Graeme Thompson Live Theatre's Creative Producer and Director of Shine on the development of this new play
It’s the fourth and final week of rehearsals and I am happy. I’m excited at the way this show is shaping up. It feels very different to anything I’ve done before. That’s because it is.
I first started working at Live Theatre in 2014. I had moved back to Newcastle for the job, to the region I grew up in. A place I called home. What excited me the most about this new job was that I’d be telling the stories of the people from that region. After all, telling stories from the North East is what Live Theatre is famous for.
I felt I knew where I was coming home to and that I’d know what those stories might be. But I had left the North East in 2000 and on coming back it wasn’t the same place I had expected or remembered. Time had passed, a lot of change had taken place. This meant having to really open my eyes and get reacquainted with the region, the people, the community. Telling these stories was going to be a journey of discovery and five years later, wonderfully, it still is.
There has been no bigger journey of discover then working with Kema Sikazwe, or Kema Kay as he’s known when making music. Kema was introduced to me through the Slate programme. Co-ordinated by Eclipse Theatre, Slate is a fantastic programme that has been running for the last three years connecting black artists in the North with arts organisations and networks. Kema had recently starred in Ken Loach’s film, I Daniel Blake and was keen to develop his acting skills. We chatted, put together a few ideas for actor training opportunities… and that was that. It wasn’t until a random chance meeting at a local community festival that I saw Kema performing his music. I was blown away by his energy, his lyricism and how much the crowd were enjoying it. Not to mention the number of fans waiting for him after the gig. I joined the eager queue and when I got my chance to speak to him, suggested we made a show mixing his music and theatre. It was on!
We started with some very early versions of a script. Kema had told me he had a very interesting life story, but I wasn’t quite ready for what I heard. This was a story spread over thousands of miles from Zambia to Newcastle. It was a story of family feuds, political murder, starting new lives, about not being accepted, hardship and the loss of family members. It was real, it had all happened, and I was surprised such a young lad could have such a huge story to tell. I was also really impressed with how he was able to distance himself enough to see his own experience as a story that needed to be told. Many other people would have to process these types of experiences for years before they could articulate it as a piece of art. We also talked a lot about growing up and school life. Kema grew up in the West End of Newcastle and I grew up Prudhoe, Northumberland. These are two very different places and there is a bit of a (big) age difference between us, but it was really interesting and surprising that we could share so many similar stories.
We set about creating the show and the first aim was to perform a scratch at Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival in 2018. A scratch is a short version of a larger show, a chance to try things out a get a sense of an audience’s reaction. The audience liked it. One thing I love about working with artists at Live Theatre is letting the artists and their stories breath and grow. Giving them space (and I don’t just mean a free room) and time to make their work backed up with specific support and resource. I’ve worked in artist development for 15 years now and I know the experience of artists in these processes can be very different. Amongst all the fantastic work that gets done they can also be those negative experiences. Artist development can be a difficult and delicate process for everyone. It often (but not always) involves working with younger or early career artists not entirely sure what path to take and organisations offering support can often have their own pressures. Sometimes the circumstances can leave artists feeling exposed or exploited.
Putting artists at the centre of any development process and creating work in a positive environment is what gets the best results. That is why Live Theatre set out, through its Elevator Programme, to create an artist development process centred on making genuine offers to artists through long-term relationships. Live Theatre engages with hundreds of theatre artists each year and offers a range of support and development on a number of different levels. From open access events such as script windows, open castings and short play opportunities the Elevator Programme enables artists to get to know Live Theatre and for Live Theatre it’s an opportunity to get to know artists and their creativity. Workshops and practical courses give artists the opportunity to grow, make friends, create networks and spark collaboration. More focused development is offered through tailored support such as bursaries and seed commissions which can offer, the often most needed, financial support and help set ideas in motion. It’s a development process that invests in theatre artists. An investment to enable them to tell their stories and create bold diverse contemporary new plays that speak to contemporary audiences. Working with Kema and creating Shine is a glowing example of that.
The show Kema has created is unique and personal. Moving from Zambia to Newcastle’s West End and being the only black kid in his community. His Life. His story. But Shine is also a coming of age story about a young person growing up in Newcastle. It’s about a young person growing up. It’s about anyone who has ever struggled. It's about anyone who has ever felt lost, alone or that they didn’t fit in. It's about how you deal with the dark times, and how you find the light. It’s about self-belief and chasing your dreams. It takes us to places many of us have never been before, but hopefully where we will find something familiar. What is important about this type of story is that we see ourselves or we see what we didn’t know or hadn’t realised. That is the power of stories. You may think you know a place; you may think you know a person or a type of person. But there is always something new to explore or discover. They connect us to who we are and where we are from. Telling stories is a journey of discovery or rediscovery. In this case it’s a story of the Newcastle I can remember and the Newcastle I’ve never seen.
Shine has its World Premiere at Live Theatre from Thu 2 - Sat 11 May 2019. Graeme and Kema will be doing a FREE Meet the Artist Post Show Talk after the performance at 7.30pm on Tues 9 May, free for ticket holders that evening. Find out more and book tickets here.
Shine transfers to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from Thu 16 - Sat 18 May, and there is a FREE Meet the Performer Post Show Talk after the performance on Thu 16 May with both Graeme and Kema. Information and tickets for Shine at The Traverse here