Intrigued by sounds of music and laughter, we were drawn into Contact's rehearsal room last week where we found the cast and artistic team of I Am Because We Are preparing for the start of their Greater Manchester tour.
We chatted to Alix Harris, the show's director, about working in unusual spaces, respecting people's stories, plus top tips for budding theatre directors.
Have you always wanted to be a theatre director?
I think I was always going to end up doing it. When I was younger I wanted to be a drama teacher, because I wasn’t really sure how you would actually have a career as a theatre director. I do perform occasionally but theatre directing is definitely what I am most passionate doing.
So, what tips do you have for young people wanting to pursue a career in theatre directing?
Seek opportunities to shadow other Theatre Directors, not necessarily in an assistant director role but just to see how different spaces are run. Also one of the best things I did was spend time working with choreographers. How a choreographer runs their rehearsal can be really different but its really useful to have a look at a different art form, you can learn a lot. Also I would say go and watch as many different types of performance, not just theatre pieces, as you will then begin to have more of an insight into the arts world in general. Finally don’t try and be your favourite Director, you will never be them take bits from them as inspiration and craft your own identity.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the projects you’ve worked on before this one?
The last show I directed was called Who’s looking back at you? It was a research and development dance-theatre show. In this project we gave an opportunity for an early career writer and choreographer to be mentored by a professional writer and choreographer. We worked with 5 performers to create a piece of work set in an art gallery about the importance of who is looking back at you, particularly in photography and our past. We are hoping to tour this piece next year. I also worked with some young people this year using fairy tales to explore the Me Too movement and the Windrush scandal. The majority of the projects I work on are responsive to current issues going on in today’s society.
Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on in the past?
I’m not sure it was my favourite, but the show I made last year Mixed Grill was definitely a challenge, but good fun. We cooked a curry during the show and that was definitely a huge learning experience touring a show with food! I guess I would also say one of the projects I am part of is an international project which has meant getting to travel internationally, I always learn so much from people and how they make theatre. Though, I probably should say that this project is definitely going to be one of my favourites!
Is every project very different, or do you have any go to techniques or approaches that you find work in any situation?
Every project is very different, you can draw on past approaches and techniques but the outcome will be different. I devise a lot of my work so I always have a toolkit to work with, but when you work with new people that always brings something different and adds more ides for the next project.
I am because we are isn’t touring traditional theatre spaces, but to community venues across Greater Manchester. What’s the most unusual space you’ve ever worked in?
I guess I would say a place in Plymouth called Royal William Yard, I’ve done two pieces of work on that location for site specific performance, one of which included being buried (not fully) in soil for 20 minutes before the audience arrived to that area of the garden.
I am because we are uses real people’s experiences, does that add any extra challenge or level of responsibility when translating it to the stage?
Absolutely, we have a responsibility to ensure that the stories are treated with respect but also to not be afraid of the stories artistically. Theatre enables us to create images that don’t exist within our reality but that resonate with what the stories are telling. When working with real people’s stories its important to find a universality so that everyone is able to connect with the story regardless of the subject matter so there is sense of humanity.
This is obviously a serious subject matter. Are you able to have some fun when working on a show like this, or is it a very serious process?
I think maybe you should ask the office next door! We are a very loud team. Warm up and games is a really important part of this process and ensuring that we play together and that has created a lot of laughter. We have created a safe space but it is important to find joy through the work. Although the subject matter is very serious there are many moments in the piece of work which make you smile and I think that’s really important. I hope that people see that through the piece and take that with them. So yeah the team is great, I am really going to miss working with them.
Presented by Contact and BHA for Equality, I Am Because We Are is a new play written by Cheryl Martin, based on the testimonies of people living with HIV in Manchester today.
I Am Because We Are will tour from 8 – 21 October across seven Greater Manchester boroughs, with venues including churches, community centres and drop-in centres for refugees and asylum seekers.
Funded by Public Health England.