Image: Actor Gordon Poad who played all 3 men in the Under Us All theatre production marktaylorphotography.com
Under Us All was a collaborative project between Michael Richardson, a PhD candidate at Newcastle University and Cap-a-Pie, a theatre company specialising in community engaged work, which aimed to share Michael’s research into men of Irish descent living in Tyneside to a non-academic audience. The team wanted to explore how theatre makers and researchers could work together to create art that shared research ideas and how the public would engage with this work. The team developed a new one-man theatre production, presenting the testimonies of three generations of a Tyneside Irish family. The director Gwilym Lawrence was struck by the honest, lucid reflections of these men and decided to keep their words intact – employing verbatim theatre to ensure the voices of men, who were rarely represented culturally were allowed to shine. The aim was never to imitate or impersonate the three men. Having created the script the same freedom and techniques in animating them were employed as with a fictional piece of theatre. Subsequently, the relationship between the characters in the performance and real men of Michael’s research, whose words they speak is a complex one, but the performance was ultimately inhabited by three original, three-dimensional, living, breathing characters. The performance was thoughtful in its use of spaces for performance. The piece was shown mostly in small community venues. The team promoted the show to local audiences through venue staff and volunteers, as well as interested community organisations.
Working with The Audience Agency (arts marketing and audience development consultants), audience segments were identified: the Tyneside Irish Community, North East history and amateur history groups, South Tyneside Community groups, academic researchers, students, theatre audiences (especially those interested in innovative/ new theatre) and finally theatre makers and creative practitioners. Alongside the performance were workshops enabling audience members to access their own experience theatrically and learn more about how social scientists might use this data. For the Under Us All workshop, specific groups were identified to target the workshop at. These included a local genealogy project, the creative practitioner network at Northern Stage, older people who use the Customs House venue, and performing arts students. Workshops were targeted at each venue to the identified group’s need and wants.
Early in the project all partners developed very collaborative and open relationships - one of the great strengths of the project. To ensure the team maintained good working relationships throughout all parties blogged about their thoughts and experiences, allowing different perspectives to be appreciated and ideas shared. This reflective working created a positive, collaborative attitude throughout leading to more experimental and collaborative work. To address the outcomes relating to audience development audience demographics and comments were collected with the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences. This fed into an analysis prepared by Cap-a-Pie that effectively addressed the outcomes and fed into an audience development strategy for future work.
Altogether, Under Us All was shown to 231 people over five performances between May and December 2013. The piece had allowed people to access the experiences of others, including those of different ages and backgrounds. People stated they had been enlightened about others experiences, and also that the piece allowed space for them to relate the participants lives to their own experiences. Michael has written about the academic rationale behind his pursuits in a recent article in Social and Cultural Geography, which you can read here.