It’s a relatively rainy Wednesday morning and I’m huddled on a slightly sticky tram to Exchange Square. Just like every rehearsal day so far, I’m en route to the Royal Exchange kitted out in my gym clothes, or more precisely, clothes I don’t mind getting covered in sweat and dust. We Were Told There Was Dancing is a site-specific, promenade production and thus far rehearsals have had the cast and directing team exploring the secret location in extremely physical and dynamic ways. The production follows the changing attitudes to Gay Rights over the last 50 years and will be devised by the whole cast and creative team, lead by Director Matt Hassall and Associate Director Josie Hepplewhite. I’ve been lucky enough to bag the role of Assistant Director after a year training with Matt and other Royal Exchange Creatives as one of their Young Directors. This particular rainy Wednesday marks the half-way point in our creative process and with only a week and a half left before we go in to our tech and dress rehearsals it seems like a good point to take stock and look at what has happened so far...

The Team

Our cast is made up of Young Company members as well as other young performers who have been involved in previous community chorus' in The Suppliant Women and Fatherland. About half the company were already well acquainted with each other before rehearsals began and a few entered day one feeling less familiar and understandably pretty nervous. Today, watching the actors ‘Viewpoint’ (a technique Matt uses to physically explore a space) in one of our dark and dusty spaces, you would never have guessed that less than two weeks ago these were the same nervous actors. Matt works throughout the year with the Young Company at the Royal Exchange and has an incredible way of harnessing and developing talent whilst creating a professional environment at all times. Similarly, our Creative Team is a combination of Royal Exchange professionals and Young Technicians. Before beginning this process I admit I wondered if a production created by professionals alongside young people could ever live up to the standard of work that is consistently seen at The Royal Exchange. It didn’t take long to realise that this wouldn’t be an issue. When you think about it, it’s pretty obvious why it works. Making work in this way (site specific/immersive/promenade/about 60 years of history) means the whole process is a huge learning experience for everyone involved and, as a result, is constantly generating unexpected ideas. Everyone brings something different which brings something fresh to rehearsal. There's a willingness to play, get it all wrong, and try again until they hit something golden.

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The Space

Unlike most plays that appear at The Royal Exchange, this one won't be taking place in The Theatre or The Studio.

Audiences will be invited to a secret basement location and from there, lead through abandoned tunnels, rooms and derelict spaces.

In the last decade, these areas have never been open to the public and this will be the only piece of theatre to have ever been performed there. There are over eight different spaces, all of them steeped in history and character. One of the areas is just a wall away from the now-disused public toilet in St Ann's Square; a place where many gay men would meet during the days where homosexuality was still illegal and a place where many were arrested. Walking through these spaces feels like you’re walking with ghosts from the past. With most gay clubs and hang-outs in the 50s being underground to avoid police attention, this set is so pertinent to the production. It’s fascinating watching Matt and the cast create scenes and moments that are born straight from the fabric of this building.

The Process

Often, when you start a devised piece of theatre there’s an overwhelming worry of ‘where on earth are we going with this?’ If fear has been running through Matt’s mind, you wouldn’t be able to tell. The first few days were spent really getting to grips with how this company would work as an ensemble. Activities have ranged from lightning speed improv games to silently moving round the space with your eyes closed while balancing bamboo on your head. Sound a bit strange? Well, these exercises mean that the cast are working with an incredible level of focus and awareness alongside an uninhibited excitement and playfulness. Once the ensemble started to feel more solidified, we began to generate the material we will be using in the production. While we’ve looked at the huge moments in LGBTQ+ history, something that has really emerged from rehearsals have been the hidden stories of every day people. Our rehearsal room walls are covered in questions, laws, poems, love letters and photographs of gay couples, bars, and protests from the last century. Overwhelmingly, it’s clear that We Were Told There Was Dancing is becoming a collection of people’s stories that need to be told.

This is not a play that dances around the overarching themes of gay rights and equality. Instead, it’s becoming a production that has real people’s thoughts, fears, needs, and excitements at its heart.

It invites us to travel through space and time to experience what it's like to fall in love with someone of the same gender in a world that doesn't allow this love to flourish.

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What Next

This afternoon we’re having a two hour chat with a range of LGBTQ+ figures from our community to get first hand stories from the last 50 years. Beyond this, I couldn’t tell you what the plan is. Every rehearsal we turn up ready to play, talk, move, and experiment. In general terms we know what the play’s journey looks like but there’s still so many specifics yet to solidify. The thing is, in another play, with another company, you’d start to panic. In this case, it’s quite the opposite. You work in this rehearsal room surrounded by a group of people who are so resolute on working together to tell these stories and finally allow them to be told. The next week and a half is going to require its fair share of caffeine but you just know it’s going to be worth it. Now, if you don’t mind I’m going to stop writing and get back to rehearsals - there’s too much going on to miss any more!


We Were Told There Was Dancing runs at the Royal Exchange 17-20 August '17