As Michael Richardson was nearing the end of his PhD thesis at Newcastle University, he was left with a wealth of material that he didn’t want to go to waste.
Having carried out in-depth research into the men in the Tyneside Irish community, he’d uncovered all sorts of fascinating stories which he felt could have a life beyond academia.
So, his next step was to approach Cap-a-Pie theatre company – and they clearly agreed, with the end-result being the debut this week of a one-man play which brings the tale of one local family to life on stage.
Under Us All opens in Newbiggin tomorrow then goes to Northern Stage on Thursday on its mini-tour of the region, with Gordon Poad of the Gateshead-based theatre company playing all three generations of men in the family.
Michael, a teaching fellow of human geography at the university, had seen a previous “reminiscence theatre” project by Cap-a-Pie which had shared people’s memories and personal histories, and had struck a chord with him.
And he was certain the stories he’d collected would have similar appeal.
“I’d spoken to 38 men of Irish descent and I wanted to do something more,” he says.
“The Tyneside Irish community has a long history here but it’s an untold story.”
What he found in his research was a community of Irish descendents who had assimilated well, compared to many other cities, and who still identified themselves as Irish several generations down the line.
“One interesting thing that came from the research is that they are quite happy to be identified as Geordie as well,” says Michael, who himself has Irish ancestry.
He was interested in changes within generations and, for the basis of the play, picked one family from Hebburn.
“They were the closest example of grandfather, father and son, which serves the scope of the play well.”
Fifth, sixth and seventh generation Irish, born and bred on South Tyneside, they talked to Michael about their family history and current lives revealing how family, work, community and attitudes have changed over the decades.
In the play they’re given different names but the words are all theirs, spoken by Gordon who, it becomes clear, loves a challenge.
“I’m playing an 83-year-old, 48-year-old and a 21-year-old over 45 minutes,” he laughs but, no, he won’t be calling on the make-up department to help out with obvious signs of ageing. Instead, there will be more subtle differences: the rhythm in the speech patterns are different, he points out, and he’s been helped by the fact that he, his father and his son are similar in age to his characters.
He adds: “We didn’t just want the audience to sit down and listen to a story.
“It’s not a straightforward one. The play demands a lot of the audience and they will have to make connections.”
The narrative will jump back and forth between the characters so the audience must piece together the story linking the generations, rather like being involved in the research themselves.
And they fill in the gaps, as this is verbatim theatre with Gordon speaking the men’s responses to Michael’s questions, which are removed.
It’s a personal story for the real-life family, some of whom attended rehearsals, but also a universal one.
“Most men will recognise themselves in it – and most women will recognise their men in it!”
Cap-a-Pie has a history of blending theatre and education and has done a lot of work with schools and communities.
This latest project is working so well that both sides are keen for similar collaborations in the future.
Already they’re exploring other possibilities with the university’s public engagement team about how theatre can help develop university research and engage communities.
And the show will be accompanied by free workshops, including one at Northern Stage at 4pm on Thursday, so people can carry out their own “social geography research” and explore their stories through performance. It ties in with the current Festival of Social Science, which runs until Saturday and celebrates British social science research.
For more information email Andrew Latimer at ALatimer@northernstage.co.uk
Under Us All is at Newbiggin Maritime Centre tomorrow at 7.30pm (call 01670 811951 for tickets) then Northern Stage on Thursday at 7pm (0191 230 5151); The Customs House at 2pm on Friday (0191 454 1234) and Teesside University on Saturday at 7pm (0164 273 8649).