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The Manchester Shakespeare Company: Back to the Future?      By Melvyn Spragg

It’s Friday night. I’m back in Manchester after being away for what seems like twenty years, but is really only ten.  Piccadilly Gardens: a new wave of beat boxers and beggars. Hopeful hawkers phoning home, a shiny Morrisons where the amusement arcade was; where Woolworths used to be. Office workers scurrying for the suburbs, hen parties clattering out. I start counting the men with fashionable beards as I get off the bus. By the time I get to Oldham Street I’m well into double figures. Note to self: don’t even think about it.

I’m on my way the Three Minute Theatre in Afflecks (Palace) to meet two people I haven’t seen since 1991. Our last meeting was in the Albatross Hotel in Cavtat, Croatia. I’d come down from Sarajevo to be evacuated from Dubrovnic airport and they were performing their cabaret show to anxious audiences, hastily gathered from other hotels, waiting for their flights. Yugoslavia was sliding into hell and tourists and penniless students (like me) were being sent home. The hotel bar was doing good business as people used up their dinars and I somehow found myself chatting to Gina and John after the show.  They were stuck in Cavtat as Yugotours would only fly them out without their equipment. Without their instruments they couldn’t work, so they were staying put until they could find alternative transport. As we talked a harassed rep announced that a plane had just arrived and the crowd removed themselves with indecent haste, leaving drinks undrunk. I did my duty: I hate waste.

 We sat talking softly with Milan the barman into the early hours. The war was coming. He would stay and fight. We said goodnight and swopped addresses on some bits of paper. I flew out to Gatwick the next day. I have never been back.

Oldham Street is buzzing with pre-drinkers, buses and skateboarders. The entrance to Afflecks is open, the arcade is decked out with tables and chairs and a colourful sign declares ‘3MT’. This must be the place. As I enter I notice an old publicity picture of Gina and John behind the door. I’m hoping they haven’t changed too much, well not as much as I have. They haven’t (well not that much, honest!). We hug. They offer me a drink, the show is about to start. The small auditorium is packed with an enthusiastic crowd. I take my place: orange, cinema seat mounted in pallets. The lights dim and we’re off! ‘Summer Dreaming 1973’: It’s Shakespeare Jim, but not as we know it...

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Two hours stage traffic later, I’m sitting comfortably in the cool of the arcade outside the ‘3MT’ or the Three Minute Theatre as it’s officially known. It’s been a laugh. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ set in the early Seventies: Militant Trade Unionism, Women’s Lib, hippies, drugs, Charles and Diana and the invention of ‘dogging’ all feature in what appears to be a witty, scene for scene translation of the original. The audience loved the show and the actors are still high on the applause. I ask the first of a series of pretty obvious questions: Why is it called the Three Minute Theatre?

Gina: “We started out in 2010 with a tiny shop on the third floor of the main Afflecks building. We were selling all the stuff we had in the loft from our Cabaret days; costumes, props etc. We had retired from full time performing in 2003 and were both teaching at Blackpool College. I was teaching Drama and English and John was teaching English and Creative Writing. We knew our days were numbered when Michael Gove became Minister for Education: the college cut all the creative courses and we had our work reduced to six hours per week. We had to do something quickly, so we opened a shop and started to downsize. It soon became clear that something else was needed to bring people up to the third floor, so we put up some tabs, put an ad on Arts News for some short scripts and performers and called it the ‘Three Minute Theatre’. The first festival was in October 2010 with nine short plays, one every half hour. It was bonkers, but it worked. We carried on teaching part time and survived on selling costumes and the crochet hats and scarves that I made. John started giving music lessons in the shop and we moved to Manchester at the end of the year, taking it in turns to commute to Blackpool to teach. We decided to look for larger premises and luckily for us this shop had become empty. So Tony Martin (the manager of Afflecks) offered it to us. We got the keys in early 2011 and had our first festival in April. It’s beeen seven days a week since then, but I think we’re on to something!”

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I sip my ‘Summer Dreaming’ cocktail: ginger beer, cranberry juice and (my Nemesis) dark rum and ask my second obvious question: How did you get home from Yugoslavia?

John: “It was getting a little tricky: there had been no planes for weeks as the locals were shooting out the tyres of any JAT plane that landed so they couldn’t take off again. The tourists were all gone and we were on our own in the massive hotel. The local band who played in the hotel on Sundays had all been called up to fight the Serbs and Marco, the bass player turned up in his stiff, new uniform. We hid his double bass under the stage and covered it with carpet. He told me he would come back for it. I can only hope he did.  We had become friends with a local couple Miro and Janet Kasumovic, and they kept us up to date with the news, all bad by then. By late summer we had three options: Wait for a plane, drive to Titograd in Montenegro and try to get a flight from there or head for Italy in Miro’s tiny boat which he had selflessly offered us. We ruled out the Titograd option as we’d already been up the treacherous mountain road to Montenegro: once was enough. Miro’s boat was the last option due to our nonexistent seafaring experience, so we decided to wait.  Eventually, in the middle of the night, a plane did turn up, a chartered Boeing 757, but they didn’t want to load our flight cases and trunks as the cargo hold was only designed for luggage. The Captain was keen to leave and the Purser told me he was already overloaded with evacuees so I had to resort to blatant lies about the weight and some wooden skids as I loaded our gear  into the hold. I shook hands with the airport staff and wished them ‘srento’: good luck. They were going to need it. As soon as I was up the steps the Captain started his engines and we left the country that had been our home for nearly six months. ”

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The arcade is full of people chatting, laughing and drinking. Whatever these two are doing it seems to be working. So I ask the really obvious question: What’s it all about, The Manchester Shakespeare Company? I mean, Manchester? Shakespeare?

Gina: “I got the idea when I was teaching GCSE English and Drama: I had to take the students to see a performance of a Shakespeare play. Finding one that wasn’t miles away was the first problem, finding a suitable production was the other. My students were mostly re-sitting their exams, so they needed something that was accessible without being ‘dumbed down’. Some of the productions I took my students to see were very well done, but they lacked context. What I needed was more of a translation into a relevant situation, while keeping the structure of the play and some of the important language. I’m from Clayton, Manchester so I wanted something that made sense to people from my city. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, but I’m not a fan of the way it’s been intellectualised by an elite who claim it as their own. We shouldn’t forget that when it was first written and performed it was popular entertainment; it wasn’t supposed to be difficult to understand. The Manchester Shakespeare Company is about making the plays real in a modern context and making them entertaining.  It’s certainly worked so far for people who are shy of Shakespeare because they don’t think they can understand it. Luckily John is a writer, so I told him what I wanted and he just got on with it. Our first production was ‘Desperate Measures’ in October 2013:  a take on ‘Measure for Measure’ set in the city of ‘Mancia’ with a hapless, leader called Dave and an ambitious deputy called Nick, mirroring the Coalition Government.  It was set during the riots and looting of 2011 that happened on the street outside the 3MT. I incorporated two hoodie-wearing looters in the scene changes, stealing the props and scuttling back to their seats in the audience. The play was a great success and we took it to Rochdale Library as part of their Shakespeare Week in 2014. The positive reaction to the play encouraged us to carry on. When we started out we worked with volunteers and people who came to us looking for industry experience. This worked well at first as both John and I were overloaded with other work during the first two productions, but it proved to be unsustainable in the long term and we’ve now simplified our operations and our production style. We also have other groups of actors who perform a slimmed-down version of the plays in libraries and open air spaces. These shows have proved very popular with audiences and we’ve got three showings of our gender-bending Christmas Show ’12 Nights’ at Cutting Room Square, Ancoats on the 25th of July and two shows on Sunday 26th, one in Manchester Central Library and the other in Eden Square, Urmston. We’ve also got our all female cast performing here at 3MT on the 24th. It’s all go!”

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It certainly looks that way. I attempt to play ‘fetch’ with Mandy the theatre dog, but she just glares at me suspiciously. It’s not her fault: it’s the effect I seem to have on most females these days. I ask John about the writing process:  Adaptations of Shakespeare plays always seem to offend somebody don’t they?

John: “That’s true. The purists seem to think that the plays are some sort of sacred texts that can’t be messed about with. When I look at a play I tend to ask two questions: ‘What’s the story?’ and ‘How does it relate to us now?’ I’m a bit of a rabid historian, and as history keeps repeating itself, you can usually find a set of circumstances that fit the action. It’s just a matter of contextualising what’s going on.  As far as the language goes, the characters say the same things, but in a different way. The language is one of the main sticking points with Shakespeare and we usually have a cheap gag about that in every play! What can get lost sometimes is the beauty of the language: Shakespeare was basically a poet whose day job was writing for the play-hungry new theatres. It was the commercial television of the day, competitive, cut-throat and not entirely respectable. It’s only since the Victorians claimed Shakespeare for the middle classes that the elitism crept in. Gina and I usually have a discussion about which play we’re going to do, set the date, do the poster, cast it, start the marketing and then I write the script. It’s good to have a deadline! We do all the marketing and publicity ourselves. For the first two productions we worked with volunteers, who were keen to get some commercial experience, but this became too complicated and we’ve gone back to how we used to do it when we produced cabaret shows for holiday companies and cruise lines.”

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I want to ask about the music. The show I’ve just seen had a good few songs in it and they were part of the story, not just stuck in there. Music was you game the last time we met wasn’t it?

Gina: "It certainly was. I was a professional singer when I first met John. We worked together for a good few years before we decided to get married. It’s not any easy profession to be a couple in".

John: "I was a musician like Gina and when we got together we started writing and performing our own original shows. I had done a lot of song writing in the 70’s and 80’s so I have got pretty efficient at it. We have a recording studio in the theatre so we can produce pretty much what we like. We write all the music for our shows and the actors sing the songs without microphones at 3MT. We’ve got some brilliant people we work with, musical theatre graduates as well as classically trained actors. We’re also lucky to be working with Aiden J. Harvey an old friend of ours from our Cabaret days who’s now a writer and actor".

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I still wanted to know how they’d made the transition from show business to academia: they had both been lecturers in a college. How did that happen?

John: "We’re both the first people in our families to get degrees, but we did it the wrong way round, I left school with 3 ‘O’ levels and worked in factories and the building trade before going to Stockport College in the mid-seventies. I found my way into the music business after that. I’m a self-taught musician and I only started getting educated in my late forties. I got on a teacher training course and then did an English Degree when I was teaching". 

Gina:  "I trained as a soprano at The High School of Art in Manchester when I was young, but I had to leave due to family circumstances. I started educating myself at night school and studied Theatre Studies at Rose Bruford College and gained a Post-Grad Certificate in Social Anthropology and Performance from Manchester University. I’m a qualified teacher of Drama, English and Voice".

I look at the poster board outside the theatre. There seems to be a lot going on: Poetry, music gigs, comedy, film screenings and plays. I ask what the next play is:

John: "‘Winter’, Our adaptation of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ Very dark. It’s set in ‘Mancia’ in 1950 and 1966. It’s all about jealousy, love and redemption. It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays and it’s going to be a change from the last two musical comedies. We’ve done the poster and cast it. All I’ve got to do now is write it. No pressure".

Gina: "It’s certainly keeping us busy. We’re going out to schools and colleges as well as public spaces, libraries and private functions. We’re getting a really good response from audiences, so we’re going to keep going. We’re getting into film making with our creative partners. It’s really good to be working with young professionals, especially women in our industry". 

We sit chatting and watching the Friday night parade as it passes the end of the arcade. I’m glad to be back in Manchester and I’m happy to be re-united with two people who don’t let anything get in the way of their artistic endeavours. I’ll be back.

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