Crafting & Grafting

Across two meteorologically fickle September weeks, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter witnessed what could almost be called a happening. Not a common occurrence, it had done well to court a range of reactions from onlookers: bafflement, delight, flitting interest, scorn, intrigue. And that’s to say nothing of what the paying audience thought.

This was Gem of a Place, the latest theatrical work from BOLDtext, supported by the Birmingham Rep, JQ Bid and The Hive – a show that proved to be as interested in the physical structure of the area as those workers and residents who populate it.

Site-specific performance is like a bacteria: it can exist almost anywhere, but fares best under accommodating conditions. The city’s bid for national and global recognition in 2022 inevitably meant that there would be increased provisions for events like this. Yet it could not succeed without a suitable locale.

As part of the larger retelling of Birmingham’s story, then, it was only right that we heard from the Jewellery Quarter. Though historically immune to the radical post-war restructuring of the inner-city, it is not without its own changing face.

This sense of a community’s shifting identity is pivotal to Gem of a Place. The show took the form of six short plays, each written around a different point in the district. Linking these stories was Aizah Khan’s charismatic courier, who, showing the ropes to an audience of prospective workers, guided them from post to post, never missing the opportunity for a cheeky quip or ad-lib.

The promenade style lent itself to the show’s themes of urban continuity and change. From a theatrical standpoint, the effect of tailing a rogue trolley through the district, subordinated as trainee courier, cannot be underestimated. Yet this framing device was just one of the intuitive ways in which the writers and directors staged the Quarter.

Having watched the piece develop, I have some extra appreciation for the dramaturgical challenges it posed.

The Process

The show was a confluence of various elements. One of these elements was its community cast.

Most of the volunteers supported the performance in some way – acting or engaging with the audience. I joined the project with hopes to document it instead.

Surely this was a cop out. Theatre is ephemeral – this has always been its appeal. Why try to bottle it?

Yet I think the process of creating this show, and particularly its relationship to the local community, is worth talking about.

Because I was attached to this element of the project, and not Jennifer Davis’ direction of the professional cast, I can’t comment on how they came to put on the constituent plays of Gem of a Place over their rehearsal period. Still, I wanted to talk about the performance, which I was lucky to see on its final day – and in good weather. 

Knowing six writers had created the work, and that some of them would be dropping in on the sessions, I was cautious about how writerly I could be. Could I use ostentatious hand gestures? Cross my legs and look sophisticated? In the end I took few risks. But I have made up for that in this document.      

The Workshop

Though theatre can occur almost anywhere – amongst ancient ruins, on a boat, in a garage – it usually begins in a studio.

The rehearsal cycle was structured around two casts. There were the professional actors who would be playing out the scenes, directed by Jen Davis. Embellishing the world of the piece would be a community cast, directed by Birmingham Rep’s Alice Chambers. As Community Cast Coordinator, BOLDtext’s Julia Wright was largely responsible for sourcing these participants and establishing commitments.

I was introduced to the prospective community cast over several sessions conducted at the Rep. Rather than dictating what they would do, Alice facilitated an open approach. The workshops explored status, occupation and the social context of the plays, giving the cast space to develop their own response to the text, and their own roles. I was reminded that rehearsals are not always about getting a specific job done. In working around the periphery of the scripts, Alice’s cast were embodying the idea that they can be a theatrical exercise in themselves.

In this way, the term ‘workshopping’ has its appeal. As long as you call it that you could be excused for not meeting deliverables. We like to think that workshopping, as with devising, is about the process. In industry process is something a machine does – usually quickly. In the arts it’s a little more complicated. The process can take a long time. In this case, the cast had seven weekly sessions.

If the show’s one system, two directors approach had the advantage of giving room for this process, and for efficiency, it also posed the challenge of integration. Though the community cast had a sense of the scenes from read-throughs, it was only two weeks before the show that they would meet the actors, and have the opportunity to rehearse on site.

I was also aware of the unique challenges of working with non-professional actors. Getting the word out was its own operation: BOLDtext reached out to colleges, amateur theatres and local businesses among other avenues. For most respondents even a small part in the production would need to be carefully fitted around other obligations. Consequently, attendances fluctuated session to session – I couldn’t fend off the probability of Alice herself having to play all the supporting roles, in true Poor Theatre fashion (as it turned out, she and Julia played a security guard). But five brilliant players stuck through, and who added the polish to Gem of a Place.

The Site

What was initially striking to me was how few of us volunteers were familiar with the Jewellery Quarter. Despite being a historical industrial mecca, it’s easily drowned out by the buzz of the city centre. Rehearsals took on a different tone when we moved to The Hive community space, situated in a Grade II listed former jewellery workshop on Vittoria Street.

The Quarter has its own atmosphere – it’s a meek area harbouring the ghost of something very brash. It’s old, redbrick smoggy Brum, but wants to repackage itself.

Perhaps these tensions are what make it suitable for a dramatic promenade. Theatre has always allured with escapism, but where it really succeeds is galvanising our view of society. Gem of a Place achieves this by forcing its audience to examine squares, streets and buildings which don’t often command attention.

Aside from their consistent role as prospective couriers, the audience adopts a slew of delegations: investor, schoolchild, eavesdropper. Maybe this is just a game they’ve agreed to participate in for an hour, but the authenticity of the locale has forged an immutable truth from this dramatic contract.

The location, however, is also at risk of breaking the immersion. Whilst the stage is pliable, a space designed for transformation and the suspension of disbelief, urban areas are fixed, designed for other, very different, purposes.

Maybe it was always incumbent on the piece to interrogate these purposes. For a writer this is no easy feat: you’re working with physical history here, not a blank canvas.

The Stories

Considering these limitations, it was interesting to see what the writers produced, and how this translated into performance.

In the opening playlet, Liz John’s Timeless, the Chamberlain Clock is the beating heart of the community. In some ways this is a simple story of working-class people feeling apprehension about starting a family. But the clock tower, hanging in the background of this tableaux in Golden Square, strikes it with metaphor. It is an aperture through which different eras overlap – represented by the modern clock workman Scott (Sam Butters) and Maria (Adaya Henry), a woman living within the restraints of an earlier century. Yet, when both recall an image of light running into the clockface to produce ‘daggers’, it seems to represent a collective memory. That work on the clock was carried out at different points in its history – from its assembly in 1903 and restoration in 2021 – enables this sense of continuity.

Of course, it is only with difficulty that writers, and actors, can capture archetypes detached from history. Alice’s workshops touched on this idea. Getting the cast to hotseat – to take it in turns to ask each other questions and answer in character – pushed them to consider the living reality of those in different professions, or born to different eras. That is a meaty enough task for professional actors. What was apparent was that some knowledge, like a ration diet, is generational. However, the community cast were imaginative and empathetic in their interpretations.

Julia Wright’s ‘Dayus Square’ presents another meeting of two eras, this time in a classroom. Just as Julia’s presence was integral to the rehearsals, her playlet is the centrepiece of Gem of a Place. Adaya Henry played a 1917 school teacher, whose class is interrupted when Sam’s history teacher accidentally stumbles in from the year 2022. Comparisons between then and now are drawn. 1917 is gloomy: lard and bread for tea, sawdust on pub floors to collect filth. The working class are stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of just scraping by. Most things have changed for the better. The hope is exemplified in Kathleen Dayus’ rise from poverty to successful writer, leading the then Albion Square to be renamed in her honour.

‘Vittoria 1813’ by Vanessa Oakes, and ‘Daylight Robbery’ by Tim Stimpson find truth – and comedy – in the less inspiring matter of property development. They avoid the difficulty of travelling the audience back in time, or outside of time. Instead they commentate on how we sell, commodify and pave over history.

In Vanessa’s play a property developer (Deborah Tracey) attempts to strike up investor interest in the Bullion Store, the audience being the recipients of this bid. There’s an almost uncomfortable believability to this premise. Vanessa’s creative touch is in counterpoising the developer with her ex, an actor (Graeme Rose) on a film set dressed up as Errol Flynn. In this unfortunate coinciding of work schedules her pitch is undermined. The soundtrack to this tepid romance is saxophonist Andy Hamilton, who hosted a Caribbean club when the building was part canteen for local workers.

In Tim’s play Deborah finds parallels in Rachel, a ‘development officer for Birmingham City Council’, who is this time played against Graeme’s Norman, sole jeweller of the nearly defunct workshop Alabaster and Wilson. When Norman’s own son, Sam Butters’ Chris, is discovered trying to steal gems, the showing goes to pot. The gems can’t be returned to their safe, but thankfully the audience agrees to ‘hide’ them. There is something brilliantly heightened about this scenario. The audience have been crammed into this intact workshop, at the mercy of the actors and their unfolding dilemma. When I saw the show, there was a scream when Sam fell into the room. Then it is the audience’s responsibility to resolve it, by smuggling the gems – only they are caught by security guards later on.

After this story the audience are led along Legge Lane. During a run-through my attention was drawn to the street’s giant pile of rubble and dereliction earmarked for new flats. Gentrification in the area has elicited mixed feelings. Sites like this had long been in disuse, but some upmarket redevelopments risk stripping the area of its character and identity. But as Liz reminded me, diverse industry has also prevailed.

Some change is unequivocally necessary. This was one reminder from Nicola Jones’ ‘Mightier than the Sword’, set in the inner courtyard of The Pen Museum/Argent Centre. In possibly her most arresting role within the performance, Deborah Tracey played an early 20th century union leader rallying support for a women’s wage increase from her soapbox. The rhetorical effect was great. Hearing about the factory owners’ fancy Edgbaston villas nearly whipped me up into a frenzy. Hearing that each worker produced ‘18,000 nibs’ everyday made the toil of the women’s labour tangible. I can also appreciate the development I felt as an audience member in going from schoolchild to complicit thief and, at last, equal pay supporter. Character development is usually reserved for the characters.

After this rush of defiance, the final play, ‘Chains of Gold’ by Sayan Kent, commences quite casually. Aizah, now playing athlete Jae, ties her shoes on the low wall surrounding Thomas Fattorini Ltd, a still-operating medal and insignia business. She is arguing with her partner, played by Adaya, about accepting a gift from her uncle, who has made bank from an exploitative gold industry. But doesn’t she want a gold medal, Jae is reminded. Hearing about the uncle’s debt-bondage practices is a harrowing reminder that worker exploitation has far from disappeared in the 21st century. It’s also a dig at all of us, as if to say: ‘Well, we all like nice things. But where do they come from?’

The show handled some big ideas, then. Still, it found room to be entertaining. Aside from the principle actors, and their frantic role-juggling, this was in no small part thanks to the community cast. They helped establish the immersion and audience engagement that promenade theatre needs, whether they were surrogate audience members, clumsy couriers, or supporting the actors and the general running of the show.

The Hassle

Earlier I suggested that the stage can be shaped around almost anything, but a site-specific performance needs to be purpose-built for its environment. The most obvious problem here is accessibility. When you have to ask if it’s ok to make the audience stand up, andhow they will get from A to B, and what if it rains, you begin to appreciate the luxuries of traditional theatre. You also start wondering if any of this is worth the hassle.

It’s a good thing neither BOLDtext or the actors and directors, who between them cover a wide range of artistic ground, were unfamiliar with these sorts of questions.

Nor were they without a willingness to put up with hassle. From August to September we saw the weather go from abysmally dry to abysmally wet. On dress rehearsal day, torrential rain forced us to take refuge at The Big Peg on Golden Square. For an hour we watched it chuck it, the actors feverishly recounting their lines. A contingency was discussed. The performances would not be interrupted once started unless weather was extreme. It was interesting to hear BOLDtext and the directors try to establish that precarious line of just what audience and actors, are willing to put up with, once prepared. Quite a lot, apparently.

Of course Gem of a Place was never going to be cosy theatre. Its bootstraps spirit is core to its message, and uniqueness as a performance.

Even if the piece hints at some grim realities, it offers resilience in its humour. In the performance I saw, the audience couldn’t stop smiling. Perhaps, as if stuck on a perverse industrial safari, they felt obliged to play along. However, like all good artisans, I think BOLDtext left their mark.   By Cameron Kirby

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