At the Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange in Maryland last month the company made it very clear that they do not work with the concept of outreach. Members of the main performing company led all of the workshops that I attended in senior centers in Maryland. I love the clarity of the vision. There is art and there are people. It has always been mystifying, this staking out and naming of territories: ‘community theatre’, ‘community dance’ etc. I guess it speaks of the separation of many of our cultural institutions, positioned so far away from so many people that they are reduced to ‘reaching out’. Must get painful on the muscles.
This is not a position taken by Madani Younis Artistic Director of Freedom Studios in Bradford. “We do not create our art, voyeuristically looking on at society from the edges and choosing to make comments in that way,” he says. “Rather, we live at the centre of society. We live in Bradford and we are making the show in the city because that’s who we are, and that for us is very important. We are not making work for audiences, we are making work with audiences. I don’t think people should feel alienated by art that they see – they should feel implicated within it.”
The show that Madani refers to is ‘The Mill. City of Dreams’. City of Dreams is the story of the latter years of industrial and post-industrial Bradford. At one time a third of the world’s wool was processed in the city’s mills. Drummonds Mill is now a deserted space in the Manningham district of Bradford. As audience, we were invited to witness, wander and at one moment literally rummage through the threads of four stories. In the huge derelict spaces we glimpse fragments of migration stories from Nazi-occupied Ukraine, Italy in the fifties and Pakistan of the sixties.
The performance is an intermingling of remembered and re-imagined narrative, often Chekhovian in its intensity. This is a theatre that immerses itself into community. The company had listened to and absorbed the stories of retired mill workers. They had hosted a retired millworkers’ reunion in the Ukrainian Club: afternoon tea, salmon and cucumber sandwiches and a brass band. Over 100 former workers attended to re-connect and share stories. Madani says:
“The mills are our history, present and our unforgiving truth. If you stand still long enough in their empty shells, the deafening sounds of machinery, men and women, children and hope continue to reverberate. These mills belong to the city of Bradford, its people and their dreams.”
The view from my hotel window looks down on the sunken bowl of the city centre. On the morning after I drew back the curtains onto a beautiful blue-sky spring morning and the city had changed, the way I experienced the city had changed. Madani says: “When we understand the mills, we understand how the people of the city came to be here. For us The Mill is the story not just of a building but of how a city was formed and sculpted and the stories that created it.”
Truly a theatre at the centre of society.