Festival Theatre 2014: The Beginnings

“To Russia With Love: Stage” writers (left to right) Adam Zane, Chris Hoyle, Rob Ward and Stephen M Hornby

This post by, National Theatre Coordinator Stephen M Hornby, looks at the genesis of what we now term “Festival Theatre.”

In February 2014, I produced a night of political protest plays in Manchester called “To Russia With Love: Stage”.  To mark the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Manchester’s LGBT+ theatre community presented 24 hours of protest and performance to draw attention to homophobia in the host country.   The aim was to send a message of love and support to the LGBT community in Russia. The event featured “To Russia With Love: Street” an alternative opening ceremony in Manchester’s gay village and “To Russia With Love: Stage” (TRWL) a performance of new writing as part of a local queer arts festival.

I was then the Artistic Director of VADA LGBTQ Community Theatre and just beginning to take my writing for stage more seriously, having won a place on a new MA course in Playwrighting at the University of Salford, starting that September.  I’d also meet Jeff Evans from LGBT History Month after he’d given one of his talks on the criminalisation of homosexualty.  We’d started to talk about the possibilities for dramatising some cases he’d been researching for his PhD, along with Ric Brady, another member of VADA.

The flyer for #TRWL

For TRWL, I’d been successful at securing an Arts Council of England grant, a vital ingredient for any possible future drama that LGBT HM might produce, and I’d written one of the pieces for the night, a thirty minute play called “One Abstention” directed by David Mansell, who was then a Script Editor on Coronation Street.

Stephen M Hornby (left) and director David Mansell (right) celebrate selling out #TRWL

With Jeff coming to see the plays, a lot rested on whether he thought the night in general, and my piece specifically, was any good.  Thankfully, not only did we sell out, which pleased Jeff enormously, but he was also suitably impressed with the artistic quality of the work, and some more serious and detailed discussions began.

Jeff felt that the case of 47 men who were arrested in a police raid on a drag ball Hulme (a district of central Manchester) in September 1880 looked liked promising material.  He had all the original press reports of the case, which had been a national sensation at the time, as well as detailed census data on all the 47 men arrested, showing their ages, occupations and living arrangements in the years before and after their arrests.  The raid had been led by Detective Jermome Caminada, himself a fascinating Victorian detective (and arguably a model for Sherlock Holmes).  The case occured at the same time as the Acting Chief Constable of Manchester, Charles Wood, received his promotion.  Was that really a concidence?  There seemed like a wealth of material and a number of potentially strong directions to take the work in dramatically.

After some debate, three separate strands emerged from the research phase to go into development, which would form a three part play.  Below are the intial plans that Ric Brady and I worked up with their original working titles.  This has never been publised anywhere before:

  • Part 1: The Drag Ball Raid: a theatrical happening at an LGBT Manchester venue on Canal Street. We will recreate the Police raid complete with Victorian Drag Queens being arrested by Victorian Policemen. The incongruity between a modern venue and period characters is a deliberate device to stimulate interest in a ‘never seen before’ event. All the images taken will be deliberately mirror some of the Victorian illustrations of the ball and will be used as part of the social media campaign
  • Part 2: Detective Caminada a theatrical vignette at Manchester Central Library and Manchester Detective Office, focusing on the institutional politics between Detective Caminada (the lead detective of the raid) and Charles Malcolm Wood (Manchester’s Chief Constable) and the emerging relationship between the press and the Police, as they struggle with each other over how crime and the city are portrayed.
  • Part 3: The Cells & The Court: an immersive theatre piece at the Greater Manchester Police Museum (formerly the Newton Street Police Station), where audience members are treated as though they are the arrested ball attendees. They will be led through the charging procedure, placed in a cell with one of the defendants (an actor in character) and be part of a scene in the on-site Victorian Court (formerly Denton Police Court), in which the drag queens are in the dock. We hope to have key LGBT historians and academics playing extras in this court scene.

We certainly had a great deal of ambition, but as plans progressed, it became clear that several of the above ideas either wouldn’t work in practice or would be prohibitively expensive to realise.  Some rethinking was done, but what emerged in 2015, I would argue, enabled a wider audience to be reached and had a different but equally strong set of historical resonances.

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