'She threw her arms open to the city': how Gemma Bodinetz lit up Liverpool

As the artistic director of the Everyman and Playhouse theatres steps down after 17 years, local playwright Lizzie Nunnery celebrates her achievement

I’m 24, sitting in a windowless meeting room in the old Everyman theatre annexe, sharing awkward glances with the other members of the young writers’ group. In sweep Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon (even their names seem glamorous). This is the new artistic director and executive director, all hair and heels and attitude and ideas. These are the women who are leading the transformation of the Everyman and Playhouse theatres and they’ve come to hear how we want that to happen. Us?

It was thrilling. Maybe it seemed too good to be true. In 2003, the Everyman as a vibrant new writing theatre was an old story: something the city once had in the days of Willy Russell and Alan Dossor. Alongside the literary manager, Suzanne Bell, Gemma set out to make it a present reality again.

Bríd Brennan in Lizzie Nunnery’s play Intemperance at the Everyman, Liverpool
Bríd Brennan in Lizzie Nunnery’s play Intemperance at the Everyman, Liverpool. Photograph: Robert Day

I remember with razor-sharp clarity, the production of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Ev in 2004: feeling unable to breathe because the emotion was so high in the room. Then, later that year, laughing and sobbing in equal measure at her treatment of Tony Green’s Liverpool asylum epic, The Kindness of Strangers. This was shared experience. This was vital, transformative storytelling.

In those days I was shy and fairly inarticulate off the page. It would have been easy for Gemma to have overlooked me. But she did what seemed miraculous: she listened. She asked for my ideas and took them seriously. In 2006, when I placed a scrappy draft on her desk, about an impoverished Irish woman in Victorian Liverpool, she didn’t say, “Where are the jokes?” or, “Maybe your next play.” She said, “Let’s work on this together” and plonked that obscurely titled play by an unknown female writer on the great big Everyman stage for three weeks, without any apologies.

Lizzie Nunnery in Liverpool.
Lizzie Nunnery in Liverpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian

Under her direction, Intemperance became an elegant production beyond my furthest imaginings. Sadly, in 2020, that programming seems bolder and more unusual than it did then. But they were bold days. In the Everyman bistro we used to (only half jokingly) talk about world domination for Liverpool’s new writing. Making that show with Gemma made me fall so deeply in love with theatre I’ve never quite recovered. As Springsteen says: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” For me, that was the spark. It was the moment I held my head up and said, “I’m a playwright.” There are countless artists in Liverpool who could tell similar stories.

Seventeen years later, I’m roughly the age Gemma was when I met her, and only now realise what a mountain she had to climb, and how skilfully she scaled it. She was an adventurer throwing her arms open to a city that likes to scrutinise newcomers. There were cynics who thought she wouldn’t hang around past capital-of-culture year. But over time, we forgot she arrived in Liverpool one rainy day in 2003. She’d become part of our landscape.

New writing in Liverpool has not (as yet) achieved world domination. And there are many in Merseyside’s diverse communities who still feel out in the cold – their voices still not heard on stages or in meeting rooms. But God, I hope whoever steps up to the challenge does it with the same energy, big heart and good intentions that Gemma did. Her aim was to make the two theatres feel like home. For so many, she succeeded. As she steps aside, we notice the gaps she worked so hard to fill (for artists, audiences, communities) and the gaps that remain. One era gives birth to the next. Let the sparks fly.

Lizzie Nunnery

The GuardianTramp

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