Sophia Hatfield stages spectacular shows in small spaces.
The actor-musician and artistic director of Stute Theatre on her love of local libraries. PLUS: Don't miss Chronic Insanity and Teastain Theatre at the Omnibus Theatre.
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
Each issue features an interview with an exciting, emerging theatremaker - and gives them a chance to be explicit about where they want to go and what help they need to get there. Maybe you, reader, can give it to them, or put them in touch with someone who can.
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Before this week’s interview, I want to give a mention to two new shows, both running in a double-bill at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham until May 21, and both made by exciting, emerging ensembles from the East Midlands.
24, 23, 22 is a lo-fi, hip-hop gig-theatre show from prolific Nottingham-based, Offie-winning company Chronic Insanity, written by Douglas Deans and directed by Joe Strickland, and starring Ruth Page and Joe Matty. Expect scuzzy beats, stolen bags and a slippery story about what happens when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time – at 8.30pm every evening, and 5.30pm on Sundays.
Teastain Theatre’s coming-of-age comedy Untitled Sparkly Vampire Play, meanwhile, features Amelia Paltridge as Izzy, a teenager attempting to run a Twilight book club, who keeps getting interrupted by fictional vampire Edward Cullen. Written by Ashley Milne, directed by Jessy Roberts, it’s an explosive exploration of fanatic fandom and adolescent identity – at 7.30pm every evening, and 4pm every Sunday.
More info and tickets for the two shows can be found on the Omnibus Theatre website, where you can book to see both 24, 23, 22 and Untitled Sparkly Vampire Play for just £20 using the code MAYDOUBLE. Right, on with this week’s interview.
In How The Whale Got His Throat, the first of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, there is a character called the Stute Fish – a small, smart little swimmer who ingeniously outwits the massive whale.
When actor-musician and artistic director Sophia Hatfield set up her own theatre company in 2017 with Just Soph, a one-woman adaptation of Kipling’s anthology, she was faced with the question of what to call it. There was, she says, an obvious answer.
“The Stute Fish is clever and fast on its feet and thinks quickly, and that is what I want my company to be,” Hatfield explains. “I like the idea of being quick and nimble. I like the idea of being able to respond to different situations and fit into any space, so that’s what I called it. Stute Theatre.”
From its base in Tameside, Greater Manchester, Stute Theatre takes inventively staged shows for children, adolescents and adults alike to libraries and other community venues across the north of England, often running creative workshops alongside them. Hatfield’s aim is to push the boundaries of what is theatrically possible in small spaces, while always ensuring access and affordability.
“There is a lot of amazing theatre for young people in big venues in cities, and there is a lot of small storytelling sessions in local libraries, but there is very little in between,” she explains. “That is where Stute Theatre sits. I want to create really amazing theatrical experiences with amazing designs and amazing direction that don’t cost £20 a ticket and that can be put on easily in small-scale spaces.”
“They are becoming more and more important,” Hatfield adds, when asked why she predominantly stages shows in libraries. “They are one of the last places in this country where you can spend time and without spending money. Lots of people don’t have access to theatres for lots of reasons, but almost everyone lives near a library where they can come and see something.”
“Lots of people don’t have access to theatres for lots of reasons, but almost everyone lives near a library…”
Hatfield was born in 1985 and grew up in Bingley, West Yorkshire. She was a musical child who played the piano, the oboe and the violin, but decided she wanted to pursue acting after getting involved in a local youth drama group as a teenager, eventually earning a spot at Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Theatre.
After graduating, she realised she could combine her two passions into a career an actor-musician, but found it tough to find regular roles. It was only after she started working with Northern Broadsides, the Halifax-based company founded by Barrie Rutter to perform classic plays in northern accents, that she finally felt at home in the performing arts industry.
“I’d been to auditions at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Donmar Warehouse and elsewhere after I’d graduated, but I just found it impossible to break through,” she says. “I was terrified of those spaces and the directors that worked in them. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. With Northern Broadsides, it just clicked, though. I didn’t have to change who I was.”
From 2012 to 2016, Hatfield starred in several shows with Northern Broadsides. Then, at 30, she started thinking about producing her own work. “I’d have an amazing time on every acting job, but I’d always go back to working in a shop on minimum wage until the next job came around,” she says. “I felt like I was working in an industry that I had no stake in.”
And so, Stute Theatre was born. After 2017’s Just Soph came 2018’s fairy-tale-inspired gig-theatre show Common Lore, which Stute Theatre produced in association with Northern Broadsides, and which won recognition at the 2019 Rural Touring Awards. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, during which Stute Theatre incorporated as a Community Interest Company, released an online version of Common Lore, and produced two telephone plays in collaboration with New Perspectives and B Arts.
Now, Hatfield is halfway through a live tour of her company’s biggest project to date – a three-handed exploration of the lives of the Brontë sisters called I Am No Bird, co-written by Hatfield and Lisa Cagnacci. The tour started at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in April and continues until mid-May, after which it will be available to stream online.
“The Brontës’ works have been adapted and interpreted in every way imaginable now,” Hatfield says. “They have been TV series, graphic novels, cartoons, fan fiction, Bollywood movies and more. Our show is different. I don’t want to give too much away. Yes, it is about the Brontë sisters, but it is also about the actors playing them, too. It is about female creativity, and the barriers that creative women face.”
What do you want to do?
We want to continue to grow the scope of work we are taking into community spaces. Every time we return to a library, we want it to be with a bigger cast, a bigger creative team and a longer rehearsal period. We want to grow our audience, too, and the network of venues we tour to.
As for me personally, I want to learn how to lead an organisation without losing my identity as an artist. The biggest challenge for me as the company grows is to balance the time I spend in front of the computer with the time I spend creating work.
What support do you need to get there?
The most helpful thing for us would be to start co-producing with well-resourced venues. The reason I Am No Bird is happening is because of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, which has supported us with everything from rehearsal space to marketing support to letting us use their office printer.
It would be great to connect with more theatres who share that vision of creating ambitious work with us, staging that work, and then touring it to community venues. That would be amazing.
How can people find out more about you?
People can find us on social media, too, and they can look at our website and sign up to our mailing list to find out about everything else we will be doing this summer.
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If you want to get in touch with me to ask about anything, or to suggest someone who deserves a shout-out in this newsletter, you can reach me on Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan - or by simply replying to this email. That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.