A YEAR after Eclipse Theatre Company moved to Sheffield they are preparing to unveil their first production since taking up residency at the Crucible Theatre.
They will be presenting a revival of a seminal American play from the Seventies, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, at the Crucible Studio Theatre in September before embarking on a UK tour.
It is being directed by Eclipse’s Artistic Director, Dawn Walton, who was instrumental in forging the partnership with Sheffield Theatres after coming to the Crucible to direct There’s Only One Wayne Matthews in 2010.
Since 2001 Eclipse had built up a reputation for touring black theatre to regional theatres but had never had a permanent base.
“Eclipse started as a consortia of theatre to address the lack of middle-scale black-led work in the regions supported by the Arts Council. It toured productions to its six member theatres and others.
“It has been a quiet revolution, eight years of quietly touring in the regions and playing to more than 100,000 over those years and attracting 29% of new bookers,” observes Walton who came in as its first artistic director in 2008 “with a clear idea of what I wanted to do”.
Discussions with Sheffield Theatres artistic director Daniel Evans identified shared values and a commitment to developing audiences which prompted the collaboration.
At its heart was the opportunity to encourage diversity in theatre-going.
“Our ethos was all about deciding who and what theatre is for,” says Walton. “All types of people can have a shared experience with each other. There’s something universal about storytelling which can be experienced by people from all walks of life, sitting together and having the same experience,” says Walton.
“The Hounding of David Oluwale was a harrowing experience but it was seen by a mixed audience.”
This was Eclipse’s critically acclaimed 2009 production based on the story of the victim of horrific, systematic, police brutality in Leeds in 1969.
Dawn Walton began her career at the Royal Court Theatre, going on to be awarded the Jerwood Young Director’s Award at the Young Vic. She continued to work as a freelance until she spent a year at the National Theatre as head of studio in 2006. It gave her a taste of running her own company.
“As an artistic director you are your own boss which is both scary and rewarding if you get it right,” continues Walton who took an unusual route to a career in theatre.
“I didn’t do theatre as a kid growing up in South East London, I picked up on that much later. Although me and my friends were interested in performing and I always loved radio plays,” she recalls.
“It was going to the Young Vic to see Two. I’d never heard of Jim Cartwright (the playwright), it was to see people off the telly on stage. To see Sheila Grant and Billy Corkhill and I was blown away by Sue Johnson and John McArdle.”
Then working in sales and marketing she “decided to jump” first enrolling at a one-week summer school at Lewisham College which led to a drama foundation course she followed with a drama degree as a mature student at Goldsmith’s College.
That’s when she decided to specialise in directing. “I loved performing but directing made complete and utter sense to me. I suppose it sounds arrogant but I began to feel I could do a better job than some of the people directing me.
“I enjoy the research and working with designers and writers and then with actors who can do amazing things.”
As an artistic director, it is also about choosing work to perform. “I think a play should do two things - educate as well as entertain. I like a debate,” she pronounces.
“The Hounding of David Oluwale was as much a story of the post-war years in British cities. Find me a place that doesn’t have a ring road and suburbs. The politics had highly affected one man in one way, he was part of the ambitions of the city of Leeds. But it also had something to say about the world today. The Ian Tomlinson death happened while we were touring David Oluwale. And Sus was written by Barrie Keefe in 1979 but could just as easily have been about Stop and Search in the 2000s
“I wanted things to have a contemporary resonance. It’s nice to look at something from a distance - across time or across an ocean.”
Which brings us to One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.
“The main impetus was to do a comedy. Facing up to horrible things that can happen on your own doorstep is one thing but I love the sound of people laughing.”
It is the story of a middle class black family in 1970s Philadelphia whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a sassy Southern cousin.
“I stumbled on the play in a book. It jumped out straight away but I had never heard of Don Evans (the playwright),” recounts the director.
“For us here it’s rare to have black middle-class and working class together on stage. What he does is brilliant, he presents stereotypes and then confounds them.
“One of the things that appealed was this fusion. He was clearly influenced by classical theatre and One Monkey takes its cue from Restoration Comedy. The matriarch is Mrs Malaprop (the character from Sheridan’s The Rivals famous for misusing words).
“It’s in the Seventies - post Civil Rights when a black middle class was emerging. It was an interesting time for American politics and history.”
She sees Evans’s characters as pre-cursors of ones that were to come later in American TV sitcoms such as Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the Cosby Show which were important for people of Walton’s background. “I remember the joy for us of seeing black faces on TV in our home in South East London.”
A teacher as well as a playwright, Evans was a contemporary of August Wilson whose plays have been performed in Britain. He died in 2003 but Walton went to America to learn more about him and his background. “I found his family in Philly - one son Orrin is a jazz musician and also to New Jersey where he taught and most of his plays were performed.
“Don wrote for people who watched TV but based it on classical theatre. Once we understood the legacy of this play we decided to introduce a conceit, if that’s the right word.” Audiences will thus experience the sights and sounds of a live television recording with the set built to replicate a live television show with real TV lights and On Air lights. Walton feels “there’s an element of that in the play.”
And it will remain firmly set in the Seventies. “I’m a new writing girl but there are no reasons to move it through time,” she declares.
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show opens at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, from Sat 10 - Sat 24 September before embarking on a UK tour.