Like a star-nosed mole underground theatre often likes dark spaces, can be hard to find and doesn’t always look particularly good. And like the star-nosed mole I can’t find it anywhere in Sheffield.
I haven’t been in Sheffield for long but in the six months here I’ve had a great deal of trouble finding any art that wasn’t housed in either Sheffield Theatres or locked away in a gallery museum. With the announcement of the spring/summer programme from Sheffield Theatres I was hopeful that maybe just maybe there would be a nugget of some slightly risqué, strange little experimental play within the multitudes of musicals and children’s shows. Unfortunately I was sorely mistaken, on the current programme the only item that looks to be particularly experimental is Unthanks: Songs from the Shipyards and even this is a representation of an older film with new score from award-winning music group The Unthanks. Part of the Sheffield Doc/Fest (a festival of work that re-examines the archiving and documentary process) it is one of several projects that could be considered somewhat experimental in the field of documentary and film work but with such a heavy focus on digital media it’s not really an underground theatre scene.
I spent the last few years studying and working in Scotland, based in Edinburgh I spent a great deal of time travelling to Glasgow to theatres like The Arches and the Tron who are well-known for their tendency to stage interesting and original work often from emerging artists. Combined with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, the home of new writing in Scotland, I was offered a plethora of delicious new work from innovative new artists ranging from installation work to live art. There is an argument that these two cities have much greater access to new artists from the wide variety of arts students across several universities including the Royal Conservatoire (previously the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) in Glasgow and Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh but the lack of original, underground arts scene in Sheffield is still perplexing.
Now there are supposedly more people in London than there are in Scotland and with Sheffield being one of the top five biggest cities in the UK it’s a mystery as to why there seems to be such an absence of new experimental work in the city. It is entirely possible that this scene is so underground that I have completely missed it as I am suddenly far to mainstream. It’s true that I am most definitely not part of the ‘urban bohemian’ movement known as “hipster”; maybe I’m just not cool enough to be part of the underground theatre movement. I’m more worried that it just doesn’t exist in the first place.
Over the last few months I’ve spoken with various students (both under and post-graduate) in the hope that I might be able to quietly sneak into the scene (even if only to be considered the square that doesn’t understand it) [Sidebar – do people still say square?] but am repeatedly confronted by blank faces and shrugged shoulders. In a most unnerving turn of events people often aren’t able to think of experimental work taking place, they often try to point to companies like Third Angel; who are in their defence are a company working with very interesting subject matters and with innovative experimental procedures of devising but aren’t currently working in the city. Others suggests companies like Forced Entertainment who are marketed as one of the premier experimental companies in the country; that I don’t dispute but if you take a look at their upcoming projects they are almost all international performances only one date is in the UK and that’s in London. What does that leave us here in Sunny Sheffield with?
There are companies experimenting dotted around the city; Point Blank is currently developing exciting new work out of the Riverside but even they seem to be struggling to continue to create their brand of experimental theatre in the current climate. Dead Ernest are also around exploring theatre as a social tool through variety of methods primarily forum theatre. There are companies out there and I sincerely hope that I am completely oblivious to a thriving underworld of theatrical experimentation; unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. I understand that experimental theatre is risky, often difficult to stage and on the whole not financially beneficial but that’s what makes it fun; experimental theatre exists for the sole reason of doing the things that mainstream theatre isn’t or can’t. Whether this be a dramatic reading of poetry whilst stood on a 3 gallon pickle tub in a sequinned ball gown, or whether it’s the slightly disconcerting one night only performance by a woman covered in mayonnaise, maybe both, maybe even at the same time.
I really hope these artists do exist but for the most part it seems that theatre in Sheffield exists within the grasp of the Sheffield Theatres and if the new programme is anything to go by that means musicals, documentaries and comedians. I’m going to keep looking and if that means that I need to sew myself into the skinny jeans, don a corduroy jacket and get thicker glasses that’d be a shame; but experimental theatre must be out there somewhere and if you see it; please send up a flare, a banner, bat signal. Better yet, go out and make it or like the star-nosed mole we’ll be furiously digging holes and not really getting anywhere.