Manchester is thriving with creativity. Nevertheless, it is daunting to set up a new venue, whether its focus is art, music or theatre.
Thankfully, as it heads for its first anniversary, one of the newest theatrical initiatives on the block, 53two, is living up to its intent to offer ‘One venue, two spaces, limitless possibilities’.
“It doesn’t feel like a year already, more like three months,” says Simon Naylor of 53two. “There have been so many highlights, not least every time we host a new event. We’ve had the Manchester International Festival dinner with [former chief executive of Manchester City Council] Howard Bernstein, closely followed by a wedding then a wrestling event. In between all that we’ve had our own theatre shows on.
“This range of activity is exactly what we set out to do. Another rewarding achievement has been presenting new writing and actors. Over the [Greater Manchester] Fringe, we had two shows that started life on our Manchester Actors’ Platform writers’ course, and it’s so important that we provide this type of platform for people.”
He adds: “I am renowned for not being satisfied, but even I had a moment recently, sitting in here on my own thinking, ‘yeah, we’re doing pretty well’. We’ve had over 6,000 people cross the door. And been nominated for awards before our first birthday, so it’s been quite incredible.”
Running 53two (with fellow actors Alexandra Jones and Stacey Harcourt) is clearly a huge commitment, but I wonder if setting up a producing venue back home was always one of Bury-born Naylor’s ambitions?
“Not at all,” he says. “When I trained to be an actor it was the furthest thing from my mind. I fell into producing and directing while I was in London, but after 13 years down there, I moved back to Manchester. London is brilliant but someone described it as ‘all cream and no cake’ and that’s pretty true. You eventually realise that there’s no community and the arts scene is saturated. We couldn’t have done in London what we’ve done here.
“The Manchester community is smaller, supportive and tight-knit which makes things far easier. There are so many great actors but nobody offering a professional service for show reels, headshots, etc at an affordable price which was why we set up Manchester Actors’ Platform. Then we set up a production company and the logical progression after that was to find a way to house it all together, have classes and produce theatre.”
Over the past few years, Manchester has seen its arts world grow and flourish and, unlike London, it appears to be an extremely supportive community. In such a notoriously competitive and occasionally brutal profession, could this collaborative feel be responsible for such a purple patch for the arts in the North West? Naylor is enthusiastic about the way artists are working together to achieve the same goals.
“Everyone encourages it. When we set up 53two, the first people we told were Will (Whelton) and Joe (Houston) from Hope Mill Theatre because it was important to let them know that we weren’t in opposition. We set up to work alongside them and [become] another fringe venue in Manchester doing great stuff. The city is so fertile at the moment, always changing and moving, and it feels quite exciting whether you’re training or performing. It’s all really supportive and lovely so it’s been fortunate timing for us.”
The 53two team have their space on a five-year lease but this is subject to what the owners want to do with it. 53two was set up to be an adaptable concept and Naylor has no concerns about the future.
“53two will never end,” he declares. “It’s already an established brand and will continue to develop, produce and promote work, cultivating relationships with actors. That will happen wherever we’re located. This current site will eventually be developed but exactly when that will be? We don’t know. It is the perils of the property game and, as a result, we still aren’t taking bookings for 2018 because we don’t know if or when construction will begin.
“We are actively looking for other sites though. And we’re involved in a couple of pitches for new spaces so wherever we end up, there will definitely not be a hiatus or a period of inactivity. We’ll carry on regardless. We’ve had a lot of interest for 2018 and for the moment we’re just saying, ‘keep in touch’.”
One of the dangers with a new venue is to be so desperate for any interest or bookings you end up saying ‘yes’ to anything and everything. Fringe theatre can often be viewed as second-tier to more mainline work, but Naylor believes that quality control was always crucial to being taken seriously as a venue.
“When we started, we had the mentality of saying ‘yes’ to everything but quickly realised that it can’t be ‘come one, come all’. Not in a horrible way, it’s just that people associate what they see with the venue they see it in, and if only one in every five shows meet the standard we strive for, people are going to stop coming to see stuff.
“Audiences in Manchester seem happy with the way fringe theatre is these days. I think it can be the most exciting theatre you can see. There’s a different feel to it that doesn’t mean under finished or under produced, it’s just more intimate and the quality levels are as high as anything else out there. We read every script that’s sent to us and if we can find a reason why it can go on and we think we can sell it, we try to do it. We also aim to keep the ticket price reasonable to encourage more people to experience what we have to offer.”
The next production, directed by Naylor, is Freak by Bruntwood Prize-winning Anna Jordan. It’s a two-hander and centres on how women are viewed in the media, by men and, most importantly, by themselves. The piece is something Naylor has wanted to work on for some time.
“It’s about the objectification of women and, like all Anna’s work, it really affected me and made me question how I’ve behaved in the past. The play looks at the way women exist in themselves and in the media, and how they try and match those two things. It’s so relevant now with the BBC‘s phenomenal pay-gap between men and women, and Taylor Swift going to court defending herself from being groped. Why is that stuff still happening?
“It’s a really powerful piece of theatre but it doesn’t ram politics down your throat. It asks you to think about what you’ve seen on stage and to consider if you have been guilty of any related behaviour. I think I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I haven’t.”
Feminism comes in many different forms these days. Not so long ago, I held a door open for a woman and she snapped, “I am perfectly capable of opening my own door, thank you.”
I replied, “OK, then” and let the door swing back into her.
Childish? Perhaps. But to me it’s nothing to do with gender, it’s just about being polite. Naylor is aware that the ‘F’ word is a red button issue.
“It all comes down to that debate of what feminism is. There are so many different versions of it now. Some see it simply as, ‘oh, they hate men’, others have images of women marching on the streets and campaigning. For me, it’s just about equality and being treated the same. I hope that the debate gets sparked in the minds of the audience when they watch this piece.”
The play is uncompromising in its language and subject matter – something Naylor sees as a positive thing.
“It’s quite easy to have a lovely evening watching a fringe theatre show, have a beer and go home. I’m not against that but I just think that theatre can do more. I’m all for a good comedy, but it’s also good to make people think. In Freak, the actors are right in the middle of the space looking at the audience, asking them to consider things. We get to see what we normally wouldn’t such as what a woman does in her bedroom from struggling with her make-up or what to wear, to what her boyfriend has said.
“One of the characters goes to extreme lengths to try and restore what she believes is femininity and sexual prowess in order to offer what she thinks men want from women. One of the elements we bring in is the impact of the media. Porn is now readily available to every 14-year-old with a smart phone. As soon as they watch it, their idea of sex, sexuality and the female role in a partnership becomes skewed before they’ve even experienced it for real. They go into relationships putting pressure on themselves to match their life with what they’ve seen on screen.
“But the piece isn’t darkness all the way through, though. There’s a resolution and questions are answered.”
Freak by Anna Jordan will be at 53two from August 31 to September 9, 2017