Welcome heckles and laughter: a community tour

A re-post from Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night after a month performing and touring.

I’m in a disabled toilet in a leisure centre in the far North reaches of the city, getting changed for a performance on a Sunday afternoon. The comforting smell of chlorine filters in, that warm heat that only happens in municipal pools. Children’s feet patter bare along tiles outside.

Round the corner, along a corridor, up a ramp is a room full of people in the light open space of a community cafe waiting for me to tell some stories. Do a show. I’ve already been given a sandwich and had my pound coin forced back on me after buying a homemade chocolate cupcake. The audience is made up of some 20 people, just under half are young children. The stories I’m telling are not aimed at young children. I stand and  let the audience know that I’m going to take them through the night, in hour, with lots of small stories that they might drift in and out of, want to leave, or get up.

Early on in the show, the infectious laugh of a four year old spreads through the room, he asks what I’m doing in the small actions I make and after about 40 minutes, he asks his mum, quite reasonably, when it will finish. She takes him to the back of the room where he plays outside in a small garden area with his sister and she stands in the doorway one eye on him, one eye still watching the show. A group of teenagers sit facing away engrossed in computer games. I watch a woman hold closer on her half asleep son as I tell a story about violence. A young father with his arms wrapped firmly around the son on his lap. One of the woman in the cafe kitchen starts talking loudly about stock during the penultimate story, someone else turns and tells her to be quiet. She tells me, later it was ‘all right, actually, you know, I just had to get up and do stuff before I fell asleep.’

Afterwards the kids play with props, tap at the microphone and help move sofas back to the space that had been cleared for the performance, we are given more cup cakes to take home. I’m asked how I remember all those words and I laugh at the familiar question and I think- this is how it should be.

I’ve been heckled about having big hands (I have relatively small hands), slept through, talked through, hugged, questioned, laughed with and at, welled up with audience members, been told what is and isn’t story telling, praised in ways I didn’t expect, whooped at, applauded and been treated with disbelief. I’ve had my words interpreted into actions and mirrored the gestures. I have been very aware of my own privilege in even getting to stand up and say things I’ve written. As a 35 year old woman, I danced to Taylor Swift in a room full school children. I accidentally dropped a bible in a church and set off a fire extinguisher in a converted swimming pool.

That Sunday, in that community cafe, was the final performance of a month long run of shows starting in The Door (small studio space) at Birmingham Rep and touring across Birmingham and the West Midlands to community spaces, libraries, cafes, church halls, a school, The John Taylor Hospice, West Brom YMCA, Birmingham Deaf Cultural Centre amongst some as part of The Sir Barry Jackson Tour. This tour is funded and produced by the Rep and The Sir Barry Jackson Trust who’s principle activities are ‘to fund the advancement and improvement of education in drama and theatrical production and to develop the public’s appreciation of such art‘.

That this trust and the tour still exists as it continues to subsidise performances for communities and spaces making many of the shows I did free and open to the public, is, in this current climate, a small, rare and good thing. Though I am reliably informed it does not come cheaply. But it did to the people that watched it. I saw the people that ran and supported these venues, spaces and communities, tweet, Facebook, cajole, escort, bribe with cake and knock on doors to get audiences in. Those numbers ranged from a beautifully intimate 12 in the back room of a newish community cafe to 40 plus in a larger spaces and libraries and over 60 school children. In one performance I would have had more numbers but the majority of the audience that were expected were stuck in a broken down coach outside of Banbury on the way back from a trip about WW2.

When we are struggling to make the arts feel relevant in turbulent times, while battling with ways to make more income by producing commercially successful shows, performing as part of a tour that isn’t historically about ‘bums on seats’, but about where it is being performed and who it is watching it, gives space for that audience at that time. I am however speaking from the secure position of being paid a fee and not reliant on box office incomes. I don’t know of a lot of other tours that are run in a similar way and I may never be in that position again.

The sentiment that this performance is for these people in this room at this time is one I strongly believe in but sometimes forget as I chase stars and validation from trusted industry sources. When I started making Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night it was not a show I anticipated would go on a community tour, it was show that I quietly said to myself and my producer was probably going to be my one for the arts audience. This was after a series of commissions; archive driven based shows with particular audiences firmly in mind. I set out to make this show challenging for the audience, for me. Something that would work in the boundaries of the arts community. That they would understand. And it isn’t that challenging, not really, not in the grand scheme of things. But I do tell stories that don’t always finish, that are snapshots of loneliness, disconnection and decay, that ask the audience to do work, that aims to provoke questions about sourness, selfishness and kindness of human nature. With a little bit of hope. It is not a show for everyone.

Stories…’  was a risk for myself as a performer and for the tour. It is not a play. And I follow in the footsteps of well made plays on that tour. There were times I looked at an audience and I thought that they would prefer any one of my other shows. Perhaps something safer like my show about women in WW1 where there is singing and costume? Or the one about the history of my flat in Birmingham, complete with Karaoke? But I patronisingly underestimated the audiences; there was a want and a surprise in being entertained, provoked, seeing something different, talking about it after, what it , even was, in all the venues. Just to be sat and told stories is a treat, said, one woman. An older man lamented the loss of story telling as TV took over. Sometimes some people didn’t like it, they got bored, it wasn’t for them. And ,of course, that hurts the fragile artist ego, but on the other hand. Good. Here’s something, and it’s not for you. But something else might be. I’ll learn from that as a performer and a maker. Sometimes people liked some stories and not others. I’d capture them for minutes then lose them in a second.

It has made me more robust as a performer, less precious; often I wasn’t the sole interest, I was in their space just a bit of entertainment as part of a night or an afternoon out, to see people, check in with what is on offer. And being in someone else’s space is crucial, a place that is safe, familiar to them, not a space that is mine, not the quiet and politeness of the theatre, but a space where life, coming and goings carry on because it is their space. I’ve learnt to carry on going, to just tell the story, to stop worrying about the people that aren’t listening and concentrate on the people that are, that people watch things now with mobile phones in hand, commenting vocally as they go. How theatre has been before, not sitting in the dark marvelling at greatness. And that everywhere I went, there were people together being part of something and looking out for each other.  People from different places with different beliefs to mine. Dedicating time and effort to other people. Which really is the crux of the show, just to be more connected, look someone in the eye, hear what they say, look out for each other a bit more.

The last show of that tour was very different from the first show that was performed on the opening night at The Door. It has filled me with ideas for shows and thinking about different ways of performing and telling stories in different spaces and communities. And that work I thought I’d made for an arts audience ended up working differently, but just as well, outside of a theatre in halls and churches and hospices. In a well lit room, a man in a supported chair who I’d convinced myself hated the show, told me it was ‘like watching his life story on stage’. Called it observational poetry, and I thought yeah, that’s enough for me, I feel like I’ve done my job.

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