The Road to Wigan Pier….
ThickSkin’s Theatre Blog, 7 October 2022
For those who have read George Orwell’s brilliant book, The Road To Wigan Pier, you’ll know that he doesn’t paint the town in a positive light. But that was then, and this is now. And right now, Wigan is bursting with creative energy and potential.
Of course, you’ll have heard all about ACE’s ‘priority places’ and the ‘levelling up’ agenda. Wigan is one of those places which is under-served by the arts, and quite rightly deserves investment. But that’s not to say it’s not already an incredibly creative and cultural town. It truly is, and that’s exactly why ThickSkin decided to move there earlier this year.
But let’s rewind a little. As this is our first blog post, I thought it might be nice to go back to the beginning and share a potted history of how and why ThickSkin has got to this point. And why we’ve chosen Wigan as a place to put down roots.
We started out in 2010. Like lots of first-time companies, Neil and I were just we were two pals putting on a show at the fringe. But the circumstances and the choices we made that year set us on a path that defined everything we try to live up today, twelve years on.
We met through our work for the prestigious and (I believe) most influential physical theatre company of our time – Frantic Assembly. Even then, Frantic’s reputation was of rock n roll status and we were part of a brilliant, supportive team. Neil was Frantic’s Associate Director and I was General Manager. But the grand titles possibly hid the fact that we were young, we were green, and we soaked up every experience like a sponge. They really invested in us and in return we learnt the ropes quickly and got stuck in.
They weren’t surprised when we shared our plans about taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe (I think they even helped us choose the play!). We decided on Blackout, a brilliant NT Connections play by Davey Anderson about a young offender from Easterhouse near Glasgow. It was a true story, verbatim, direct address. It had grit and authenticity and was exactly what we were looking for.
Davey is an absolute legend and when we approached him, he was happy to let us go ahead. As a pair of unknown upstarts, he was probably unsure if we’d do a good job of it but gave his time and support along the way. Back then I looked after everything admin, producing and fundraising, and Neil directed, choreographed, sound, video and lighting designed the show (he really is that skilled!). Jonnie Riordan came to assist Neil technically and help to operate the show, having no previous experience but huge willingness to learn. The only person we knew in Scotland, Caro Donald, came on board as an assistant director and was instrumental in helping us make connections and spread the word – a new physical theatre company offering jobs to young people!
We set about casting. We took ourselves to Easterhouse to find a young group of actors. We pulled together a cast of five brilliant young people, who had no previous professional experience but huge energy and talent. Even we were surprised that we’d found so much potential through an open casting call. We’ve built lasting friendships with them all and see now that Blackout was a huge launchpad for them and for us. Most notably, Daniel Cahill, Joanne Thomson and Brian Vernel have gone on to incredible acting careers.
Frantic Assembly continued to give support in the background. They helped cover the costs for our accommodation in Edinburgh, they let us use their name to endorse the show and crucially, we were allowed to exit flyer their show Beautiful Burnout. Blackout was a success; we won the prestigious Arches Brick Award and secured a future run. The cast all got agents, or places at drama school. Potential collaborators approached us about future projects (this was how we started working with the uber talented lighting designer Simon Wilkinson). Davey even agreed to write a new play for us and our affinity for Scotland was cemented.
Over the first five years of the company, we created three plays. After Blackout came The Static, also by Davey Anderson, and Chalk Farm by the fab duo Kieran Hurley & AJ Taudevin (who are the masterminds behind Disaster Plan). We remember this period as the Glasgow years. And all three shows were about young, disaffected youths. They were low budget but high production values due to our multi-skilled toolkit (we personified a Swiss army knife) and looking back I think the work stood out for its quality and sheer bravery.
If you’ve read this far you are probably wondering when I’ll get back to Wigan. I’m nearly there….
We took a break for a few years when I moved to Manchester and started a family while working with some trailblazing organisations like Hofesh Shechter Company, Clean Break and Manchester International Festival. Neil went travelling the world as movement associate on Harry Potter and The Cursed Child and was part of the creative team for the first three James Plays (having just this week opened the fourth play in this series).
We got the band back together in 2018 to start developing How Not To Drown, the true story of Dritan Kastrati’s experience as a child asylum seeker and his survival through the care system, written by Dritan himself and the formidable playwright Nicola McCartney. Coming back to making work as ThickSkin with all the experience we gained along the way was the start of a new chapter. We meant business. The budgets got bigger, the creative team grew, the co-production partnerships with Traverse Theatre, Tron Theatre and Lawrence Batley Theatre had real clout. Again, this led to a series of relationships which are enduring. The show was a hit and (fast forward a few years of pandemic) we are about to take it out on tour in 2023 opening for a two-week run at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
There have been lots of other projects and shows along the way. The lo-fi, hi-impact delivery is something we still believe in today. We work experimentally (we even made a show with young people in two different cities using Skype way back in 2012!) and this has led to digital being a central feature in our programme. Our shows address issues that matter to young people, leading to expanding our creative learning programme, empowering young people to reimagine what theatre can be. And we continued to invest our energies in unearthing new talent and offering a springboard for their careers. The multi-skilled creative approach has led to our methodology of a 360° artist, which you’ll hear us talk more about in future blogs.
Around this time, we decided we’d spent long enough working nomadically, based in different cities around the UK. We needed a home and Wigan was calling….
Wigan is geographically well-placed and on the train line to Glasgow and London, where we have longstanding partnerships. It’s a town where our increased focus on talent development and work with young people could have meaningful and lasting impact. A region which has been historically under-served by the arts and where there are high levels of deprivation, but one which is teaming with creative people and ideas.
We began a substantial partnership with ALRA North in Wigan and took up residence at The Old Courts – a beautiful Victorian building that has been opened as an arts venue reminiscent of Battersea Arts Centre. The prospect of building lasting relationships with local schools, developing young artists, creating work and having an office all based in the same area as a launch pad for national touring was incredibly appealing and made sense. Of course, sadly ALRA is no more, but as every door closes another opens. And the road we’ve chosen leads to Wigan Pier.
ThickSkin Theatre Blog by LAURA MALLOWS
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