Rachel McMurray is a North-West based Writer, Director and Applied Theatre Facilitator. Rachel is interested in new writing, and theatre for social change. She is artistic director and resident writer for Fine Comb Theatre Company, currently associate artists at Oldham Coliseum Theatre. As a facilitator she regularly delivers programmes in communities across the Northwest, specialising in work within the criminal justice sector. In 2021 she worked with the Royal Exchange Theatre Tameside Local Exchange Ambassadors to create NO SUCH THING AS ORDINARY. They worked with the Royal Exchange Theatre to bring the Den to Stalybridge in August 2019, creating a programme of activity for a two-week pop-up festival. They are now working together as company, aiming to continue giving a platform for local voices and celebrating Tameside.
No Such Thing As Ordinary was performed at Guide Bridge Theatre on October 1st 2021 as a live read through, with a mix of professional and none-professional actors, including Royal Exchange Theatre Tameside Ambassadors, Young and Elders Company graduates.
“We’re the kind of place where people’s stories don’t normally get shared
Because we’re just ‘ordinary folk’ from Tameside, just our ‘little’ borough over there
But there’s no such thing as ordinary actually
There’s this network of lots of people, and places, and things happening in life, and people don’t always get to share those truthfully
So we thought how about now. Why don’t you listen to some ‘ordinary’?”
No Such Thing as Ordinary, 2021.
The first time I spent some significant time in Tameside was approximately 5 years ago. I was working on a community project which was aiming to target anti-social behaviour in the area through engaging young people to write and create short films about their experiences. When working in the borough, I became acutely aware of some of the struggles in the community, particularly in areas of poverty. However, I also quickly became aware of how underestimated it was as a borough. The creativity, and voices of the young people with whom I worked on that project still stick with me today.
So, in June 2021, when I was offered the opportunity by The Royal Exchange Theatre, and Tameside Creative Community, to write a new play inspired by the borough, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.
To put the commission in context; the piece was a project as part of The Royal Exchange’s Tameside Ambassador’s Legacy year, their final year in a 3-year connection with the theatre. Prior to my involvement, the group had worked with a facilitator to run workshops and conduct interviews across groups in the borough to collect a wealth of material from the community. The group wanted to look at curating a festival to celebrate the community and bring in a playwright to turn this collected material into a play which could be placed as the headliner of this festival. This is where I became involved.
The specifics of the project, at first, felt somewhat overwhelming. Firstly, I had just over a month. The piece needed to be between 45 minutes to an hour long. The writing needed to be inspired by a large collection of verbatim material from members of the community. And we were working in a ‘co-creation’ model with the Tameside Creative Community, and The Exchange, where 3 consultations would take place with the group over the writing process. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that I had bit off slightly more than I could chew.
But I had to trust in the process and believe it was possible.
So the journey began. The first step in the process was the first consultation meeting with The Royal Exchange and Tameside Creative Community. I opened the meeting with one important question:
“Why this play? Why now?”
What followed was a really interesting conversation surrounding the importance of offering a voice to the community, about giving a platform for people to better understand the borough, in addition to having a chance to celebrate what Tameside was and what it had to offer.
But one response stood out to me:
“Because you don’t normally hear stories of people from Tameside, because we are just ordinary people you know?”
And like the cartoon ‘light-bulb’ moment, the concept for ‘No Such Thing as Ordinary’ was born. I would create a script which would share the voices, the stories, and the extraordinary lives of this Greater Manchester community. Particularly with everything that has happened across the world in the last 18 months, our communities have proven to be anything but ordinary, and Tameside is a prime example of this.
So, I left that first consultation, and the creative process began.
I distinctly remember my first ‘writing’ day. Well, what I thought would be a day of writing. As part of the project, I had been given a dossier of all the material that had been collected through interviews and workshops with community members of Tameside. This material ranged from stories to a Spotify playlist, to photos, to collages of words.
As I am not from Tameside originally, the material collected was going to be extremely important to the writing of this piece; the voice of the community, not my own voice, needed and deserved to be the heart, and soul, of the play.
So, I sat at my desk with all this material spread out in front of me. And the sheer amount of it all over-whelmed me.
Where do I even start?
Now, following a solid 15 minutes of staring at the paper in front of me, I made an active decision. “Today, I will not write anything. Today I will read’. And that is all I did. I read. Each piece of material. Multiple times. And I made the active choice not to make any decisions at this point. I wanted to simply absorb what had been collected.
Looking back, this was a significant choice. What it meant was that I was able to really get to know not only the individual voices, but the over-all voice of the community. I started noticing trends, common themes, and clear through-lines.
It was only once I really absorbed the material that I was able to start writing.
Now it is important for me to highlight that I would not classify this piece as a ‘verbatim’ script. Verbatim, for me, is a term for pieces where ALL the content of the script is from first-hand accounts, and directly collected dialogue. This was not the case in this piece. There were portions that are exactly that; there were portions that were inspired by the recorded words, and there were portions that were written in response to the history of the community. And although I say this was not a verbatim piece, I can say that it was a piece very much inspired by, and for, a community.
And there was plenty of material to be inspired by. There were stories of people overcoming adversity and bounding together as a family, or as community. There was a story of a life being saved. A life being changed. And the most beautiful yet heart-breaking love story that I had ever heard. I was not short of inspiration.
Over the course of the three consultations with the group, I presented various editions of the script, and suggestions and edits were made. The group were able to identify gaps they felt existed, such as elements of Tameside’s history and any voices of the community they felt which were not adequately represented. And I spent time researching and collecting any more information that was needed to fill these. At one point, I was even sifting through an archive of old photographs from Tameside’s history.
In September, 2021, I presented my final draft of ‘No Such Thing as Ordinary’ to the group.
Not long after finishing the piece, I was asked by a fellow writer for any advice I had for working with verbatim material. And, in this specific brief, I boiled it down to three things:
- Get to know your material.
And…Read it again!
Absorb it before attempting to organise or format it.
- Do your research.
In addition to absorbing the material collected, you need to understand the context of the community you are writing about.
What is missing? What don’t you understand? What context do you need?
The internet is your friend here. But so are the people you have at your disposal.
- Involve your community.
If you are writing about a community; involve them. The consultations with the incredible Tameside Creative Community, with the support of The Royal Exchange were pivotal in this project. The script was about their community, who better to be involved then the members themselves?
Without these three steps, I think I would have been quite lost.
But, to my relief, the script was finalised and approved. And we then set about staging a rehearsed reading at Guidebridge Theatre in Tameside. The reading was shared to an audience of community members, stakeholders and even some of the interviewed participants.
“It is refreshing to hear our voices and stories, not just middle-class stories”
“Last night I was really moved and understood how the community of Tameside has supported people and how people feel part of something bigger than themselves”
And just like that, the creative process was over. (For now!)
And as I reflect, I know that ‘No Such Thing as Ordinary’ would not have been possible without all the community members who so generously volunteered their time, stories, and experiences. And it is through their stories that we were able to offer a platform to the voices of a community, which is by no means ‘ordinary’, but rather completely extraordinary.
Rachel McMurray is a North-West based Writer, Director and Applied Theatre Facilitator. Rachel is interested in new writing, and theatre for social change.
She is artistic director and resident writer for Fine Comb Theatre Company, currently associate artists at Oldham Coliseum Theatre.
As a facilitator she regularly delivers programmes in communities across the Northwest, specialising in work within the criminal justice sector.
Recent Directorial Work includes: Aladdin, Oldham Coliseum Theatre (Assistant Director); The Good Hope, The Arden & 53two; Aleiah’s Adventure, Z-Arts & Tour (Co-director); Woyzeck, Staffordshire University; Panto Storytelling, Oldham Coliseum Theatre.
Recent Writing Work includes: No Such Thing as Ordinary, Guidebridge Theatre with The Royal Exchange Theatre; Not Yours, Mine, Oldham Coliseum Theatre; There’s a Fly in My Room, 53Two.