Saturday, May 28

Mikron Theatre Company tell us how they keep relevant and their loyal fans happy.

Mikron Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Marianne McNamara tells us on their fiftieth anniversary how they keep relevant and their loyal fans happy.

Not many theatre companies celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, but Mikron Theatre Company have always done things a bit differently which is why they have survived for so long.

For a start they tour round the country with the cast living on the company’s own narrowboat named Tyseley, but they have a strong social conscience so commission new work that makes people laugh, and also think a bit about the world around them.

Not surprisingly given their longevity they have developed a loyal fanbase who have been happy to dip into their pockets to keep the boat on the water through some hard times and more recently a global pandemic.

The company based in Huddersfield has also offered generations of actors really valuable early career experience as they perform in all sorts of non-traditional spaces from youth hostels to lifeboat stations depending on the subject matter. Not many actors get the chance to perform to groups of naturists, or on canal banks as people stroll by and cyclists whizzing past on their bikes.

With two shows Red Sky at Night and Raising Agents going out on the waterways, our Yorkshire editor Paul Clarke caught up with Mikron’s Artistic Director Marianne McNamara, who first joined the company as an actor in 2003, to reflect on the last fifty years and look to the future.

Photo: Elizabeth Baker Photography

For the uninitiated what is Mikron?

That’s the million-dollar question isn’t it?  Mikron is professional theatre in a non-theatre venue, and for me it’s all about an interaction and event between an audience and the performers that hasn’t got the barriers of formality. It’s about going out for the night having a laugh, being entertained and possibly learning something along the way. It’s about us taking new and exciting subject matter in live professional theatre to people’s doorsteps.

And you have a very unusual way of doing that.

So, our USP, I suppose, the thing that makes us different to everyone else is that we tour by narrowboat quite a bit of the year, or by van if we can’t get there by boat. There’s a lovely pace and energy, so we’re almost like the old troubadours in that we make our way along the canals and rivers, and we pitch up in different people’s spaces.

What sort of spaces?

We literally can perform anywhere, so we’re performed in an apiary next to a lot of beehives, in a dry dock, we performed in tunnels and allotments. You name it and we will perform on it.

One of the things people in the industry often remark on is your loyal fanbase.

We’re fifty years old so the company has this amazing following of people. Some of whom have stumbled across us by chance when they were about having a drink or a picnic somewhere, and kind of been hooked into this world and experience of live theatre in a more relaxed way.

How important is that support?

We would not be here without our audiences, they are Mikron. We’re mere custodians of it, it’s way bigger than any of us as Mikron is owned by its followers and friends who have a real sense of it being their theatre company and their thing.

But it’s not all been plain sailing over the last five decades has it?

As we approached our fortieth birthday 10 years ago we had no formal funding. We had an emergency meeting with our board asking can we afford to go ahead? I remember saying to Peter, our producer, maybe this is it, maybe we’ve run our course.

So how did you survive that funding crisis?

We launched our appeal and suddenly these letters started to trickle through.  Handwritten letters saying we say you on the River Thames, on the Severn, on the Oxford Canal, we brought our daughter to this show, we met each other at this event. They sent us five pounds, fifty pounds, five hundred pounds, but all these people had a connection and a real sense that we were important. I cannot tell you how galvanising that was and from there we’ve just grown.

And the events of the last two years must have posed the same sort of problems as it did for other companies who rely on touring for income.

The pandemic happens, and that was heart breaking, so we were literally about to go into rehearsals, and we had to pull the entire tour. Very quickly we realised that only do we have to pull the entire tour, but the way things were progressing that we wouldn’t be here in a year’s time if things carried on as they were.

So how did you make it through?

The overwhelming response from our followers who just said here’s money, keep going and we believe in you. The beauty of getting out last year was seeing them, but there was nothing like performing after the pandemic understanding the value of shared experience. It’s not just about money those friendly faces in the audience are just what makes it. We’ve this amazing bank of people around the country who just step in and help us.

One of the things that is true about Mikron is that it has been an incubator for both new acting and writing talent, so how important is that to your work?

It’s hugely important as there’s so few opportunities for new writers to flex their muscles, and for those actors who really cut their teeth in a Mikron show. We’re currently rehearsing in a very safe space where the set stays still, nobody moves and there’s no noise from outside.

Yes, I remember being at the premiere of your women’s football drama Atalanta Forever at the Piece Hall in Halifax and being impressed at how the four strong cast kept it together, despite some unexpected distractions most actors never face.

Someone was telling me there were some birds swirling around the Piece Hall and noise from the pub behind. Every night is different, and we get lovely feedback from the actors about what a unique experience it was.

And includes some who have gone on to be well known to the great British public, including one who ended up in the Harry Potter franchise.

Mark Williams worked for us years ago, and emailed Peter a couple of days ago and said I can’t believe you’re fifty. He said I still think back fondly to being on that boat and learning all I did as it was my first professional job in 1984 and 1985.

It would be easy after fifty years, and with such a strong group of followers to play it safe in terms of new work you commission. Atalanta Forever was great fun, but it also made some serious points about why women were banned from playing football after the first world war.

Mikron has a social conscience and it’s really important our plays gently probe and provoke, and hopefully don’t lecture.  We definitely sway to the left, but when we go about looking at our subject matters it’s really interesting that we think about the now and the relevance of that.

And the two new works that will make their way round the canal network follow in that tradition?

The play I’m about to direct this year, Red Sky at Night, is about our preoccupation with the weather, but there’s also this idea of climate change, what’s going on in the world. The social conscience aspect is really, really important to us, but also hopefully in a broad way that doesn’t lecture. It’s important where the writer comes along that they find their angle, and they are passionate about what they are writing, so that comes across in the play you experience.

It might be tempting fate in our uncertain world but are you confident that Mikron’s has a future?

I really hope that we will be having this conversation in fifty years time, I feel hugely confident in the support that we have and in the quality of the work we produce with the wonderful artists that we work with, and the amazing audiences that we have.

To find about more about Mikron or book to see Red Sky at Night and Raising Agents go to www.mikron.org.uk

0Shares