Market Theatre, Ledbury, Wednesday 25th February 2015
In autumn 2013 I was amongst a select audience who saw one of the first two performances of Milked (in Ledbury). Although the play had been produced in a very short space of time (a month I believe) the actors got inside the skins of their characters and told a story all too familiar to me.
At this time I was working with young people in further education and recognised the language used, and lack of work opportunities, that many young people face in Herefordshire. Added to this, when my children were growing up we lived half a mile from Simon Longman’s home at Staplow, often walking along the very same canal path running through that tunnel of overhanging trees beside the dried up canal, which also ran behind the cottage where we I lived for 17 years.
While Paul and Snowy seem to be polar opposites in their home lives and educational prospects, their experience of making the transition from childhood to adulthood is equally stark. This mirrors the experience of both my children who, at aged 19, headed for the city lights, work, excitement and ‘life’. The ‘good life’ that many parents seek for their young children carries the risk of isolation and lack of opportunity as they grow towards adulthood. Simon captured this poignant transition perfectly as the characters unfolded.
Oliver and Adam’s capturing of the youth, language and anxieties of their characters was pitch perfect, the tension between humour and pathos keeping the audience on the edge of laughter and sadness. The gradual unravelling of Paul’s efforts to find work, any kind of work, while Snowy’s future was decided by his father, was painful to see and beautifully crafted. Once brash Snowy, with his awareness and love of nature, was movingly portrayed, as his dawning acceptance of the path chosen was spelled out to him. Herefordshire’s connection with the SAS was reflected in his parent’s back story.
The new set worked so well, minimalist, cleverly designed and deceptively simple. Each scene offered up craftily hidden props which were scattered around the stage as the story unfolded, eventually leaving it looking like many a young adult’s bedroom floor! Placing Sandy off stage was a stroke of genius because it included the audience into the narrative. We had no choice but to imagine what was happening to Sandy and I can say that looking down the barrel of a gun was an interesting experience! The denouement, whilst darkly comic, left a feeling of hope for both Paul and Snowy that they would find their separate ways in life.
Clearly Simon has made his way in the wider world but he has not forgotten his Herefordshire heritage and, for those left behind in this rural idyll, we thank him.
Last summer I completed the only marathon that matters – the final day of the Pentabus Young Writer’s Festival, where I saw the work of 8 young writers properly brought to life by a ridiculously talented creative team. I’d been a part of a few development schemes before, but I'd never experienced anything like this - 8 young writers had a proper week-long run, to proper audiences, with proper professionals... 8... I remember someone saying: ‘It’s been tough work, but we’re kind of all or nothing here – we strive to get stuff made’. And so I fell in love with Pentabus immediately – their ethos, camaraderie, enthusiasm and body of work is invigorating – and I wanted to be a part of it so much, I walked around begging people to let me sweep up or move a chair. I think most of them thought I was a local weirdo. What I'm trying to say is: Pentabus are do-ers, and their enthusiasm is infectious, and they completely inspire me, so I’m beyond chuffed to be the next Writer in Residence, and hugely proud to be part of this remarkable theatre’s next chapter. I think Simon Longman is one of the best writers in Britain, and I’m honoured to be following him into the role. I’m really looking forward to working with new writers, directors, actors and fellow do-ers, and, beyond everything else, I can’t wait to start writing a new play under open skies and in real country dark. I also can’t wait to move a chair as an official Pentabusian. Pentabus is an incredible company, and I feel very lucky and happy to be supported by them and Channel 4.
2015 Writer in Residence
I’m not the best at writing about myself and things like that. In fact this is the first blog type post I have ever tried to write. It is very difficult. So when Crayg asked me to write a goodbye type post it took me a while to work out what to say. I’ll try in some way. I’ll keep it simple and try and do justice to Pentabus, who are amazing.
To start with, that’s the most important thing to stress: they are amazing. They constantly ask questions of what theatre should be doing. Not just in the rural sense, but in terms of how it should be used to engage communities and tell new stories. They constantly want to be better. To be more open to more people. To include. My year as Writer in Residence with them helped me in so many ways. But thinking about it now, the main thing that I keep coming back to is the company itself, and what Pentabus are doing, because it is incredible.
I saw this first hand when they were developing the tour of Rory Mullarkey’s brilliant play, Each Slow Dusk. Although I had nothing to do with the planning of this tour (aside from floating around asking annoying questions like “how’s the booking going?” and “have you found the actors somewhere to live yet?”), watching Elizabeth, Rachael and Crayg put it all together kind of reaffirmed my faith in how important theatre is. I saw first hand Pentabus’ continued commitment to it. A commitment to packing up a play, putting it in a van and taking it to people who live in rural communities far away from big theatres and limited by rising costs of basic transportation.
Being sat in a room trying to write a play which isn’t an incoherent mess (still trying), it’s hard sometimes to see beyond what you’re trying to write. And, for me, why you’re even writing it at all. But seeing Pentabus work; seeing them piece together how to get plays out to new audiences; seeing them work out how to drive an entire production in a van from Norfolk to Cornwall in a day; seeing them listen to local people and how they welcome everyone into the building, all that was one of the most rewarding and inspiring things that being part of the team brought me. Seeing all that kind of makes you think that the frustration and self-confidence breakdowns that trying to write a play brings is actually worth it. Because people might see it. Especially people who, unfairly, don’t get to see new theatre as much because of something so basic as geography.
The Young Writers Festival was also a massive highlight. What other theatre company would make a promise to a group of 16 to 24 year olds of ‘Whatever you write we will produce’? Pentabus did that in the summer, which was amazing to be a part of. To see a sell-out audience watch those plays was, again, another reaffirmation of theatre as a way of trying to understand what we are doing with our lives, and how difficult they can be a huge amount of the time. Working with the young writers, organising and running the workshops was also hugely rewarding. In the end they probably taught me more about my own writing than I did to try and help them with theirs. But to be a part of bringing those plays to life was really inspiring.
There’s been loads of things this year that have made being with Pentabus so rewarding: going to Edinburgh with the gang; attempting to collect the complete World Cup Sticker collection with Elizabeth (the forever elusive France team sticker still haunts me); sitting in a room with everyone watching Raheem Sterling nearly score a screamer against Italy (weird that my only highlight/memory from England’s World Cup campaign was essentially a missed shot…); cheap beers in Ludlow pubs; a castle on my doorstep; cycling (very slowly) up Shropshire hills; fixing many, many punctures; writing.
And one of the best things about this whole year is that Pentabus have won the Channel 4 Bursary again to work with the wonderful Joe White, which is amazing. I’m sure when Joe is asked to do the same thing as me with this goodbye-type-post a year from now, he’ll struggle as much as I have to put it all into some kind of coherent context, because there’s kind of too much to say. I went back to the start of the year to try and think what to write. And found that when Elizabeth asked me to write a little paragraph at the start of the year about working with the company, I said that I hoped I could justify their faith in me and help them in some way to continue their commitment to bringing new stories to new audiences. I hope I’ve helped.
It’s odd that the year is over now. I got to ride my bike a lot and had a room to write in. I was very lucky. It went far too quick. But I guess that was the only way it could of gone, working with a company as supportive and beautiful and fun as Pentabus, to which I can only say the biggest thank you ever.
2014 Writer in Residence
I came to Pentabus theatre not really knowing what to expect. A well-established company that tours around the country with award winning shows and is home to award winning writers, I was understandably a little nervous about meeting this organisation. These nerves were doubled when on the first day I got entirely lost even trying to find them instead ending up at a racetrack then a golf club and then a church. However, upon being warmly greeted by the team all my fears melted away. After a tour around their old school house in the country and the offer of a hot drink I felt very welcome.
I was very keen on being able to observe their company and how it ran, watching all the ins and outs and nitty-gritty parts so I could understand the industry a bit more. I was therefore grateful when the team opened their arms fully to let me in and experience it all. It was a busy time at Pentabus with their production of Each Slow Dusk in its final weeks of rehearsal as well as playing host to My Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story over a weekend. This did not stop them from very kindly answering all my questions and chatting to me about each of their individual journeys that brought them to the company. It was not just the delightful Racheal, Elizabeth and Crayg that I met, however. The company took every opportunity to introduce me to everyone that passed through its doors; their writers, their performers, collaborators, production managers, designers and even their audience members all of whom were a joy to meet. I’ve always enjoyed listening and learning from people’s experiences and from my time with Pentabus I am leaving with a wealth of knowledge.
The company treated me to a number of wide ranging jobs from mocking up postcards and updating websites to packing, painting, journey planning and allowing me to sit in on rehearsals and their creative meetings. I was also lucky enough to help them create a set of benches that could be taken on tour and after stressful cutting, laborious stuffing and my useless attempts at stitching I wish them many years of use as I hate to think of the team having to do it all over again! This of course was nothing in comparison to the work the team was undertaking every minute of the day to keep the company running smoothly with admirable cheer.
It was a great treat to spend time at Pentabus and being able to observe their phenomenal administration team as well as brilliant artistic output both of which make them such a remarkable company. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer group of people to spend time with but I’m sure if I had they would have gone out of their way to make it happen.
Thank you very much Pentabus.
“You’ve turned up in our busiest week EVER at Pentabus” – the words that I hear within minutes of entering the Pentabus building. This doesn't dawn on me straight away until suddenly I'm logged onto a computer and straight away editing the Young Writers Festival programme. This is followed by making 'opening night cards' and sorting tickets for this weeks showing of plays. "Van unload!" - a rush of props pass through the building: beanbags, plants and a taxidermy fox- umm okay?!
Inevitably I had lots of questions to ask and the wonderful team answer every question I throw at them with interest and enthusiasm for their job. Rachael, Crayg and Elizabeth were all brilliant at making me feel comfortable in the company. I have complete admiration for what they do, without their complete commitment to this unique company, there would be nothing to 'woop' about rural areas and theatre.
Tea count: 5 mugs.
The second location for this week was the Charlton Arms. Here I had the chance to watch tech run throughs of various shows. I guess you always assume that the hard work comes from the actors, but there are also all those people working behind the scenes: directors, sound, lighting, writers, managers, producers. After only a minute of watching rehearsals I have taken into account the amount of people there are involved in putting on a performance. I don't need to take notes, I don't need to ask questions. I just soak it all in.
Tea count: 12 mugs.
So I'd seen the leaflets, read the brochures and made the programmes. Are there really talented young writers in Shropshire? Of course! I was fortunate enough to see 4 plays this week, from the dreamers, to reality, comedy and prejudices. Each play pulled on different parts of my life. A particularly relatable part of the play VULTURES was a market stall. For me as a youth of Ludlow I will find myself playing around the market with mates on summer evenings and yes you always get that certain look from an individual that says, 'isn't there anything better you could be doing with your time?' In my head I respond with 'actually have you looked at any work young people do recently?' -Young Writers celebrated the next next generation and the talent they have to offer!
Tea Count: 17 mugs.
The Young Writers work and Pentabus as a company generally has shown me that rural theatre is an open space to explore and make into your own by drawing on your own experiences and developing them into a form of art that many people can interpret and relate with. Over the last few days I have been inspired to start writing myself and I may even be brave enough to join the Young Writers Group.
Tea count: 24 mugs.
Truthfully though, I couldn't have asked for much more from a work experience placement. I have left with a wider understanding of the industry and a new mature view on working life.
Thank You Pentabus! You Rock!
Elizabeth Freestone: We’re about to produce a theatre marathon. Eight new plays written by eight new writers. Four directors working on two plays each. An ensemble cast of ten actors. Three designers, two stage managers, numerous volunteers. Rehearsals are underway. The fridge is stocked with milk and the biscuit tin is overflowing. Someone’s even bringing their dog.
Two things are unusual about all this. One is that we’re a small theatre company with just three permanent members of staff. We normally produce two or three plays a year, so to do eight in one go (as well as our three other productions) is pretty epic. The second is that these eight plays are written by playwrights aged between 16 and 25.
Last summer I did free playwriting workshops in schools and colleges all over Shropshire. I met over 100 potential young writers. From these we put together a core group of eight who became the company’s first ever Young Writers Group. Since then, they’ve met regularly and had workshops with Simon Longman, our playwright in residence, as well as working with actors, directors and guest tutors such as Phil Porter and Francesca Millican-Slater. During this time they’ve also been writing their own plays. I’ll be honest – we didn’t expect to put them all on. We thought there might be one or two that would be good. We thought a couple of writers might not deliver. We thought we might do a weekend of readings, perhaps produce a short piece or two and that would be that.But as we got to know the writers it became clear that not only could they construct a scene pretty well, they also had a lot to say about the world. We realised they were all going to write something and that that something was going to be important. So whatever we did at the end couldn’t be a soft offer without a culminating moment. The writers were willing to take the risk. The plays demanded an audience. So it was up to us to match the commitment.
These writers are an unheard generation. Growing up in a largely rural county. Lacking access and opportunities. Frustrated by poor transport and sluggish broadband. Watching major cultural events from afar. Bombarded with urban iconography. Not seeing their lives represented on screen, in music or on stage. Broke. They’re also witty and intelligent. Comfortable with big skies and big thoughts. Mature and unselfconscious. Easy with meaningful friendships built on profound solidarity. Straightforwardly funny, untroubled by self-censoring irony. With big imaginations and playful instincts. Strong in their skins. Unafraid of the night. Self-reliant.
So they’ve come out fighting. Their plays are bold, funny, strange, sad. Their writing is about friendship, fuel poverty, love, unemployment. They examine what happens in small towns when one friend escapes to university and one stays behind. They write about what’s it’s like to declare your sexuality when you live in a small community. They are honest about what you resort to when you can’t find a job. They tackle the huge problem of drugs in rural towns and talk about ways of escape. They acknowledge beauty in all its forms. They confess what they dream of and how they might make it happen.
In doing this they are unwittingly continuing a proud tradition of radical ruralism, built on the foundations of the Peasants Revolt, the Diggers, the Reformers. They are instinctively political because they grew up in an environment which naturally positions them as outsiders. They are underdogs, separated from the city elite whose decision making influences their lives. But they are also emboldened by a sea change happening in the creative world, where all kinds of artists are realising that making work outside of urban centres is creatively liberating. The countryside is fascinating, troubled, unpredictable, inspiring. Urbanism (whisper it) is proving to be a cultural dead end, a repeated aesthetic, a peer group talking only to itself. Bands recording on farms, writers on retreat, rural touring all over the county, visual artists making large scale earthworks – there is a vibrant and growing rural arts scene built on genuine ingenuity and experimentation with form. Most excitingly, the work is made for real audiences – sophisticated, politically aware, living the recession in a way that urban audiences are protected from it – who are hungry for more. Shropshire really is more interesting than Shoreditch.
Our young writers – Rory Boar, Jade Edwards, Jack Purkis, David Scotswood, Cara Squires, Nat Vaughan, Tom Wentworth and Michael Wild – represent the daring new voice of dissent coming from the countryside. They are proud of where they’re from, un-blinkered about its problems. They look at images of the rural world in the mass media and they don’t recognise what they see – The Archers, Emmerdale, the Chipping Norton set, Escape to the Country.That’s not the world they know; it’s what cities have imagined for them. They see beauty alongside isolation, green alongside pollution, space alongside poverty. So they’ve seized the opportunity to write the truth, to give their experiences cultural worth.
Tom Wentworth: The countryside can get forgotten when it comes to the arts. Rural towns and villages lose out to cities. Opportunities in rural areas for young people to explore the world around them can be severely lacking. This is why Pentabus’s Young Writers’ group has been such an innovation. Elizabeth Freestone invited us to come to Bromfield (just outside Ludlow in Shropshire where Pentabus is based on a farm) and spend two hours every three weeks talking about writing, whilst receiving workshops from tutor Simon Longman and various guests too. This would culminate in writing a full length play. It wasn’t an opportunity I was going to turn down.
Growing up in Shropshire I was aware of the impact that Pentabus’ work has on its audiences; I knew they were a company who were willing to take risks. There was no brief other than to explore the things that really mattered to each of the writers. This has created a diverse and unusual set of pieces, ranging from comedy about not being able to find work, to an exploration of coming out at school. They are all different in style but are connected by their shared focus on contemporary rural society and what it means to be young in Britain today.
I can’t quite believe that, as I write, that we’re coming to the end of the rehearsal period. It seems only five minutes since I first pitched my idea to Elizabeth. In the case of my play – Windy Old Fossils – I knew that I wanted to write a play about what it was like to be elderly and isolated in the countryside. I also wanted to write about renewable energy – and try and make it funny at the same time.
Elizabeth and Simon’s initial notes were slightly daunting. They felt that I was underselling the idea, and suggested I might take my comedy, with its cast of four, and turn into a two-hander with a darker edge. Now I had to take a risk of my own. But I was delighted by the challenge and thrilled that they believed so much in two of my characters, brother and sister Ted and Lizzie. Two weeks later I handed in a completely new play, which is when Windy Old Fossils was really born. Further drafts followed, a few more tweaks, and then, Elizabeth came on board as my director and was able to bring her own thoughts, feelings and emotions to the piece. It has been an amazing process. The performers, Joanna Bacon and Ian Barritt, bring so much life – and humour – to Lizzie and Ted and they and Elizabeth continue to find new things in the play that surprise me.
To my mind Pentabus is making great and significant strides in ensuring that rural audiences get access to work that shows their lives on stage, while also allowing artists from these areas the chance to make this work in a safe and creative environment.
First Published on Exeunt Magazine 27 June 2014 - http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/writing-the-rural/
The Ludlow Fringe Festival starts this Saturday, marking culmination of the Young Writers Group at Pentabus HQ. We’ve all come a long way, eaten a lot of cake and have learned a lot from professional playwrights, directors and from each other. In his blog post ‘It’s Not Over Until The Curtain Falls’ Tom talked very eloquently about how much of a difference the chance of having our writing professionally produced has made to us along the way. Now, after almost a year of hard work, we’re seeing the dream realised and our words are making it off the page. Starting from this weekend our plays are to be showcased in front of real people who aren’t blood relatives. I’m proud, a bit nervous, and very excited for the upcoming festival.
As well as our stage plays, each of us has written an audio play that was recorded in a London studio last week by actors. The preview is now online [link], and offers a glimpse at the scope and variety of stories that have come out. All eight stories are very different but they combine to make one interactive theatre tour: Stories from the Street. If you haven’t been to an audio play before, they’re a great, interactive way to experience theatre. Last year Pentabus produced In This Place which had the audience walking up the Stiperstones with headsets and two earfuls of memories of the Shropshire Hills. Having the stories spoken right into your ears is a strangely personal and direct way of being told a story – one that literally puts the listener in the centre of what happens.
The Stories from the Street are discoverable with a map and a set of headphones. The stories are inspired by different locations that each of us has chosen and the route will take you through the town on an alternative sightseeing tour. Either alone or in a group, and at your own pace, you can hear about Ludlow’s criminal underworld, its stranger moments of history, and gossip from its inanimate objects.
To take the Stories from the Street tour of Ludlow during the festival, pick up a headset from the Fringe Office on Castle Square. The tour runs from 9 – 5 every day between 14th June and the 6th of July.
Each night, we asked audiences in Ludlow, Worcester and Much Wenlock to share what they thought of the show with us. The responses and overall reception has truly blown us away. Here are some comments from the feedback forms:
‘Absolutely brilliant. I was so absorbed in the story. Would recommend to absolutely anyone – people who would normally go to the theatre and those who’d never.’
‘Enjoyed it very much. Good mix of humour and more serious side of depression whilst remaining thought provoking and not trivialising a serious issue.’
‘Excellent lead actor, moving, funny, wonderful music, original, highly enjoyable.’
‘Frank. Beautiful. Interactive. Engaging. Important subject and emotions to deal with.’
‘I absolutely loved it. It was great to be involved and feel part of it.’
‘Very good. Emotional and funny at the same time. Thought provoking – I wish it was a bit longer!’
‘Never seen anything like it. Loved the involvement.’
‘I thought it was fantastic. Honest, real, funny, massively thought-provoking and moving. Quality.’
Last stop on our rural tour: Jubilee Hall, Whaddon.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and stories with us.
We are thrilled to announce our Archive is now settling into its new home at the Shropshire Archives
Following a grant of £2,000 from the Business Archives Council, we have been able to employ a professional archivist to work on the collection. Sal quickly became one of the team working with us 1 day a week from our base in Bromfield. After Sal’s initial survey we discovered we had a larger archive material collection than initially envisaged, including the past 40 years of shows, company archives, posters and original art work, music recordings, photographs, touring information, videos and DVD’s. The majority of Sal’s time was therefore consumed with the actual physical archiving of the collection and completing the accession of the collection. We were able to catalogue the whole collection to a detailed level, rather than just a summary collection as originally envisaged, which was a testament to the quality of Sal’s work in her assessment of the collection.
We also worked with some fabulous volunteers to digitise photographs, map our touring output and generally ensure all our records were up to date. The archive catalogue will be made available on the Shropshire Archives online catalogue on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website (http://search.shropshirehistory.org.uk/ ) We very much enjoyed having the benefit of a professional archivist within the team to increase our own knowledge and skills. Likewise, Sal is now very knowledgeable on the history of Pentabus and also attended our current theatre shows during her time with us, and has become a new theatre convert!
You can read more about the project in our full report here
Sal stated of her time with us: “It’s been a delight working with Pentabus to help bring this fascinating collection to life. The project will, I hope, not only ensure the long-term preservation of this unique record spanning 40 years of Pentabus, but also help to generate interest in its potential to throw new light on the development of the performing arts in this period.
How you can help
We are still looking for further volunteers to help us add to the past productions section of our website, and the whole collection is just waiting for a University Student to use it as part of a research piece or dissertation project. If you are interested, just get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
It's Not All Over Until The Curtain Falls - Tom Wentworth
It seems five minutes since I was nervously arriving at Pentabus for the first time wondering what a new Young Writers’ Group would have in store. Cut to last week and we were all sitting round having our last session almost a year later. It’s been a great roller-coaster ride of workshops, talking about writing and exciting exercises designed to provoke responses (and terrify!) It may have been our last session but it’s far from over yet…
The thing that a writer wants most, especially any emerging playwright, is to see their work actually performed. It’s a small thing but it makes all the difference. We’re all used to useful but seemingly never-ending weeks of Research and Development on a project or to finding that companies will commit to (again potentially useful) script in hand or staged readings of the work, only to find that for some reason your carefully crafted play never makes in front of an audience without you self-producing. But how can we possibly learn to hone our craft further without seeing the work performed?
Well, thankfully that’s where Pentabus come in! This July, each member of the Young Writers’ Group will see their play performed in rep by a company of actors; get the chance to work with a director and design team who will bring our plays to life on stage. It’s a fiercely ambitious project – bringing 8 new plays to audiences in a pop-up theatre space over five days – but I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of it!
It’s certainly been an exciting process, through first and second drafts, receiving excellent notes from Pentabus’ Channel 4 Bursary Playwright Simon Longman and Artistic Director Elizabeth Freestone. Often notes can be clouded in mystery leaving you with more questions than answers but these were truthful, direct and retained a sense of freedom. Mine in particular were also fairly big, which resulted in a brutal but joyous rewrite – plus many cups of coffee and biscuits! However, Simon and Elizabeth gave me the freedom to write the play that perhaps I hadn’t dared commit to paper. It’s certainly not perfect but as I wait for the next set of notes I know that I can trust in the process and I’m looking forward to seeing it, alongside the other wonderful plays, on stage in July. (Plus a very exciting audio experience which runs throughout the whole of the Fringe Festival.)
Pentabus has truly given us as writers the greatest gift – their support and trust in ourselves and our work. Alongside production, this is what a writer also needs; a company who believes in their voice and what they want to say. One of the great benefits of this Festival is putting a rural story in front of a local audience. Growing up in Shropshire I have been looking for a home for this idea for a long time. I am pleased to say that now it has found one.