Middle Child Theatre is a Hull-based company creating gig theatre which fuses live music with new writing “for audiences who think they don’t like theatre”.
The company invited us to sit in on the rehearsals for their new work I Hate Alone, and we chatted to founder and Artistic Director Paul Smith about how Middle Child was born and the company’s big ambitions for the future.
Watch highlights from the interview in the short film above, and read a fuller version below.
Where does the company’s name come from?
"Middle Child" refers to a quote from Fight Club. We felt like it really summed up how we felt as a generation at the time. We were in our early 20s when we first set up, and the quote talks about being the middle child generation. We felt at the time that that was what we were becoming as a generation: this forgotten, ignored middle child who had to shout loudly to be heard. The company formed in 2010, when the coalition government had just come in, and the whole country just felt a bit strange. It felt like we didn't really have a place, or a “thing”, or a role yet. We are middle children in every way; in reality, none of us are actually middle children in our family, but certainly, politically and socially, we do feel like we are middle children.
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” - Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
How did the company form?
The company formed out of Hull University – everybody who is a company member went to Hull University and studied drama. After university, I went to study directing at LAMDA where we had a visit from Mike Bradwell, who used to run the Bush Theatre in London, and who set up the original Hull Truck Theatre. I remember him talking about how new companies should steal a van, squat in a building, and just make some theatre, and that was something that really chimed with me, because I've always felt that theatre can make a real difference to communities.
I wanted to try and build a company that could actually make a difference and make the world a better place by existing. So I went to the pub, and put together this big document of ideas, chatted to a few of the other guys who are now company members, and came up with a manifesto for how we could make something happen that we care about at a young age. We spent ages working for free.
We spent ages making work that wasn't good enough and that didn't quite find its style. But certainly, in the last few years, I think we've really found what that is: we've managed to combine our political aims with our personal ambitions.
You’ve all lived and worked in other places. What drew you back to Hull?
We love Hull. When we were at university, we fell in love with the city. When we went away, we went to London or we went to various other cities, and we just didn't quite find that “thing” that Hull has that's really hard to quantify. It’s personable, people are supportive and kind and honest and straight with you. So you can't fake it in Hull. People smell it a mile off. That reflects in its theatre scene and in its music scene. It felt like there was lots to be discussed here, lots of untold stories to be discovered and to be shared. Basically, it's as far away from London as we could get – not just geographically.
I think the question for us was "Why not Hull?" Because we love the place. We feel like there was a genuine need and desire for this kind of art to be made here.
How would you describe ‘gig theatre’, and Middle Child’s take on the form?
What we're trying to do with gig theatre is to make a good night out with big ideas in it. So it's not necessarily about just throwing a guitar into the story. It's a holistic approach to the making of the work. It's live and it's loud, but it's also a social event that is there in that moment – you don't know what's going to happen, you might meet the love of your life at this event, or you might go out with a group of mates and have a dance but also hear a really great story that makes you think about the world that you're about to go back out into.
The question we always want to answer with our work is: how do we make people feel as comfortable in theatre as they do at a gig? We want audiences to take ownership of the experience and act like they would if they were going to see their favourite musician or stand-up comedian. Theatre shouldn't be any different to that – it shouldn't put up any more barriers.
Tell us about your rehearsal space.
The space that we're in now used to be an old pub called Darleys. When it closed down, The Goodwin Development Trust bought it and turned it into a youth club downstairs, then brilliantly gave us the room upstairs to rehearse in. So, it's been our rehearsal space for six years now and there's also a community radio station next door.
The rehearsal space is over the road from a housing estate, and we’re really keen to connect with the community and invite them into what we're doing. It just feels like the perfect place to do what we do. We've been incredibly fortunate because one of the hardest things for new companies is finding space to make what you want to do, and the cost of rehearsal space in places like London is an absolute killer.
Can you tell us about the work you’re rehearsing at the moment?
It’s called I Hate Alone and it’s about two women who take revenge on the world that's wronged them. They make a list of all the people who they believe are responsible for their dissatisfaction with their own lives, and they reclaim power, take back from them and try to feel better about it. It’s about the stories that we tell ourselves, and the pressures we put on our lives.
It’s about how we should improve our situation if we're not happy with it, and how we should move forward with our lives. Alongside that, it's also a love story between friends; two people who need each other, and who have this sometimes toxic, sometimes beautiful, friendship.
It’s by Ellen Brammar, who is a Middle Child company member, and it's her first play. I'm really excited that we're able to do it because Ellen only started writing a year ago, and she's fantastic. This play is now getting published and going on tour, and it's just really nice that Ellen turned to writing as a result of being a member of Middle Child.
It’s the first work in your new Plug-and-Play programme. Can you tell us about Plug-and-Play?
We’re trying to reinvent how theatre tours and travels. We're so aware that lots of theatre is too expensive to travel, and the methodology of how stuff is transported is either too expensive or just a bit outdated. With our Plug-and-Play strand, we’re borrowing from travelling musicians to make festival-sized work that can pop up at Latitude, or at Glastonbury, or at the Edinburgh French Festival, as well as local music venues. It can be put in within 20 minutes, it can happen, it can disappear, and there can be DJ on while people are still clapping.
It’s about reaching audiences that maybe want a more casual experience, and who don't enjoy the risk that often comes with going to the theatre. It also, hopefully, means that we can say to venues, "All right, you want the show, but you don't have much money. Okay, well it doesn't cost us much to bring it. It can just happen." We want to make a more negotiable relationship. We had some great touring offers for the last show we made, but it has a cast of seven and a complex set. Making that viable becomes really difficult, so we're just trying to answer that problem with a creative solution. \
Your last show, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything enjoyed massive success here in Hull, and at the Edinburgh Fringe earlier this year. What was the play about?
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything was our major 2017 City of Culture commission. The starting point for the piece was to truly merge a good night out with a big complex story.
We decided to do the show originally at Welly, which is the most popular nightclub in the city. We told the story in three acts which we split into half-hour chunks so that people could watch for half an hour, go and get a beer, go to the toilet, come back for half an hour – again, trying to make it a bit closer to the experience of watching a couple of bands at a festival.
We also then added some local bands, who would play in between each act, with a different band each night, creating a sort of mini music festival around the show.
So, people were choosing which night they would come to depending on which band they wanted to see; so you come for the band, but you stay for the theatre, and you go home surprised that you liked it.
We also wanted to answer the question, "How did we get here, and where are we going?" And the "we" in that is our generation, essentially, people aged 18 to 35 at the moment. We wanted to ask, “How did we become the way we are? What did the ‘80s and ‘90s do to us, and what sort of world are we going to leave behind for our children?”
It was a big question, and the work is really about trying to just make sense of how it feels to be this age, and to be human, and to be alive today. It also offered a really nice creative opportunity to bring in the music from each of those eras: so in the '90s, it was Cool Britannia, Oasis, Suede, Blur; in the 2000s it was Indie bands like the Arctic Monkeys, the Libertines; and by the end, it was this much more electronic sound. As we moved through each era with the characters, we also had a certain element of nostalgia from each of those eras, thinking about how they felt and how they sounded.
Next year you’re becoming a National Portfolio organisation. What does that mean for Middle Child, and what’s next for the company?
Yes, from next year, we're going to be a National Portfolio Organisation, which is brilliant because it gives us four years of guaranteed funding from the Arts Council, and just means that we can make longer-term plans.
We're going to make a big show here in Hull every year that is for the people in Hull, that will aim to set fire to their expectations of what theatre can be. There's also our Pathways plan, which involves low-risk work. We do a pub quiz that has a performative element, we do a Christmas pantomime that people can come to and feel comfortable that they know the “rules”. The plan is that each of those low-risk events will lead people to have more faith and not be afraid of the word "theatre", and eventually want to come along and see our full-scale productions.
We're also launching the More Than programme, which is our artist development and audience development programme. We're going to be spending time investing in creative people and ideas, which I hope will be a really good follow-up to the success of City of Culture this year. So many people have become inspired by everything that’s happened in Hull over the last 12 months, and many now want to make their own creative work. I'm hoping that we can be here to help with that next stage of the City's life.