Sheffield stars: local lives are at the heart of Yorkshire's theatre

This summer, community-led shows are encouraging residents to tell their own tales of loss, love and Bruce Springsteen gigs

At the Crucible theatre, Sheffield’s teenagers are thinking about what they want from their city. Challenged by director Rachael Walton to write about something they’re interested in – and that could inspire people – they have been composing manifestos. They highlight mental health, feminism, working conditions for under-18s, voting rights, and the pressure of being popular and doing well at school.

This is all part of Inherited Cities, a collaboration between Third Angel and Sheffield Theatres involving 60 people aged 13 to 20. “We just wanted to look at what it was like to be a teenager, from their point of view,” explains Walton, whose show has explored teens’ secret places in the city. “We became aware that teenagers, in terms of where they go, are quite limited. So this is about trying to join up young people from various areas of the city and bring them together.”

Walton was surprised by some of the places that held most meaning for the young people she has been working with, from supermarkets – “they had lots to say about Asda,” she laughs – to car parks. “I think for them it’s about seeking out spaces where there is access but there aren’t adults,” she says.

Inherited Cities is part of a growing wave of theatre putting local people and their stories centre stage. The Crucible’s new musical, Songs from the Seven Hills, was created using interviews with Sheffield residents, just as the newly renamed Leeds Playhouse’s recent community show Searching for the Heart of Leeds was based on conversations with 200 people from across the region. Over in York, the Theatre Royal has put large-scale community shows at the heart of its programme for years.

As pointed out by Alexander Ferris, director of Searching for the Heart of Leeds, the idea of putting the city on stage is embedded in theatre’s DNA. “If you hark back to Shakespeare and the Greeks, there was always that representation of the community on stage.” The challenge for theatre-makers, though, is that cities are full of contradictions. When conducting interviews, Ferris quickly found that there were “very differing views of Leeds”. Director Emily Hutchinson says the range of stories collected for Songs from the Seven Hills was huge, “from people remembering the Bruce Springsteen concert where the whole city could hear the concert because the volume was too high, to really personal stories of loss and love”.

Rehearsals for Songs from the Seven Hills at Sheffield Theatres.
‘Heart of the piece’ … Rehearsals for Songs from the Seven Hills. Photograph: Mark Douet

Songs from the Seven Hills builds on the previous work of Sheffield People’s Theatre, an intergenerational community theatre company now on its sixth project. For the show, stories were collected from local people and members of the company themselves. “They’re always telling stories on stage that are related to or based around Sheffield, but this time they themselves will be the heart of the piece,” explains Hutchinson. The 60-odd stories have been transformed into six intertwined narratives, all of which revolve around a community centre threatened with demolishment. The characters include a family seeking sanctuary in the city, a couple going through a divorce and a family dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Walton hopes that audiences for Inherited Cities will see Sheffield – and its teenagers – “through a different pair of eyes”. The show starts in the Crucible foyer, spends a short time in Tudor Square and settles in the studio space. As hinted at by the manifestos, there is a political edge to the conversations that young people had while creating the show. In response to the question “if you could be in charge of the city, what would you do?”, Walton recalls that “there was a lot of talk about drugs, lamenting the eradication of the arts within schools, and healthcare being more available in different parts of the city”.

There is, of course, a more cynical way of looking at this increase in community-focused performance. As budgets tighten, filling up the stage with unpaid community performers is a cheap way of making theatre – not to mention bringing in an audience of supportive family and friends. But theatre-makers insist these shows are about celebrating the people who make up their cities.

“The vibrancy, the wonderfulness of a city, is down to the individuals within it,” says Walton. “Sometimes that is lost in the bureaucracy that has to happen to make us all live together, but by unearthing a little bit of that chaos or a little bit of that fun, I think we can learn a lot.”

  • Songs from the Seven Hills runs from 18-21 July and Inherited Cities runs from 26-28 July, both at Sheffield Crucible.


Catherine Love

The GuardianTramp

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