Freedom Studios on North Country, a post apocalyptic play set in Bradford

North Country by Freedom Studios

North Country by Freedom Studios - Credit: Archant

Freedom Studios are a theatre company that give us a different view to how we watch theatre. Rob Gemmell spreaks to Co-Artistic Director, Alex Chisholm, and writer, Tajinder Singh Heyer, about their new play that sees Bradford witness the end of the world.

Within minutes of speaking to Alex Chisholm, the Co-Artistic Director of Bradford based theatre company, Freedom Studios, it was evident that her knowledge of not only the theatre, but the communities around us was vast. Freedom Studios was born from an idea involved particularly around British Asians living in Bradford and how the talents they had could be showcased. “We’re a theatre company who make work in unusual spaces. We develop new diverse talent and work with young people and communities and bring people into the art.” Alex begins to tell me. “Freedom Studios evolved out of Asian Theatre School which was set up at the end of the 1990’s because there weren’t any Asian actors coming out of West Yorkshire that could be cast. There was clearly people with talent, but without a route through.” Asian Theatre School became a project from Leeds based theatre company, Red Ladder. Alex takes up the story. “Red Ladder really developed Asian Theatre School. They made it really strong and a lot of good Asian actors emerged from the school at that time. It became Freedom Studios in 2007 which was a separate company from Red Ladder, moved to Bradford and its remits broadened. It was previously focused on performer training with doing production. Then, when it became Freedom Studios it broadened to incorporate, not just British Asian actors or stories or writers, but more broadly the diversity of people who were in Bradford. The actor development side had come and gone and that was something we wanted to do more of. One of the Associate Artists we’ve just brought on is Natalie Davis who is in ‘North Country’ will be starting to run actor training workshops for Freedom Studios.”

Alex hopes that Freedom Studios won’t only offer a different way in which to view the theatre, but to give opportunity to young people in the area to become involved. “We’re living in a really interesting time. People can access information and entertainment in different ways. It feels important that there is a core of the work which is creating live events and there is a whole range of ways that we communicate with people and how they inter-relate with them and the work they do. That is what naturally ties back into live events. People may start following music because they hear a track somewhere or they stream it and then they start listening to more of it and it would then encourage them to go and see the music live. We’re trying to think really creatively about the ways in which they can be present and communicating and presenting work in people’s lives.”

The key element of some of the work Alex does with Freedom Studios centres around the young British Asians of Bradford. “We want to be offering really clear pathways for people to follow their interests. If they see something they like or come along to a workshop there are many different ways of being involved. We encourage people to write in with their views on what future Bradford will be and then we share those stories. It might only be a line that people send in, but at least they are contributing to work.”

The theme of Bradford is also how she became involved with their next piece of work, ‘North Country’ written by Bradford born writer, Tajinder Singh Heyer. “Taj had been working on the play for a few years. He has particular interest in genre writing like sci-fi and horror from a British Asian perspective. He started work on the story within the recession which is interesting from the perspective of Bradford as they didn’t have that recovery that other people had to fall from, so it was a natural fitting for a post-apocalyptic play.” Alex’s involvement came before she was a part of Freedom Studios. She has known Taj for a long time since she used to work at West Yorkshire Playhouse and he was part of the early writing groups. She put him on an attachment scheme and then directed his second play. Alex continues the story. “He approached asking if they would do a read through as part of the PlayWROUGHT scheme at the Arcola Theatre, so we did a couple of days work on it back in 2015. When Aisha (Aisha Khan – Joint Co-Artistic Director) and I applied for Freedom Studios, this play was one that we would talk about during interviews as that was an example of the type of work we want to do and the things that we are interested in. It is the development and promotion of Bradford Artists and Bradford Stories. Tajinder is born and bred in Bradford and the play is set in Bradford. The play is very suitable playing in a non-theatre space as it creates an immersive experience. It focuses on young people and it is suitable for reaching out to new audiences, particularly to people who wouldn’t consider themselves as theatre-goers.”

‘North Country’ is a post- apocalyptic play centered on three multi-cultural young people in Bradford, Nusrat, Harvinder and Jason, how they survive the apocalypse and the world they build in Bradford afterwards. It examines what happens to people and communities under stress, what it does to people’s identities and what happens when these communities come in contact with each other. In the journey from old to new world, what does each person chose to keep of their culture, and what has to be thrown away.

I asked the writer, Tajinder Singh Heyer about how the inspiration for the story was formed. “I think it came from wandering (and wondering) around Bradford. I’d come across a disused factory with a shrubs growing through the guttering or I’d find a patch of concrete that was slowly becoming meadow. It seemed natural, therefore, that my mind turned to post-apocalyptic ideas. It was set in Bradford because I grew up in the city and it still informs much of my writing. There was also the bloody-mindedness of it – ‘Why not set a post-apocalyptic play in Bradford?’ The genre also allows me to explore the subjects I’ve previously written about – memory, identity, belonging etc – in a novel context. It’s not aimed at one particular person, but I’m a great believer in the type of specificity that gives a believable heft to a play. So, if you’re familiar with the geography of Bradford, you’ll notice details in North Country; if you’re multi-lingual, you’ll pick up some cues; if you know West Yorkshire, you might find yourself recognising elements. However, if you’re none of these things, you’ll still take away something else.”. It’s a play about communities in a time of scarcity. This seems particularly apt given the way the past eight years have gone in this country; it’s also apt given the economic problems that Bradford has grappled with since the 1980s. So, I hope that the unfamiliar context of the post-apocalypse makes the audience consider the way that identifiers of ethnicity, race and nation are being used in contemporary society; how are they being used to unify and divide?

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Tajinder’s connection with Alex Chisholm goes back several years, so the decision to work with her and Freedom Studios was a simple one. “They’re a Bradford-based company noted for really engaging with local communities and settings; it made absolute sense to work with them. I’d also worked with the co-Artistic Director, Alex Chisholm, before at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I’ve known Alex for nearly fourteen years. She was Literary Manager at the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the start of my career; she’s directed my work there, but also helped develop ‘North Country’ at the Arcola Theatre in 2014. So I owe her a lot, and, over the years, we’ve got used to how each other works. Alex has a huge amount of knowledge about theatre, and a laser-guided intelligence that allows her to identify and fix flaws in a script. However, it was really Freedom Studios who chose me rather than the other way round; they decided to take a punt on the play and I’m very grateful to them.”

Tajinder’s skill in writing for the theatre is strongly linked to the future of our country, but I asked him what his vision of the future of theatre was. “I teeter between optimism and worry. The part of me that is excited sees a whole wave of genre-inspired work coming into the theatre, bringing new fans in with it. The worried side thinks it might be hard for those who are not independently-wealthy to break into professional theatre; I was one of the first members of my family to do an arts-based degree and I wonder, if I faced with the same levels of debt as contemporary students, would I have been confident enough to make that same choice now?”

For now, Tajinder hopes that ‘North Country’ might have a bit more life in it beyond this production run; “I’m going to see if I can adapt it for radio. Away from the post-apocalypse, I’m going to write some ghost stories for the theatre.”

North Country opens on 26 October and runs until 5 November 2016 at The Wild Woods in Bradford.