If you’ve never heard of Mortal Fools before, what do you need to know about them? We asked Artistic Director, Kiz Crosbie, to explain more about the theatre company – who they are and what they do, why they do it and what’s really important to the organisation.
Mortal Fools are a group of theatre professionals passionate about making really great theatre which also seeks to help improve people’s lives. The company is led by Kiz (Artistic Director / CEO), Helen Ferguson (Creative Producer) and Zoe Anderson (Programme Co-ordinator), together with a magnificent team of Associate Artists and Practitioners who we work with regularly.
We are a company who pride ourselves on being people-centred – all our work is for the benefit of people and we work hard to always balance our business needs with human needs. The values we strive to live by as an organisation are Contributing, Growing, With Others, As Ourselves. These are things we passionately believe help people to thrive and so also help us to thrive as an organisation. They’re not for a poster on the wall – but for every day, present in all elements of our work - as a living, breathing enactment of the world we are working to create.
We are also a company who pride ourselves on crafting deep, supportive relationships with theatre artists at early stages of their careers. It can be extremely hard-going as an independent artist just starting out, so we provide opportunities for them, recruiting partly on the basis of skills and experience, but mostly seeking those who share our passions and beliefs and supporting them to develop as artists through our existing projects and their own projects.
We also believe that, when done in the right way, participating in and making great art can improve people’s lives. We love drama and theatre and work to bring the highest quality of dramatic arts into (sometimes) the most unlikely of places.
Earlier in 2017, we moved to a new base in Prudhoe, Northumberland. We’ve always worked extensively in the county, but we wanted to locate ourselves in an area that wasn’t well-served and work to change that. We’ve been welcomed by the community in the most wonderful way – met with curiosity, intrigue and perhaps a little confusion, but always with warmth.
In the last 6 months alone we’ve brought ‘Stupid’, a solo show by young artist, Sian Armstrong, to Prudhoe High School as part of a regional series of preview performances. She and director, Anna Ryder, were also in residence at the school for a week as part of the show’s development process. We’ve also delivered a leadership training day as part of our adult training programme for leaders in the voluntary, community and small business sector in the area, in partnership with Prudhoe Community Partnership. And now we’re bringing ‘Melva’, transforming a shop unit on the high street into a pop-up theatre and producing our own family theatre for the first time. We’re working with young actors, a young director, supporting a writer with her first full play script and bringing all this excitement to a community who’s had nothing like this there before.
What about Kiz? Who is the person behind the organisation?
I trained at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and since have worked as a director and education practitioner for organisations like Live Theatre in Newcastle (my first job out of drama school), Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Schools Festival, Maverick Television and Northern Stage. I especially love working with children and young people – devising theatre with them, creating great theatre with them and now, making professional theatre for them as an audience. They are honest – there’s no pretending to be good if really you’re not. They spot that a mile away and call it out. As a practitioner and artist, it keeps me on my toes all the time and helps make sure I’m always growing and developing my skills. There’s no excuse for getting stale and boring.
I founded Mortal Fools in 2012, really by accident. I was an independent artist looking for some work, and saw a opportunity to trial something with young people in my local area, so gave it a go. 40 young people came to my first taster sessions, and that group has now developed into Tyne Valley Youth Theatre, our youth theatre flagship, soon to be touring the region and pioneering a new touring network for work by young people.
You’ve talked about why you moved Mortal Fools to Prudhoe, but why is it so important that you continue to develop your work in Northumberland?
Mortal Fools’ location initially happened because that was where I lived, and there was also a gap for something new. Our location has since become something of strategic importance. Northumberland is a vast county, with large populations of people who don’t have easy access to great artistic activities. Creative activities can provide a vibrant place for communities to come together. Lack of community cohesion and a ‘me first’ society is something that we’re all suffering the effects of. It’s something Mortal Fools works to change.
I never set out to establish a company, but (aside from my daughter) it is, without doubt, the accomplishment I am most proud of in my career to date. We do such amazing work. We support and lift each other to great heights and I feel proud to bursting on a weekly basis. That said, I’ve never run a company before so I am learning all the time. It’s a great challenge to keep small organisations going in this economic climate, especially in the arts sector, and so I strive day-in, day-out to make sure this ship we’ve built keeps sailing and keeps serving the communities we work in.
Mortal Fools are obviously a small but very busy theatre company – producing shows, transforming theatre spaces and working to develop young people and artists – but what is a normal day for Mortal Fools actually like?
We have our office base in Spetchells Centre in Prudhoe – a lovely 2nd-floor space with three desks, a red sofa, framed pictures of all the shows we’ve done on one wall and access to a balcony overlooking Front Street below (which we plan to make into a gin terrace by next Summer!). All our roles are busy, so there’s lots of comings and goings from the office. In a typical day I might have a couple of hours at my computer – sending and answering emails, maybe writing up notes from a training session, writing funding bids or preparing contracts. Then I might head off somewhere to run a session with a group or meet with one of our partners.
We invite everyone who works for us to use the office if they need to, so a typical day will mean catch ups of various projects across the desks, maybe a production meeting for one of our current projects, where we chat through who needs to do what and progress we’ve made. We are all very good at making cuppas for one another (but some of us are not so good at washing up afterwards!).
Mortal Fools often prefer to make theatre in unconventional spaces – which is why it’s no surprise that this Christmas, Melva will take place in a former hardware store. Why is that important to the work that Mortal Fools do, especially with the community around them?
Theatre shouldn’t just take place in a theatre - it’s only bricks and mortar (and shiny things on top) after all. Many people find theatre buildings intimidating or just not for them – but will chance something in a venue they know and are comfortable in.
For some people, the sheer distance they would have to travel gets in the way of seeing theatre or taking part in drama activities. So we look for those gaps and work to fill them.
We’ve transformed community halls into dystopian fighting pits (with a tonne of sand), covered whole halls in newspaper to create a WOW effect and created shows where the audience are blindfolded for parts of it.
We make exciting, dynamic and unexpected theatre and we want people to be able to reach it. Bricks and mortar are fixed, but we are not, so we roll our sleeves up and turn ordinary places into theatre spaces, and it’s a joy.
On the subject of Melva, what is it, and why is it such an exciting project for Mortal Fools to work on?
Melva is a play for children and young people which is about something real, something which is affecting them here and now and that we, as a society, as parents and families, have to find ways to make better. It’s one young girl’s story about battling with anxiety, but told in a way which balances laugh-out-loud funny with pathos in a sensitive and entertaining way.
(Writer) Danielle’s concept of worrits as those squiggly creatures that writhe around in our bellies when we are fearful of something was an immediate hook for me when she originally pitched the idea. It’s been crafted into an engaging story with some wonderful characters which everyone, young and old, will relate to.
I want Mortal Fools to be making theatre which means something, which has something to say. We want to capture the voices and experiences of those we work with and bring them to life in theatre which asks important questions and challenges audiences to think differently – but it must also be great, entertaining theatre.
There is so much wonderful stuff about this project: supporting Danielle Burn in her first full-length play (and helping her learn she’s a blummin' brilliant writer for children); working with young director, Anna Ryder; expanding our team to work with new artists and practitioners and perhaps most of all bringing a wonderful new play to a new audience in a new place.
I also love the thrill of transforming spaces – it’s a huge amount of work – but the pay-off is always worth it. Working in community spaces, we often have to work around the Bridge Club or Puppy Training classes and the like. For Melva, we are able to occupy our own transformed space, create Front Street Theatre, and have a decent run of performances too. We create magic with every project we do, but I already know this project is going to have a special place in my heart in Mortal Fools’ history.
So, it’s understandable what’s so exciting for Mortal Fools about Melva, but what are you most excited about audiences getting involved with?
I already have butterflies (or maybe worrits!) about that first night we open Front Street Theatre to the public. I want to see their reactions to the space, the play and the experience. I want to see what the children have to say about the play – how they feel about the characters and which bits they particularly liked. I think this is a great play, but our audiences will be the one to judge – and if they like it, I guess we just get to work making the next one happen!