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Recover Restart Reimagine Artwork

Why we’re supporting Hull theatre workers to Recover, Restart and Reimagine

By | Artist Development, Artistic Director, Blog, Uncategorised
Recover Restart Reimagine Artwork

Artwork by Joseph Cox

By Paul Smith, artistic director

This time last year I wrote about how Middle Child were going quiet for a bit so that we could make more noise in future. A lot has happened since then, with more uncertainty crammed into a 12 month period than I can remember at any other point in my 34 years. During that period Middle Child, like all of us in the arts, have had to try new things, find new ways of working and try to keep hold of our purpose as the world twists and turns. It has been, without doubt, the hardest period in our company’s 10 year history as we – a company who exist to bring people together, celebrate liveness and fight for the underdog – lost projects, lost our home and, truthfully, lost everything we knew how to do. Speaking personally, the year has taken its toll, leading to a crisis of confidence, of purpose and of “is theatre really the best way we can put something good into the world?”

But with this introspection and amidst all of this uncertainty comes a unique kind of clarity. A clarity around values. Around why we do what we do. Around the decisions we need to make. And it is these core values that have guided the way for Middle Child throughout this entire pandemic and which have led us to each and every decision we have made along the way. They were central to our decision to start a fundraiser for freelancers who had lost income, our choice to introduce flexible working to our organisation and our decision to continue employing freelancers and investing in people throughout the pandemic.

They are also the cause of areas of hesitancy, caution and nervousness. They tangle us up in knots as we try to navigate complex issues and they dominate our conscience as we try to grow as a company in a way that feels “us”. Our values are what we return to when balancing creative ambition, financial sustainability, politics, morality, health and safety, work-life balance and straight-up uncomplicated ego. They are there when we consider whether to apply for the Cultural Recovery Fund, whether to put the panto online, whether to take over this new building or that one. When all else is dark it is these values that light the way and lead us onwards. And so, in deciding what to do next and how we ‘re-emerge’ from the pandemic we must do so guided by our values. 

As a company whose guiding vision is for a fair and equitable world, where anyone’s story can be told and heard, it is clear that we simply cannot stand by and risk losing a generation of theatre workers either as a result of a pandemic or because of an industry that continues to be built to work only for a select few. And so we got to work.

On 11 March this year we hosted a day online, which we called Imagine the Future, that brought together a group of brilliant freelancers from theatre and further afield to help us consider four questions:

  1. What do you need post-pandemic?
  2. How do we better support freelancers?
  3. How can we be more inclusive as a city and a sector?
  4. What should an arts hub look like, feel like, what should happen there?

It was an incredible day, full of brilliant ideas, generosity and a conviction that things can be better. We listened, learnt and were left with an overwhelming number of great ideas for what the future could look like. We felt the weight of those conversations, and also of those that weren’t had, of those who weren’t there. We felt energised by the potential of our action and tired by the thought of its scale. We were inspired by possibility and overwhelmed by choice. We looked at the list of suggestions with optimism and then at our budget with pragmatism. A few things became clear:

  1. We can’t do everything. Not yet anyway.
  2. We can do something. 

And so, what we are announcing today isn’t the “Middle Child 20 Year Action Plan for a Better World”, it’s simply our next “something”. It’s a something based on the listening, learning and reflecting we’ve been doing over the past year, and we truly believe it will make a genuine difference and is gently radical in its own way. And then one day soon we’ll announce another something, and another something and another something

Recover, Restart and Reimagine

From both our Imagine the Future day and some of the wider reading we’ve been doing, such as from Freelancers Make Theatre Work, it’s clear that there are calls for deeper, more meaningful engagement with freelancers, a call for more equity and power to be distributed to freelancers, and a call for an investment in people, rather than projects. Our Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme is built on these three pillars and designed in response to an acknowledgment that the past 12 months have led to a loss of confidence, income and opportunity for freelancers across the sector. 

Everyone at Middle Child is determined to contribute to a sustainable reimagining of our industry following the impact of the pandemic, and our first offer to this end is a partly-curated, partly-self-led programme, which will last for three weeks, paying 12 Hull freelancers £1,500 each to come together to rebuild confidence, develop skills and take stock. 

The programme, which runs four days per week, 9am – 6pm, from 15 June to 2 July, represents a space to think, breathe and play without the pressure of coming up with an output. It is designed to inspire, stretch and develop participants in a safe space, which acknowledges what we’ve been through and the impact on our work and our practices. Everyone involved will be paid for their time and also benefit from a wide range of free workshops, masterclasses and training alongside group time, individual time and free time. To partially quote one of our Imagine the Future post-it notes, it’ll be a bit like Byker Grove meets a Rocky montage, but with a spa soundtrack.

The first week will be dedicated to recovery with a focus on wellbeing, self-care and reflection. Week two will focus on restarting with time to refresh skills, make plans and try something new. Week three will be all about reimagining, with time spent envisioning the future, dreaming about what it should look like and putting actions in place to make it happen. Alongside all of this run a number of recurring events, from group play readings and coffee mornings to skill sharings and open discussions. We’ll create our own haven fuelled by respect, curiosity and care.

Our ambition is for these three weeks to be transformative for all who take part with participants leaving feeling ready for the battles ahead but not burnt out by deadlines or pressures of output. 

We would love to hear from people who live and work in Hull and who contribute to making theatre in any way, be it through acting, directing, designing, stage managing, producing, composing or any other role you might find in a show programme. We want applications from those we know and those we don’t, from people at the very beginning of their career to those who’ve been around a while. We welcome and encourage applications from everyone regardless of their age, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, disability or nationality.

We are a PiPA (Parents and Carers in Performing Arts) partner and are always happy to discuss solutions that allow people to balance caring responsibilities with working lives, for example through sharing a place on the programme or a flexible attendance arrangement.

You can apply because you know exactly what you want from life, or because you have no idea. We’re as interested in chaos and confusion as we are in clarity and certainty. Our application process is simple and straightforward, and all we ask for is honesty and for you to be yourself. In line with ongoing efforts to decentralise power and decision making in our organisation, choices around selection for this programme will be informed by an advisory panel of freelancers. 

This programme is representative of our ongoing desire to offer practical solutions, and take action to return with renewed energy for an improved theatre industry. We believe this radical programme, which invests in people, rather than projects, represents a good first step in doing so locally and is a meaningful investment in the freelancers upon whom our work depends.

We will continue to listen, take stock and lead necessary action across other areas of our company to improve what we do, and how we do it. There is much more happening in the background that we will talk about when we can, but for now we hope this programme is an exciting offer, which is proof that we will turn words into value-led action as we build a better future together.

Artistic director Paul Smith wins Olwen Wymark Award

By | Artistic Director, Awards, News

Middle Child artistic director, Paul Smith, has today been recognised for his “exceptional encouragement of theatre writing” with an Olwen Wymark Award.

The gongs are handed out every year by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), with the winners nominated by WGGB members.

Long-time Middle Child collaborator Luke Barnes, who has written All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Weekend Rockstars and Ten Storey Love Song, nominated Paul.

Luke said: ”Paul Smith is the best thing to happen to me as a writer.

“When I was young Paul and I met, in Newcastle, and we talked about John McGrath and he mooted the idea of making work that talked about the biggest ideas as a good night out of theatre.

“This was the starting place for me finding my voice, my art, and my purpose.

“Paul is the most generous person I know in theatre”

“Not only has Paul shaped the way that I see the world and how I see theatre, he has also pushed me to think bigger than I ever would have given myself permission to.

“He has given me the self belief to know that, no matter what privileges I exercise, I can be useful to the communities and audiences I serve.

“He has taught me that the audience and the people that our buildings, organisations, and art, serve are bigger than us.

“He has given me confidence, activism, and artistry and continues to every time we collaborate.

“Paul is the most generous person I know in theatre, to artists, to communities, to audiences; and people like Paul go unnoticed and it’s my privilege to nominate him for this award and to see him win it.

“I hope he carries on inspiring writers for work for audiences and communities for decades to come and that as many people as possible benefit from knowing him like I have.”

“Working with writers to develop new plays is one of the best parts of my job”

The Olwen Wymark Awards are the brainchild of playwrights Mark Ravenhill and David James.

They were set up to give WGGB members the opportunity to publicly thank individuals, rather than institutions, who had given them exception encouragement in theatre writing during the past year.

They are named in honour of playwright Olwen Wymark, passionate supporter of WGGB and former chair of the WGGB Theatre Committee, who died in 2013.

Paul Smith said: “I’m really delighted to win this award as working with writers to develop new plays is one of the best parts of my job.

“Middle Child, a company I co-founded in 2011, exists to support, champion and showcase the work of brilliant playwrights.

“In my work as both a dramaturg and director I aim to put processes and practices in place to support writers to tell the best version of their story, and Luke’s nomination for this award feels like recognition of that approach.

“It’s been brilliant working with Luke to create good nights out with big ideas and his work has massively informed my own over the years.

“He is an incredible writer, person and friend and I simply wouldn’t be where I am in my career without him.

“I’d also like to express solidarity with all freelance writers in our industry at this difficult time, and can’t wait to get back to working collaboratively to bring plays to life soon.”

The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime - Sarah Beth

Christmas, coronavirus and… panto in Hull?

By | Artistic Director, Blog, News, Panto
The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime

By Paul Smith, artistic director and joint-CEO

Somehow it’s already that time of year. You know the one? Where we dust off the rat puppets, cobble together an under-rehearsed yet well intentioned finale and let our dame, Marc Graham, run wild on Hull audiences. But it’s not quite the same this year, is it?

Nothing’s quite the same. Instead of excitedly planning this year’s family Christmases or work parties we’re sat wondering what’s going to be left

It’s just Christmas” some people say, but really it’s about more than that isn’t it?

It’s about seeing family and friends. About seeing kids’ faces light up. About belting out some Wizzard with strangers on Whitefriargate, while dressed as a Christmas pudding. And for us at Middle Child it’s about panto. Usually it is, anyway. But not this year. This year we haven’t said a word about panto.

Panto.

That much loved tradition that is, frankly, a bit odd, but a lot special. Where else in this stressful, anxiety-inducing world do adults and children alike come together to share in such unbridled joy? To cheer and boo, laugh and cry, hope and dream together, all while watching a dame dressed as a milk bottle tearfully sing to two actors bent double in a cow costume? 

We love panto. 

For us it’s what all theatre should be: totally devoted to its audience, woven into the fabric of local communities and able to magically transport us away from the real world, into one of magic and wonder. 

But this year it is the very nature of panto that makes it so challenging to realise. The things we love about it have become a barrier to it happening at all: being together in a space with loved ones and strangers, being noisy, being close, singing along, dancing together, avoiding the dame’s eye contact, being dragged up on stage, flashing our wands, rustling our sweets, elbowing granny to wake her up and reliving our favourite moments together in the interval.

It’s about connecting with other human beings through a story that is ridiculous and silly and soppy, but full of searing hope and belief.

It’s everything we’re already missing.

So why haven’t we said anything about panto? Why haven’t we been bombarding you with posters and trailers and ticket offers?

Nigel Taylor dressed in yellow with a blue baseball jacket and fish hat with his hands on his hips

I guess you know why.

In every good panto there’s a moment where all looks lost and we have to dig deep to believe we’ll get to the ending we’re all hoping for. 

We’ve been stuck on that plot point for a while now, hence the silence. Honestly? We didn’t want to say it out loud. That panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens and has happened for the last eight years, from our beloved Fruit to the last two brilliant years at Jubilee Central. 

We’ve had an inkling for a while now.

The nature of our show is proudly intimate. It matters that you (yes, you) are there with us. If you shout out we will hear you. We will respond. Your voice matters. You being in that chair matters. So, frankly, right now a live panto simply isn’t an option for our humble show. The production usually ‘pays for itself’ and without your support, there is no panto. We don’t use celebrity casting to bring in audiences. We rely on word-of-mouth. We rely on the hard work of our incredible local cast and crew. We rely on you, coming together and having a great night out. 

So I guess this is us saying it out loud. 

Panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens.


But that’s not the end of the story. Like all good panto heroes we’re refusing to accept defeat when the odds seem stacked insurmountably against us. We’re trying to find a way up the beanstalk, to the ball, through the enchanted forest. But there are challenges lying in wait and the ending is truly uncertain.

So what we want to do at this point is be honest with you. Tell you how it really is.

We aren’t going to be able to bring people together in a space to do panto this year.
We’re really sad about that.
Like, really sad.

But, we’re trying to do something else. Something digital.
Which, as I’ve said before, isn’t what we do, so we’re linking up with some brilliant people who do.

It’s something that we think could be really special.
It won’t be the same.
But we really do think it could be really special.

Thing is, we’ve never done anything like it before.
And we’re excited about that, but we’re also a bit scared.
Will it work? Will you like it? Will the internet be able to handle Pattie Breadcake?

Marc Graham as Hull panto dame Pattie Breadcake, in a sparkly top and pink dress, with blonde wig and crown.

And then there’s the virus, which is making it even more difficult.
Giving us even more to overcome.
Causing unpredictable twists and turns at every stage and in every detail.
Making us ask what happens if we tell you what we’re trying to do but then, for whatever unforeseeable reason, it can’t happen like we hope it can happen.

So this is where we are. 

We would like to make three promises to you:

1/ We are trying really hard to bring you something special this year to combat the gloom. Something you can enjoy for free from the comfort of your own home which will help us celebrate Christmas together again.

2/ We are doing all we can to make it happen, even if we don’t know what is around the corner. 

3/ As soon as we can, we will tell you more.

All we ask, is that you keep the faith and don’t give up hope. In us, in panto and in being together again.

This story isn’t over yet.

Big love and stay safe.

Paul x

Artistic director Paul Smith speaks into a microphone with script in hand

Paul Smith: Goodbye to Darley’s

By | Artistic Director

Artistic director, Paul Smith, pays tribute to Darley’s, our home of almost a decade, as Middle Child prepare to find a new space in Hull, following Goodwin Development Trust’s decision to sell the building.

Middle Child company members sit outside Darley's in 2011

Middle Child company members outside Darley’s in 2011.

Wasted hours, before we knew
Where to go, and what to do
Wasted hours that you make new
And turn into
A life that we can live
– Arcade Fire

2011.

Holes in the floor, the smell of stale beer and foundations built out of nothing more than dreams of what could be. We fell in love instantly. The imperfections working only to make you more perfect. We were kindred spirits; rough around the edges, off the beaten track, needing someone to see what we could become rather than focusing on our flaws. 

And so, with a blend of practicality and kindness from SomewhereTo and the Goodwin Development Trust less than a year into being a theatre company we had a home. 

A single room on the top floor of a dilapidated pub. And it was the best of times. It was the best of spaces. It was all we needed. In that single room on the top floor of a dilapidated pub we dreamed of changing the world. We grafted and we worked for free and we argued and we laughed and we made so, so many mistakes. But throughout what fuelled our ragtag bunch of Uni mates was an unshakeable belief in what was to follow.  

The building typified everything we felt about the world at the time. It had rebellion in its bricks. It had to – it was on a council estate in the ‘Number One Crap Town’ in the country. But the magic of this city was always obvious. Well before City of Culture this was a city of culture. And we simply wanted to do our bit. To have an impact in a city we love. Our dream was simple. Why shouldn’t a dilapidated pub on the Thornton Estate in Hull be a place where incredible art is made? Why shouldn’t it be a place where ideas are tested, dreams are dreamed and people come together?

And so, making it up at every step of the way, we cracked on with doing our little projects in our little room. We were tiny and poor but felt huge and lucky. And in that room, over the years, things happened. Plays, pantos, rehearsals, parties, workshops, funding bids, romances, relationships, revolutions. We celebrated successes and forgot failures. We dreamed and we dreamed and we dreamed and we dreamed.

A young Asian male sits on a chair in the middle of a room, smiling, script in hand

Nima Taleghani in rehearsals for Mercury Fur, 2015

You said we’re not so tied together
What did you mean?
Meet me in the stairwell in a second
For a glass of gin
Nobody else will be there then
Nobody else will be there
Nobody else will be there then
Nobody else will be there”
– The National

2020.

Dusty tables, empty bins and that sign. “For Sale By Auction”. On the wall hangs a framed picture of our first successful funding bid. £8,850. The space filled only by the ghosts of what went before; another quiet place in a quiet industry. But you can still imagine it, if you try hard enough. Six months ago that feels like six years. The full building now, not just a single room on the top floor of a dilapidated pub. A National Portfolio Organisation now, not just a ragtag bunch of Uni mates (though we’re still around). A now dusty theatre library with over 2,000 plays free for anyone to borrow remembers when you came in and discovered that play that felt like it was speaking directly to you. Dusty desks remember when you came in to work and cracked that big idea and rushed into the office to excitedly tell everyone. Dusty walls, if wiped, would still shine with that glorious pink lovingly splattered by our city’s amazing volunteers. The dusty rehearsal room stands stoically, like an industry veteran remembering its finest performances but knowing those days are lost to the cruel relentlessness of time. 

Without being able to say goodbye, we get ready to say goodbye. The rebellious bricks that inspired us to carve out a life are unshakeable in their duty. 

We are older now, all of us. We dream differently. We do differently. The world is different.

Perhaps there was a day where we outgrew each other, but neither of us wanted to admit it. Perhaps parting like this was inevitable. But it is unavoidable that when saying goodbye we focus on the best times. And, even as I type this with a tear in my eye, I know that you’ll live on. Perhaps even stronger in our memories than in reality. There you don’t age. The drains don’t smell as strongly, the water doesn’t taste as metallic and someone always remembers to put the bins out. There we did all the things we wanted to do.

Two men in fancy dress stand on stage and point at a cheering audience

Lock In Festival, 2018

Darley’s. It was our space.

Not Middle Child’s, but ours. Hull’s space.

You came in and you lit it up. You made noise, you borrowed books, you changed the world. It was a place where anyone was welcome and where anything felt possible. We’ll never forget that. 

But things change. And soon, we will find a new home. We’ll fall in love with imperfections all over again, and we’ll argue and we’ll laugh and we’ll make so, so many mistakes. But we won’t ever stop dreaming. We won’t lose our unshakeable belief in what is to follow. 

Some time in the future, we’ll welcome you all once again into a new space. It’ll feel different. There’ll be inevitable comparisons. But we will do all we can to make it a space that welcomes you; a home for dreamers who know they can change the world. Today we mourn, but tomorrow we start over again and we’ll dream and we’ll dream and we’ll dream.

EN PL