Blog post by Emma Bradburn – Undergraduate Research Intern
For eight weeks over the summer, I worked as a paid undergraduate research intern on the ‘Civic Theatres: A Place for Towns’ research project (my internship was funded by University of Manchester’s ‘Learning Through Research Internship scheme). As part of this I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Leigh enjoying live theatre again. The research brief was to explore the Royal Exchange Theatre’s ‘Local Exchange’ programme, based at Spinners Mill. Local Exchange was set up by the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester as a new form of outreach, to ‘build upon existing partnerships, develop new connections and bring together people, places and artists to cement long-lasting relationships with the communities right outside [the Exchange’s] door.’ The Exchange programme uses local ambassadors, who act as advocates for what their town wants and needs from the partnership. They plan a programme of activity for The Den, a peripatetic theatre that takes residency in selected the area in the middle of each three year partnership. This group of people meet regularly through planning of the partnership, and are also responsible for the legacy that the Den leaves behind.
Although there were several standout pieces of theatre at the Den in Leigh, both from local talents and the Royal Exchange production team, the piece that was a real highlight for me was The Digital Ghost Hunt, performed by KIT Theatre (supported by King’s College London, The Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England). KIT Theatre are a not-for-profit theatre company whose mission is –
To make playful, immersive theatre for, by and with young people which improves their relationship to learning and develops their empathy, resilience and critical thinking. At the heart of KIT’s practice are Adventures in Learning, interactive stories which erupt in classrooms and cultural venues using immersive theatre and game mechanics to deliver formal learning and develop creativity.
As a third year Drama and English Literature student, whose dissertation aims to (hopefully!) examine the intricate relationship between heritage, performance and physical spaces, I found the Digital Ghost Hunt performance wonderful. It was a very engaging piece of immersive theatre, and it was brilliant to see the children become fully absorbed into a world of imagination and fun, and crucially, without them even realising it, a world of cultural heritage and performance!
The Digital Ghost Hunt Performance began in the Royal Exchange’s Den space, with a presentation from ‘Undersecretary Quill’, one of the ghost hunting professionals. Undersecretary Quill explained the golden rules of talking to ghosts – that only children can see ghosts, adults cannot – that ghosts are not scary, and that, if they are present, it is because they want to give us a message. As an adult watching the performance it was great to see how engrossed the children were, and it was even more amusing to watch their reaction when the Ghost Hunt Professionals knew the children’s names without having to ask (as they had secretly asked the carers and parents beforehand). This not only added to the children’s fascination and the mystery surrounding the scientists, but it also added an extra personal touch to KIT Theatre’s performance. The introductory presentation was soon interrupted by the arrival of a ghostly presence at Spinners Mill, which was detected via the children’s personal ghost trackers. Thus began the journey out of the performance space of the Den and into the spaces of Spinner’s Mill opposite, where the children first saw the ghost in an upstairs window of the mill.
After following a trail of luminous yellow ‘ghostly residue’ the children arrived in the heritage and education centre in the mill, where we learnt more about the ghost. He was a man called Stanley who had worked in Spinners Mill many years ago, and he had been framed by the mill owners for causing an explosion – a cover up on behalf of the mill owners of the dangerous workplace practices at the mill! The children’s mission was to help prove Stanley’s innocence and ‘set him free’ so that he could move through to the afterlife. One stand-out moment from the Digital Ghost Hunt came at the end of the performance when Stanley appeared at the other side of the engine room from the children were, and tipped his cap to show his thanks for their help. As he did this a small boy shouted: ‘WE LOVE YOU STANLEY. YOU ARE A GOOD MAN’. Not only did this create heart-warming, comedic moment for the audience in the group to enjoy, but it showed the success of KIT Theatre in making a believable performance that the children understood and were excited by. As far as audience participation goes, I’d consider that priceless.
One reason I enjoyed the Digital Ghost Hunt performance so much was because of its inclusion of Spinners Mill and its history. The story was created specifically for the building, based loosely on the truth that Stanley was a man who worked in the mill years ago. A lot of the performance action took place in the Heritage Centre inside the mill, which was very interesting for my dissertation. For many people, when you say the word ‘heritage’ it evokes images of archaeological structures and old brick buildings. But for me heritage is about so much more. It is about generations of people, who have interesting stories to tell, and who have created memories and historical moments in physical and natural spaces. I believe there is a very social and creative side to heritage practice, as it largely involves bringing people together into a shared space that resonates with them. As the programme description for the Digital Ghost Hunt explained – ‘Spinners Mill has many stories to tell of people who have worked there since 1912’ – showing how central the performance was to the space and how rooted it was in what might can be understood as heritage-based performance.
KIT Theatre’s success came from a true understanding of the space, and the people within it. I believe their performance responded to the overall endeavour of Local Exchange – to create a relationship between the professional theatre partner and the community that it is located in. This relationship was presented through the incorporation of both the Den’s and the spaces of Spinners Mill in the performance. Interestingly, the Digital Ghost Hunt also utilised the team behind the Mill’s restoration and the Local Ambassadors as actors in their performance. This gave the piece a quality that made it feel even more unique to Spinner’s Mill and Leigh, and once again this is responsive to the Royal Exchange’s aim for the project – to involve local artists and create opportunities for performance that mean something to people in each host place.