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INTERVIEW: 10 Minutes with Deborah McAndrew

Deborah McAndrew is best known in Yorkshire for her multitude of successful plays for two companies: Northern Broadsides (most recently last year’s award-winning An August Bank Holiday Lark) and Mikron Theatre Company. The Public Reviews’ Ron Simpson talks to her about her next play One of Each, which opens at Mikron’s Marsden Mechanics base on 2nd May 2015.

How did your association with Mikron come about?

I’ve known Peter [Toon, Producer for Mikron] and Marianne [McNamara, Artistic Director] for many years because of their association with Broadsides – they’re part of the Northern theatre mafia! When they took over Mikron, they knew they had to reinvigorate the company and bringing in new writers was part of that process. They invited treatments on set subjects – that year it was allotments and the Luddites! I put a submission in on allotments and they commissioned it. It was the beginning of a set of three plays, an accidental trilogy.

In the allotments play there was a beekeeper – and I’m actually a beekeeper, so the following year Marianne asked me to write about bees. I stayed on the allotment with some returning characters, then last year the subject was very general – food! Because of characters I’d had in the first two plays, I knew if I was going to write a third play, it would be about ice cream, so that became the third play in what is now the Thistledale Trilogy.

How did One of Each come about?

I thought that might be it after the third play. Marianne and Peter are developing new writers, but last year they weren’t quite ready, so Marianne said, “Would you do me one more?” They gave me the subject of fish and chips, and actually it’s turned out to be quite different from the others. It’s a cultural subject – if you’re British, the chances are you’ve eaten fish and chips. I came at it from that angle because there’s not a lot of social history – you can write about growing potatoes if you want to, but it’s not really very interesting. I made it more about an island nation. I’ve brought in a lot of very British things, with characters from all four countries which I’ve never done before – it’s always been very Northern. When you eat fish and chips, you’re putting an island nation on a plate! I’ve drawn a lot on Shakespeare, not in terms of iambic pentameter, but in little borrowings: there are three supernatural women, a shipwreck, twins…

How is writing for Mikron different from other theatre work?

It’s a difficult brief to write for Mikron because you don’t have any facility other than four actors. The set is minimal, they have to play outside in white light and have to be quite full in style because of the setting. Mikron doesn’t generally deal with complex psychological reality, but ideas, comedy, song, political issues and social history. With Mikron you need a framing device to help you squash all that social history into something that people can get into straightaway. My first play for Mikron was a love story, my second a murder mystery and my third a quest. This time the Shakespearean borrowings give a framework and the key character pinning it all together is a journalist because, if you’re going to have fish and chips, the best way is wrapped in newspaper.

The four actors have to play many parts. If you only have four people in a play, that tends to be one room, very intimate, very deep and searching. But these plays have a broad sweep – a historical sweep, so there’s a lot of doubling and a lot of hat-changing. So, when you’re writing, you have to think, “If he just went off, can he do a quick change into somebody else, does he need to pick up an instrument?” and you try to build that into the script, so that, when the director gets it, he’s got some kind of help in the mechanics of getting the play on.

You mentioned songs. Tell me about them.

Mostly original, but I like to put in one traditional folk song to connect back to its roots. I write the lyrics and they fit with what we need for the narrative. Songs have always got to move the story on – you can’t just pause and have a song. This year the music is written by Rebekah Hughes who is musical director for the company. The accompaniment is whatever instruments the four actors can play.

You always strike me, apart from your creativity, as very practical in your approach to writing plays. Most of your work has been for companies with a distinctive style. For instance, An August Bank Holiday Lark is a wonderful play, but I can’t imagine it being written for a company other than Northern Broadsides.

In that case the brief was very particular and I knew who I was writing for. I try to fulfil the brief I’m given and I try to give them what they need in the practical terms of performing.

Next up is a play for my own theatre company about being a child during the miners’ strike which will be performed in schools in Stoke-on-Trent. That’s my brief there and I’ve been talking to people who are about 40 now, who were about 10 during the strike in mining families: what was it like, what happened to them, what stories have they got to tell, how did it feel, how did it affect them?

Also coming up, I’ll be doing a novel adaptation for Bolton Octagon, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. That again will be a conversation: what do you want, how can we make it work? I am an actor and the process of theatre making is a very practical thing to me.

Do you have time to do any acting now?

Not very much, just some radio drama. Now I’ve also got my own theatre company in Stoke-on-Trent, Claybody Theatre. The claybody is what pots are made of and I’m in the Potteries, but it’s also the form – when a teapot is made, that’s called the claybody, the shape as well, so there’s something about making pots that’s like making theatre – both practical and creative! I’ve just got some money from the Arts Council to create a site-specific play at an old pottery that hopefully will tour at a later date. Claybody Theatre happened by accident.

I wrote a play called Ugly Duck and put it on myself. It went so well that we did it the next year in the New Vic Theatre – and suddenly I had to create a theatre company to put it on. Then everybody went, “What are you going to do next?” So I find myself running a theatre company with Conrad Nelson (Deborah’s husband).

What started the transformation from actor to writer?

The adaptation of The Bells for Northern Broadsides about 11 years ago was the very first one. I had always thought I would be a writer and I wrote some little things at Manchester University and in my early years as an actor, but I never stopped working. Once I’d got my first job in Coronation Street and then left to work in the theatre, I was hardly ever unemployed for about 10 years. I was moving around and touring, then I got into my early 30s and my daughter was born and I didn’t want to tour any more, I wanted to stay home and look after her – and at that point, literally, it was a switch overnight, I changed all my focus onto writing.

It took a couple of years knocking on doors and handing out scripts, then a few different avenues opened and I got a few connections. The Bells came about because Conrad wanted to do it and he was trying to find a writer to adapt it from the original melodrama which is great, but a bit clunky, and he wanted to do something more expressionistic. He couldn’t find anyone to do it. I was very familiar with the play because I studied under one of the experts on melodrama in this country, Professor David Mayer. I was talking so much to Con about the play that in the end he said, “Deb, you do it!”

The tour dates for One of Each (which stretch out to October!) contain a lot of unusual venues. What can you tell me about them?

It’s a Mikron question really – theatre everywhere by rail, road and canal. It’s the company’s mission to bring theatre to unusual places. They’ve built a very loyal base of venues who want the company to bring their plays every year. Mikron started playing allotments with the allotments plays. The lovely thing with One of Each is that we play fish and chip restaurants (the Wetherby Whaler at Guiseley on May 6th and at York on May 7th). When I wrote the ice cream play, I went to see it and there was an ice cream seller in the entrance. When people were coming in, nobody paid him any attention. In the interval there was a queue a mile long! I guarantee that people will walk out of One of Each wanting fish and chips on the way home – or, at the Wetherby Whaler, they’ll all want their interval fish and chips.

You can find details of One of Each tour by visitingwww.mikron.org.uk

Image Credit:by Kimberley Watson

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Charlotte Broadbent. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.