Today we’re speaking to Evelyn Roberts, the mastermind behind a new Shakespeare festival in Manchester. It promises audiences some light relief and definitely no stuffyness.
For all the diversity and expanse of its theatre scene, Manchester has few outdoor spaces. Those that have popped up to capitalise on lighter restrictions on outdoor gatherings — Homeground and Hope Fest, for example, are more temporary summer ventures by the city’s established theatres. Nestled at the heart of Great Northern Square, however, is an amphitheatre. It’s often used as a nightclub space, until young theatremaker Evelyn Roberts, in an epiphany on her bus journey into work, spotted the theatrical opportunity it was designed for.
“The GOAT Mcr came out of this desire to create something after this hellish year subsided. For me, looking at how the arts scene was just decimated, I was going ‘if there is a recovery, is there a way I can contribute to it?’” The answer was yes. The enquiry she sent to Great Northern last year was met with generous support and backing — the ‘Great’ in the theatre’s name is partly in their honour — but she’s since discovered why she’s the first to pursue the idea. “The main challenge is we’re operating on a public square — we’re not sealed off, but ultimately there’s nothing stopping sound — so I’m excited to see how the public discover and interact with it. Audiences like the danger of live theatre, so this is taking it to the next level.”
These challenges of outdoor theatre are especially fraught with the added dimension of Manchester’s infamous weather. With the same positivity she’s channelled to set up the project, however, she’s hoping to convert the threat of being “al fresco to the max” into a strength. “Even if it’s bad, the weather can shape productions quite well and only add to the atmosphere.” She envisages it particularly benefiting productions like Macbeth, where the hero’s opening line, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen,” could be grumbled almost daily at the northern skyline. And she hopes audiences will bring her same “Mancunian spirit” themselves — albeit along with an umbrella.
She realises it’s all a risk but feels obligated to take it to meet “the wider urgency of asking how we can get theatre back on its feet. Every time there’s been a hurdle, we’ve still pushed through with it because it just feels right to go for it and see what we can do.” In particular, she hopes to catch the freelancers who’ve fallen through the net. “It’s been hard to watch. There have been safety nets, but there have been gaps in them. I can’t fix much, but I can create some opportunity. I was very aware of how crap it must be to either have graduated from drama school last year or if you’re going into the industry this year, so I contacted Manchester School of Theatre and ALRA, asking if we can do anything extra for their grads and make their entry into the industry a little less terrifying.”
Likewise, when the GOAT’s Christmas show no longer seemed appropriate to stage in summer, she did a shout out to see if she could give other theatre companies a space to perform, recognising it’s currently hard enough for indoor theatres to programme. She’s always been conscious to nurture and champion the city’s culture. “I really love the Manchester theatre scene — I’m always proud of the resilience of it and the passion everyone here has for it. I think the industry can be a little London-centric, when actually there are so many interesting things going on if you know where to look.”
Her inaugural season is full of these ‘interesting things’. It may be helmed in a Shakespeare festival, but the theatre companies are taking refreshing, unconventional approaches to do it differently. “Bard in the Yard is a one-person show that’s completely new, quite intimate pieces of writing, with the educational element of the history. We’ve got Suitcase Shakespeare doing Romeo & Juliet which is two guys and a suitcase, and everything that’s in there they perform the play with. We’ve got Macbeth from Flabbergast Theatre, that’s very physical theatre-orientated, that’ll be one of the more dark and serious pieces.”
As well as Shakespeare being of artistic interest to Roberts, she’s motivated by offering schools opportunities to watch curriculum texts and families with entertainment in lieu of holiday travel. She hopes the “broad spectrum” of styles will also work to oppose the stigma of stuffy Shakespeare. “It can be done in ways that feel a little uptight. You can turn up and everyone’s talking in RP, and I like that we’re not doing that. People can go and watch this and hear themselves and relate to it on that level as well. If I can make work accessible that people generally believe to be high-brow, I’m doing a good job. I don’t come from a theatre family, so I like to create work that I can invite my family to and they enjoy it — if they don’t get it, I’ve sort of failed.” She’s also offering pay-what-you-decide tickets to upturn the industrial standard of expensive Shakespeare.
Despite all of these positive steps, the inherent unpredictability of opening a new venue is compounded by council-approved plans to flatten the area and create a green space. “It’s an experimental pop-up space at this point. The amphitheatre is an amazing part of the city and this public square, which has a lot of potential. So, if I can prove this could work really well and might be a really nice cultural attraction long-term, then great. I’d love to go back to the space if it works.” And if it does? “I want to create shows that match the scale and size of the venue, so I want to go for these big, exciting, playful productions.” The ‘Great’ may be honouring the partnership, but her leadership should earn that title for herself and her new venue. Let’s hope the great gamble pays off.
The GOAT Mcr is showing a range of shows until Sunday 15 August. For more information and tickets, visit the GOAT Mcr website.