TOOLKIT SERIES 2- Kieran Knowles- Now, where were we?
It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for…
Kieran is the Royal Exchange Local Exchange Artist on Attachment and is shortly to open Operation Crucible in Sheffield Theatres in September.
He has been working on the play SOME PEOPLE FEEL THE RAIN as part of his attachment in his hometown Leigh. The Den in Leigh, hosted at Spinner Mill is a festival of performances, family fun & workshops on until 14 Aug. https://royalexchange.co.uk/spinnersmillleigh
When I first got the opportunity to write a play about the town I grew up in, I had no idea where I was going to end up. I hadn’t pitched a synopsis, or a brief, I had literally written an application form on my relationship with the town, which mainly focused on my encyclopaedic knowledge of the 553, 551 and 26 bus routes. And the fact that my education had all taken place on Manchester Road between Leigh and my house in Mosley Common. All relevant, but not much dramatic through line there.
So, I started to speak with people. I met the Royal Exchange Ambassadors in Spinners Mill, the head of the Ornithological society in the upstairs café at Tesco, the chair of the film society in Bents, headmasters in their schools, the MP in Westminster, the head of charitable organisations in their offices, friends in pubs and locals in their homes. And we discussed Leigh. What it is to be from Leigh, what our identity is or was, and what defines the place now. I always started with the same question. What is the centre of Leigh, emotionally and physically? Very few had a simple answer.
I left Leigh to go to university and it has always been a place I have referred to in the past tense. I felt like I had to leave, because selfishly – Leigh didn’t offer me what I needed it to.
The reason the Royal Exchange are engaging with the town is evidence that it probably still doesn’t offer enough for those that want to pursue a career in the creative arts. It’s in the bottom 5% for artistic engagement in the whole country. The theatre it had closed in the mid 20th century, and I only ever knew it as a Wetherspoons. The Turnpike Gallery was apparently there all the time I was growing up. But I never knew that – I do now which signifies some progress. If it hadn’t been for my parents who took me to the Royal Exchange, annual school productions and an ushering job at Manchester Library Theatre, I might never have got on the track I did.
Perhaps that’s not an atypical experience, but for the last two years I have been reflecting on it as I have been trying to find a way of characterising the town, its heart, and its history.
Leigh is a tough place to love. Even for those that live there (/have lived there).
There is a JJB Sports on the high street which closed before I went to university, it is still branded. Still closed. It hasn’t sold shoes in 15 years, but it still looks like it might open tomorrow. It sits on a high street which could be anywhere. We’ve all seen them. The relics of a bustling town centres that represent a time when people had disposable income to spend on non-essentials. But in Leigh the town centre smacks of self-sabotage. From the indoor market where independent store holders have thrived since way before I was a kid, you can see an enormous Tesco 200 yards away at the most. Which itself is about 100 yards from a Lidl. Instead of building a retail park outside the town, Leigh town “planners” built it adjacent to the high street. Putting small business in and unwinnable competition with major corporates. Tesco and Lidl aren’t your only options either. Name any supermarket and it will have a presence in Leigh town centre. A bustling industrial economy has slowly and clumsily been replaced with a fickle and heartless retail business model.
It’s not the only thing that stands out when you look closely
There wasn’t a single statue in Leigh until 2016. Unless I’ve missed one along the way. There is now, one, in the retail park they built outside the Leigh Centurions stadium. It’s of “Woody” a Rugby League star who played for and managed the team. We also have a gold post box which stands like a beacon in the town centre as well.
There have been other people who have done things from the town, in fact, the entire Japanese sushi industry owes a debt of gratitude to a young woman born in Leigh hospital. But rather than list the aspirational people from the town, I think it is more noteworthy to flag the fact they have never been celebrated or used as an inspiration for the next generation.
Leigh is a place that finds it difficult to dream. I realise that when use the term Leigh in this article I do not speak for all those in Leigh. I speak of an impression of the place that I formed by speaking with those who live there. It may not be right, but it is the impression that informed the play I went on to develop.
Leigh is disconnected. The things that unified it in the past are mainly gone, but the spirit remains the same. For every brilliant person trying to save something in the town there is someone who didn’t know it was there. For every door that is open, there are two that are shut. Leigh is a series of interconnected terraced streets designed and built in a time when people worked together, worshipped together, and drank together.
But Leigh has always existed in pockets. Each region of having its own identity and each of those regions divided again into pits and mills and smaller identities still. One of my friends who has lived her whole life in Astley (about 2.5 miles from Leigh) thought it wasn’t her place to comment on the town as she wasn’t from there. I found this pretty consistent with those I spoke to. You can speak about what you know, but it isn’t your place to go beyond that. It’s a hesitancy I felt myself when all this started. To comment on something from the outside, risks all the pitfalls of modern theatre – mainly that the work becomes separated by experience.
Some People Feel the Rain is the first play I have set entirely within the homes of the characters. I think there is probably something significant and deep about that, but I haven’t really explored why I chose that. It is about three generations of the same family facing adversity and how their outlooks have shifted with time, experience, and pressures.
There is a Bob Marley lyric which reads – “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet” It’s about how we experience life and how that experience influences our choices. For me it summed up what I was trying say, a town like Leigh can switch from a labour stronghold to a conservative “Level Up” seat if enough people feel like they’re just getting wet.
The play has come on from the first idea, Suzanne Bell at the Royal Exchange worked with me through all the conversations I had and by gently nudging me helped me work out what my disconnected thoughts could be. Hannah Sands (director) who was connected with the project from January 2020 has so enthusiastically got behind the piece and then carefully and considerately made it her own and the three brilliant actors (Julie, Simone and Ntombizodwa ) have each brought an energy and an interpretation to the roles which offers the piece a humanity which I think is so vital to hiding the larger messages of any play.
I realise that everything I have written here doesn’t smack of optimism. But I really am enthused and excited by what is happening in Leigh. It is at a crossroads and it’s choosing reinvention and embellishment – literally. The Spinner’s Mill is the single most aspirational project that has happened in Leigh in the last 50 years. Hundreds of thousands of square metres of space being managed by community-based organisation and offering opportunities to local businesses and artists to dream. There are talks of micro-breweries, theatres, an independent cinema, sports clubs, and arts studios. And there is evidence of it too, the enormous floors are being divided as we speak, ready to kick off as soon as the new staircase (fire regulations) is installed. And if the first mill is exciting, then having a second is mind blowing. And they do. Enough space for glistening, well connected period office buildings with a view of Manchester. Leigh has the chance to create a new 21st century centre right in the heart of its past.
I wrote a foreword to Some People Feel the Rain that appeared in the final draft which was sent out to the actors. I know that not everyone that reads this article will see the play, but I think it offers a good understanding of where it came from and what it is I was trying to say. Also, if I write it here, I can perhaps remove it from future drafts of the play.
I’ve never done this, written a foreword to a play.
I think mainly because it seems like an incredibly pretentious thing to do, but I sort of feel the context for this one is important, so – here we are.
In 2019, I spent a year returning to my hometown, Leigh, to research a play as part of the Local Exchange for the Royal Exchange. In truth it’s not my hometown, I grew up in Mosley Common, about 3.5 miles from the centre of Leigh, but I went to school, did Christmas shopping, and started drinking in the pubs there, so – close enough.
I submitted the first draft of this play in October of 2019, and then a second, which was essentially the play as it is now in the January of 2020. It was a play about a town losing its identity or having the things it once stood for systematically destroyed by adversity, policy, and something outside of its control. It was about falling behind and falling apart but trying to keep up and to hold on to the things you love whilst it’s happening.
A physical manifestation of the threat and animosity of decades of law making. A family drama in the middle of a crisis.
What I didn’t know then was that it would become a play written in a world where COVID existed. A comment on a pandemic, a play that would be judged on its ability to correctly portray family crisis in a world changing forever.
What I feel is important to mention is not that the understanding of the play will have changed as a result of the global pandemic, interpretations and standards of any era can be placed on any play, but that the root reason for writing the piece was not related to the news cycle.
It existed before COVID, just as the economic disparities existed, the lack of hope and optimism of a town screaming for an identity existed.
The character of the place existed before COVID. And just because the world has felt pain, has felt fear and loss on a scale I could never have imagined when I first wrote it, it doesn’t mean all places suffered that pain on the same scale or that the recovery will be the same. On one street in Leigh a survey showed that over 70% of people were employed in retail. The number of kids receiving financial support in school is well above the national average. Domestic abuse rates are high and academic attainment low.
All places hurt in 2020, but some will get better faster.
This is a play about the pre-existing issues, issues that date back to the 80’s and further – if anything it was inspired by the election where Leigh voted for a conservative MP for the first time in its history and the referendum when a union town voted to leave a union. It was about looking in rather than looking out. Working alone rather than pulling together.
It was amazing to see that the pandemic triggered some of the collective spirit the play is mourning, and the town had always worn on its sleeve, but now the storm has passed, and vaccines have cleared the fog. I wonder how quickly the issues and divisions that first inspired the play will resurface.
I know this may seem like a justification, and I don’t really know why I have included it, but I do think it’s important to have some context. I never intended to follow an international disaster with a play about disastrous times. The events simply got in the way. But of all the things COVID changed, this seems like a very small one.”
one more thing
For me the Spinners Mill is at the centre of Leigh. It is taking what we were, amalgamating it with where we are, and asking local people to determine where we’re going. As someone who is obsessed with the deconstruction of northern towns by policy, seeing something as ambitious and exciting as this fills me with a hope I have never had about Leigh.
I just hope it can stop raining.