Without Walls TALKS: Taking it to the streets by Liz Mytton

19 July 2023

Liz Mytton, Creative Director of Theatre In Flow on community and A Newby Square Love Story

Liz is Creative Director of Theatre In Flow CIC, a cultural organisation that works with marginalised communities in the north of England. Liz is a playwright, coach and facilitator and also has over 25 years experience of working in social housing, tenant engagement and mental health support.

I remember the first time I saw a theatre performance. I was 4 or 5 years old and a touring company came to our council estate to perform in the local community centre car park. Most of the show took place on a bus (it was raining outside) and I think there were princesses, poison and maybe a witch. It was 40 plus years ago so the details are vague, but I do recall booing, cheering and feeling delighted that such high stakes drama had arrived in our little corner of the world.

Bradford in the 1970s was hardly a hotbed of entertainment and in poor neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in, outings like this were rare, but the unadulterated magic I felt on being immersed in the action has never left me. I knew from a young age that I wanted to make this kind of magic myself, to bring that wow factor to others like me.

‘I love working within the constraints of a particular site, of transforming the ordinary.

Fast forward several decades and I’m still bowled over by the possibilities of outdoor theatre. I love working within the constraints of a particular site, of transforming the ordinary – a wall, a bench, a path – into a backdrop for a newly emerging story. I love taking action onto the streets for audiences who don’t often make it into a traditional theatre space. I also love the unique challenge and opportunity presented by some sites to tell something of its own story so the site becomes a character in itself. I’ve had the privilege of working on several site specific projects for outdoor audiences.

In 2016, I was introduced to Talking Birds in the East Midlands who commissioned me to write an outdoor show called The Female Warrior which was performed in the gardens of The Royal Fusiliers museum in Warwick. I also wrote a piece for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford Upon Avon, entitled The Festival of Lost and Found, guided by Talking Bird’s commitment to recognising the creative value of a site – the circular garden as a stage, the mulberry trees as a canopy for action. We continued our relationship, co-creating a series of immersive walking tours called Walk With Me, which sought to stimulate cultural and heritage conversations within ordinary communities in Coventry. Each walk would highlight interesting facts about each neighbourhood, illuminating local histories using the device of a fictional narrator who would act as a tour guide. It was theatre dressed up as a tour which incorporated music and tech elements. The tours presented a brilliant opportunity for people not only to access a high-quality theatre experience but also to see themselves represented – their local history, their addresses, people who looked like them.

Our starting point was always the community themselves, consulting on content, incorporating their anecdotes, using verbatim narratives and honouring the most humble of locations. In return, I was introduced to hidden histories, long forgotten characters and was able to discover the wondrous pedigree of numerous derelict buildings!

‘I would personally love to see more outdoor work that reflects the north of England with its rich, green landscape, villages and hills and its ethnically diverse communities who are often unseen in these locations.’

As a Bradfordian, I have been doing some digging into my own history as a second generation migrant, with parents who came from Jamaica in the 1960s. My parents settled in Bradford and found their home on a council estate called Newby Square. Black families flocked there and for twenty years, until it was demolished in 1986, it was a vibrant, supportive community. I knew this anecdotally, but when I started to research (or Google) Newby Square, all I could find was loads of negative articles about crime, poor housing, police intervention – it was a one track narrative that was miles away from the place I remembered from my childhood.

I decided to make a documentary exploring the memories of the black community. I interviewed several families who generously shared their stories. I decided to create a theatre piece, and to make it participatory, not just so the audience could become characters and immerse themselves in the action, but also as an act of corporate catharsis. I knew from the feedback on the documentary that there was value in this process of reminiscence and there had be scant opportunity to do so in other spaces. We (Theatre In Flow) decided to create our performance, which we called A Newby Square Love Story, on the original site of the estate. We used a central community centre that was once home to the black community as a hub, and created a promenade-style showing around the outside of the building.

Two people are stood in a garden around a raised garden bed wearing light khaki coloured clothing. They are looking intensely at each other while one is standing and the other is crouched with a trowel in the garden bed.

What I took from the experience was that we (as black people) have stories that are rarely told outside of the narrow lens of racism or hardship. As working class people of colour, our histories are subordinate to white working class narratives so it is these tales that I am particularly motivated to tell – partly because I have lived them and also because they are rich, vibrant, courageous and inspiring. Working outdoors gives us a broad canvas to project on, but it’s also a recognition of the fact that black people, be they of African or Caribbean heritage, are largely outdoor people. Despite the term ‘urban’ being widely adopted as a synonym for ‘black’, we have our roots in rural areas, in nature, on the land. I would personally love to see more outdoor work that reflects this, particularly in the north of England with its rich, green landscape, villages and hills and its ethnically diverse communities who are often unseen in these locations.

Having said that, I see the neighbourhoods of Bradford, and Rochdale where I now live, as ripe for potential performance spaces. These are the places where vulnerable people live, who are marginalised by poverty and multiple disadvantage – our next performance will be a mental health march around Rochdale town centre led by migrant women, which will be a multicoloured site to behold. At Theatre In Flow, we are committed to listening to their voices and supporting them to make their stories known, to literally take them to the streets.

Image credits:
Banner and Featured image – A Newby Square Love Story, Theatre In Flow