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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
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. 

Interview with Modest writer, Ellen Brammar

By | Blog, Shows

Playwright Ellen Brammar sits down with us for a look inside the creation of her newest show, Modest. 

The year is 1874. The Royal Academy of Arts debuts a painting in its annual Summer Exhibition entitled Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea. As Ellen Brammar would herself joke in 2023 – catchy title. 

Better known as The Roll Call, this painting garnered the attention of Britain, creating a celebrity of one yet unknown, female artist, Elizabeth Thompson. 

148 years later Elizabeth and her story of overnight fame have captured the attention of playwright and Middle Child founding member, Ellen Brammar. 

Crafting a raucous comedy out of the life of a woman whose dreams crumble for being as such, Ellen has dragged Elizabeth’s talent back into public view and into the modern.  

We sat down with Ellen to talk about her journey of piecing Modest together over the last five years and creating fiction out of fact, as Elizabeth Thompson once again prepares to catch the eye of the nation.   

Where did the inspiration come from to write Modest?

About five years ago I listened to the first ever episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, where he talks about Elizabeth Thompson: the Victorian painter who became famous overnight and how she almost became the first woman elected into the Royal Academy of Arts.  

Whilst I was listening to the episode, I was really drawn into the story and I thought: “This would make a great play. Someone should write that.” It took me another year before I came to the realisation that that someone could be me.  

I used it as an inspiration, I suppose, for the work I was about to make with Middle Child. I just thought that it was just a really good story that I could use as part of my research, or use to influence me into making a completely fictional play.  

Which I did – write a fictional play – with that in mind, but actually really didn’t like the thing I’d written. After about six months of working on it being like “it’s not very good”, I threw it away. 

It’s one of the scariest things you can do as a writer, but also one of the most satisfying. Throwing away a whole draft is like ripping off a plaster. It feels really good. 

Then I spoke to Paul [Smith, co-director of Modest and Middle Child artistic director], and I just said, “That story about Elizabeth Thompson that we have been using as influence, could I just write her story? Could I just take her and write that story?” He, being someone who is big on risk taking, just went: “Yeah, go for it. Do it and see what happens.” So I did.

What do you think it is about Elizabeth that continually brought you back to writing her character?

Real people often aren’t what you want them to be. Their stories don’t always fit into the perfect narrative. But that’s what I loved about Elizabeth and this moment in her life. And it was just that, a moment; I only explore five years in the play.

This is where the first idea came that the Elizabeth in the play should be flawed; she doesn’t do what the modern audience would want her to do. She describes in her autobiography how she missed out getting elected into the Royal Academy, finishing with the devastating line: “The door has been closed. And wisely.” Ultimately accepting their decision and agreeing with it.

There were other lines from her autobiography that really drew me in, painting a picture of who Elizabeth could have been. One of my favourites, “I will single myself out”, ignited the idea that my Elizabeth would be determined and gloriously arrogant.

How truthful did you feel your portrayal of Elizabeth needed to be as you were writing her?

I began as close to fact as history allows, reading her autobiography, looking at essays about her and her art. There was not actually that much written about her, but there was enough to actually start understanding what happened and to look into her character. 

The only way I could really think about her actual character was from her autobiography. There were certain lines in her autobiography that really stood out that made me think about her being really determined. She knew what she wanted and that’s what really came across for me. 

But it became really clear, pretty quickly, that I needed to create a fictional character. The Elizabeth in the play is not the ‘real’ Elizabeth, she can’t be, and I wouldn’t want her to be. I needed to create a character that fitted my purposes, so that’s when I started straying away and I just did that happily. 

I never wanted to write a factual piece about Elizabeth Thompson. That was really freeing, the minute that I started thinking that I don’t know the real Elizabeth and I’m never going to know the real Elizabeth, so it was great to dive into creating a completely fictional one. 

Saying that, I still wanted to have elements, or a flavour, of the real woman. That’s why I’ve kept some direct quotes from her autobiography in the play.   

I found it a real tricky balance throughout about things that happened to her and what facts I needed to keep, which ones I could change and which ones I could mould to suit the story. Real life doesn’t work in a linear narrative like how we tell stories.  

There had to be certain things where I needed dips, or I needed the energy to go up, or the energy of a crisis point at a certain moment in the play, so I had to mould that a little bit.  

I didn’t want to play around with the actual fact facts – time scales and things like that -0 and I really tried not to, but I think something that I found was I had to let go a little of that.  

In the play the first scene title is “It’s All True Apart From When We’re Lying” and I think that gave me the license to be like, yeah, this is what happened but I’m going to lie and I‘m going to be okay with that. 

What is your usual writing process and how was writing Modest a different experience to writing previously?

My process of writing Modest was mainly different due to the amount of time I’ve been writing it. I was first commissioned by Middle Child five years ago. It’s been a long process.

It wasn’t meant to be that long, but the pandemic pushed us back and I had two babies in that time too. 

It’s been hard at times, wondering if was ever going to happen, but also a bit of a luxury, to have such an extended amount of time meant that I could really immerse myself in it. Not that I’ve been writing solidly for five years, far from it. I’ve had two lots of maternity leave for starters.  

It’s been me dipping in and out of it, me being a parent and struggling with having newborns and three-year-olds. But the play’s been there, at the back of my mind, for a long time, bubbling away. 

It has been a luxury because the play has really evolved and it’s had the time and space to do that. My writing process in general has probably changed as well.  

I could never write in the afternoons, so I used to just write for about two or three hours in the morning. As my time has been pressured more by having kids, if I’m honest, I find that I have to be less picky about when I write, so I try now to just write whenever I can, while still having a healthy work-life balance.

What is the draw for you to writing powerful women?

I’m really drawn to power, or the lack of it. It was my mentor who pointed out to me that I write about power a lot. I always seem to return to characters that are grappling to get power after having it taken away, or never having any in the first place. It’s about agency and not feeling that they’ve got that. 

The characters that I write are often people that I’m not, or that have elements that I would like to have in my personality but don’t. I’ve loved writing Elizabeth, she’s unapologetically self-assured and I think I would like that in my own personality.  

Making these characters 3D and making them flawed – deeply flawed in most cases – is really good as well. I never wanted Elizabeth to be the saviour. You’re not going to watch it and go “oh my gosh, she’s got all the answers”, because I don’t have all the answers.  

Writing a play is a writer saying: “I don’t have all the answers, I’m going to write about how I don’t have all the answers and see where we end up.” And that’s okay. I don’t think you can go see a piece of art and think this is the answer to everything.

At what point did Modest take on its current form and become a piece of drag, cabaret and queer art?

That mainly happened when Luke [Skilbeck, co-director of Modest] from Milk Presents came on board. I sort of always knew that there was going to be some element of drag in it, because we always knew that we were going to have to double-up casting.  

The RAs, the men in the show, say some really disgusting things and are really misogynistic and it felt like that had to be sent up. As I was writing it, I never thought this was a really serious piece. It had to be heightened in a way and we knew that drag would do that.  

During one of the R&Ds me and Paul had a chat and we both agreed that we needed someone who knew that craft and Luke came instantly to mind.  

Luke read the play and thought, actually, there’s lots in here that lends itself to queer art, to cabaret and to drag and then they came on board and then we sort of spent the next four or five drafts bringing that in.  

Really, the story stayed exactly the same. It was more bringing out elements of the script to make it suit the form a bit more.

What is the process like for yourself as a writer to open the doors to a creative team?

You start by being in your bedroom on your own for hours at a time, just you and your laptop, occasionally sending it to people and hoping that they like it – and dreading their notes – to then suddenly being in a room full of 30 people.  

It’s daunting and overwhelming but really exciting. I think you have to just trust that everyone knows their craft. You’ve done the writing, you’ve put the words down and then you just have to just trust that everyone else is going to take that and do what they do.  

They know what they’re doing and that’s the really cool bit of it. The actors know what they’re doing, the set designer knows what they’re doing, the lighting designer knows what they’re doing, the directors know what they’re doing and it all just comes together. It’s collaborative.  

Plays aren’t meant just to be read, they’re meant to be seen and performed.

How does this process feel for you from being a founding member of Middle Child to now being the writer on the largest show Middle Child has put on to date?

I think it’s surreal. I think the two things, being a founding member and being the writer of Modest, feel very different. I never ever, ever would’ve imagined when we started the company that I would have written this show or that I would be here.  

Honestly, ten or eleven years ago, I would not have believed that at all. I can’t really marry the two things together.

What are your hopes for Modest?

I want people to see it mainly. It’s going to be a really special show and it deserves to be seen. People should see it, people are going to really enjoy it.  

It’s joyful and there are moments of hope in there as well. I think it’s going to be a great show that should go far.

  • The world premiere of Modest opens tonight at Hull Truck Theatre, playing until this Saturday 27 May. Modest will then tour the UK, concluding at Kiln Theatre, London. 

Modest embedded artist: Celeste Richardson

By | Blog, Shows

What would happen if we invited a visual artist into the Modest rehearsal room to observe the process of creating a play, and then respond to it through their preferred medium?

That was an idea posed by Jill Howitt and Thomas Robinson of the Critical Fish, an artist-led project in Hull which promotes critical but accessible writing about art and visual culture.

And it was an idea we loved. We’ve paid for an embedded critic to join us in the room before, so why not an embedded artist?

Step forward Celeste Richardson, an artist living and working in Hull, who is studying for a BA in Fine Art at Hull School of Art and Design. They graduate in summer 2023 and make figurative oil paintings.

Celeste’s practice is a continuous investigation into making sense of and expressing one’s own queer identity. Their paintings examine compartmentalised, conflicting versions of self and converge them on the canvas, celebrating gender non-conformity and fluidity.

They are influenced by contemporary drag performers, and Michael Warner’s writings on Counterpublics. Perfect for Modest, then.

Celeste joined us for a full day of rehearsals on Tuesday 9 May, when the company was working on staging the final few scenes of the show, as well as recapping choreography so far.

Below are their sketches from that day, accompanied by some thoughts on the process.

Celeste Richardson

“I immediately noticed the collaborative nature of the rehearsal process. The actors and creative team work together, generating ideas all the time and listening to every voice in the room.

“This allows the scenes to be delivered in a way that feels authentic and representative of the people who relate to the story, because the actors have a say.

“Because of this, the rehearsal room was a completely safe space. Everyone has the confidence and support to be themselves, make suggestions, experiment, try things, fail, try again, free of judgement.

“This environment of total acceptance is something I have not experienced to this degree of completeness, and I felt an atmosphere of optimism, excitement and electricity from this that was hugely inspiring and affirming for me personally.

“I would describe the actual process of constructing the scenes as representative of queerness, not just the themes of the play.”

#1

#2

Drawings #1 and #2 were responses to this. I was focusing on that idea of a concentration of energy and that being a catalyst for playfulness, freedom, fluidity, identity evolving/shifting and elevating queer voices. I loved how everyone was taking up space in the room, being loud, vocal and unapologetic.

#3

#4

Drawings #3 and #4 respond more directly to the material and characters. The inclusion of the top hat is a clear subversion of gender roles at the time, so these drawings were playing on that breaking down of the categories of gender, with references to classical busts with the statue-like figures. 

#5

#6

Drawing #5 responds to the ‘Bossy Women song. I felt an intensity and strength that gained amplitude as the song went on and as the characters realised their power and ambition. I wanted to capture the feeling of a collision of energy. 

Drawing #6 responds to the scene where Elizabeth gets rejected by the RA. This scene, to me, was an abrupt reminder of the boundaries in place for the characters.

I started with the imagery of a business suit and exaggerated the harsh lines of that image, playing off my initial drawings that focused on energy, freedom and fluidity, and directly opposing that: the dark, opaque marks absorb and diminish energy, and the jagged lines are sharp and unforgiving. 

#7

#8

Drawing #7 responds to the feeling of empowerment for women and queer people that the play champions. I quickly sketched different iterations of gender presentation, trying to embody that same sense of energy and potential.

My material selection was important for all the responses, e.g., graphite and charcoal naturally refuse detail, which allows me to suggest shapes and focus on the overall feeling of the drawing and not get caught up in details within the figures that do not matter.

Drawing #8 responds to the scene where Malais and Elizabeth talk after her rejection. I was intrigued by the actors’ positioning in the space; being across the room from each other amplified the tension between them during this emotional scene.

I felt the lack of colour was important here, as this scene is another moment where the characters are grounded, reminded of the reality of the boundaries at play for them. 

Middle Child would like to thank Celeste for joining us in the room, as well as Jill Howitt and Thomas Robinson of The Critical Fish for suggesting the idea and then putting us in touch with Celeste.

It’s the first time we’ve shared our process in this way and found it hugely inspiring to see a visual artist respond to our work and with such immediacy.

The Critical Fish will also be running a free workshop at Ferens Art Gallery, on Saturday 27 May, to view and discuss Elizabeth Thompson’s painting The Return from Inkerman.

Book your place when buying a ticket for Modest at Hull Truck Theatre.

Why we’re adopting the four-day week

By | Artistic Director, Blog

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

As part of our adjustment to the start of the pandemic Middle Child made the decision to pilot four-day working, based on a recommendation from outgoing executive director Lindsey Alvis.

This was an attempt to address work-life balance at a challenging time, exploring a different way of living and working when everything was up-for-grabs and everyone seemed to be talking about how our industry had to take the opportunity for change.

It was also a time where the number of parents and carers in the Middle Child team and our wider network was predictably growing in line with our arrival at our mid-thirties.

The four-day working week is a growing trend in the UK and for good reason. Studies have shown that a shorter working week can lead to increased productivity, better employee wellbeing and lower rates of absenteeism.

I must admit, I was sceptical. Could we really make such a huge change? Would we get less work done? Would people think we were slacking, or taking our foot off the pedal? How could I possibly lose a whole day from already tight rehearsal schedules?! And anyway, these 9-5 Monday to Friday structures exist for a reason, right?

On the other hand, isn’t the reason you set-up your own company to be able to do things differently? Be the change you want to see in the world and all that. At Middle Child we’ve always prided ourselves on being a forward-thinking company that finds a way to translate our values into action.

We believe in the power of art to create positive change in the world, but also recognise that change can also start with rethinking how we operate as a company, including our approach to work and our employees.

A successful pilot

And so our pilot began. We would compress our hours and introduce four-day working across the team, with most of us saying goodbye to Mondays, but with freedom for people to choose their own hours across the team in-line with our flexible working policy, developed with the support of our pals at PiPA.

I quickly found that my initial misgivings were unfounded. Four-day working was a revelation, both personally and professionally.

I have always worked hard, sitting somewhere between “I love what I do, so it never feels like work” and a genuine obsession with all things Middle Child. I find switching off difficult and spend the majority of my waking hours plotting, planning and problem-solving.

In recent years I developed an anxiety condition which manifested in both intense panic attacks and a general state of constant lower-level panic, forever bubbling underneath.

While I believe this will always be a part of me in some form, my ability to manage it has increased massively since trialling four-day working. Not just that but I now feel able to find more time across every area of my life – from seeing friends and family to tidying the house, walking the dog and, yes, work.

Because my biggest revelation amongst all of this is that working ‘less’ allows me to work more. When I return to work on a Tuesday after a three-day weekend, I feel more rested, better nourished from time to cook properly and buoyed by my tidy house and time well-spent with loved ones.

Suddenly, travelling the four and a bit hours to visit my much-missed family now feels endlessly more achievable without sacrificing any chance of rest and frantically rushing back to be in the office for a 9am Monday start.

All of this adds-up to allow me to give the Tuesday to Friday working week my everything, with sharper focus, more energy and less guilt at all the things I didn’t previously have time to do.

My fear about getting less work done has been proven false.

I can confidently say that I am getting through as much as I ever have, and in my mind to a higher standard than before due to my extra energy and focus. The feedback from actors, creatives and production teams has been hugely positive too, with actors no longer having to spend every waking hour before and after rehearsals looking at lines or squeezing-in life admin.

Those working away from home for long periods now have the opportunity to make meaningful returns to rest and recharge.

People now don’t have to leave the office anywhere near as regularly for trips to doctors, dentists or doggy day care.

Those with caring commitments are saving money on one day less of nursery and have more time to spend with young families.

The company saves money on energy and working four days is much more beneficial environmentally.

The flip side

Of course, as with everything there are two sides to this. Sometimes I still wake up on a Monday catch up on some e-mails, join a meeting or read a play, though I should say there is no expectation for others to do so and it remains a personal choice.

I sometimes still find my mind wandering to the stresses of work on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and of course at times the Middle Child office still has as much stress, panic, fear and exhaustion in the air as most arts offices. But there is a big difference too and, let’s be realistic, it’s going to take a lot more than losing one day a week to fix everything.

We have also yet to crack the issue of long hours often associated with tech days, though hope to think about this more deeply in the near future, while acknowledging the requirements for getting a show off the ground.

Following a successful piloting of this change we have decided to stick to it permanently, and introduce actual four-day working hours across the organisation – reduced hours with no loss of pay.

Everyone in the team has found different benefits and different ways of making this work for them. It’s by no means perfect yet, and we’re constantly striving to make further improvements and adjustments that help to make Middle Child the best it can be while better supporting the people who make it happen.

We know first-hand that the theatre industry can be a demanding and often unsustainable workplace, particularly for those working in production and technical roles.

By moving to a four-day week, we hope to create a more sustainable and equitable workplace for everyone we work with. We want to create a workplace where everyone can thrive, both creatively and personally – and we want to retain people who may otherwise be lost to our industry.

We’d love others to give this way of working a try in their organisation too and, if useful, are always happy to have a chat about our experiences.

Top tips for trying a four-day week

Below are a few top tips from our experience over the past few years:

    • Some people will treat the idea with complete conviction it simply cannot work and that Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm is the minimum requirement for success. Of course, it may not work for you, but there is no harm in trying it out – and at the very least let’s acknowledge that we can all be more creative in finding working patterns that support a more positive work/life balance and help us do all the things that come with being human.
    • Others will think it is a way of working less or avoiding hard work. This requires confidence, belief and trust in yourselves and those you work with. I’m still yet to meet many (any?) artists or arts organisations who avoid hard work. I’ve found that a four-day week has no relationship to how hard people work, only a change to when people work hard.
    • Find a way that suits you and your organisation. There is no one-size fits all method. Speak to people, offer flexibility, trial different options. For example, we moved from compressed hours in our pilot to genuine four day working. We have also now developed a more flexible model where we shift to working longer hours, 9am-6pm, in rehearsal periods to deal with the additional pressures that come with making shows.
    • One of my initial fears was that I would miss vital meetings that happened on Mondays. Again, I’ve found this not to be the case – you just need to develop confidence in saying ‘I don’t work Mondays’ and there is always an alternative.
    • Don’t be ashamed. At first, I felt the pressures of capitalism and would constantly excuse or work extra hard to justify why it’s okay that I don’t work on Mondays. Now, I am proud of our new way of working and have developed the confidence to talk passionately and honestly about its benefits. I’ve now started to find that the majority of people are really intrigued about how it works and begin listing their imagined benefits. Become an advocate, share your successes and failures with others.

In other people’s words

To widen the perspective on four-day working, see below for a few short quotes from different people we work with about the impact it has had on them.

Lindsey Alvis, executive director:

“Whilst I have always worked four days a week for Middle Child, extending this to the core team and adopting it on productions seemed like a big ask. It is hard to put your head above the parapet and ask 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 about wellbeing, what it’s like being a parent and what we need to do our best in the job, at board meetings, at our desks and in the rehearsal room. I hope that doing this authentically from my own point of view has paved the way for others to say what they need and will serve the company by retaining staff and attracting and better supporting freelancers.”

Jamie Potter, audience development manager:

“The shift to a four-day week has instantly made me feel lighter, more relaxed and less guilty about spending my Sundays climbing, knowing I have all of Monday to catch-up on other life stuff. It’s actually a new change for me, as I initially worked throughout the week when we trialled compressed hours, but I finished at 5pm and had Wednesday afternoons off, instead of a full Monday. That later 6pm finish never worked for me and the caring commitments I had at home, but the four-day week of reduced hours is such a breath of fresh air. It especially feels welcome given that we, as a country, still haven’t taken stock or acknowledged the trauma of Covid-19 and seem far too willing to continue as though nothing has happened. Now, however, I feel like I’m coming to terms with that and finding more energy.”

Erin Anderson, assistant producer:

“I love working a four-day week with Middle Child. Being able to take the space to fully decompress from the work and build back up work again with enough space for myself in the middle is so lovely. Monday is the Sunday you always feel like you need. I don’t know how I would ever go into working a full week.”

Josie Morley, freelance theatre maker:

“I really appreciate a four-day working week because as a freelancer you often have a second or third or fourth job. Working a five-day week I rehearse Monday to Friday and then often had to work Saturday and Sunday to keep my secondary job. A four-day working week means at the very least I can have one full day off. It leads to a better work-life balance generally, because even now I’m fully freelance and don’t have a second job it allows more time to catch up with life stuff and socialising. Also as an actor it allows more time and space to learn lines, which I’m very grateful for as in a five-day working week I’d be going home and cramming lines with a tired brain of an evening. It feels like you have more time to breathe and I feel much more productive.”

Jack Chamberlain, freelance theatre maker:

“The four-day working week has helped me achieve a greater work/life balance in a profession that often challenges these boundaries. It gives me a weekend off and then that extra day to either relax or catch up on work in whatever way that can be helpful. My experiences have inspired me to integrate the four-day week into my work in the future and I can’t recommend it enough.”

Get in touch

I’d like to close this reflective piece with a thank you to Lindsey Alvis for raising the possibility of four-day working at all.

I now recognise that it’s not an easy thing to advocate for and that systems are hard to change. But Lindsey’s absolute belief in this alternative way of living and working has been of huge benefit to Middle Child and has radically changed what we do and how we do it.

As Lindsey moves onto pastures new with our friends at PiPA, it is clear that Lindsey’s impact will continue to be felt through our new way of working for a long time to come.

If you would like to discuss anything raised in this blogpost in more detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me on paul@middlechildtheatre.co.uk.

Four performers wearing overalls with hoods contort around each other as they paint a large square upright canvas

“My queer heart is full” – Assistant directing the Modest R&D

By | Artist Development, Blog

Evie Osbon writes about their recent experience in the rehearsal room with Middle Child and Milk Presents at the National Theatre Studio, developing new show Modest.

Hey – I’m Evie (they/she)

I had the best time working with Middle Child and Milk Presents for the R&D week of their new show, Modest by Ellen Brammar. As a Genderqueer, Nottingham-based, early career theatre maker/director, it was personally and professionally a gift to work on:

  • celebrating queerness (tick)
  • championing regional theatre makers (tick)
  • supportive, collaborative, welcoming (tick, tick, tick)

It was my first time assistant directing for the National Theatre Studio as part of the Kindling scheme, nurturing early career directors to develop their practice through assisting established directors. 

Any nerves and ‘need to prove’ was quickly washed away when, on our first morning, we did a check-in led by co-directors, Leo Skilbeck and Paul Smith and, although I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, it felt that we were all genuinely heard.

Everyone would share their pronouns each morning, which is inclusive of gender fluidity and acts as a gentle reminder so that no one is misgendered. Open to my suggestions around varying the check-ins, I led some breathing exercises and grounding techniques to encourage a ‘self’ check-in, ahead of sharing feelings and checking-in with others in the space. 

Two favourite check-in examples: 

  • If I were the weather, I would be…
  • If I were a drink, I would be…
Four performers wearing overalls with hoods contort around each other as they paint a large square upright canvas

The R&D cast play with paint in the National Theatre Studio. Photo by Evie Osbon.

A little intimidated by the assignment of assisting two directors, I fulfilled a variety of roles including ‘vibe assessor’, time-keeper, researcher and collaborator, navigating the requests and needs of both directors.

Thankfully they made this pretty easy, because what a duo Leo and Paul are: respectful of each other’s skill sets, boundaries, ways of working and access needs. This harmonious partnership set the tone for the most non-hierarchical rehearsal room that I have ever been in. One that I hope to replicate in my future projects.

Phrases I observed that encourage collaboration and equality:

  • I would like to offer…
  • Could we try…
  • Let’s test/explore…

I was able to flex my creative muscles and use a range of skills on this project. I directed a monologue that was performed in the work-in-progress sharing at the end of the week, entrusted to work one-to-one with a performer, discussing context, subtext, characterisation, exploring body language and movement. I also carried out research including checking historical dates and finding music from specific time periods. Lover of spreadsheets – no irony – I was also thrilled to fill in a scene tracker to help track the characters’ journeys, clearly showing when they were on and off-stage. 

As we unpacked the first wave feminism story of painter, Elizabeth Thompson, examining scenes, characters and intentions with a queer lens, we used music to celebrate queerness, compiling a collective playlist that served as backing tracks to warm ups, improvised scenes and movement exercises. I will definitely use music in this way in the future.

Overall, I will remember this R&D week for its playfulness and its celebration of process over outcome.

My queer heart is full and inspired. Thanks for having me!

Modest is a Middle Child production in collaboration with Milk Presents, developed with the support of the National Theatre’s Generate programme.

A 3x3 grid of book covers surrounding a trans flag in the centre panel

Eight plays and anthologies for Trans Awareness Week 2022

By | Blog, Uncategorised

This week, 13-19 November, is Transgender Awareness Week, in which trans people and their allies advocate around the stories and experiences of trans lives, in the run-up to Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday 20 November, which memorialises victims of transphobic violence.

Below is a selection of plays and anthologies by or featuring trans writers, which are available to borrow for free from our Theatre Library in Hull’s Old Town. We are always looking to expand our collection, so if you have any recommendations please do get in touch with literary manager, Matthew May.

As always, we extend our love and solidarity to trans people across the world.

Joan / Bullish by Leo Skilbeck

In Bullish, ancient mythology meets modern gender negotiation. Inspired by Ovid’s Minotaur, a gender fierce ensemble of hopers and renegades try to pass, pack and blag their way out of the labyrinth.

Joan is an earthy story of courage, conviction and hope, with Joan of Arc retold as a modern gender warrior. A fearless solo play with uproarious songs about what it means to stand out, stand up and stand alone.

Leo penned a song for our 2021 cabaret, we used to be closer than this, and is co-directing our 2023 project, Modest.

Since U Been Gone by Tabby Lamb

Brought to life with storytelling, an original pop music score, and way too many America’s Next Top Model references, Since U Been Gone is a moving and powerful autobiographical account about childhood co-stars, teenage rebellion, growing up queer in the mid-noughties, and finding yourself while losing a friend, by Middle Child associate writer, Tabby Lamb.

A Generous Lover / Boy in a Dress by Lauren John Joseph

A Generous Lover is the true and very queer tale of one soul’s journey through the wasteland of mental illness to deliver their lost love.

Boy in a Dress follows the life story of Lauren John Joseph: a trans, fallen Catholic, ex-fashion model from the wrong side of the tracks.

Monlogues for ‘Others’ by Charlie Josephine

This book is for the ‘others’. For anyone who’s ever felt othered. For us lot. Who deserve celebration and opportunity. Each one is written with love, with the actor in mind. I hope they make your body feel fizzy, I hope they get you all the jobs, I hope your flowers bloom.

Global Queer Plays

A unique anthology bringing together stories of queer life from international playwrights, these seven plays showcase the dazzling multiplicity of queer narratives across the globe: the absurd, the challenging, and the joyful.

Book of Queer Monologues, edited by Scottee

The first collection of its kind, The Book of Queer Monologues chronicles over one hundred years of queer and trans performance. Combining stage plays with spoken word and performance art, this anthology features over forty extracts from some of the most exciting stage works in the English-speaking world.

Burgerz by Travis Alabanza

Hurled words. Thrown objects. Dodged burgers. A burger was thrown at Travis Alabanza on Waterloo Bridge in 2016. From this experience they have created a poetic, passionate performance piece based around the ‘burger’: the texture, and taste of being trans. Their experiences include verbal abuse, ostracisation and being thrown out of a Top Shop changing room. The piece also explores the black trans experience.

Overflow by Travis Alabanza

Cornered into a flooding toilet cubicle and determined not to be rescued again, Rosie distracts herself with memories of bathroom encounters. Drunken heart-to-hearts by dirty sinks, friendships forged in front of crowded mirrors, and hiding together from trouble. But with her panic rising and no help on its way, can she keep her head above water? Overflow is a hilarious and devastating tour of women’s bathrooms, who is allowed in and who is kept out.

A young white woman sat in a giant striped deckchair branded with BBC Radio Humberside

Cuts to BBC local radio would affect arts and culture

By | Blog

Audience development manager, Jamie Potter, writes about the value of BBC local radio to arts and culture in our region

A young white woman sat in a giant striped deckchair branded with BBC Radio Humberside

Ellen Brammer visiting the BBC Radio Humberside studio during Hull’s year as 2017 UK City of Culture

News broke last week that the BBC intends to make sweeping cuts across its local radio stations – a proposal that would lead to multiple redundancies and reduce local broadcasting.

Powered by talented and knowledgeable staff and, most importantly, free of commercial restraints, BBC local radio can cover communities in a depth and breadth that few other regional media organisations would even consider.

Covid-19 highlighted the importance of such a service, as did recent bouts of flooding in our region, when the BBC kicked into action to report throughout the night, from the ground, to concerned residents affected by rising waters.

It’s their contribution to arts and culture in our area that I particularly want to draw attention to, though.

From regular appearances with Burnsy, the breakfast show, Culture Night and No Filter to premiering show tunes on BBC Introducing and hosting reporters who traipsed up to the Edinburgh Fringe, Radio Humberside has been an important platform for Middle Child and countless other local artists looking to share their work.

During the Christmas lockdown of 2020 we even pitched the idea of broadcasting an audio version of that year’s digital panto on their airwaves. Radio Humberside leapt at the chance and, as a result, we were able to spread a little festive cheer, while giving several newly commissioned writers exposure on an even greater scale.

BBC staff are regularly spotted in the audiences of our shows and those of many other theatre companies, musicians, comedians, artists and more. They know what makes culture tick and, as well as providing a regular platform for arts workers in the region, they do the hard work of holding publicly funded organisations’ feet to the fire.

Producers, researchers and reporters at Radio Humberside are some of the few newshounds who reach out to Middle Child, even when we don’t share a press release. They have their ears close to the ground, as any good journalist does, and live and participate in the communities from which they report.

There is no clearer example of this than when Liz Truss toured local radio stations  days into her premiership.

Pundits and commentators in Westminster circles scoffed at what they assumed would be an easy ride and questioned why she wouldn’t face the “big guns” on national channels.

Those of who listen to our local stations knew it would be quite the opposite. When faced with presenters who understand the reality of their audiences’ lives and don’t rely on access to the powerful to further their careers, Liz Truss came unstuck.

Making redundancies and wholesale changes to stations who put in this kind of work then, across multiple sections of our society, would have a notable impact on communities in East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, and no doubt many other regions.

For the arts especially, in an era of clickbait reporting and the disappearance of specialist reporters, BBC local radio (alongside Hull’s 107FM and West Hull FM)  is one of the last bastions against media oblivion. Without their particular support, we risk public arts coverage narrowing even further.

I hope that those in charge see and understand the folly in their proposals and commit to maintaining jobs and a service that is valued by so many people.