GUEST BLOG: Starting Again – My Love Affair With Theatre

Writer: Mark Smith

I am a theatre maker… Well, I was up until 2014 when I closed my company Spike Theatre. Based in Liverpool and formed in 1997 I started out as an actor devisor and was fortunate to travel across the UK and beyond, performing our brand of physical comedy on multiple tours.

As my family grew, I moved into directing and workshop facilitation; eventually taking over the reins fully in 2010 as Artistic Director. Spike at the time were the second-lowest funded touring company supported by Arts Council England. Between 2010-2014, I created three touring shows, three Christmas shows and continued to tour as performer in our long-form improvisation show, HOOF!

Post the financial crash in 2008 and the subsequent change of government led to numerous policy changes and cuts all under the guise of ‘Austerity’. We applied and were unsuccessful in our application to become a national portfolio organisation with ACE, which meant no funding! “Blimey” were not the words I used when I opened that email in March 2011. We kept going but without regular funding, it became clear that we could not continue as we had previously.

In late 2012 I secured a part-time position at the university I had trained at. Working a new job and trying to keep Spike afloat was becoming untenable – something had to give. So, in April 2014 we closed Spike, we said goodbye with a sell-out show of HOOF! at The Unity Theatre in Liverpool. But that wasn’t the end, it takes a huge amount of energy to shut down even a small company like ours. There were accounts, bills (lots of those), archiving, donations of equipment (nothing went to landfill) and then I stopped…

In the stillness post-closure, I realised that I had been grieving – mourning the loss of my job but also my identity. I was angry, embarrassed but the overriding emotion was fear. When would I create again? Could I? Spike had been my life since the age of 21. It took time and thankfully I had some good people around me who helped immeasurably. In the time after closing, I have found new passions outside of theatre and this balance is now far healthier for me.

I am passionate about theatre, but it is not all-consuming now. I have space and differences which is great. If you follow companies or producers on Twitter as I do, you will have seen a huge rise in anxiety caused by cancellations due to Covid. To those who are experiencing this all I can say is take some time for yourself, speak to someone, and don’t do as I did and hideaway. Sometimes you can’t control everything, sometimes all you can do is just your best. This may sound glib, as I know you are in crisis management mode at the moment, but when this passes it will catch up with you. How you respond if something isn’t right is the key.

A big emphasis of my time at Spike was the support of new and emerging artists, many of whom have gone onto forge careers such as Amanda Stoodley who two years after having first worked for Spike won the TMA award for best design or Chris Tomlinson who is currently associate director (YEP) at The Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. I threw myself into my teaching job with a similar ethos supporting and training the artists of tomorrow. I take great satisfaction and joy in seeing how those I have worked with are making waves in the theatrical world such as Gitika Butto (Director) who most recently opened The Jungle Book at The Storyhouse in Chester or Grace Gallagher and Rachel Smart founders of Ugly Bucket a theatre company that mash-up verbatim and clown or Liz Barker (lighting designer and community activist) who co-founded March for the Arts and is currently working for Homotopia or the Tik Tok stars Courtney Reynolds and Sammy Gray aka @Grayskitz’s. I still have the privilege of working with some fantastic theatre-makers in training and love this part of my life. We have collectively pushed the envelope of what is possible theatrically, learning together in adapting, devising, reimaging classic texts, and making stuff up (improvisation).

I continue to be creative in my current employment, but something has been gnawing away at me. In this time, I reflected on what was important to me, what I enjoyed most about theatre. Perversely the pandemic has forced companies and venues to think differently, to take risks. Those venues that did like The Unity Theatre in Liverpool became beacons for local artists, launching numerous new initiatives including the sharing of digital content. I have really valued companies who shared their back catalogue of work often for free like Spymonkey, Told by an Idiot as well as the National Theatre. I have started to watch more online content, taking chances on work I would not have been attracted to ordinarily.

What excites me most is the creativity generated through restriction, those who have really thought about the relationship between themselves, and their audience have really captured me. Long may this access continue, it was great to see the seed change brought about by the Art Council England’s strategy document, proudly emphasising the value and the importance of a genuine relationship between the venues, companies and their local audience. The drawbridges have subsequently come down, but for how long? Who knows? but it does feel far more collaborative, and venues are talking to and working with their communities. This is the honeymoon phase, and I hope this will blossom into a long-term relationship.

Running a small-scale theatre company is all-consuming, every day I would write a list of things to complete, and I would never seem to tick them off. It has taken me nearly seven years, well six, but the pandemic threw a major spanner in the works to get to the point where I felt the confidence and drive to go again, to put my work out into the public sphere. It is exciting and scary in equal measure.

I want that buzz of working with a group of people in a space with an idea that might work or not. I love sharing new work with audiences, the dearth of new work in the past decade has been detrimental to theatre in my opinion. Finn Kennedy’s report In Battalions released in 2012 described the response from industry and the risk of producing new work – unfortunately, this has been borne out in my experience. There are always, of course, those that buck the trend but these are few and far between. New stories from voices we are unfamiliar with is how theatre evolves, we are starting to see a change and long may this continue. I would never have described myself as a risk-taker but setting up a new venture in a time in which theatre is in such a perilous state is precarious. In taking risks I also acknowledge that I am also happy to fail and in doing so I leave myself open to learning, to fail better.

I’m sure if you are still reading you are asking what are you going to do then? I have created a company called Wing it – Impro and Stories. Firstly, I want to pass on some of the things I have learnt over my 25 years of theatre making. I have two classes running from October through to early December (10 weeks) and these will extend on through into 2022. These are in Long-form improvisation (taught face to face in Liverpool) and in solo storytelling (online) – these are my two great passions. Secondly, I will be creating some shows. Each show should be similar but never the same, it should respond to an audience and vice versa – a two-way process in which both are open to the moment in essence we are ‘Winging it’ together.

I am working with some amazing collaborators who when I talked through my ideas they said, Yes. When is it happening? And so, we have our first storytelling show The Bunker (Halloween edition) which will premier across the Halloween weekend (29-31st of October). This is storytelling for adults and will be told using live music, shadow play and foley (live sound effects) – this will not take place in a theatre but in ‘The Bunker’ of The Liverpool Arts Bar. Why? Because the other thing I really love to do is transform a space and turn it into a world which people have not experienced before. I am fortunate to have the support of Alex Medlicott, Tom Wilson and Jordan Bucknall founders of The Arts Bar who have bought into this vision.

As for 2022 there are further plans afoot, the development of an Improvisation festival for Liverpool, a new spontaneous theatre show called Honesty? developed in collaboration with immersive artist Sarah Hogarth, live streaming of work and further storytelling collaborations. It may work, it may not, what matters to me is that my passion is back to take the risk.

For further information on classes, shows and ticket information please visit www.wingimpro.com or follow @wingimpro

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