These days, theatre fans in Sheffield are spoilt for choice. The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio dominate the city centre. But that’s not to mention the Library Theatre and the Montgomery Theatre. The University has its Drama Studio too, while the Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge is just one of a countless number of hidden gems scattered across the city.
It’s easy then, to forget how lucky we are. Fortunately, the British Library has spent the last few years working on a project to help modern theatregoers appreciate how far British drama has come in the last forty years.
The Theatre Archive Project is led by Professor Dominic Shellard from the University of Sheffield’s English Literature Department. Since 2003, he and a team from the University and the British Library have been building an archive of scripts that were banned before 1968 and documents that tell the story of post-war British theatre.
One key element of the initiative is the Oral History Project. Researchers have travelled far and wide to speak to the people who were involved in theatre in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – from the writers and directors to the staff and the audiences.
Full transcripts of the conversations are up on the British Library’s website, and delving into the archive retell the story of Sheffield’s performing arts scene. It offers a narrative on the development of the city’s theatre industry, as observed by the people who were there to see it.
Barbara Silcock, for example, recalls the suspicious odour of gas that seeped from the Lyceum balconies. She also reminisces on the hugely successful production of The Stirrings In Sheffield On A Saturday Night, which premiered in 1966. The play told the story of the ‘Sheffield Outrages’, as the 19th century struggle between the Saw Grinders’ Union and the non-union labourers came to be known.
The Stirrings was directed by , who was the founding Artistic Director of the Crucible. In his contribution to the archive, he relives the hard work and excitement that led up to the theatre’s opening in 1971.
“Going to Sheffield then, at that time, for me was marvellous, because I had a chance of putting up a new theatre. How many directors get that chance?” he asks.
“The actual story is that the City Council said, ‘we want to build a new theatre’ because Leeds was getting one, Nottingham’s got one, Belgrade Coventry. You know, everybody’s got to be in, and they felt Sheffield shouldn’t be left out,” he said.
The process was a source of some controversy at the time, due to the decision to build a thrust stage, which extends into the audience on three sides.
“We had awful criticism. I mean, Sheffield, I think, now has taken to the theatre, but we didn’t build a theatre; we built a performing space,” said George. “It’s a performing space that’s very powerful.”
After last year’s £15m refurbishment of the Crucible, this power continues to resonate today, and Current Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres Daniel Evans is uniquely placed to soak up this sense of history. When he was recently interviewed for the Oral History Project at the Lyceum, he reflected on his time playing Ariel in in 2002.
“It was amazing to be in a city where the theatre was so respected and so ubiquitous,” he said. “That’s something you don’t get in London because there are so many theatres and because the communities are so disparate.”
This is one of the key elements of the Oral History Project that connects the stories of the past with the sentiments of today – the bond that citizens have with their theatres.
“The people of Sheffield feel very very proud of [Sheffield Theatres] and that is something, as an Artistic Director, that I’m very proud of,” said Evans.
“To hear the history of how this all started and how it transformed the city, and to hear those ideals that lie behind it is truly inspiring.”
These ideals are expressed most poignantly in the words of Christopher Baugh, a leading member of The Society for Theatre Research. In his 2003 interview, he discussed his first trips to the theatre when he was 15 and 16 years old.
“You went to the theatre because you liked the activity of going to the theatre,” he said. “You liked to go along and sit and watch people doing things that you couldn’t do and taking you on a journey.
“The play was a kind of a vehicle for that. In other words, I went along to the theatre not to see a play, because I didn’t know the authors, I didn’t know the titles.
“You went along to the theatre simply because it was an enjoyable thing to do.”
Some things never change.
An interview with Arthur Smith, written for a University project.
Comedian, author, playwright, artist, poet, broadcaster and grumpy old man Arthur Smith brings the story of Daphne Fairfax to Sheffield City Hall.
Arthur Smith has just introduced me to his promoter as the young male prostitute he has ordered to keep him occupied before tonight’s show at the City Hall. Like any great stand-up then, Arthur is constantly in comedy mode, no matter how small the audience.
Tonight’s gig though, is a little different, because it won’t be a traditional stand-up set. It will be a book reading – albeit a very funny one.
For Arthur Smith, there’s one very important difference between literature festivals like Sheffield’s ‘Off The Shelf’ and the comedy circuit he’s spent the last three decade travelling along.
“They seem to have some deal going with literary festivals where you can get people for nothing. It’s partly because writers, of course, don’t get asked out of the house much, but when they’ve got a book out they’re prepared to do anything.
“But as a comedian who is used to being paid for my work, it’s frankly insulting,” Arthur explains, as to why the Cheltenham festival was one of the few literature events he hasn’t appeared at this year.
He has been on the road promoting his first book, an autobiography: ‘My Name Is Daphne Fairfax’. The title itself has its roots in Arthur’s early stand-up routines – Daphne Fairfax was how the comic would introduce himself on-stage, in case any Inland Revenue staff were in the audience.
This just goes to show how Arthur’s comedy background continues to inform the diverse range of projects he has been involved with over the years. As well as a comedian, he is a proven playwright, artist, poet, broadcaster and now, author. With all of that accomplished, why has it taken Arthur so long to write a book?
“I’d always said I wouldn’t write an autobiography, and then a number of events contrived to make me think I would, which were the advance and the fact that this publisher had been pursuing me on and off for fifteen years about a novel that I nearly did.”
His near-death experience when his pancreas exploded in 2001, Arthur admits, was one event that encouraged him to reflect on his life. “I felt I’d kind of done enough to write about,” he surmises.
But after so many years in front of an audience, perhaps disappearing on his own to write 110,000 words of prose wasn’t something that immediately appealed to Arthur?
“In a sense any writing of length is an introverted process because you’re on your own. There’s no lonelier job in a way, than being a writer just sat by yourself hour after hour.”
He hasn’t been put off entirely by the process though: “I don’t know if I want to write a novel but I do want to write prose again. But then I’ve not written a play for a while. But then I might do something completely different; I might become a ballet dancer.”
He spots the corners of my mouth curling. “You’re right to smirk, because I think certainly my accountant wouldn’t be up for me becoming a ballet dancer,” he admits.
“I could write a screenplay, or maybe make a little film. I like to have a lot of possibilities. I like to do what interests me, especially if they pay me, otherwise I like to do a lot of voiceovers rather than doing what interests me.”
It is this broad range of interests that makes Arthur’s story a fascinating one to see retold live. Unlike other authors at book festivals, there is more to his show than watching Arthur reading passages from his book. There are anecdotes, bits of stand-up routines, poems and even songs, from his 2000 show, ‘Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen’.
“It comes naturally to me. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a suit, sat a table with my head down just reading,” he explains, indicating that his background in stand-up gives his readings a performative element that other authors lack. “I’m always frankly amazed when you get an author who’s actually a good performer too, because most of them aren’t.”
This gives Arthur an incentive to be imaginative with his readings. “I keep experimenting with different bits from the book to do, different ways of presenting, because I could just do readings but I kind of think I should level it with a more informal approach.
“Because of course when you’re reading your head’s down, you’re still, so it’s not such a theatrical experience as if you’re walking about, waving, looking at the audience and farting. Although you can fart and read obviously.”
Despite this, he finds the book festivals a little more straight-forward than the comedy gigs he’s used to, “because you’re not duty bound to be getting laughs all the time at a literary festival, which as a comedian you are.
“And also you don’t have to learn it – you can be reading your own book.”
The audiences, too, offer a fresh challenge. “I think also a literary audience are a little more indulgent in a way. With a comedy audience, if you don’t make them laugh they’re pissed off. A literary audience, it’s a more nebulous thing, and they’re probably a more thoughtful crowd, and probably less pissed.”
In general though, Arthur feels that literature festival’s are effective at bringing books to life. “Obviously books mostly are read privately in your own head and there’s a different dynamic obviously when you’re reading it out loud. I think book festivals are a good opportunity to bring readers together.
“Reading is just as much a solitary process as writing. Book festivals are the one time when readers and writers can meet each other, and in a sense that’s not what books are for, but sometimes you want to go to the party in the next room when you’re sick of twelve hours sitting in the other room.”
Arthur Smith however, get his own perks out of book festivals: “Cash, sex, drugs, young journalists interviewing me, trip out of town, excuse to get out the house, chance to put my suit on. It’s life.”
A feature on Sheffield-based poetry zine and live music night Unquiet Desperation, written for a university project.
People tell Mike Drabble that he sounds like an 18-year-old who’s just gone to university. His response? “Well, so what?”
He’s not just a smart-arse student though. He’s a philosophy teacher, a creative writing teacher and most interestingly, he’s the founder of Unquiet Desperation – whatever that might be.
“It’s not just a music night. It’s not just a poetry mag,” he says, though it is both of those things. But there is also a wider philosophy that underpins UD: “It’s about removing the illusions that we battle every day and seeing through to something deeper.”
Mike finds it easiest to explain UD in terms of ‘memetics’, which explains culture in the same way that genetics explains biology. Cultural ‘memes’ – poems, books, songs, paintings – are like scraps of DNA that combine to create a cultural organism or ‘memeplex’.
Which is a good way of explaining the monthly Unquiet Desperation Presents… nights in Sheffield, which are usually found at Bungalows & Bears. Show up and you’ll find bands on stage, artists working on canvasses, surrealist cinema projected on to the walls and aspiring writers working on poetry and prose to submit to the next zine. When dreamy folk songstress Alessi’s Ark appeared in February, there was even a tombola where you could win a Belle & Sebastian album (which in a way, says it all).
So UD isn’t just a music night, nor is it just a poetry mag. It’s an art studio, a cinema showcase, a writers’ workshop and an unashamedly twee village fete as well. It’s a… you know… a memeplex.
Local promoter Jeremy Arblaster is largely responsible for the nights, but Mike has been responsible for the bigger UD project since early 2006. “In Al-Qaeda terms I’m the spiritual leader,” he says, deadpan.
Following in the Beat tradition of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Mike decided to set up a mag where he could publish his students’ work. With Sheffield as his base, he began distributing UD in the local bars. Word started to spread, and thanks to the website, it started to spread globally. Within a year and a half, UD had gone international, with local editions in Australia and North America – including three editions in New Jersey alone. In a good month, 20,000 copies of the mag get printed, well outstripping any other UK poetry publication.
This success, it seems, is based on the deeply rooted concept of UD. “It’s about giving people more and giving people a chance to get out of their lives, but it retains the educational and altruistic element it always has had,” Mike says. “It’s all about giving people an opportunity.”
So UD offers people the chance to explore the limits of their own creativity. Contributors are
uncensored, as long as they’re driven solely by their own artistic impulse. There are no vested interests, which means that the zine has never carried advertising or benefitted from grant money, and never will. When I ask Mike how it’s funded, he pulls out his Barclaycard and asks me not to publish exactly how much debt he’s in.
What I will say is the figure is high enough to question the logic of resolute ideology. For Mike though, the relationship between art and money simple: “Too much art in Sheffield is people in offices around the Showroom Cinema [the heart of the so-called ‘Cultural Industries Quarter’] handing out money. They’ve got a 2.2 from some minor university in some arts subject and that qualifies them to control the lifeblood of the arts industry.
“Art has to come from the grassroots.” But life in the grassroots isn’t easy when every other artist in Yorkshire is being bankrolled by the Arts Council. Rejecting cold cash is something that few creatives seem willing to do.
“A lot of people like the idea of what we are saying,” says Mike, “but when it comes to actually doing it they find out how difficult it is and how much temerity it takes.” In other words, they give up on creativity for its own sake, because the rewards are too abstract. It’s much easier to be an artist when you’re only doing it to get paid or get laid, even if it does ultimately corrupt your work.
UD though, is the exception. It thrives internationally, beyond the zeitgeist and unhindered by market dynamics. The zine is on a temporary hiatus, as Mike prepares a new volume, but the UD Presents… nights will continue, and there are plans for poetry nights and creative writing workshops.
Unquiet Desperation, after all, is bigger than a 12-page booklet: “When UD withers, as eventually it will, the ideas will still be there,” Mike contends. But these ideas can’t be bought or sold – only read, watched or heard.
Unquiet Desperation Presents…