Ellen Phethean is putting the finishing touches to her part of a dance spectacular - involving 150 performers, prams and a water cannon - to be performed live in South Shields on Easter Sunday.
The acclaimed writer, poet and playwright is responsible for a section of the script for Rush, a project exploring mass action and how arts and culture can provide an alternative to violent protest.
The project - which has been going for six months - will culminate in a live show against the dramatic background of the Engine House of St Hilda’s Colliery in South Shields from 8.30pm on Sunday.
Rush is the latest commission from The Cultural Spring, a three-year Arts Council-funded initiative aiming to encourage and increase participation in the Arts in 10 wards on South Tyneside and Wearside. The project is being produced and delivered by Durham-based Event International and Southpaw Dance Company on behalf of the Cultural Spring.
Dance workshops rehearsing 150 dancers have been taking place in Shields and Sunderland since January.
At the same time, Ellen has been working in local communities to gather local stories and research local examples of struggle and protest to give an authentic voice to the three main characters of the drama – a homeless man, a young single mother and an ex-miner.
“Their voices had to be real, so I met with a lot of local people, especially young people, to understand the issues they faced and what they thought about current issues – what they felt passionately about, what they cared about,” Ellen explains.
She met a group of young people through the Children North-East charity and then also spent time with a larger group from Sunderland College as well as a group of older participants from Boldon Community Association.
“We talked about things like gender equality, about issues affecting them directly and about the wider world. What problems they face and what they think they can do to change things,” she continues.
“I’ve adopted and adapted what was said into my script, using some of their phrases,” adds London-born Ellen, who has been based in Newcastle for more than 30 years.
Ellen was briefed by Robby Graham, artistic director of Southpaw: “He was very clear about exactly what he wanted. Getting the right tone was vital.
“He didn’t want anything to be too political, but wanted the responses of what any reasonable person would say in given circumstances. The voices had to be real, believable. These are people that most of us in the region will recognise and understand.”
Ellen’s script is used against the backdrop of a large-scale dance, with video being projected on to the St Hilda’s Engine Shed at the same time.
The video sequences are being provided by award-winning Tyneside creative studio Novak and will kick-off the 40-minute show, introducing the three characters at the centre of the piece.
The process of broadcasting video on to buildings or unusual surfaces is called projection mapping, and is an area in which Novak has plenty of experience.
Adam Finlay, director at Novak, explains: “Projection mapping is using any surface as a video screen; using buildings or structures as a canvas. It’s something we specialise in here, for instance recently we projected video on to the iconic Finnieston Crane on the Clyde in Glasgow for an MTV event.
“We’ve even done a whole island – the St Alban’s Fort Island off Jersey – for a film festival, which was really exciting.
“Southpaw have been great to work with. They knew exactly what they wanted, although hopefully we’ve added our own creative touches to something which is going to be a very special show.
“We’re producing some live action for the video, as well as some animation. It’s important that the music from the show works well with what we’ve produced and again we have plenty of experience in this area – we’ve produced backdrop animation for many stage shows and musical gigs, including shows for Calvin Harris.”
Novak was established in 2006 by three designers who had been working regularly together. Although none are originally from the region, they studied at Newcastle College and Northumbria University respectively and they’re now based in the Biscuit Tin Studios on Warwick Road, Newcastle.
Southpaw’s Robby adds: “Rush will be visually stunning, with choreographed mass movement, breakdancing, free-running and set pieces involving prams and water cannon. There’ll be plenty of colour too as we’ll be using masses of coloured dust.
“Novak’s video sequences will start the show and we’ll go from the video straight into live performances. We were initially looking at design studios outside of the region, but we were introduced to Novak and were very impressed by their work.”
* Rush will be performed at 8.30pm on Easter Sunday at St Hilda’s Engine Shed, South Shields. Admission will be free; no tickets will be issued.
Find out more about the Cultural Spring project at www.theculturalspring.org.uk or for the very latest news follow the project on Twitter @Cultural_Spring
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