACE!

Eilish performing in Melva 2019

Ohhh we will Eilish….. we will be watching. (Sounds a little bit creepy…..). Make sure to watch the premiere of The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust later today at 7pm.  This production is free to watch and streamed live over on Gosforth Civic Theatre Facebook page and is part of Brundibár Arts Festival.

Graphic promoting The Cook Sisters performance TONIGHT

Interview with visual textile artist Anya Paintsil – we chat representation (or lack of), punch-needle and questioning “fine art”.

Today I’m interviewing another Insta artist find….this one really stopped me in my tracks! Anya Paintsil is a brilliant artist find – I stumbled across her work through The Social Distance Art Project (seriously folx – that is the gift that just keeps on digitally giving – check it out!) and instantly fell in love. It is like nothing that I’ve personally seen recently and the tied in themes of race, feminism and personal expression, just feel so timely.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsil – me and jack

Anya Painsil is a recent art graduate from Manchester Met, making her way into the arts work and I just know she’s going to have a bright future. Anya’s pieces use methods of rug hooking, embroidery and afro hairstyling to create textile pieces that seek to elevate art and craft practices that have been historically devalued because of their associations with marginalised groups. Anya’s work frequently focuses on the significance of race and identity outside of urban areas, feminism, autobiographical story-telling and fantasy.

I reached out to Anya this Summer for a Culture Vulture interview for many reasons; firstly, her art work is beaut, I love the style and it interested me! It is the type of work, that even though, I stumbled on her work during mindlessly scrolling, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and book marked it. Secondly, she is using a textile medium that arguably is not something that many artists use – it’s quite a traditional medium, but this feels like such a fresh way of using it. I like folx who are doing something quite different and Anya’s work, is just that, very Anya!

So it is my privilege to share our little interview and please check out Anya’s work and show her lots of her support, she is MEGA!

Artist Anya Paintsil leaning against a shop window.

Anya Paintsil

So hi Anya! Can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures?

My name is Anya Paintsil; I’m a Welsh-Ghanaian artist living in Manchester.

How would describe your practice?

I’d describe myself as a textile or fibre artist; I work with various rug hooking methods to create wall-based textile pieces.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsil Mair at Cylch Meithrin

Can you share with us, your journey into the arts?

I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life; from being a small child creative practice has always been something of a compulsion for me and I would spend hours every day drawing and painting. I didn’t enjoy studying art at school or school at all really, and dropped out of sixth form college and worked, travelled and moved around a lot.

When I was 23 I decided I wanted to work towards a career in graphic design or illustration so I went on a portfolio course in Glasgow, where I was living at the time – I got into MMU (Manchester Met) to study illustration and animation but similarly with my school experiences I didn’t really enjoy working to briefs or not being able to make work entirely in the way I envisioned so I swapped to study fine art after my first year. I just finished my BA and began working with my gallery earlier this year.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsil – Your Mum Eats Like a Camel

Can you tell us about some of the themes you explore in your work?

My work is largely autobiographical – I explore personal relationships, trauma, and memory, as well as exploring race and identity.

What would you like audiences to take away from your work?

I like to create objects that have a sort of presence.

My work does largely deal with race and identity from my own mixed race African/Welsh perspective – a perspective I have rarely seen represented. I like to explore complex elements of depicting black women and black bodies and hair.

My main aims in my practice are to make viewers consider what can and can’t be included in the category of fine art as well as which makers can be considered “artists”. I do this through my utilisation of craft practices that have historically been relegated to the decorative or dismissed from the high art canon due to associations with utility. I work with afro hairstyling techniques and materials as a way of honouring my heritage as a black woman, and a way to bring wider attention to the significance of hairstyling and hair in itself for women of the African diaspora.

As well as wanting to work with materials I am skilled at manipulating, I want to showcase these skills I learnt outside of an arts education context to in some way convey that literally anything that requires skill and creativity can be elevated to an object that can exist within a gallery setting; this is a way of challenging ideas that real art can only be made by certain people under certain circumstances.

Example of Anya’s work

Anya Paintsil – thirty six inch in six thirteen

Talk us through the process of making one of your textile pieces? How long does it take?

Usually between a week or a month.

I draw or paint nearly every day, in a semi-automatic fashion, I usually pick back through old drawings to come up with ideas for my textiles – I then usually do a more “resolved feeling” version of the initial drawing and then just try to translate into textile form, the design usually changes over the course of making the piece – I always work free hand on to the hessian.

You often use punch needle as a process in your work, why?

It is such a cathartic process.

Labour and the evidence of labour are quite central to my practice. I really appreciate and enjoy how easily I can manipulate my tools in punch needling; I find working by hand gives me far more freedom and allows me to make quick decisions while I work.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsil – Self Portrait

Can you share with us a highlight of your career so far?

I suppose, in itself, I’m still proper delighted and quite shocked that making work has actually become a career. Being discovered by my gallerist, Ed Cross, on Instagram was wild and unexpected but has been completely life changing. Ed Cross Fine Art is a gallery in London, that works with emerging and established artists across and beyond the African diaspora.

But I’d have to say my highlight so far was learning, that I had been selected to show work at the London instalment of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House in 8 – 10 October.

How have you been spending lock down?

Grieving with my family. In April my Grandma died from COVID. I come from a tight knit family, my Grandma was our matriarch and the centre of our world. Losing her and being unable to be with her or say goodbye due to the circumstances of the pandemic has been so painful and devastating to us all.

My mum was going through cancer treatment when the pandemic began, and I myself am clinically vulnerable so this whole situation has been a total nightmare and the hardest time of my life.

I’m so sorry to hear that and sending you so much virtual love! Do you sell any of your work? Take commissions?

My work is sold through my gallerist, Ed Cross Fine Art. I take selected commissions.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsl – ni yn unig

What are you working on right now? Any projects?

I’m finishing up a couple of new pieces to show at the 1-54 in October, and a couple of other things that are soon to be announced – keep an eye on my social media for more!

Can you share with us a few artists that are inspiring you right now or suggestions of artists I need to check out?

You should check out….

Cas Namoda – a painter and performance artist born in Mozambique, exploring the intricacies of social dynamics and mixed cultural and racial identity in her work. She captures scenes of everyday life, from mundane moments to life-changing events and paints a vibrant and nuanced portrait of post-colonial Mozambique within an increasingly globalised world.

Tiffanie Delune – a visual artist and painter, born in Paris, inspired by the cut outs of Matisse and African textiles; she works with acrylic, oil, pastels, charcoal, graphite, pencils, papers, fabrics, wool, nets, women’s tights, shells and leaves, on stretched large canvas, rolls of canvas and smaller pieces of paper. Her work combines a brilliant command of design and colour with a fearless commitment to exploring her personal history and celebrating sexuality, monogamy, femininity, motherhood, rebirth, agency and freedom. 

Adebunmi Gbadebo – a visual artist, from New Jersey, who creates sculptures, paintings, prints, and paper using human hair sourced from people of the African diaspora. Rejecting traditional art materials, Gbadebo sees hair as a means to centre her people and their histories as central to the narratives in her work.

You’re at the beginning of your creative career which is exciting – whilst the creative and cultural industries are thinking about reopening, evolving and rebuilding – what change would you personally like to see in our sector?

I would like to see

  1. more women,
  2. more people of colour,
  3. more “normal” people,
  4. more accessible language.

Well high five to that – I’d like to see less gatekeeping! This has been a wonderful interview – how can folx stay connected with you?

My Instagram is @anyapaintsil and you can find my work for sale on artsy right HERE.  

You can see my work IN PERSON on October the 10th at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House – you can get your tickets from HERE.

Example of Anya’s textile work

Anya Paintsil – feeling powerful with my red nails

What a great interview and thank you for introducing me to three new artists Anya – every artist, I interview, engage with or hang with, I ask them to suggest three-five artists on Insta or in general that I need to check out and let me tell you, it’s been SO bliddy amazing to jump outside of my comfort bubble – I’ve discovered SO many new artists. Brilliant for my curious brain, not so brilliant for my to-do list! (hehe!)

Please check out Anya’s work and please consider buying from artists and creatives this Autumn (going into festive season!) Artists need your support more than ever, so put yerrrr monies where you mouth is! Even if it’s just a card or small print!

Until next time Culture Vultures!

An interview with The Social Distance Art Project Team – a response to cancelled 2020 degree shows for artists & audiences

The Social Distance Art Project popped up on my radar towards the beginning of lock down – and what a wonderful gift to lock down me it was! I have discovered and connected with SO many wonderful artists through it.

The Social Distance Art Project started as a response to the reality, that for many students studying Arts related degrees, their final year physical degree shows or degree related “creative sharings” were off the cards and for the majority cancelled. This was truly heart breaking – for many artists, the degree show is THE thing you’ve been working towards for your whole degree and for some, it is their first opportunity to exhibit. These shows are important to their creative career, as a means of showcasing their work, profiling themselves as artists and a moment of achievement! I still meet artists my age (mid 30s) and many still talk about the positive experience and value their final year degree show brought them!

From this challenging and shitty situation, the wonderful TSDAP was born and the team (5 Northern lasses – BOOM!) set up their website to champion artists providing a collective digital space to feature themselves so that folks like me can discover their work. AND as a platform for Universities and students to tell the world about the reinvented digital versions of the degree show and connected events!

Out of the gutting nature of cancelling these final year degree shows and sharings, I think they is an upside…..the TSDAP has shown the potential of taking elements of a degree show online, uniting audiences and artists in this way and being more accessible. Whilst I’m a regular attendee of North East University degree shows – through the TSDAP, I’ve been able to engage and attend things across the whole country and chat to artists Nationally – that wouldn’t have happened before! I hope that Universities consider keeping a digital strand forever!

Another positive, for me, is that the artists and their work are presented within The TSDAP by name and not split up by medium. This has meant, that instead of just seeking out the stuff I normally like, I’ve been taking in such a wide variety of work. Honestly, if you have a spare hour, instead of mindlessly scrolling on social media, go to the Directory and just click through each artist. It’s my favourite thing to do right now!

As I’ve loved the TSDAP so much, I of course, reached out to the team behind it to tell them and to thank them – I invited them to take part in a little Culture Vulture interview so here we are doing just that!

Take it away TSDAP team!

IMG-20200515-WA0004

Well hello The Social Distance Art Project team….. can you all introduce yourselves!?

Julia – There are five fine art graduates involved in the project! The founders were Natasha Alexander, Alex Appleby and Jasmine McKnight (York St John University). Julia Pomeroy (Leeds Arts University) and Emma Trevor (Newcastle University) joined us a little later on as things really started to pick up!

As a proud Northerner and passionate support of womxn in creative industries, I’m buzzing that a womxn led Northern team created this!  Can you each give me a flavour of your journey into the creative industries?

Natasha – I’m originally from Sunderland; I wouldn’t say that working in the creative industries is pushed as a possible career much in the area. I’ve had a lot of “so your degree is just drawing pretty pictures, right?” and a lot of questions about how I will earn a living. I got into the arts because I didn’t have the best time throughout my time in Education and when I decided to go to University, I really just wanted to do something that I loved. As it is, studying a fine art degree has opened up so many doors I never even knew existed. I have no regrets.

Alex – Upon looking at my university choices, I originally planned to study Psychology, a more ‘academic’ choice; but through exploring the possibility of studying Fine Art I knew that this was the right choice for me. Throughout my studies many opportunities and avenues have opened up, and I cannot wait to see where my further studies at MA will take me.

Jasmine – I pursued a creative degree as art is something that is just a necessity to me; there was never anything else that I wanted to do. My degree has allowed me to explore my identity as an artist in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own; now I’m ready to carry on with my artistic career by continuing my practice while pursuing a job in design.

Julia – My degree has given me the confidence to maintain a strong momentum with my practice’s direction (oil painting at the moment) and how to take on the artworld as a freelancing artist. This combination and just being determined that my artwork can have an impact is what’s driving me in this career decision and completing my Fine Art BA at Leeds Arts University this year. I’m ready to see what the creative industries think.

Emma – There was never a question in my mind that I wanted to study fine art at university. For me, the creative process has always acted as a mental escape and studying in order to build my practical skills as well as engage in critical reflection of my work has allowed me to turn a hobby into a viable career path. My long-term goal is to become a forensic art therapist, using my experience to help inmates reclaim their identities and hopefully make a positive impact when it comes to recidivism in the UK.

Natasha

A piece by Team TSDAP Natasha

Honestly, if we were in person – I’d love to unpick all of that more over a gin! I’m so excited for you all at the beginning of your careers! So, let’s chat the Social Distance Art Project….for my fellow Culture Vultures, what is it?

Julia – TSDAP aims to give a platform to graduating creative students of 2020 whose degree shows have been cancelled due to the outbreak of Covid-19. As fine art students, we felt like we’d spent the most part of our degree preparing for the exhibition and so were heartbroken at its cancellation.

The project consists of an Instagram (@thesocialdistanceartproject) where we upload submissions daily and a website which acts as a library of all past submissions.

The idea is to give creative students a space to show off their work in the absence of a degree show and a space where students from all institutions can get together in solidarity, getting to know each other’s work and how they’re staying creative during current times!

Why did you set it up? What was the impetus?

Julia – We set it up the day our studios closed. We just felt like we couldn’t just sit by and do nothing when hundreds of students were in the same position as us. We started with the Instagram account, getting in touch with Universities and their followers hoping that they’d get involved. It took off in a way we never expected!

Emma - UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bad7

A piece by Team TSDAP’s Emma

It has been so brilliant – honestly from the bottom of my heart, thank you for doing it! And well done! From your perspective, how did students feel when the realisation dawned that shows were cancelled?

Julia – We’ve had so many messages from heartbroken students and the majority of our submissions start with a note about how disappointed everyone is. We’ve spent three/four years planning for this and it’s just so quickly been taken away and it’s such an awful situation for everyone.

And, your own experiences…..how did you all personally feel when your shows were cancelled?

Alex – It was immensely underwhelming, the degree show was something that drove my practice throughout third year, both in terms of opening up opportunities for our futures and as a final celebration of our achievements. Online alternatives have given us some exposure as artists, but I am still saddened that we did not get the chance to have a physical show.

Jasmine – Extremely disappointed. Our whole degree works towards this exhibition. Now it’s been taken away, it feels like our degree has been left open, without any real closure.

Julia – It was incredibly disheartening that the big finale of our creative degrees just wasn’t going to happen. I think I was subconsciously in denial about it because it seemed so set in stone for such a long time. Once the upset and anger subsided, I learnt that we still need to make the most of showing off our artworks, and for now doing that virtually is the best thing to do.

Emma – It feels like such an anti-climax, we’ve spent the last four years of our lives working towards degree shows which open up so many post-graduation opportunities and are almost seen as a right of passage for it all to be cancelled in a matter of weeks. Documentation of degree shows is vital in future applications for studios and grants so it’s hard not to feel at a disadvantage compared to those graduating in years before us.

For those who aren’t aware of the importance of degree shows within the creative degree framework, can you tell us why they are important?

Julia – There’s such an opportunity for networking; you really don’t get online – speaking in person to other creatives and people from outside of your institution. Even the planning and curation of the exhibition is a really vital experience as we all embark on our careers. Through the degree many of us have had the opportunity to put on smaller shows but the degree show is really where you get to experience the organisational aspect.

Alex - 1

A piece by Team TSDAP’s Alex

What has the response been like to the project from Universities and artists to SDAP? And the wider world/audiences?

Julia – Universities have been super supportive of what we’re doing! Especially since we’ve been using our home page to promote virtual degree shows across the UK. We’ve had a lot of contact from institutions asking for their shows to be added and sharing links to their student’s work on our platform. I think it’s been really great for institutions to see what others are getting up to and supporting each other.  Wider audiences have been really interested too which has been so nice to see – that students are being noticed as a result of what we’re doing to promote their hard work!

I’ve discovered loads of artists via your website that I just wouldn’t have discovered otherwise and their Insta as a digital canvas representing their portfolio of work – I think this could be the dawn of lessening the importance and focus on physical galleries and increasing the importance of creative digital spaces….what do you think?

Julia – What’s happened as a result of Covid has really given everyone some wake up calls as to the way the world has worked, bringing up a lot of questions about accessibility in particular. It makes you wonder about access to the arts for people who have to live permanently “socially distant” lives; whether that’s due to disability or any other factors. I think digital galleries are a great way to open up creative industries to a much wider audience.

Being able to view so much amazing work from your living room is so amazing whether that’s through Instagram, digital exhibitions or virtual tours. In thinking about the North/South divide that often sees “big names” of the art world exhibited primarily in London too, the five of us living in the North often can’t afford the travel for every exhibition we’d like to attend. And that travel has you debate the environmental impact that traveling to exhibition.

That being said, I really don’t think you can belittle being able to occupy the same space and the effect it has on your experience of it.  Maybe for some forms digital galleries would be a great accompaniment to physical exhibitions to provide an alternative for those that cannot visit.

Absolutely a digital strand to go along the physical! Various forms of research are showing that audiences are more likely to take a risk with art/art form in a digital space than in a venue…. I’ve been engaging more with things like sculpture (for example) that I just wouldn’t normally seek out. Digital space seems to remove the fear factor of being in a creative space and realising the work isn’t to your taste or you “don’t get it”. What are your thoughts?

Julia – I think digital spaces definitely offer the opportunity to spend more time with a piece of work. Especially with more conceptual art, or performance etc being able to view it in your own time in your own space means you have no fear of looking ‘silly’ as you figure out what it is you’re viewing. Perhaps you give certain pieces more of an opportunity in a digital space as it’s less intrusive.

Julia

A piece by Team TSDAP’s Julia

Going forward do you think having a digital form or platform for graduating artists like this – will/should it continue? I personally love the fact, I’ve discovered works and about educational programmes in other cities, that I wasn’t aware of.

Julia – Definitely! I really think platforms like ours should continue in future years as accompaniments to physical degree shows. We’ve been able to build space for a community of graduating artists from institutions across the UK to promote their work and discuss their practice. The inspiration you can find from other creatives is invaluable and being able to promote your work digitally to such a wide audience of your peers is super helpful for the next steps of our creative careers.

Have you missed the “in person” being creative?

Julia – 100%. One of the big things, is missing the energy that we feed from each other in our studios. The resilience you gain from tutorials and critiques with your tutors and peers is so beneficial to us as art students as it allows you to constantly think about your work from different perspectives and so work and concepts develop at a much faster rate. On top of that, the physical limitations that 2020 graduates have experienced have been at times impossible to navigate. Vacating studios at such short notice has left many of us without equipment or even adequate space to create.

Do you think graduate artists have missed the real time ability to showcase in their degree shows in person and feed off that energy? (Digital can’t replace that!).

Julia – We keep reiterating that platforms like ours have only arisen due to the absence of any adequate alternative. This digital space we’ve created, and many of the virtual degree shows that are now being launched, have nothing on the real experience of a degree show. I think most students have now experienced the anti-climatic virtual end to our studies and share this sense of loss.

Are there any artists or creatives that have submitted to your site – that are personal faves? Or doing work that has caught your eye? (All of the names mentioned below you can search out in the Directory of the SDAP website)

Nat – There are so many amazing creatives submitting work to us that it’s super hard to choose! Some of my favourites have Annie Graham’s sculptural practice whom I wrote about in my own blog, Reuben Brown’s exploration of growing up queer in Northern Ireland and Olivia Taylor’s amazing black & white photography of urban landscapes.

Alex – Ameerah Dawood’s work stood out to me, her use of textiles and screen printing has a simplicity and preciseness that I really enjoy.

Jasmine – My personal favourites are Holly Sarll and The Overload Project.

Julia – A personal fave whose work resonated with me was Alice Miller from Loughborough University and her oil paintings. The awkward yet familiar angles of everyday social situations, surrounded by figures, makes us feel like we’re there and her painting techniques make these moments feel fleeting. Ideas that I’ve been exploring with my own paintings.

Emma – Tiggy Beaman’s nude paintings really stood out to me and got an amazing reaction from our community. Also, Adonia Hirst’s work with textiles and soft sculpture, she is from my university so I may be slightly biased, but I’ve always thought her work is amazing.

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A piece by Team TSDAP’s Jasmine

Any black artists or creatives that you’d like to suggest folks check out/champion?

JuliaAD DADA was one of our earliest submissions and his work is amazing! He engages with black culture and identity in contemporary society through a whole range of mediums. His portfolio is super interesting to look at and reflects on the point of view of a black artist questioning British Institutions of art.

How long are you going to keep the project up? How can people get involved at this stage?

Julia – There’s no deadline for the project! It’s been so successful and exciting that we just want to keep going. We’re still taking submissions and soon we’ll be moving towards also posting the work of students who are not in their final year who’ve also been affected by studio closures.

We just want to keep everyone’s timelines creative and supportive at these tough times. We’re looking to begin to support emerging early career artists who aren’t necessarily just recent graduates. The possibilities are endless and this is just the beginning.

What’s next for the Social Distance Art Project?

Julia – Our next steps are to evolve the project into representing recent art graduates and emerging artists and become an active contribution to help early career artists venture into the artworld. We hope to provide opportunities online through open calls, various exhibitions ideas and explore what art promotion will be in the future, alongside social distancing. We hope we’ll be able to execute these opportunities in real life at some point. Currently, we have teamed up with SHIM (@shimartnetwork ) who are a fantastic online artist network who present exhibition opportunities through Artsy and we are directing TSDAP artists to them. We have more plans on the way with them coming up later in the year.

As graduating students, do you have any advice to creatives and artists about to go to University?

Julia – Take advantage of every moment you’re given. Utilise the creative people you’re surrounded by on a daily basis, it’s a situation you may never find yourself in again and the advice and support you can receive is invaluable.

Then what about you folks as a team – what’s next on a collective basis and individually?

All– Our work with SHIM and one day hold our first physical exhibition and achieve funding.

Nat– I’m working on my art criticism via my own website before I start an MA in Critical and Cultural studies in Leeds next year.

Alex– I am hoping to study Fine Art MA at Leeds Arts University whilst also working part-time. Working in the community arts sector is something I really enjoy and hope to continue.

Julia– I’ve decided to see how my artistic career will change without being in education anymore and act on the skills I’ve learnt on BA. I hope to find a studio space in Leeds to keep developing my practice and continue putting in my own group shows alongside applying for open calls.

Emma– I’m hoping to find a job as a creative arts coordinator, ideally working with inmates or former inmates, so I can gain the experience needed to study an Art Therapy masters.

Anything else you want to share?

All – We would just like to thank everyone for their wonderful support. We have been overwhelmed by the response from 2020 art graduates getting involved with us and we can only wish them the very best with life after university and what the future has in store.

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Thank you SDAP team – what a wonderful interview and how exciting to hear about your future plots and plans! Check out TSAP via their website and Insta and give them some love – they deserve it for creating this wonderful platform. Very excited for the next chapter and I’ve got a feeling, this is the beginning of something MEGA for this team – both collectively and individually!

All my love, The Culture Vulture xx

Interview with North East actor Andrew Finnigan – newly appointed Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Andrew Finnigan – North East based professional actor AND the newly appointed Customs House’s Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020. This news is hot off the press so I was buzzed to be one of the first interviewing him!

I’m working with the folks over at The Customs House for Takeover 2020 to champion the festival – you can read my blog post all about the Takeover HERE and find out more about it; but just to remind my fellow Culture Vultures, The Takeover is an annual week-long arts festival at The Customs House that is produced by, with and for young people. The festival is led, planned, marketed, delivered and evaluated by the Takeover Team, a group of 12-18 year olds, who are recruited from diverse backgrounds and have varying leadership and arts experiences. I chatted to two of this year’s team Harrison and James HERE.

 Takeover 2020 was set to happen May half term but for obvious reasons it has been postponed – so instead it’s (hopefully) something for North East young people later in the year to look forward to and enjoy; new dates are yet to be announced.

The Takeover Young Writer residency is an opportunity for an emerging theatre writer, under 25yrs old, to write a piece of theatre with young people’s voices and a North East narrative rooted at its heart. This piece will be staged at The Customs House as the finale piece of Takeover Festival 2020! The residency comes with support from the Takeover team and mentoring from a professional writer; this year’s mentor is the eminent playwright Tom Wells.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2019 – Elijah Young; you can catch up on that interview HERE. But now it’s time for Andrew Finnigan – I caught up with Andrew by phone and had a really good natter; I was super impressed that this is his first writing experience and got such a sense of bubbling energy, enthusiasm and talent. And his piece for this year’s Takeover Festival, sounds brilliant and I’m excited for him to share with you a glimpse.

So step right up Andrew, here we go go! An interview with Andrew Finnigan, this year’s appointed Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020. BOOM!

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Andrew Finnigan (Photo credit – Andrew Reed)

Hiyer Andrew – lush to digitally meet you! So can you tell my fellow Culture Vultures, who you are….

I’m Andrew Finnigan; I’m 23 and work primarily as an actor. I’m based in South Shields but kind of up sticks to wherever work takes me.

Textbook question – can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries?

Oddly it wasn’t a route; I didn’t even realise I was starting at the time. Me and my best were kind of forced into doing the school musical when we were about 13, but it turned out I quite enjoyed it so I started taking looking for ways I could get more into that kind of thing outside of school.

I joined the Customs House Youth Theatre when I was 16 and from there, started to appreciate theatre and storytelling even more. In 2016, I was cast in a play called Broken Biscuits, from an open audition where you didn’t need to have any formal training or an agent to go along; I had neither at the time. And that was the start!

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Andrew Finnigan in Broken Biscuits (Photo credit unknown)

Youre primarily an actor – can you tell me about the most recent production you acted in?

The last production I worked on was a Sam Steiner play, You Stupid Darkness!. It tells the story of 4 volunteers who answer the phones at Brightline during the a time when society is on the brink of collapse – the volunteers listen patiently, once a week, to outpourings of  stranger’s woe, offering the hope of connection – a hope they come to rely on just as much. You Stupid Darkness! had a five week run down at the Southwark Playhouse in London and actually finished up not long before the lockdown was put in place so timing wise we were quite lucky!

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Andrew Finnigan in You Stupid Darkness! (Photo credit Matt Austin)

So on to the main subject of this interview – Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2020 – HUGE congrats on being appointed! So lush to hear some happy news like this, during this challenging period – what prompted you to apply for the residency?

I’ve known about the Takeover Young Writer in Residence scheme since it started in 2018 but hadn’t considered applying as a writer!  For the application stage, you had to submit 10/15 pages of a script and a friend of mine said I should try and think of an idea and produce something. It was quite a nice low pressure way of working and felt like a well “why not?” situation.

Can tell me about the moment you found out and how it felt to find out you’d been successful?

I actually got the email telling me on the first day of lock down so I was really pleased I’d have something to work on. I was also hit with a sudden realisation that I had to actually finish writing it and that 10 pages was just the start, but the thought of finally seeing it on stage during Takeover 2020 really keeps me motivated.

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (Photo credit Sam Taylor)

This is the first piece of theatre youve ever written (exciting!)  – where are you seeking inspiration for your writing?

I’ve been using my time to watch any TV or movies that I feel sit in the same world as what I’m writing. I often think there’s nothing worse than reading or watching how an adult thinks teenagers act or talk, but shows like Sex Education on Netflix really seem to capture the awkwardness and goofiness of what being that age is like, so I’ve definitely been coming back to that for reference points.

Agree with the adult perception of young people depicted in media– it can be SO cringe! Can you tell us about your piece? A flavour of what it is about, the storyline and the vibe?

So, the play is called Cherryade Supernova. It follows Josie, whose mam has convinced her to throw a house party while she’s away in the hope that she can make some new friends. She throws the party and an array of different personalities show-up! The piece is really about Josie kind of navigating her way through the night as best she can. Vibe wise, it’ll hopefully be reflective of how awkward house parties actually were (or are!) when you’re a teenager and just the messiness of it all.

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Andrew Finnigan (Photo credit Rich Kenworthy)

I was the Queen of social awkwardness as a teenage so I can relate – sounds brilliant and absolutely love the name! How far have you got with writing and can you tell us a bit about your writing process?  

Currently I’m about half-way through my first draft. I’m going at a steady pace at the minute but I’m happy with the progress it’s making. Since I’ve haven’t written theatre before I’m kind of figuring out what kind of writer I am during this process; whether I work best writing chronologically or if I start with the scenes I see a bit more clearly first. It has just been trial and error really seeing which way fits me best. I have so far drawn a lot from my own life when writing too; injecting some of my own experiences at pretty tame house parties.

I know this is your first writing experience – but how do you think lock down has impacted your writing? Many creative folks are struggling with being creative and concentrating (I hear ya!), how are you finding it?

It has been a challenge but I’m starting to get used to it now. For me personally, it has been about finding my rhythm of when I get the best work done. I’ve found that I actually focus more later on in the day so I make sure that most nights I sit down and try and get some stuff written then. Not putting pressure on myself to get lots written each day helps too; if I’ve had a bad day and not gotten much down, I tell myself it’s okay – right now even half a page’s work is a small victory in itself.

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Andrew Finnigan in You Stupid Darkness (Photo  credit Ali Wright)

What are you excited about within the residency? What do you hope to get out of it?

Since I only really have experience being on stage, I’m really looking forward to being on the other side and seeing how it feels watching my work performed by others. I’m also so pleased that my piece is being directed by Abigail Lawson too. We worked together on Wormtown and I think she makes great choices as an actor so have total faith she’ll do an ace job when it comes to the play.

You just mentioned Wormtown by Reece Connolly – Takeover Young Writer in Residence 2018’s piece. I didn’t get to see it – as one of the actors who starred in it – can you tell me about the production and your experience?

Wormtown was Reece’s take on the old piece of North East folklore, The Lambton Worm. It followed a group of teenagers from stopping a giant monster wreaking havoc on their town. I’m a massive fan of sci-fi in movies and tv, so for Reece to make a piece of sci-fi theatre, it was something I hadn’t really read or seen before and he’s such a unique and talented writer so I feel very lucky to have been a part of one of his early productions.

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Andrew Finnigan in Wormtown (far left – photo credit unknown)

Sounds amazing! As part of the Takeover residency experience – you have access to a range of support and a mentorship – can you tell me a bit about that and how that is working so far?

Each year the writer in residency is paired with a professional writer as a mentor and this year’s mentor is Tom Wells. Tom and I have actually worked together a few times over the past few years and I’ve acted in two of his past productions, Broken Biscuits and Drip. We usually schedule FaceTime catch ups every couple of weeks where I’ll send him any progress I’ve made and we’ll discuss them over a cuppa.

When I feel I’ve hit a bit of a wall, it is nice knowing that Tom is there to give me advice on how to work through that. I feel like I couldn’t have been paired with a better writer, as Tom’s work is always so warm and playful, and that is definitely something I hope to mirror in my own writing.

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Tom is just brilliant – you’re going to learn so much! Like last year’s Takeover Writer in Residence Elijah Young, you’re an actor! Do you think your actor experience could make you a better theatre writer and maker?

I think it helps in the sense I’m seeing what I’m writing from the perspective of an actor too. Since the play has to accommodate eight actors, I’m always aware of having to juggle so many characters on stage at one time and not wanting a character just sat there without bringing something to the scene. I also don’t want it to feel like it’s overcrowded without purpose in the story.

It is hoped that your production, Cherryade Supernova will be shown later in the year (everything crossed!)- you’ve certainly whetted my appetite – can you tell me a bit about what you hope the audience experience to be?

I think the main thing I want is that the audience has fun when watching. I want people to have an experience where they maybe see a bit of themselves in some of the characters and have a few laughs in there too.

You used to be a part of Customs House Youth Theatre, you’ve performed as part of previous year’s Takeover performance and now you’re 2020 Young Writer in Residence! What do creative opportunities like The Takeover at Customs House mean to you?

Over the past 8 years the Customs House has become a second home so I’m dead pleased my play will be given a life there. There is real history in that building so to be able to add to that is really special.

I think the most important aspect of the Takeover is being able to give chances to young people who might not have had creative opportunities otherwise. It is rare you’ll find opportunities like this where you don’t have to have any previous experience or relevant professional training. The Takeover is all so inclusive and accessible so I think it makes it a lot less daunting to get involved.

Youre from South Shields – what does having a venue like Customs House mean to you? Why is it important to young people?

The most valuable thing the Customs House have given me is guidance and support; especially in a world where being an actor is considered “a pipe dream”. I think that is really important for young people, especially with creative subjects being dropped or overlooked in schools; the Customs House is somewhere for us to go and be encouraged to engage and develop without a sense that working in the arts is unachievable. I’m doing it!

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (photo credit Sam Taylor)

Are you a theatre goer” yourself? If so – have you got a production that you recently enjoyed that youd like to tell me about?

The last piece I watched actually was a video recording of Sea Wall, a monologue by Simon Stephens. It was a piece that was originally performed at the Bush Theatre in London in 2008 and then later recorded a few years later. It was put on YouTube free to watch for a short period during lock down; which I think is a great idea making it more accessible. It is performed by Andrew Scott (Moriarty in BBC 1’s Sherlock) who I just think is brilliant. He just melts into the part and makes it so quiet and truthful; it’s really moving. It’s definitely worth a watch if it’s still online. (It is currently available to watch here!)

Any advice youd like to share, to anyone like yourself this time last year, who haven’t written theatre before but curious about it?

I think my advice would be that if you have an idea, just start writing to get it down. Don’t worry if it won’t be read straight away by anyone else, just write for yourself and see how it feels.

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Andrew Finnigan in Drip (photo credit Sam Taylor)

Well thank you Andrew – really excited to see Cherryade Supernova and for Takeover 2020 – make sure you keep your eyes out for Takeover 2020 dates and come and see it! I will be there with bells on! It’s always such a pleasure to meet someone towards the beginning of their creative career on the edge of something brilliant and if you’re reading this and feeling creatively curious, please take Andrew’s advice about just getting started! If a global pandemic has taught us anything – it’s that life is too short to sit on something and wait; just get out there and have a go!

For all things Takeover 2020 – follow @CustomsHouseLP on social! For all things Customs House follow @theCustomsHouse on social too! I will be championing happenings and more features on Vulture so keep an eye out too!

That’s all for now Culture Vultures!

 

 

(#AD) a review of Ladybones – a theatre show about OCD & an interview with the brilliant theatre maker Sorcha McCaffrey

The potential power of theatre on audiences can’t be overstated enough; it can educate, encourage questioning, raise awareness, expose folks to new things, tells untold stories of real people, challenge perceptions alongside being a lush cultural experience… I feel like I’ve learnt more from the safe space of watching theatre, than from anything else in recent years.

Every so often I go and see something at the theatre and it really reminds me of that positive power and I walk away with so many thoughts, ideas, an altered state of mind alongside it knocking my socks off. Ladybones, a one woman show about archaeology and OCD by theatre maker Sorcha McCaffrey, has been one of my highlights of 2020 so far. What.a.show.  Ladybones is a theatre show that packs a punch, so well put together and really has such power.

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Ladybones tells the story of a young woman called Nuala is working on an archaeological dig and discovers the bones of a girl buried hundreds of years ago and, using her own experiences, starts to put life into the girl’s remains. The play is honest, brave, real, sharp, SO FUNNY (the sex scene!) and charts the journey of Nuala growing up facing super relatable things like dating, sex, work pressure whilst showing the descent into the grips of OCD “madness”.

Nuala draws comparisons between herself and the bones of the girl found on the dig – the skull she takes home; it both signifies the madness she is feeling alongside providing comfort and eventually symbolically leading to her release from the grips of OCD. The play is SO well written, moving and I fell in love with the character Nuala; her infectious personality, her engagement, the way she spoke to the audience and I was captivated – the way Sorcha has written the character and how she plays her, is just beaut – my eyes did not leave her through-out the performance.

(c) Alex Brenner

Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

There are two things that I really took away from Ladybones:

1. It really does communicate to audiences the reality of OCD and is a real depiction of mental health challenges. Through-out watching it, I thought of my own history with eating disorders and depression and how brilliantly, Sorcha depicted the human experience, intrusive thoughts and that snowball descent of feeling so disempowered, out of control and for lack of a better word  “crazy”. And yet – the show is so up-lifting and I walked away with a renewed motivation and passion to continue my own work with young people and mental health.

2. The power of good audience involvement and engagement. Through-out the show, the character Nuala engages with the audience, speaks to them and involves them in the story. Now as an introvert, audience participation makes me want to curl up and hide – but on entry to Alphabetti Theatre – you were asked if you’d be up for participating and if you were, then you could wear a pink sticker. I loved that idea and think it should be rolled out across other theatre shows. I did offer to participate, was pink stickered up, had to read out a passage as part of the story and it felt lush!

Ladybones is creating ripples across the theatre community and has been receiving ace, thoroughly deserved reviews. The show has paused touring – but will be back in the coming months and when it does, go.see.it. Keep an eye out for it touring. I had the lush opportunity of chatting to Ladybones theatre maker Sorcha McCaffrey after the show at Alphabetti – we had some lush chat about the show, it’s positive impact and I left determined to tell more people about how fantastic the show was and what TALENT Sorcha is; I was delighted when she agreed to a Culture Vulture interview.

So here it is – an interview with theatre maker, writer, performer: Sorcha McCaffrey

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Sorcha McCaffrey

For my Culture Vulture followers and readers – tell me who you are and how you’d describe what you do?

I’m an actor, writer and theatre maker from a Yorkshire village on the moors. I’m now based in Manchester, and I make theatre and tell stories. Ladybones is my first play.

Did you always want to be a theatre maker/actor?

Not at all – I didn’t realise acting or making theatre was something you could do as a job. When I was younger, I mostly wanted to be an archaeologist (hence the main character Nuala’s profession in the play) or a pirate (hard to get into in West Yorkshire, also not very practical/moral).

Be more pirate! Tell me about your journey into the creative sector and theatre making?

I trained as an actor at drama school and was temping as a receptionist between acting jobs to pay the rent. I would come home wanting to keep my creativity alive and write before bed – these late-night scribbles ended up becoming Ladybones. I’ve learned so much about making theatre with this project, and it’s been a brilliant chance to realise that you can create your own work, rather than needing permission from other people to be creative.

What projects/things were you involved in before Ladybones?

I have worked as an actor with the John Godber company, at Contact Theatre, and at Co:Lab Festival at the Royal Exchange Theatre. I’ve also been part of Young Identity spoken word collective, run by a brilliant poet called Shirley May. I took part in the Royal Court writers’ group in London, and these groups gave me the chance to see that my voice is valid as a writer.

So tell me about Ladybones – what’s the show about?

Ladybones is an interactive one-woman show about OCD, dungarees and being weird but not a weirdo. It follows archaeologist Nuala as she unearths the skeleton of an unknown girl. As she is sucked into the mystery of who the girl was, her ordered life starts unravelling. It’s about what it’s like living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it’s also funny and moving.

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Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

I was surprised how funny it was – lots of laugh out loud moments – the inspiration behind Ladybones is your own story and experience with OCD – can you tell me a bit about your OCD experience?

I’ve had OCD since I was tiny, maybe four or five, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 20. Growing up, my head was full of worries and patterns and scary intrusive thoughts – I used to wake my mum up in the night to check she hadn’t died. When I found out fifteen years later that the frightening spiral of thoughts and compulsions I was stuck in was actually Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it was a relief.

For years I had believed there was something deeply wrong with who I was, so to discover that it was an anxiety disorder I was suffering with gave me hope that I could have a better quality of life with the right help. I googled OCD and came across the charity OCD-UK, who really supported me. I found CBT therapy really worked for me, and my life is so much better now I’m not trapped by OCD.

Of course, all mental health experiences are individual – did you research any other folks OCD experience to develop the show?

I wanted to write from the truth of my own experiences, and I didn’t want to speak on behalf of other people, as individual experiences can be different and nuanced. However, it was really important to me that I represented OCD in an honest way so we  partnered with the charity OCD-UK to make sure we were coming from an informed place and also able to offer info and support to people who watched the show.

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Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

How does it feel putting yourself and your story on stage? How much of the personality of the character is you on stage?

Now it feels very liberating, but at first it was terrifying, the idea of vomiting up this tangled experience on stage without knowing what people will make of it. It’s been so heartening that people have connected with the character and her story. I’d say she’s a version of me with an added dollop of imagination. But the core of her is me.

The show is very funny (alongside poignant, captivating etc) – did you intend the comedy? Does writing comedy into theatre coming naturally to you?

Thank you, so kind! I definitely wanted there to be moments of real lightness and humour, as I wanted to bring the audience into the story and make them feel like they belonged in it. I think life is funny a lot of the time, even the difficult/upsetting bits, and I also wanted it to be a joyful experience for the audience. I wanted people to feel like they understand OCD more after watching, but without it being just a dark or preachy experience.

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Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

And I think you certainly managed that! I LOVED the movement element of the show and how you used the space (the “sex scene” was genius) – who did you work with to develop that?

My director Lucia and I worked on the movement – we wanted the story to feel like it was drawing you in and constantly on the move. The sex bit (lots of ridiculous jumping about and silliness) was a fun way to imaginatively play with the scene. The character’s thoughts are quick and jump around a lot and we wanted the movement journey of the play to reflect this.

I have a rebellious nature and activist soul – I felt like I saw that in you! Would you describe yourself as an activist?

You know what, I think I am beginning to, yeah. I underestimated how much of an impact theatre can have, and people have been so open in sharing how this show has changed things for them, whether it’s feeling less alone as someone with OCD, or finding hope for a loved one.

I think there is power in connecting with other people on a genuine level, and I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the response to the show we’ve made. I think if you are able to give an audience member something valuable, however small-scale that might be, it makes the project worth making.

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Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

Can you talk a bit about the queer element / themes in the show?

As a queer woman I haven’t always seen my experiences on stage or on screen, and I wanted to be genuine with the story I’m telling. Nuala’s sexuality is an important part of her but not necessarily the focus of the narrative. I think representation is important, and the more intersectional experiences that are put out there, the more open and empathetic we can become.

What do you want people to take away from the show?

I’d love people to come and see the show, have a laugh, be moved, and leave feeling less lonely than when they arrived. I want this show to give people a little chunk of hope.

(c) Alex Brenner

Ladybones (photo credit: Alex Brenner)

Do you have  any advice to people currently in the midst of their own OCD struggles?

OCD is so trivialised, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it can be horrendous and terrifying and exhausting to live with. I think if you can reach out to somebody supportive that’s a proper start, and OCD-UK are a brilliant charity that helps people and they really understand what OCD is like to deal with.

I’d also say although it can feel impossible, there is hope for recovery. Six years ago, when I was really ill I could never have imagined having a wonderful quality of life, let alone making a show about my experiences, but here we are. A delightful plot twist.

Where can people see the show next? Why should they see the show?

We are at Oldham Coliseum on 14th May, Square Chapel Theatre in Halifax on 15th May, and we finish our tour at Slung Low in Leeds on 7th June. Whether you have OCD yourself, support a loved one, or don’t know anything about it, come along for a funny and moving immersive hour that will change how you see mental illness.

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What’s next for Ladybones post tour?

This tour is as far as we’ve got in terms of plans for the show, so catch the last few dates while you can! It’s been amazing to take Ladybones to London, Edinburgh and all over the North of England and meet so many different wonderful audiences. We’ve also recorded Ladybones as an audiobook on Audible as part of a collection of new writing from the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe if you fancy a listen!

What’s next for you post tour? What else do you have planned for 2020?

A nap and a lot of toast. Then this year I’m working on a new play (a sort of postapocalyptic queer love story), some writing commissions, and I’m a supported artist at the Oldham Coliseum theatre. I’m excited for what comes next!

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Well thank you – Sorcha – I certainly feel like this lass is one to watch for the future. I can’t express how amazing the show Ladybones is and that you should go and see it. You can check out more about Sorcha on her website and visit HERE for the Ladybones trailer.

If you are reading this and identify with any of the issues discussed OCD-UK is a great organisation to connect with and reach out to.

Disclosure – I have not been paid for this post but I did receive a complimentary ticket to see the show.

Interview with Elijah Young – script writer, theatre maker, actor, Takeover’s Young Writer in Residence 2019.

Those who read my blog and/or follow my social will know that I’m working on Takeover Festival this year. You can read my previous post about Takeover festival, opportunities and call-outs for young people open now AND hear from Takeover Festival 2020 team members Harrison & James.

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The Takeover is an annual week-long arts festival at The Customs House that is produced by, with and for young people to develop and showcase their leadership skills. The festival is led, planned, marketed, delivered and evaluated by the Takeover Team, a group of 12-18 year olds who are recruited from diverse backgrounds and have varying leadership and arts experiences.

The current call outs are an opportunity for young people to contribute their creative work and/or to get involved and shape the festival. This year’s Takeover dates are 25th-29th May (get them in your diary!) & a five-day festival awaits for young people. Each year The Customs House is taken over by young emerging artists and arts professionals (25yrs and under) for a week of theatre, cinema, music, dance, poetry, hip hop and visual art.

But there is one call out in particular that is the feature of this blog post today – Young Writer in Residence 2020 . This call out is a fantastic opportunity for a current or aspiring theatre maker/writer to get their work from script to stage and seen! The successfully appointed Young Writer in Residence will benefit from mentoring from a professional writer alongside working on their piece and developing it for the stage within Takeover festival team and Customs House. The Young Writer in Residence’s play will be staged at Customs House as the finale piece of our Takeover Festival on 29 May (another date for your diary!).

Takeover Festival team are seeking submissions from a North East based young person, 25yrs and under and submissions should have young people’s voices at its heart, and a narrative that is firmly rooted in the North East. You can find full details about submission process HERE – and the deadline is Monday 16th March at 5pm.

Takeover Young Playwright in ResidenceNow I could wax lyrical about how amazing this opportunity is for a young writer – but I thought I’d interview last year’s Young Writer in Residence 2019 – who thanks in part to the residency has been making waves in the North East theatre scene, evidencing what an amazing platform this residency is. Elijah’s play Isolation (last year’s Takeover play) was shortlisted in the British Theatre Guide’s best of North East theatre in 2019 for Best New Play category. Elijah also won Most Promising Newcomer. BOOM! #ganon

I recently caught up with Elijah to find out more about his experience as Young Writer in Residence 2019, what he got out of it, what he’s gone on to do after the residency and why (in his opinion) other young people should apply for Young Writer In Residence 2020! Elijah and I have met a few times in passing but it wasn’t until last week at Live Theatre that I formally said “HIYER!” So without further ado – a Culture Vulture interview with Elijah Young!

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Elijah Young

Hi Elijah, please introduce yourself to my readers…..

My name is Elijah Young, I’m a playwright/actor from Teesside and I’m one of my parents seven loud and annoying children.

How would you describe the melting pot of all the creative lushness (writing, acting, day job?) you do?

What a lovely worded question! I’d describe it as a massive bag of pic ‘n’ mix, my day job being a mouthful of unwanted liquorice haha! I recently had a job in a panto as a skunk where I finished a show at one theatre, took off the makeup and raced across town in an Uber to see my play performed at a different theatre so yeah, a bit of a mixed bag.

Oh I hear you – Uber queen over here balancing MANY spinning plates! So tell me about what you were up to before being appointed as Takeover 2019 Young Writer in Residence?

I’d just graduated from the Project A acting course at Theatre Royal Newcastle and had a few jobs after finishing training. In the November of that year, I had my first finished piece of writing staged. That was my short play Fag Break and it was in ‘a 10mins to’… scratch evening at Live Theatre.

You do lots of acting on stage as well as write too – does one help the other?

Being an actor makes me a better writer, period. I like writing the sort of scripts that would excite me as an actor and that’s always something to refer back to when I’m reading a draft. I’m obsessed with writing dialogue. When I check if a scene works, I tend to record a character’s lines and leave the gaps in, for the other character and speak them out loud to hear how the rhythm of the dialogue sounds and see if it flows.

That is so interesting; how would you describe your writing process?

It’s chaotic and stressful but what keeps me calm and centred is that I always know how my play will start and how it’ll end. So, for me, it’s about getting from A to Z and figuring out what letters go I the middle.

Everything I do is pretty chaotic, I think it’s a sign of a true creative brain – How would you describe the types of subjects you write about?

I would probably describe them as personal because I put a lot of myself in my writing as I think all writers do. But before any of that, I want to make people laugh so I’ll always try and find humour no matter how depressing the subject matter is. You can imagine I was a very attention seeking but also entertaining child.

So let’s move on to Takeover Festival and your involvement in 2019. Had you heard about or been involved in Takeover before applying to be Young Writer in Residence 2019?

I hadn’t been involved but I heard about it as I remember literally everyone talking about WORMTOWN (Young Writer in Residence 2018 Reece Connolly wrote WORMTOWN). There was a major buzz about it and anyone involved were like the cool kids in school. It was, for sure, the hottest ticket in town at the time.

Why/what made you apply to be Takeover 2019 Young Writer in Residence and how did you feel when you were applying?

When I saw the opportunity I knew, despite how daunting it was, if I didn’t apply, I’d be utterly stupid. I think ultimately what scared me most was committing to writing a full-length play which I had never done before.

All brilliant, new things are daunting at first! The amount of call outs I’ve applied for that I’ve been excited and terrified in equal measure! Did you link up with Reece – Young Writer in Residence 2018 at all about WORMTOWN? Did you see it?

Yes! I got so much encouragement from him and I still remember our conversation after I’d seen WORMTOWN which is just mental because little did I know I’d be in his place a year later.

How did it feel pressing “send” your Young Writer in Residence 2019 submission?

Well I submitted quite late in the application process. I was really pushing it close to the time but that doesn’t surprise me as I’m such a perfectionist. Pressing “send” was actually a relief that I’d got it done.

How did you find out you were successful and what did that moment feel like?

It’s actually a really funny and lovely story because at the time I was with a guy, who’s now my boyfriend, but back then we’d barely been seeing each other for a couple of weeks. And I got this email and I’m in his living room suddenly shaking, screaming and jumping around and he’s stood in the kitchen baking and not knowing what to do with himself haha!

That is lush! So, tell us about your experience as Young Writer in Residence – what happened following being told you’d been appointed?

Things just sprang into action. I had a lovely meeting with Jake, the director and Fiona from the Customs House. I remember going to the toilet at one point and I did a five second dance party like a right dweeb.

I was then mentored by the talented and lovely Tamsin Daisy Rees who luckily was already a good friend of mine (and I was also a big fan). She made the process so easy, really took care of me and her advice was priceless as she has a brilliant eye for detail. We would have weekly updates whether that was a cuppa or a phone call and I felt proper looked after.

Being in the casting room was bizarre but lush as it was the first time I heard the script come to life. We took a really long time to cast it but our final decision on casting was the perfect fit.

I love that this residency not only provides a huge opportunity for a young writer like yourself but by having 8 characters, also provides a mega opportunity for aspiring and emerging young actors too. Did you feel daunted at any point with this being your first full length piece coming to life on stage with 8 parts?

Yes, a thousand times yes. It’s crazy to go from writing short plays for two to writing a full-length play for eight. But I also really enjoyed playing around with eight distinct characters. It would have taken me so long to dare to write more than three people in a play if it hadn’t been for the residency.

But it just felt like an incredible opportunity and I was awarded the residency when I was 20 years old which is just mental. I really see it as a major turning point despite being so early on in my writing career. In a lot of ways, I’m still reaping the benefits of that commission.

So, onto the piece you wrote as part of your Takeover residency Isolation – tell us about the piece?

Isolation follows the story of six students and the day they all spend together stuck in an isolation block at school. The day also a year since another student had killed himself. With that layered on top of them being in a small room together for eight hours tension starts to rise and eventually hell breaks loose.

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Isolation – Takeover Festival 2019 at Customs House

Isolation tackles some really complex themes which are so pertinent to many young people – what was the inspiration for the show?

The play originally was just two characters which were two young lads struggling with their mental health. The Young Writer in Residence opportunity then allowed the piece to be on a much bigger scale but it still carried similar themes. All the characters in the play have all at one point felt isolated and that’s something I think resonates with many peoples school experience.

Isolation received rave reviews – how did it feel audiences seeing your work on stage as part of Takeover Festival 2019?

Absolutely terrifying. I remember a friend saying before the show that he’d never seen me so nervous. In the end, the audience we had were so lovely and people were so kind to me after the show. Although nothing will ever top my Grandma saying “I’m a fan of your work”.

Nothing better than a proud Fam! What did you want audiences to take away when watching Isolation – did you have a “mood” in mind?

The way theatre is, an audience will take away whatever they want really but I personally like a hopeful endings. In saying that, I always want to create a sense of reality, I’m not into playing “happy families”. Isolation ends with Dale staring at the electric tea light and I like that simple representation that there’s a flicker of hope.

So, what happened to you and Isolation after the residency?

I started work on my short play ‘NASA lie the Earth is flat no curve’ (Which is the longest title I’ll ever have for a play). That happened in September at Alphabetti Theatre as a part Three Shorts and it had a week’s run which was the first time I’ve ever had a run. Isolation then went to Alphabetti in October for a week which was absolutely chaotic but completely worth it.

What are your next plans for Isolation?

Bigger and better is the plan! There is a theatre that is interested in taking it before it potentially tours and I’m unaware if I’m at liberty to say where but that’s very exciting! I’m definitely wanting to extend it as it was only an hour before and with there being so many characters it’s hard to say everything you want to in under an hour!

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Isolation – Takeover Festival 2019 at Customs House

Can you sum up what you learnt, professionally AND personally, during the residency?

I believe the Young Writer Residency taught me about the kind of playwright I want to be. I learned so much about my process and what matters to me when it comes to writing. I really see it as a major turning point despite being so early on in my writing career. I mean I was 20 years old when my first play was produced, how insane!?

And I’m still reaping the benefits from the residency!  From the success of Isolation, I’ve had a performing arts school contact me about studying it, I’ve been made an Associate Artist at Live Theatre and I’ve been offered seed commission from a theatre to write my next full-length play. I wouldn’t be in the position I am in my career without it.

As last year’s writer – do you have any advice to any folks, thinking or curious about applying?

They should apply because it’s not only brilliant but it’s the kind of opportunity that is unheard of for young writers in the North East. My advice would be to go for it, full throttle and really show why your story needs to be heard.

Why are opportunities like Takeover’s Young Writer in Residence important?

These opportunities are important because they kickstart your career. Also, it’s a massive learning experience to be mentored by another playwright. You can learn so much from them and I really did!

This year’s Young Writer will have Tom Wells as a mentor, how incredible!

I bliddy love Tom Wells! Do you think there are potential writers who would be perfect for this residency but are gigging actors or creatives who don’t see themselves as a potential writer? Any advice to them to spark that writing process?

I know a lot of actors who write but don’t realise they do. I was in a similar position when I was first encouraged to write. The beauty and the curse of being a freelancer in this region is that it’s hard to make a living off just one discipline but I don’t think there’s any shame in that. Being a writer doesn’t make me any less of an actor and like I say it actually helps that I am both. My advice is to test the water!

I saw a scratch of your piece Golden Daffodils at Live Theatre as part of Queer & Now 2020…Tell us about Golden Daffodils?

Golden Daffodils is an extract of a play I’m working on that was staged for Queer and Now scratch night as a part of Live Theatres first ever queer festival. It’s about the relationship that blooms (pardon the pun) between a woman and her new care worker.

Do you think you’d be writing and working on a play like Golden Daffodils if you’d been Young Writer In Residence 2019?

Golden Daffodils is actually my fourth commission since Isolation so a lot has happened in that time. I definitely feel the residency got me into just constantly writing and I’ve had something to always be working on since then which is a massive blessing.

What are the plans for Golden Daffodils longer term?

I definitely want to extend it. What you got to see was only a 15 minute piece and that relationship

between the two needs so much more time to grow. I love the concept and the characters but I’m also wanting to share more on the research I did about gay elderly women in care and I’m very passionate about getting that story told.

And finally, what else you got going on in 2020!?

A play I was commissioned to work on by Blowin’ A Hooley theatre company at the back end of last year has just announced its tour! The project is called Yarns from ‘Yem and it’s four short plays by local writers which tour to venues around the North East. My piece is called Biscuit Tins and it’s directed by Tracy Gillman. We had our first read through recently and I think it’s going to be a lush evening of theatre!

Ohhh I need to go and see that! And wow – what a year it’s been for Elijah Young last year’s Young Writer in Residence 2019 – sounds like the residency really did kick start his career! Young Writer in Residence 2020 call out is open now- all info and details HERE – and in Elijah’s words “just go for it, full throttle and really show why your story needs to be heard.”

Takeover Young Playwright in Residence