Behind the scenes with costume designer, Siân Thomas

By | Blog, Shows

Siân Thomas tells us about her process for designing the costumes for Baby, He Loves You

Early influences for Sian’s designs

Whilst reading a script for the first time, images will pop into your head straight away. As the costume designer, I wonder where the characters go shopping, how much money they might have – all that stuff makes a big difference.

On stage, the costumes are a visual cue which can hint at where a character might come from, or what kind of job they have, or a bit about their personality – all from what they’re wearing. So, there’s quite a lot of psychology that goes into the design. 

I also have to think very carefully about how each actor is going to get from one costume to another – the transitions between the scenes and the clothing changes within the scenes themselves, all those logistics. 

Usually what ends up on stage is different from what I think it’ll be at the beginning, because rehearsals really develop the ideas. And actors can bring their own things to the table too. So, some of the final costumes you’ll see are similar to those on my initial pinterest boards, or rather there’ll be clear influence from those images, and some of them came later in the process. 

I’ve got a massive thing about colour and the way it can blend with the storyline. If you’re having a bad day, you might subconsciously reflect that in your clothing. The character of Lucy, in particular, starts off in vibrant clothing, and then as the show goes on, she ends up in drabber colours. So, the visual matches the journey of how she’s feeling.

Bethany Wells’ set design is all pinks and greys. If I had too much pink and grey in the costumes, I knew they’d morph into the set a little bit, but at the same time I didn‘t want to have colours that jarred too drastically with the set. So, I came up with a colour palette with the pinks and greys in mind, but also a stronger teal green, an intense blue and a deeper red, which all go with the pink and grey, but they also stand alone. 

Alison was my favourite character’s costume to put together, because it’s quite simplistic. I think she’s the one person in the show who sits in the middle of the other characters. She’s neutral, in a sense, and you never really know who she sides with. But her’s was just fun to create as well. The motherofthebride who’s always wanting the wedding that she didn’t have.

Maddie, who plays Alison, is up on the hoop a lot in the show and is doing a great deal of movement. I needed to make sure that she can do what she needs to do on the hoop, so Alison’s whole wardrobe is very jumpsuit oriented. Satin jumpsuits all the way.

I wanted Phil to be all about checkered shirts in bold colours. Mike’s got a lot of collars on throughout, he’s a smartly dressed man. Jody is all about the halter neck and Lucy seems to have a lot of ruching going on.

Phil and Lucy have quite strong personalities, so are always in strong, dark colours, whereas Mike and Jodie are in pastels. Greys, pinks, whites and pale blues for Mike. Jodie’s always in a cream, and then I introduced a pink for her too, because I got bored of looking at cream, but it’s a very pastel pink. And then Alison sits in the middle. 

It’s great working with modern clothes, because there is so much choice these days, yet somehow I can never find that one thing I’m looking for! I don’t like too many costume changes; I think it can become very confusing for an audience. You want the costumes to sit and merge and not to be a distraction from the story.

So, even though these colour changes are going on, the audience won’t necessarily realise it. And with these costume and colour choices, I’m drawing subtle lines between them and the characters and their stories. 

Dear Hull, our worries are existential

Dear Hull, our worries are existential

By | Artistic Director, Blog, News

Artistic director Paul Smith writes about the need to support arts and culture in Hull, ahead of the opening of Baby, He Loves You

The cast of Baby, He Loves You

Dear Hull,

A few weeks ago, we announced our new show Baby, He Loves You and shared with it an accompanying blog post, which outlined the challenges around making and selling theatre right now.

One of the things we try to do at Middle Child is be transparent and open about the difficulties we face day-to-day as a charity who exist to produce theatre in Hull.

So, here goes…

A few weeks have passed and unfortunately, one week before opening we are not where we hoped we’d be in terms of ticket sales. We’re at 32% of our target.

This makes for a significant and terrifying impact on the future of Middle Child, if we do not reach our financial target of £19,500 ticket income on this show.* However, no-one gets into the arts to write blogs about balancing the books, so I wanted to write to you for a different reason.

I am doing this, of course, as the artistic director and CEO of Middle Child and a founding member of the company. More importantly I’m writing to you as someone who has an unwavering belief in the power, importance and potential of live theatre.

I am so incredibly proud of this show.

I’m incredibly proud of what it means to put this show into the world right now. I’m incredibly proud that Baby, He Loves You is a world premiere of a brand-new play by a Hull writer, Maureen Lennon, with a brilliant local team, at a time where big-budget revivals and celebrity names dominate our industry and the box office.

It breaks my heart to think that, at present, many people in this great city will not see this brilliant play made with them in mind. I hate leaving a rehearsal full of excitement at what we’re creating here to check sales reports and be met with disappointment.

I’m aware that a big part of this is on us. Us as in Middle Child, us as in the theatre industry, us as in the arts sector. Money is tight right now: we’re having to prioritise getting by in this (awfully-named) cost-of-living crisis. Clearly, and for a variety of reasons, live theatre isn’t always high on that list. We exist to change that perception and are doing everything we can to make the case that art, theatre, culture enrich our lives.

Times are tough too for art, theatre, culture. Audiences simply haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Funding is more competitive than ever. Costs are going up much faster than our income levels. You know it, we know it.

Running an arts organisation has never been harder than now. Our worries are existential, if not immediately so. As we have already seen with fallen friends in recent times, companies like Middle Child are not guaranteed to be around forever. Unless things change, we will lose brilliant art and brilliant arts workers. We will lose those magical moments that bring us out of our houses and into one space together to witness something that challenges the world around us.

None of this is new information. These conversations are happening daily behind closed doors. Theatres and theatre companies nationwide are struggling in similar ways. We often feel ashamed to admit it. But clearly, we are in the midst of a very real fight for a cultural future and we have to be honest about that.

I lay awake at night unable to sleep questioning how we crack this puzzle.

Last year, we decided to refocus our work more directly on reaching the people of Hull and better serving our local communities. We did this because we believe in Hull, love this city and want to help make a difference here. Money that would have previously been put towards touring the show or taking it to London has been put towards doing it in Hull. Help us justify this and keep doing it long into the future.

The thing I realised I haven’t done is “say the thing”. So here I am, saying the thing in the hope that it galvanises something.

I want to say that:

– Hull has grown one of the most exciting, talented and bold playwrights in the entire country in Maureen Lennon. Her incredible, authentic, Hull-centric writing stands-up against that of any other writer in the country – I’d put my house on it.

– Hull grows brilliant actors. We all know about Isy Suttie, Tom Courtenay and Mike Jibson but that’s not all. This show alone includes three outstanding local talents, from Dan McGarry who grew up on Chanterlands Avenue and is now into his 25th year as an actor, to the fantastic Laura Meredith who I first met through Hull Truck Youth Theatre and Elle Ideson, a former Archbishop Sentamu student, who is exploding onto the professional scene as Lucy. These actors are the product of Hull and to see them perform on its stages is not only a joy, but also exactly what makes regional theatre so special. These actors know these streets, they know this city and some of them probably know you. Come and support their incredible craft, which was developed in the schools, colleges, playgrounds and after-school detentions of this city. Showing your support sends a signal to Hull’s young people with similar aspirations that their dreams are possible, that the city will help them to get there and come and clap and cheer for them when they come true.

– Hull knows how to put on a show. Most of our brilliant creative team live here and are having successful careers from within its borders. Careers are built here and have no limits. Your support shows the incredible people who already live here that they should stay, and that others should join them.

– We know there is an audience out there. You sell out our panto every year and we love you for that. We shed a tear every year when so many of you tell us how our silly little pantos have become a staple of your family Christmases. Take a chance on us. Live theatre and new writing can be as good a night out as panto, albeit with fewer knob gags. These shows are made by the same team, with the same amount of love, hard work and Hull spirit. We know loads of you already come but we’d love to look out and see even more our panto pals smiling back at us, though maybe with fewer boos.

– Funding to the arts is being cut across the country. We must show that this can’t happen here and that we value our art and our artists. New work is harder to justify than ever. While Shakespeare adaptations, syllabus plays and celebrity casting all have their place, we cannot allow them to become the only theatre that is viable to produce. What would then happen to stories about places like Hull, with people from places like Hull in them? If you don’t come, they won’t happen. Please show us that new work has value to you and that stories about your lives, where you live now, matter.

– I’m sorry. I’m sorry it’s come to this. That Middle Child, theatre and the arts haven’t made the case well enough for you to buy a ticket to our show yet. That the world is so tough right now that many of us are having to choose between essentials and things like theatre tickets. I really don’t want to write this blog and ask you so directly to come and see Baby, He Loves You; I’m only doing so because I believe so strongly in what we’re creating and know, deep in my soul, that if you come and see it then it will have an impact and prove our worth.

Hull proudly and rightly speaks of itself as a cultural city.

I implore you to come and support us, see this thing we made for you and I promise, you won’t regret it. The feedback we receive from our audiences is always gorgeous and we want to impact more people with our work.

The fact we have regular support from Hull City Council – who are huge supporters of the arts – and the Arts Council means we can exist at all. I’m also aware that I’m writing this at the same time we’re launching our incredibly exciting new playwriting festival, Fresh Ink. I just wanted to take a moment to say that is only possible thanks to major funding and wider support from our founding partners Wykeland, investment from the brilliant J F Brignall Trust, as well as trusts and foundations like the I Am Fund and Garrick Charitable Trust, who are directly supporting the commissioning of new plays.

This shows how we can and are thinking outside of the usual system to keep supporting the creation of new work, but we do also need to talk about ticket sales.

If you already have a ticket and are reading this, then I’d love you to think about how else you can support this hard-working team. Is there a friend who you know would love live theatre, but hasn’t tried it? Do you have a family member who is a huge advocate of the people of Hull and their unlimited potential? Do you know someone rich who can pay for all of the tickets so anyone in Hull can come for free? (A boy can dream). If so, please take 30 seconds to share this blog, talk about the show, share the booking link.

Thank you for reading. I write this not as a plea, but as a statement of unwavering confidence in what we are building and how it relates to Hull. I believe wholeheartedly in what we are doing, and I care passionately about fighting for the value of arts in Hull and further afield. I’ve dedicated my life, my career, my work to lessening the barriers to theatre I felt as a young working class kid in Essex and which have only widened in the 18 years since I moved to and fell in love with Hull.

Join us on this adventure. Let’s pack this show out and show that work by incredible artists from Hull such as Maureen Lennon have as much audience appeal as a bloke from Stratford who died many moons ago, or that fella from that Marvel thing.

*I should say a bit here about that money bit at the top. We have a £19,500 target for Baby, He Loves You, a £40,000 fundraising target and a £38,000 panto target this year alone. Failure in one or more of those things puts us in genuine and immediate risk, as it does for all arts organisations. Please, support local art.

UPDATE (17 April): We have been blown away by the response since this blog post went live. While there is still a way to go, sales have rocketed from 32% to 69%. We have also received a number of one-off donations, including from anonymous donors wishing to buy tickets for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to go. Thank you so much for your support, and to everyone who shared, bought tickets and donated so others can see the show for free. Thank you for supporting live theatre.

Aerial Hoop in Baby, He Loves You

Baby, He Loves You rehearsal diary

By | Blog, Shows

RTYDS Intensive Residency Director, Rachael Abbey, shares reflections from the first two weeks inside the rehearsal room

Cast and creative team in one of our rehearsal spaces

Rehearsals are like watching magic being made. The first day always gives big ‘first day of school’ vibes. A group of people, many of whom haven’t met each other before but have all been slowly working on things in the background, come together to start taking the script from being words on a page into a full-blown show.

Coming in as an assistant director, I think it’s important to get to know all of the departments working on the show, as every element of a production of this scale really takes a village to create.  

The first week we were together was a bit like a buffet of the show. And everyone loves a buffet. Some of the delights on offer included:  

  • A readthrough of the script, with Maureen Lennon there to talk about where the idea came from and her writing process 
  • A model box presentation, where the designer Bethany Wells talked everyone through the design ideas for the show 
  • Chats about costume from Siân Thomas, who has effectively curated a micro-wardrobe for each character which reflects who they are 
  • An aerial hoop session by Dani Clements, our choreographer and for five people who had never really done any aerial before, they took to it incredibly well 
  • Some character work on the script to start building the world that the play takes place in 
  • Talks led by the Middle Child team about how the company works and what is in place to make sure that everyone who is not from the city is well looked after 
  • A photoshoot for publicity, which I think was a highlight for me 
  • Song learning with Ysabelle Wombwell for the newly written songs for the show 

So, as you can see it’s a lot, and that was just week one. We’re in week three now and we’ve got the shape of the show, which means we have the solid building blocks of the characters, and we’ve physically placed everyone where they need to be during the scenes.

We’re now doing a lot of choreography and movement, which will help to connect the dots of the scenes and the overarching story. It helps us tell the story in another way which is fun and powerful and devastating, all in the same breath.  

Baby, He Loves You is a big play with some big ideas and questions, and that’s potentially scary, but we’re not just working with an immensely talented team, we’re working with a team who is caring and supportive and playful and holds space for each other.

I can’t wait for you to see this show, but the process has really been a joy already, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the room with everyone.

  • Baby, He Loves You opens Friday 19 April and runs until Sunday 28 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull
  • Book your tickets via our website, or by contacting Hull Truck Theatre
  • This show tackles some heavy issues and our content warnings include: strong language, misogyny, sex, discussion of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Please see our content notes page for a more detailed plot summary
  • Please take a look at our what to expect page for additional information regarding the venue and accessibility
A white man in blue t-shirt leaning against a wall

Fresh Ink: how we chose our writers

By | Blog, Fresh Ink

Middle Child literary manager, Matthew May, explains the process of finalising our six writers commissioned for Fresh Ink, an exciting new playwriting festival coming to Hull this summer

Fresh Ink Hull Playwriting Festival

Fresh Ink hits the Fruit Market on 20th and 21st July 2024

I’m so chuffed that today we get to announce the six writers we’ve commissioned for our first ever Fresh Ink Hull playwriting festival. The talent and stories that are represented by these writers is incredible and I’m so excited that we’re going to share their work with you all in July. 

This blog post is to try and make clear how we got to that final six. It’s written so those that applied can have clarity on what we did with their applications, also for those writers who didn’t apply but might in the future, and for those who may never apply but just want to know what happens after you’ve applied for a scheme like this.

We think it’s really important that we talk about the process in public, because we know right now it’s incredibly tough out there for all artists, but particularly writers. New commissions are down across the board and we want Fresh Ink to feel like a positive thing for writers, not just another thing you apply for, only for all the time, effort and energy you spent to disappear into a black hole, where you have no idea of the process or the outcome.

Of course, all the transparency in the world isn’t going to make rejection not suck. It definitely does suck. It sucks that for all the amazing applications we received, we were only able to support six. We hope in the future that number will be able to grow, but right now this is all we can afford to offer. We are however aware that this is just a drop in the ocean of what is needed.

First up, let’s talk about the numbers. Fresh Ink had six commissions to offer. The application consisted of a couple of questions about the idea each applicant wanted to write and how they could demonstrate a relationship to Hull. Writers also had to include up to ten pages of some of their writing, but not necessarily the script they were applying with.

In total we had 130 applications. That number is exciting and shows that there is a real wealth of writing talent connected to this city. In particular, given that our most-applied-for commission was the 30-minute option, which was only open to writers who had never had a play professionally produced, it speaks to a desire for opportunities for those who maybe haven’t had the chance to write yet. The full breakdown of applications is below.


Commission Length  Criteria  Number of Applicants 
70 Minute  Must have had a play professionally produced  33 
30 Minute  Must not have had a play professionally produced  60 
15 Minute  Open to any experience to try something new  37 


The obvious downside to these numbers is that there is a lot of writers here and six commissions. Hopefully though, these numbers can help make the case that we need more. The reason this festival is happening at all is because Wykeland approached us to find a way we could collaborate to support and develop artists in this city, and without their generous funding and that of the JF Brignall Trust and I AM Fund we wouldn’t be able to commission or support anyone.

If reading this has inspired you and you happen to run a business, you’re a super wealthy generous person, or a funder who’d like to make a difference, then do get in touch, because we’d love to be able to showcase more than 4.6% of the people that applied.  

This next bit is about how we got from 130 to six.

None of this is to say this is the perfect way, or even the right way – it’s the way we’ve done it this time and it’s worth bearing in mind that this year is a pilot of Fresh Ink and inevitably things will change from what we’ve learned. If you have any thoughts on ways we can improve this process then do get in touch.

Submissions closed at the beginning of January and then I spent the month reading every application. Whenever we hold any sort of open call I am always blown away by the quality and variety of stories that we receive, and this was a fantastic example of that. There were so many interesting, unusual, and important stories that writers were passionate about telling and spoke about with such character and heart. It was honestly a privilege to get to read them all.

Once I had read them, I created a longlist of about ten ideas for each commission. The bulk of the decision was based on the application form. Could I get a real sense of the idea from the way the writer speaks about it, not so much the details of it, but the feel of it, and why this writer needed to write this thing? Also, how would this story sit in a festival of new work down at Stage@TheDock? 

The extracts that we asked writers to provide were used as a way of confirming (or not) my sense of a writer. Does what the writer wants to write about, and how they speak about it, match up with how they write? And of course, do we think this writer is ready for this opportunity?

The obvious criticism of this process is that one person, me, gets to make the decision about the bulk of the applications. I agree that’s not ideal. I think the upside to that is every application gets read by the same person, with the same care and attention, while I can also see how every application relates to the rest of the submissions. It would however be ridiculous of me to claim that there aren’t flaws in that system: I obviously have my own theatrical tastes and preferences and my own lived experiences, and these, however subconsciously, will inevitably shape what the final list looks like.

It would be great to bring on board a reading team to make sure that we have a wider range of voices feeding into the process from the very beginning, but to afford to do that we’d have to reduce the number of commissions. That might be the right way to go, but this year we opted to give out as many commissions as possible and accept that the long-listing process will rest solely with me. 

Festival steering group

Once the longlist was finalised, Middle Child’s artistic director Paul Smith and I looked through them all and created a shortlist of six for each commission. At this point we presented the shortlisted ideas to the steering committee. This committee was made up of freelance writers, artistic leaders within the city and key stakeholders of the Fresh Ink festival. The full list of who was on the committee is here:

  • Kate Allan – J F Brignall Trust
  • Mark Babych – Hull Truck Theatre
  • Jan Brumby – For Entrepreneurs Only
  • Natalia Cleary – Wykeland
  • Maureen Lennon – Freelance writer
  • Gordon Meredith – Freelance writer and actor
  • Chris Tonge – Middle Child Trustee and local businessman
  • Tom Wells – Freelance Writer
  • Louise Yates – Back to Ours

Each idea was discussed on its merits, but also with a view to creating an exciting festival that told a diverse array of stories. Hull was also really at the heart of a lot of the conversations. This festival is about championing the creativity in this city and telling stories about us that maybe we haven’t heard before.

The final decisions were made by votes, often incredibly close votes. Each member of the committee had two votes for each level commission and in the case of ties the committee voted again on just those applications.

Paul and I didn’t get a vote. Having created the shortlist we felt it was important that, at this stage, we limited our say in the decision making. This felt particularly important when Hull has a relatively small, close-knit artistic community. Inevitably we were going to know, professionally and personally, some of those that applied and we felt one of the big benefits of having an independent steering committee was mitigating this risk. Conflict of interest was still the first thing we discussed, with each committee member declaring any existing relationship with all the shortlisted writers, to ensure full transparency.

After the festival started to emerge from the votes, we looked at the festival as a whole, and occasionally revisited decisions to make sure that the six commissions worked well together to create a single festival. That is how we ended up with the six amazing writers that we’ve announced to you today. 


After the decision was made, I emailed every writer who applied to inform them of our decision. From the outset we’d said we wouldn’t do individual feedback for unsuccessful applicants. That was for a few reasons. Firstly we only got to read a short extract of each writer’s work, which means that the feedback that I could offer would be limited. To be honest though, we weren’t sure that an email with a few notes in it was the best way to support unsuccessful applicants anyway. Instead, all applicants who weren’t successful were invited down to our space for a cuppa and a chance to hear about what we’re up to, how writers can get involved with Middle Child, and to chat to us and each other.

I’m not going to lie, I was incredibly nervous about this idea. I felt it could work, but as it came closer I did start asking myself how smart it was to invite 120-plus people who we’d just rejected to come and hang out with us? We had about 30 attendees and it was honestly lovely. It was great to get to know so many writers who I hadn’t met before and talk to them about what they wanted to create. I really hope it felt beneficial for those people who attended too.  

So that’s how we got from 130 to six. My real hope though is that it’s not just six. It’s that some of those 130 get involved with our other writing programs, or with Hull Truck’s or Back to Ours’ or Silent Uproar’s or any of the other great writing opportunities there are in the city. And that lots of them apply again next year and we can continue to grow the amazing talent pool of writers that already exists in Hull. And in growing it, more companies choose to put money in to support writing in this city, until we can support far more of the wonderfully talented people who applied and Hull can become a real champion of playwriting across the country.  

But right now, we have this summer’s Fresh Ink festival to get excited about, and you should be excited. Six amazing playwrights. six gorgeous stories. What better way to spend a weekend? 

Here are some of the ways you can support our work to change who gets to make and enjoy theatre in Hull:

  • Buy a ticket, when they go on-sale in June
  • Join our pay what you can supporters scheme, Middle Child Mates
  • Tell your friends and family – word of mouth is by far and away our most effective marketing tactic, but it’s the one thing that we can’t do ourselves
  • Fund our work – contact senior producer Sarah Penney if you would like to discuss opportunities
A white man with short fair hair, in dark blue sweater, stands arms folded

Fresh Ink: Our response to the crisis in new writing

Middle Child artistic director, Paul Smith, writes about Fresh Ink, our new playwriting festival coming to Hull in summer 2024. 

Read More

Baby, He Loves You: Q&A with Maureen Lennon

By | Blog, Shows

We sat down with Hull-based playwright, Maureen Lennon, to find out more about forthcoming production Baby, He Loves You

Maureen Lennon‘s newest play opens Friday 19 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull

When did you know that you wanted to write this story?

I started writing this story back in 2018. I did a residency that Middle Child had set up, called Concrete Retreat. We were asked to all come with a question that we were interested in exploring and they ran what you’d think of as a Writers’ Room. I was in a stage of my life where all my friends were in long-term relationships (most of us), but that was kind of a new thing. Maybe we’d all been in them for a couple of years and we were negotiating all that comes with that: suddenly having to address loads of stuff that perhaps we weren’t expecting. I was like “We’re all feminists here, so how is the conversation we’re all having every time: ‘Can you just pick up your own clothes?’ and ‘I don’t want to do all the hoovering’.” So, I came in with a really earnest question asking how can men and women ever love each other in patriarchy? And we had some intense, big chats about it. It made me start thinking about love and romance and how they interact with patriarchal ideas, in a way that I think we’re perhaps less good at unpicking. 

Then I did a load of reading and wrote the beginnings of the scene about this girl and her mates, who was getting married, and I thought about all the stuff that comes with that. And over the next six months I wrote a first draft and we did a reading of it, just as we went into lockdown.

So, it’s been about six years in the making. 

Talk us through your process for writing Baby, He Loves You.

I’m going to be honest here: I don’t write most days. I do loads of reading and thinking and procrastinating – but that is because I do think writing is kind of the smallest amount of the process. Maybe some people are much quicker at this than I am, but it takes me quite a long time to have the thoughts and to know that that’s the thought. If I try and write before that, then what I’m writing is quite hollow. The core of the idea has to be there and that does take me time. So, I would normally be working on about five to six projects at once. 

In terms of the day-to-day, I’d usually go for a run and then work (at my other job), then I’d normally do a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then walk around (and cry for a bit) and eat some snacks – and then probably if I’m on quite a tight deadline I’ll do a few more hours in the evening. 

I never hear people say it, but I can go weeks without writing a word and I think if that’s your process then you’re not alone. 

What inspired you to write a ‘pressure cooker drama’?

One of the things we did during Concrete Retreat was artistic director Paul Smith gave us some stuff to read, and he recommended Violence and Son by Gary Owen, which I read and was obsessed with the tension in it. And the intensity of it. One of my questions was – and I think the play’s brilliant, this is not criticism of the play – what would it look like if a woman wrote this play? So much of it is about the ideals that we’re inheriting from society, and from our carers, and I wanted to explore what is truthful about that in terms of roles of femininity and how they’re interacting.  

I’d also just written a lot that was very different to that. And I think I was hungry to try that form and see what it could give me. The last play I wrote for Middle Child, Us Against Whatever, was a big sprawling cabaret spanning years and generations. I was curious what would happen if I wasn’t allowed to do any of that. And I do find rules, formal rules, quite exciting and liberating when you write – so right from the off I knew I wanted the story to take place in this bedroom. 

I was so keen on the bedroom because 1) the pressure cooker element and the way it intensifies things. And 2) this is a play where the event isn’t what people are talking about, it’s how they talk about it. It’s about our private relationships that we have with people. 

Do you strive to put women’s stories at the heart of your writing?

I don’t think I strive. Anyone who has met me is like, yeah, that’s what Maureen is interested in, but I think I’m also just a person in the world. Us Against Whatever, which dealt with Brexit and politics and was trying to be a state-of-the-nation play, was exploring some big things about who we are now, as people. And I think it was doing two things that people found unexpected: one was doing that from the perspective of Hull, because people think state-of-the-nation plays happen in London. That was quite deliberate. But two, which I hadn’t clocked, was it was about two young women – who were the main characters. And lots of people said to me, “Oh, it’s really interesting that you’ve chosen to do the female voice of this story.” And I hadn’t considered that – it was more that these were the people that I was interested in, these were the voices that were in me.  

There’s a joke in my work that we always kill all the men – that doesn’t happen in Baby, He Loves You (or maybe it does. Come see. No spoilers). Men’s stories can be universal and human, and so can women’s. So yeah, it’s great that women lead, but they also have permission to tell stories that are about universal human experiences. 

Some of the issues within the play have been at the forefront of conversations for a few years. Is the play saying something about how society interacts with these issues?

Yeah, I think so. I wanted to say something about some of the structures and ideals of misogyny that are so insidious in our lives. And that’s one of the reasons I chose the wedding. The way that the wedding operates in the play – and the way it’s like a barrel that keeps on rolling, that everyone’s inside and how hard it is to escape from that – all of the characters become complicit. I think it’s understandable, if you’re in the role of supportive family member or friend, expressing encouragement and saying “You look amazing” all the time, then that really enforces compliance and silence with stuff that you might be uncomfortable about. To me, it’s a tiny example which is happening all the time in the world, on a bigger scale, and how hard it is to try to kick back at things and how much the world – because of the system we’ve set up – is enforcing that behaviour. To behave and be a good little girl and get on with stuff. 

I also wanted to talk about the repercussions of when people that you really love end up doing bad things, and perhaps they’ve been really good to you, so how do you square that? And how do we all live with that? Because, truthfully, unless we all do that work, I don’t see that we’re getting anywhere. 

There is more to everyone than the worst thing they’ve ever done, but there’s also more to everyone than the best thing they’ve ever done. Only if we think about that, and only if we can acknowledge that, can there be any route to change and redemption. And maybe if we allow for that, people would be more willing to self-examine and think about the things that they’ve done because there would be a route back to person-hood.  

What about having Baby, He Loves You take place during the buildup to a wedding (and indeed the day itself) appealing to you?

I think the thing about weddings is they’re really hard to talk about. I grew up thinking probably I won’t get married, but maybe I will, feeling conflicted; but actually I really love going to weddings. Can I preface this by saying I’ve been to some gorgeous ones where my friends get married, I’m weeping, I’m absolutely loving it. But they’re hard to talk about because people get so protective of them as a day and as an idea – people get quite defensive about them. And that’s really interesting. Often people that you’ve known for years start doing mad shit. And you’re like, “Oh, I’ve known you for 15 years and I didn’t know that we really, really, really cared about the palette of the eyeshadow”.  

I don’t mean that in a sneery way. I think there’s been a real culture of sneering at brides recently that I find really distasteful, the whole “bridezilla” thing. Actually when you investigate what they’re sneering at, they’re mainly sneering at the fact that women are doing an incredible amount of work and emotional labour of organising this massive party, which holds a lot of pressure and expectation. Often the partner is not doing that work and yet somehow we sneer at woman for it. 

It also felt like a great event and a great party. And there’s so many traditions that we, as an audience, can recognise and that we’re waiting for and understand. 

How do you feel when you reach the point when a creative team starts to put your work up on its feet?

Such a relief, isn’t it? I love that point where people start discussing things. Because for a long time you keep identifying problems during an R&D or a reading and every time, as the writer, I walk out the door with the realisation that I have to fix it.

In rehearsals there are new problems, but better minds than mine are going to fix them and make them great. I do bits of directing as well, but I’m always strict that I won’t direct stuff I’ve written. When I have done that in the past, I learnt so fast that you lose so many creative ideas because you’re having to come up with them all and actually, how amazing if you can have four more people thinking creatively? So, I love rehearsals. I’m a little creep in rehearsals. I love to hang around all the time.

What do you hope for audiences seeing the show, and that could be anything like a take-away for them or the viewing experience?

I hope they fall in love with Jodie and Lucy. And their friendship. This play is a love story – but I think it’s a love story about those two. And that feels truthful to me in terms of my friends.

And I hope people do feel a sense of catharsis, or a sense that they can start these hard conversations. And I hope people are excited for the bar and stick around afterwards.

Is there an element of the staging that you’re particularly excited about seeing manifest?

Yeah, I’d say the hoop. It’s cool. It’s so cool. We did the first day of rehearsals and everyone just clapped as soon as anyone held the hoop. As soon as anyone had one arm on it, we were, like, “Looks amazing!”. And, genuinely, it looks so good. I’m really excited for that.

What’s it been like to develop this play within the current landscape of new writing, in this climate?

It’s felt lucky. Middle Child are amazing because of how much they hold you and support you in that landscape. Middle Child gave me my first full-length commission with Us Against Whatever. I have since written other things, but they were the first to offer me a second full-length commission for the same company. And that was such an amazing offer, because we get a bit addicted to new. Getting someone to continue to commit to your development and your vision and your voice feels so rewarding.

I think what’s worrying at the minute is that the idea of risk has crept back in to such an extent. And all you need to do is look around and see that theatres who produce new writing are maybe still doing that, but if you look closer they might have to have four co-producers on board to do a play. So that obviously means we’re doing a quarter of the plays and that’s scary.

Developing this has been a dream and Middle Child invests so much in writers. They think carefully about how they’re doing that and about the balance of new voices which, as with their new writing festival (Fresh Ink in July), they really commit to. But they’re also committing to the longevity of people’s careers and voices. And I think that balance is very hard to get right. So, you know, our hope is more people will figure out a way that they can do the same in their organisations.

  • Baby, He Loves You opens Friday 19 April and runs until Sunday 28 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull
  • Book your tickets via our website, or by contacting Hull Truck Theatre
  • This show tackles some heavy issues and our content warnings include: strong language, misogyny, sex, discussion of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Please see our content notes page for a more detailed plot summary
On theatre funding and ticket prices

Theatre funding and ticket prices

By | Blog

As we reveal our new show, Baby, He Loves You, audience development manager Jamie Potter writes about the challenge of making tickets affordable

Illustration of a white bride with blonde hair, in a white veil and dark smuged eye make-up. She is holding a glass while male hands pour champagne into the glasses, which is overflowing. The bride is also wearing a navy blue man's wedding jacket.

Baby, He Loves You. Artwork by Jemma Klein.

Affordability and accessibility are central to our ethos as a company, but it’s becoming harder and harder to reconcile those values with the economic reality of making theatre in the current climate.

In the same week that The Stage reported on the “devastating” financial pressure facing some theatres, we were racking our brains trying to work out how to keep ticket prices affordable for Baby, He Loves You, our new show by Hull writer, Maureen Lennon.

No matter how hard we tried, we simply couldn’t get ticket prices down to a low enough figure we could consider affordable, that would also cover our costs.

How did theatre get here?

Thanks to generous annual funding from Arts Council England and Hull City Council, alongside project-specific funding from such partners as Wykeland, J F Brignall Charitable Trust, Garfield Weston and the Sir James Reckitt Charity, we are able to create extraordinary theatre in our home city.

However, this funding, which is crucial to a charity like Middle Child, doesn’t – and never has – covered the full cost of creating a show, even during a period of successful fundraising, as we have enjoyed over the past couple of years.

When it comes to staging a new play then, we often have a box office income target that we must reach to break even. Baby, He Loves You is no different.

The issue that we are facing – and pretty much everybody else in subsidised theatre – is that the subsidy part of this equation is being stretched to breaking point.

Cuts to public arts funding since 2009/10 are detrimental to the increasing costs of making work: of paying writers to create something new; of rightfully paying actors, designers and stage managers properly for their work; of the raw materials that go into set, props and costume; of accommodation and travel for people working on the show.

With few other funding routes to explore, that means the cost, inevitably, is passed onto audiences. You can also imagine what this means for commercial theatre, without a subsidy to depend upon, but that’s not a world I know, so I can’t speak of it.

Pay What You Decide (sort of)

What this means for Baby, He Loves You is that we must charge more for a ticket than we would like, but we’re going to do so in a way that is a) transparent, hence this blog post and b) gives you, our audience, more of a say.

We’re going to offer a single, standard ticket, with no concessions, but the option for people to choose how much they pay per ticket, from £15 up to £100. This model isn’t especially novel in theatre, but it is new to Middle Child.

Our recommended price is £20, which would best help us to cover the costs of the show. This is a sum Middle Child would typically wince at and is just above what we charge for a standard ticket to our panto. But it is a fee that, we have worked out, will help us to offer £15 tickets to those who can’t afford to pay more.

Saying that, we know that £15 is unaffordable for many people.

I’m not going to sit here and say that such a price is accessible, especially in a city like Hull. It’s simply not. Even if there are many people who are able and happy to pay that much, as our recent Hull audience survey suggests, digging into the detail we see that people who have never attended our work before are less likely to come if they consider a ticket too expensive.

What I can say though is that £15 is the lowest possible price we can sell tickets for given our production costs. Even if we sell out every single ticket at this price, we will fall just shy of our income target, but at a loss of a few hundred pounds that we can absorb.

There is, however, no guarantee that we will sell all of those tickets, so any lower than £15 per ticket and the show simply wouldn’t be viable. This is also why we cannot offer tickets on a genuine Pay What You Decide basis: when we do this model, the mean average ticket price is typically between £5-10.

Pay extra, pay it forward

That’s why we’re giving people the option to pay more if they can afford it.

Every person who chooses to pay £20 or above will make it possible for us to offer tickets at £15. We’ve even gone as far as £100 per ticket, for those who can and wish to pay it forward to others.

We will also reserve a small handful of tickets each night for those who simply cannot afford £15 a ticket. We hope to raise additional funds to offer these for free to people who contact us. Failing that, we will make them available for £5 each. If you would like to subsidise these particular tickets, at a cost of £900, please get in touch.

It’s hard, really hard, making theatre at the moment. Aside from making the case for reversing funding cuts, the financial situation is one that is out of our hands. Something Middle Child can do is continue to ensure Hull audiences can access high-quality work, keep prices as low as possible and be honest about why they’re not as affordable as we’d like them to be.

If this strikes a chord with other theatre makers or audiences, or anybody else in-between, we’d love to hear from you. We know that this issue is affecting different people and organisations differently and not everybody can respond in a similar way.

Baby, He Loves You is an incredible piece of writing and our creative vision for the show, which includes performing in a wedding marquee in an open-air amphitheatre, has excited the whole team. We look forward to sharing it with you.

Read on if you would like to know how much a show like Baby, He Loves You costs to produce.

How much it costs

The precise cost to Middle Child of producing Baby, He Loves You is £89,571.04.

This includes but is not limited to: paying the writer a fee; hiring performers and stage managers for four weeks of rehearsals and two weeks of performances, alongside previous research and development days and readings with performers; paying members of the creative team a fee, such as designers, choreographer and BSL interpreter; the cost of hiring a marquee and equipping it with sound and lights, alongside security costs; marketing costs, for print and digital materials, including photography, video and design work.

This doesn’t include the salaries of the Middle Child staff who work on the show – and have done so since it was commissioned in 2020 – including the artistic director, senior producer, production manager, literary manager, finance manager and myself, nor does it include the rent and energy and utility bills for use of our rehearsal space.

After accounting for our various funding contributions from the likes of ACE and Hull City Council, we are left with a net* box office income target of £19,500 in order to break even.

In other words, you could say:

  • Cost of Baby, He Loves You: £89,571.04
  • Cost to Middle Child: £70,071.04
  • Cost to you: £20, which is 0.0002% of the total cost

*After the deduction of box office administration and bank charges, which we absorb into the ticket price.

How to support Middle Child

Here are some of the ways you can support our work to change who gets to make and enjoy theatre in Hull:

  • Buy a ticket, from 21 February
  • Join our pay what you can supporters scheme, Middle Child Mates
  • Tell your friends and family – word of mouth is by far and away our most effective marketing tactic, but it’s the one thing that we can’t do ourselves
  • Fund our work – contact senior producer Sarah Penney if you would like to discuss opportunities
A white man with short fair hair, in dark blue sweater, stands arms folded

Fresh Ink: Our response to the crisis in new writing

Middle Child artistic director, Paul Smith, writes about Fresh Ink, our new playwriting festival coming to Hull in summer 2024. 

Read More

Why we’re adopting the four-day week

Artistic director, Paul Smith, writes about our move to a four-day week, from piloting compressed hours to reducing hours with no loss of pay

Read More
Paul Smith, a white man in his mid-thirties with short light brown hair, in a dark blue sweater arms folded

Fresh Ink: Our response to the crisis in new writing

By | Blog, Fresh Ink

Artistic director, Paul Smith, blogs about our launch of a new writing festival, coming to Hull in summer 2024

I’m not sure I’ve ever been this excited to write, and share, a blog post.

As we grow older and enter our 13th year as a company, we are more focused than ever before on what we can meaningfully contribute to the city we live in, the industry we work in and the art form we love.

At the heart of Middle Child’s work – from our productions and development programme through to our venue, complete with a writing room and theatre library – is a dedication to new writing.

New writing, however, is under immense threat. The broader theatre industry faces some of the biggest challenges we’ve known since forming Middle Child in 2011, with the warnings from key industry voices clear.

Lyn Gardner has commented that “new writing finds itself in a precarious place where pressures on funding, concern over audiences, pressures on in-house staff and cutbacks to programming all threaten a delicate ecology. Unless we take care, the writing is on the wall.”

Meanwhile David Eldridge notes that “we must act now to save the UK’s great playwriting culture”.

These warnings are palpable in the day-to-day planning of a theatre company too. Edinburgh Fringe is becoming impossible for many companies, the future remains uncertain for London’s Vault Festival and challenges abound in finding financial deals for ‘risky new work’ that suits both touring companies and regional venues.

Even as a member of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, it is becoming harder to marry ambition with long-term sustainability, as we each contend with rising costs, reduced audience numbers in the face of covid and high competition for funds across the board.

These challenges have a direct impact on the working lives of freelancers too, with average earnings for freelancers in the industry 17.5% below the UK national average salary, as per the Freelancers Make Theatre Work’s 2023 report.

The impact of the past few years are particularly stark when looking at our home city of Hull. According to the Hull Data Observatory, employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation has fallen by 55% since the pandemic, compared to 48.6% nationally.

While these are massive, industry and country-wide challenges, we at Middle Child want to do everything we can to increase opportunity, employment and access for theatre workers in our small corner of the world.

Fresh Ink Hull Playwriting Festival

That is why, along with founding partners Wykeland and J F Brignall Charitable Trust, we’re launching Fresh Ink, an annual new playwriting festival in Hull’s Fruit Market, starting with a pilot event in summer 2024.

Fresh Ink will directly fund and support the grassroots development of new plays in Hull, bringing new ideas to the stage and inviting audience feedback on early work to shape its future.

The initial focus of our festival will be on supporting the work of those with a genuine connection to the city of Hull. This new venture is not designed to be a replacement of the international behemoth that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but instead asks if there are different ways new work can be supported within the UK theatre ecology, beyond the largest cities.

We do have major long-term ambitions to establish this festival as a permanent fixture, but are also aware that we must be clear and realistic with our aims in its infancy. Our hope and belief, then, is that investing meaningfully in both funding and developing new work in Hull will make it easier than ever before to find a home for new work in the city, and will also provide local artists with a platform from which they can more sustainably create work that can be taken to other places.

We know first-hand the impact established events such as Edinburgh Fringe can have on new work, while also recognising how much stronger and better equipped our work would have been for such stages had there been greater support structures along the way. Therefore, our hope is that Fresh Ink acts as a pathway for writers and artists of all experience levels to develop their craft and test out new ideas in a positive and nurturing environment.

All of this is only possible thanks to the incredible support of local partners Wykeland and the JF Brignall Charitable Trust who are funding the first few years of this exciting new event. Working with these brilliant partners has already been incredibly liberating as both demonstrate a genuine desire to make Hull a better place to live, work and play, and we thank them for their trust and support in making this dream a reality.

Launching a new writing festival is important to us because of our absolute belief in the power of stories, and our desire to continue fighting for writers and artists in Hull with stories that need to be heard. While we recognise theatre’s challenges go beyond just new writing, we feel that supporting new writing specifically is where Middle Child can have the most impact, in-line with our wider vision for a fair and equitable world where anyone’s story can be told and heard.

The question now becomes what type of festival we want to create.

There’s still lots to learn on this front, and we’ll be asking your help with that, but there are a few things we do know, which we are using as guiding principles to build from the ground up.

Our values

We know we want to create a festival that:

  • Gives meaningful opportunities to writers of all levels, from emerging to established, first-timers to fiftieth-timers;
  • Fosters a supportive community for writers, where they can take risks and enjoy a working environment conducive to great art;
  • Encourages people of all backgrounds to try new ideas, with free opportunities to learn and hone their craft, and creates meaningful ways for writers to receive feedback from audiences;
  • Tells unheard stories;
  • Embraces a ‘rough and ready’ energy, in a low-pressure environment that allows work to develop and grow without high expectations;
  • Gives space for people and organisations to meet each other, be it as collaborators, producers, audiences or critical friends;
  • Invites audiences behind the curtain to learn what goes into the creation of new work and gives them the chance to genuinely help shape its future;
  • Works for everyone, reducing the barriers to participation or attendance that are often associated with festivals;
  • Listens to what barriers people face and responds with meaningful action;
  • Is open to people from all walks of life, and has a direct, lasting impact on who is creating and engaging with art beyond simply who can afford to do so;
  • Pushes back against the idea that artists will be exploited or take the majority of financial risk when taking part in festivals;
  • Is not a vehicle created simply for the work of Middle Child;
  • Works in partnership with other organisations to create something special together;
  • Invites ideas from others and provides support and backing to make that happen as part of the festival. If you have an idea, a project or just a general interest in this Festival then please do reach out as outlined below and we’ll do all we can to find a way to work together.
An amphitheatre in a dry dock surrounded by new office buildings, with the set of There Should Be Unicorns in the middle

What Fresh Ink will look like

While the above hopefully gives an indication of how we want our festival to feel, we’re in no doubt that any such venture will be judged on its action and its impact. We will:

  • Commission plays for people of all experience levels. There will be at least six commissions in 2024, including two early stage 15-minute pieces, two 30-minute pieces and two commissions up to 70-minutes in length. These commissions will be performed at the festival at various stages of their development, with audiences invited to offer feedback. We know how hard it can be to secure a commission and think that first and foremost it’s vital our festival makes that more achievable.
  • Create a rep company of actors and stage managers to bring new plays to life, providing meaningful employment and involving theatre workers in the early development of new work.
  • Offer a series of micro-commissions to be performed at an evening cabaret, encouraging experimentation in form. This event will also feature an open-mic style event for artists to trial new work in a low-pressure environment.
  • Create space for low-pressure sharing of first-ever plays by young people, as well as participants on our Introduction to Playwriting Group led by Tom Wells.
  • Use the festival as an opportunity to discuss the state of new writing in the UK through a series of open discussions.
  • Offer a workshop programme as part of the festival to create a space for personal development.
  • Provide a platform, resource and infrastructure for other companies wanting to trial new work, reducing the cost of R&D’ing new plays and supporting the development of new ideas.
  • Welcome partnerships with other organisations, nationally and locally, helping to make new projects happen and providing a home for big ideas to be grown.

We are fully aware of the scale of what we are proposing, and know we have a lot to learn along the way.

That’s why our first festival in 2024 will be a pilot. We know we will learn a lot from this and will constantly re-evaluate what we are offering and how we are working, to make sure we create a festival of value and one which can last long into the future.

Meeting a need in Hull

Initially, the focus is on investing in the development of grassroots artists and activity in Hull. We have already conducted a survey with artists in Hull to gauge the value of a festival, receiving 42 responses from within our artistic community, and the results are clear:

  • 92% of respondents agreed that “it would be useful to have audience input into the generation and development of new ideas”
  • 100% of respondents agreed that “performers, creatives and other theatre workers would benefit from the opportunity to be involved in the development of new work at an earlier stage”
  • 100% of responders agreed that “writers in Hull need more meaningful opportunities to develop new ideas and new plays” and “more opportunity to show what they can do”
  • 82% of responders disagreed that “there are enough work opportunities already in Hull for theatre workers”
  • 100% of responders agreed that “an annual new writing festival in the city would be a benefit to my career” and that “an annual new writing festival would be a benefit to the city”

We also surveyed Hull audiences to gauge their appetite for seeing work at early stages. Of 181 total responses, 58% of people agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to see a work-in-progress play. This rose to 75% when looking only at audiences who have attended some new writing work by Middle Child, This is also reflected in the audiences who have come to our last three scratch events with Silent Uproar: 72% of attendees do not work in the arts.

Hull is a festival city, already served brilliantly by such local institutions as Freedom Festival, Humber Street Sesh, Big Malarkey, Humber Mouth and Hull Jazz Festival. We’re excited to add another event to the social calendar and want to add to Hull’s reputation as a city where world-class art is made and showcased. As Fresh Ink grows and more partners come on board, we hope it will become an event of national renown, where local artists rub shoulders with those from further afield – sharing ideas, knowledge and skills.

Not just our festival

We want Fresh Ink to be a festival that listens to people and takes action accordingly. With this in mind, we have created various ways of getting in touch to feed into the festival and help us to create an event for all.

First, we’d love it if you would tell us what would make your dream new writing festival. It may be a suggestion for how we can ensure it is more inclusive or accessible, it could be something you’ve always wanted to see happen at a festival, or just an idea you think would be really fun. Whatever it is, we’d love it if you could share your dream festival ideas through this online form. We can’t promise we’ll do it all, but we can promise we’ll listen to and consider everything that comes in.

Second, we’re keen to hear from local artists and companies who have work in progress they would like to share with audiences as part of the festival programme, beyond our six new commissions. Again, not everything will be possible, but we’d love to hear your ideas and see what we can do.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. We hope to be inundated with suggestions and ideas. We’ll go quiet for a bit now while we put together the programme for the first year. You’ll hear more from us in March when we will reveal the commissioned writers, then plan to go on-sale in late June, with our first pilot festival in July 2024.

Writer applications are now open

My final message is to any writers, or potential writers, reading this. We’re working hard to create a festival that celebrates stories, people and ideas while reducing barriers to participation for all. Our commissions are now open and close on 8 January, but if you need any additional support before applying please reach out to literary manager Matt.

We’re all absolutely buzzing with excitement and can’t wait to get started on creating something which we believe can have a huge impact on new writing in Hull and the UK.

We’re sure there are lots more of you out there planning ways to make a difference, so if anything in this blogpost has resonated or if you’d like a more detailed chat about it and how you can get involved please get in touch with me on

Apply Now
bizarre fae from Three Minute Monologues

Three Minute Monologues: Uncovered

By | Blog, Shows

An inside perspective of Three Minute Monologues

Three Minute Monologues is a collaborative writer showcase between the Warren Youth Project and Middle Child, funded by Comic Relief, in which writers and professional actors work with young people to create short but sweet monologues.

These come from creative writing workshops that have taken place over the past year, with those results passed to playwrights who used their work as inspiration for original monologues.

These monologues will be performed for the first time at Social on Thursday 31 August, as part of Freedom Festival 2023.

Ahead of the sharing we asked, Andie, aka anti-pop/electro/punk artist Bizarre Fae, to share their experience of contributing to the project.

When Three Minute Monologues began I was super excited to work on these, writing alongside the awesome spoken word poet, Jodie Langford. I feel truly blessed to have been part of this project and I can’t wait to see these monologues be performed now we have received and read them. 

Early in the project, I was nervous to write honestly. It felt much easier to write silly stories about the topics we were given, but as I listened to my peers share their writings I became more and more confident in my ability to share truth in my words. It became a weekly safe space for all of us that I looked forward to, not just for my creative outlet, but also to hear the self-expression of my fellow writers.

The group was made up of a large variety of creatives, some of whom did not consider themselves creative at all. It was beautiful to see my newfound friends discover confidence in their imagination and creative ability, many of them continuing to write outside of the project. Hearing the words of my peers was inspirational and empowering: it made me aspire to bear more of my soul in my words.  

When we got the scripts back it was exhilarating, seeing the personality of my peers laced into such creative retellings of our words was an unexpected highlight. The first script we read was an incredible piece called The Secret Diary Of Robyn No-Breast. Personally, I’ve struggled with gender identity since I was a little kid. I never understood the harsh confines of what was deemed ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’. Much like Robyn, I found comfort in the nonbinary identity. It was cathartic to read a story of someone so similar to myself, to finally be face-to-face with a character who echoed my experience navigating this crazy divided world. 

In the next script, A List Of All The People More Fucked Up Than Me,  

that relatability and catharsis grew stronger, as I saw my influence in Molly’s speech. As she began her birthday celebration, it was wonderful to live vicariously through this trailblazing mad woman. I cannot tell you the number of times I have daydreamed of giving a room full of billionaires what-for about their mistreatment of others. The art of anarchy shone through in the writing of this monologue and it made me so happy to see the true angst of youth shine through. 

With  Life: It’s The Best the tone shifts extraordinarily in a fascinating way. The concept of a bureau between life and death was intriguing from the get-go, allowing a more existential conversation that left a profound impact on me. Although less youthful in tone, a lot was to be gained from the dissociation from the innate human experience. After the main character pulls themself through an entire lifespan in the blink of an eye, they rush to alert the bureau to the necessity for human connection. For me, this is an echo of the depersonalisation forced onto us from a young age in the school system. The way we are trained to hide our individuality to be good little workers, regardless of the impact on our mental health. We only get one life and we should be able to express that in whatever way feels natural. They are our memories to take to the grave and nobody should be able to make us feel as though our life is not our own. 

The impact of this experience has been truly eye-opening. Seeing so many minds come together to produce these monologues has been heartwarming. From sitting in the writing sessions and opening myself up to listening to my peers do the same, to reading the way these conversations were interpreted by a third party, it’s been a truly life-changing experience and I would be eager to participate in something like this again. 

  • See Three Minute Monologues for free at Social on Thursday 31 August, from 7.30pm. Book tickets through the Freedom Festival website.

Farewell from Lindsey Alvis

By | Blog

Lindsey Alvis reflects on her time as executive director of Middle Child, after leaving the company earlier this year

This isn’t the blog post I thought I’d be writing. I first had a go at sharing ideas on here in 2020, with my piece about returning to work from maternity leave in a pandemic. Lots has happened since then.

At Middle Child we returned to live performance, opened our new home at Bond 31, switched to the four-day working week and were successful in securing funding from the Arts Council for the next three years.

Meanwhile, I’ve had my second child and participated in two learning fellowships – I graduated from the Clore Leadership Programme last summer, and I am currently an Arts and Philanthropy Senior Fellow learning more about leadership and fundraising.

In my last first piece, I wrote about adapting to the pandemic and the pressures of running the company alongside being a first-time mum. The conflicted emotions of being back at work – joy, guilt, exhaustion, energy – and some of my coping mechanisms.

After returning a second time, this piece isn’t the piece I thought I’d be writing, because after five years leading the company alongside our artistic director Paul I decided to step down from my role as executive director and joint CEO of Middle Child, to take a new role at Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA).

This hasn’t been an easy decision. I care deeply about the company, the team and the artists and audiences we serve, but with two young children, I need to recalibrate my life to my current caring commitments and find balance for myself.

So, as I write to you for the last time, I thought I’d share a few reflections on the last five years.

It’s not just what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Creating award-winning theatre, securing a new home and working with so many talented people, has been everything. I am so proud that we’ve done all this whilst putting people at the heart of what we do and championing flexibility and inclusivity, because it’s not just what you do but the way that you treat people whilst you’re doing it.

We’ve done this in a range of ways. We’ve started talking about wellbeing at all levels of the organisation. We’ve included it in briefings and introduced wellbeing check ins during meetings and rehearsals. We’ve advocated for those with caring commitments and joined PiPA – more about them later. We’ve piloted financial support for parents and carers and adopted more flexible working practices on productions. We’ve reviewed all our policies and put things in place for things like proper maternity and sick pay. Most fundamentally, we’ve shifted to the four-day week. Our artistic director Paul has written about this from his point of view, but I wanted to share a few thoughts from my perspective.

The four-day week

Switching the company to the four-day week felt like a significant ask. It is hard to put your head above the parapet and advocate for big changes and it’s important to recognise that it takes a lot of emotional labour to drive change, particularly when the outcome will have an impact on you. The biggest shift at Middle Child has been creating a culture of caring, where we can talk – at board meetings, at our desks and in the rehearsal room – about what it’s like being a parent or carer and what we need to do our best in the job. I hope that doing this authentically from my own point of view has created space for others to say what they need and serves the company by retaining staff and better supporting freelancers.

However, it would be disingenuous for me to say it has solved everything. For me personally, I have realised what leadership is like and the toll it’s taking on me in this moment, so it’s time for me to change it up a bit.

Part of that is balancing full-time work with my caring commitments. Whilst the four-day week has been incredibly responsive to some of those needs, reducing extortionate childcare costs and allowing me more time with my children, I am with them both on the day I am not in the office so it’s not the mental and physical break I need to re-charge.

Pre-children I definitely reaped the benefits that Paul talked about, but post children I am usually chasing mine around soft-play or trying to stop them jump in the duck pond at the park. I need to call this what it is – a working day of a different and unpaid kind. I’m adapting to the fact that reducing the hours I am in paid work doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of hours I work overall. In terms of finding balance, there’s time for paid work and caring for my children but what about time for me?

I am an ambitious person and I have often equated working harder, over longer hours, with working better. When I started working four-days a week I had some unlearning to do, as well as finding the confidence to challenge this assumption for myself I had to advocate for it at board level.  Ironically, I have never worked harder than in the last few years of working four days a week. I’ve learnt that balancing paid work with caring is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

I am still incredibly proud that we made the shift to a four-day week at Middle Child, and thankful to Paul and the board for their trust and piloting it in the first place. I know that as I move on, I am leaving behind a more balanced environment for everyone to do their job in, creating a more sustainable and resilient future.

Being the executive director is also a demanding job with lots of responsibility all the time. Whilst I absolutely can do it, I have asked myself if I want to do it at this stage in my life. Of course, I want the nourishing and rewarding career that I have worked so hard for, but I also want to be a present parent and a balanced human, and I’ve realised being CEO isn’t working for me right now. Not the outcome I expected having just completed a leadership fellowship, but I was reminded by a Clore fellow that things don’t last forever, and I can decide to be a CEO again in the future if it’s right. I also recognise that whilst this is the right decision for me, we’re all different and balancing parenting with paid work comes in all shapes and sizes. Not to mention the privilege that I have choices and can make changes that work better for me and my family in the first place.

Next steps

Where does all this leave me? Well, I’ve realised I need to work part-time so I can create space for myself outside of work and children to rest and recalibrate so that I can show up as my best self. I need to work flexibly and from home for a bit, so I am not rushing around all the time and frazzling my nervous system. I need to make the decision that is right for me now, not the one I thought I would be making pre-children or in my twenties when being an executive director was my main goal. I need to be confident and know this isn’t about shying away from hard work, it’s about recognising all the different roles in my life that take work. It’s about making work, work for me.

Working with an organisation with flexibility at its core is essential, and I am delighted to join the team at PiPA as business development and programme manager. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for me to combine my passion for the performing arts with my commitment to ensuring parents and carers thrive in the sector. Although I am sad to have left Middle Child there really isn’t a better company I could join, and I can’t wait to be a part of the change I want to see for my industry.

Middle Child is vital

This leads me to some final thoughts on Middle Child. I know first-hand how important it is to be able to access great theatre in Hull. Running this company from my home city, working with so many talented people and sharing our shows with our fantastic audiences has been everything. I wholeheartedly believe that Middle Child is essential, supporting a thriving arts ecology and making sure anyone, no matter their background or where they come from, can make and enjoy great theatre.

Middle Child has gone from nine students wanting to change the world to the organisation it is today in a relatively short period of time. It is a small, dynamic and responsive organisation that can do things differently, try out ideas and be the change we want to see. It invests in people early in their careers, not only through commissioning and its artist development programme Reverb, but also in the core staff team who are all doing their roles for the first time. Artists who have worked for Middle Child have gone on to work for London’s Royal Court, the National Theatre and the BBC and my maternity covers have gone on to senior positions at Battersea Arts Centre and HOME Manchester. It really is a hotbed of talent.

For all the success and the joy – singing Sweet Caroline amongst the audience at panto will stay with me for a very long time – there have been challenges. We all know it has been an intense few years and we are living through uncertain times. Whilst it’s isn’t easy to talk about the difficulties we face, Middle Child has been open and authentic, whether that’s asking for help finding a new home or talking openly about why we need to raise ticket prices for panto. The company has also taken time and care to actively listen and respond to changing needs, whether that’s creating the Recover, Restart, Reimagine programme to help freelancers recover from the pandemic or asking audiences to choose the title for panto.

Whatever challenges and opportunities Middle Child faces going forward, I know the team will continue to actively listen to your needs and respond.

Thank you

So now to the thank yous.

Firstly to the original company members who wanted to change the world. You really did and I can’t thank you enough.

To the artists and freelancers we work with, you are the lifeblood and we couldn’t do it without your talent and craft.

To the funders who put their money where it’s needed and make such a huge difference to creativity in Hull.

To the board for leading us through uncertain times, being critical friends and always helping us put things into perspective.

To executive director maternity covers Rozzy and Hattie for looking after the company so well and handing something back that was richer because of their care and skill.

To the extraordinary team. Artistic director Paul for his leadership and energy, finance and operations manager Emily for her commitment and conviction, audience development manager Jamie for his taste and vision, literary manager Matt for his care and craft, assistant producer Erin for her curiosity and enthusiasm, finance manager Terri for her support and guidance and new senior producer Sarah for her brilliance and joining for the ride.

Finally, to the audiences, participants, volunteers, supporters – we couldn’t do this without you and your support. Whether that’s buying a ticket for a show, volunteering at panto, liking our social media content, popping into the library or supporting us as a Middle Child Mate. It all makes a difference, and I hope you know that you are supporting the next generation of theatre-makers and sharing untold stories in Hull and beyond.

So, this isn’t the blog post I thought I’d be writing, but I am okay with that because in these changing times we need to prioritise our values and listen to our needs. We need to make the decision that is right for us now, not the one we thought we’d make or that others would make for us. We need to do whatever it takes to look after ourselves so we can show up as the best version of ourselves for the many roles we do.

Finally, as I say goodbye to Middle Child as executive director and joint CEO, I will be saying hello to you in the audience and advocating for the company in new ways. Maybe I will apply for the next writers scheme, I will definitely become a Middle Child Mate, because Middle Child is essential and I can’t wait to see what the company achieves next as it takes on the challenges and opportunities it faces with authenticity, leadership and sheer star quality.

Modest: So Much Queer Joy

By | Blog, Uncategorised

Hull writer, performer and poet Michelle Dee responds to seeing Modest at Hull Truck Theatre this week.

Michelle was invited to host our post-show discussion and kindly shared her thoughts with us after seeing the performance not just once, but twice! 

CW: the following may contain moments of unbridled joy, effusive praise and “Oh my God, I feel seen…”

During the Q&A at Modest on Wednesday night, we discovered through assistant director Prime Isaac that the team saw over 2,000 queer performers, before settling on the present cast. And I, as the invited chair of the post-show panel, said: “Over 2,000 queer performers? I thought I was the only one.” An off-the-cuff remark, but one that goes to the heart of the isolation that trans people can experience throughout their lives.

When Emer Dineen, who plays Elizabeth, breaks into the ovation during the curtain call and says “support your trans siblings”, it feels like a torchlight or a touchstone in theatre-making in Hull. Five years ago as dancers in Gary Clarke’s Into the Light, we issued a rallying cry to the throng during LGBT50: “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re showing no fear!” Tonight, with heart similarly busting and a glowing, feels like another breakthrough.

Modest, a queer drag king cabaret, co-directed by Paul Smith of Middle Child and Luke Skilbeck of Milk Presents, feels radical and relevant to what is happening today. At its heart is the story of the real-life Victorian artist Miss Elizabeth Thompson, later Lady Butler, evocatively described as, “the baddest, bitchin’ babe of art” and her fight in 1879 London, to be accepted into the Royal Academy.

Elizabeth is a woman at the top of her game, not being given the recognition she deserves; a woman reluctantly becoming inspiration and trailblazer; a woman trying to break down patriarchal barriers; a woman trying to be seen and heard when men rule the roost and crow about it. Where have we heard that before? Answer. Almost every activity, industry, creative pursuit that ever there has been, from the arts to the sciences and everything else, ever.

The show’s title Modest refers to a particular trait that Elizabeth does not display. The aforementioned baddest babe of art is anything but modest. However, she knows to play it demure when occasion demands. Trained in the classic style of the Florentine school, she also knows she is a damn good artist. Furthermore, she has captured the public’s imagination and the attention of the press, even royalty. Now the top hats at the Royal Academy are spitting feathers and champagne down their waistcoats.

Let us remind ourselves that Elizabeth comes from a family of privilege. If she had been a working class woman these kind of opportunities would not have been within her grasp. As it is, through hard work and undoubtable talent and skill, she is destined to become a very fine painter. Setting herself yet further apart from the rest is her subject matter.

It is not enough for her to be a woman artist; Elizabeth is a war artist. And not enough is it to be a war artist, no. She eschews the charger riding heroism, for deeply moving depictions of humanity, painting the abject futility of war. So much radicalism, so much to admire in one woman. Was Elizabeth really like that? It doesn’t matter. The Elizabeth created by Modest writer Ellen Brammar is this and much more besides.

This Elizabeth is unapologetically arrogant. She is bloody good and she knows it, and what’s more, she knows that everybody else knows it too. Talent runs in the family. Her sister Alice Meynell is an eminent essayist and poet, and in a curious echo of her sister, will twice be turned down for poet laureate during her lifetime. And have we heard of Alice or Elizabeth before? Not likely, because history is written by the victors.

I said this play was radical and relevant and it is. Casting Alice as transgender, brilliantly played by Fizz Sinclair, is a stroke of genius. Her activism and desire for her sister to be that trailblazer; to raise the rest of the sisterhood; to be a figurehead of emancipation, just because she has one foot in the door at the Royal Academy, opens up all manner of debates.

Namely, an artist’s role is always to use their talent to better the lives of others. Two, a minority owes it to the world to be a spokesperson and role model for their people. Three, an artist should use their art to talk about the important issues of the day. I could go on.

Elizabeth is doing some of that. Her paintings pricked the ridiculous pomposity of the upper classes, shone a bright light in the face of the patriotic fervour found in canvases where boy soldiers prance about on horseback on foreign soils, getting enlisted men killed by the thousands, in foolhardy skirmishes.

Then there is Bessie, an aspiring young artist played with great affection by Libra Teejay – who, if asked, would certainly describe themselves as Elizabeth’s biggest fan – who also just happens to be non-binary. The way they describe how they see themselves just touches my heart. So that’s at least two gender queer characters, in one play, on one stage, from opposite ends of the social ladder, doing, saying and feeling different things at different times, who are not in any way tragic, and don’t get murdered. I’d say that is pretty damn radical.

During the interval I said to the woman in front of me: “The men appear to be having more fun.” She nodded, remarking: “Isn’t that always the way?” The men, to whom I am referring, are the RAs. The Royal Academicians (so not easy to say) who view the Royal Academy of Art as their own personal fiefdom, wielding their power and privilege and delighting in petty gamesmanship at every turn.

These wily mutton-chopped heads of the table – stuffed shirts so bloated with superiority and supercilious air – are deliciously portrayed and undercut by a hatful of leading names in drag king-dom. The RAs are a riot. Every moment they are on stage there is an extra frisson of queer joy in the room.

All this and I’ve not mentioned the understated set, featuring a central column, designed by QianEr Jin; the subtle lighting by Jessie Addinall, or the fabulous outfits designed by Terry Herfield and Sian Thomas: if you are a fan of tight black leather you will be in seventh heaven. And then there’s the music: it is cabaret theatre after all.

The variety of songs in Modest and musical styles including queer pop, music hall and electronica, have been composed by Rachel Barnes. The titular song Modest is an absolute tour de force, and I for one can’t wait to be swept away by Emer’s soaring vocals once again. Bossy Women, a duet between Alice and Elizabeth is something of a feminist anthem; then there’s the torch song number Goodbye, Miss Thompson, sung in heartbreaking fashion by Bessie, now wearing their best dress.

Modest: A blink and you’ll miss it abundantly queer cabaret, that uses a historical framework to ask pertinent questions while subverting gender roles, introducing delicious stage presence and drag king swagger, and damn fine performances throughout.

Michelle Dee is a writer, performer and poet. She is co-producer of Women of Words Hull, with commissioned works for BBC Contains Strong Language, Yorkshire Dance and Apples and Snakes, often found prancing around on stage for the cabaret Sideshow Wonderland.