Black Bright Theatre: “We want to champion female voices in theatre-making”
Black Bright Theatre is a new theatre company based in Sheffield producing dark, female-led writing. We spoke to writer/artistic director Madeleine Farnhill and company manager/producer Helen Denning about the processes behind creating live theatre.
How did Black Bright Theatre first come about?
In a word, boredom. The core team consists of Madeleine Farnhill and Helen Denning. Knowing each other from our university theatre society, the two of us came together during the March 2020 lockdown to discuss producing a play Maddie was writing. Initially, we didn’t think further than this single production. We wanted to bring together a group of independent artists to collaborate on a project. We’re lucky enough to be friends with some incredibly talented technicians, graphic designers, performers and musicians and wanted to give as many of them a chance to get back to doing what they do best – live theatre. The result of this was The Hunger. We started off as co-directors, with Maddie as the show’s writer and Helen as the show’s producer. After a sell-out run of well-received performances at DINA venues, we made the decision to establish a theatre company. Maddie became the artistic director and writer, and Helen became the company manager and producer. That was the beginning of Black Bright Theatre.
Is there a specific ethos behind what you create?
Black Bright is a Yorkshire phrase meaning filthy or very dirty (Maddie’s mum often uses it to describe their family dog after a walk). We felt the griminess evoked by this expression, and the fact that Maddie is a Yorkshire lass, lent ‘Black Bright’ as an ideal name for our company and the work we produce. We had a desire to create female-led, story-driven theatre with complex female characters at the forefront, that offer an authentic and unique representation of underrepresented regions in theatre, whilst also tackling dark subject matters. You’ll notice our emphasis on the ‘female experience’. Both of us have seen a lot of work churned out which solely posits female characters as victims or plot devices for the male leads, rather than existing in their own right. To counter this, we want to champion female voices in theatre-making and offer complex and thoughtful representations of women to female actors of varying ages.
What were you doing before setting up the company?
Helen was working a full-time job at Northern General Hospital after graduating from her Philosophy and Religion degree in the 2020 lockdown. There weren’t many theatre jobs available, so admin in the liver department was the next best thing! Maddie was completing her third year of her English and Theatre degree during the 2020/21 lockdowns. Suffice to say, we were both desperate for a creative outlet that had been taken away so abruptly due to the pandemic and restrictions on in-person collaborations.
What sort of things might people not know about when it comes to pulling together an independent production?
A lot of admin is involved in putting on a production – most of the preparation processes were done behind a screen! It’s a lot of ‘who you know’, and luckily, we were fortunate enough to have a pool of creatives already from our university theatre company, who’d gone on to do freelance work, that we could contact and work with. It also requires casting the net wide in terms of venue, set sourcing and auditions, etc… if you don’t ask you don’t get! Fortunately, most people are wanting to help you, as people are generally keen to support small artists. Finally, we cannot overstate the importance of social media when it comes to publicising our own show. We set up the pages ourselves, garnered a following ourselves and used it every chance we could to create hype and spread word about the show. We also used it to find our two wonderful actors who responded to our open casting call. In short, we have been very fortunate to know the talented people we do to put this production together!
Could you talk us through your respective roles within the company and what they consist of?
Helen Denning is our Company Manager and Show Producer, meaning she is chiefly responsible for publicity, organising social events, managing our social media pages, handling financial matters, correspondence between venues and our technical team, and putting together a dedicated production team. Maddie is the Artistic Director and Writer. As our resident playwright, she writes and directs all of our productions, co-directing The Hunger with show producer Helen. She is in charge of the overall artistic vision for the company and the work we produce, having the final say in the content of our performances. Maddie’s passion for stories that represent women and underrepresented regions in Britain forms the basis of the work that we produce. Ultimately, we see Black Bright as a partnership project and work together very closely on all elements of Black Bright. We believe communication between creatives is the most important part of any endeavour, and share this ethos with everybody we work with on shows.
Do you have any new productions in the pipeline?
As well as reworking The Hunger for its tour, Maddie is also working on another script that we aim to debut over the next couple of years. Like The Hunger, the play has an all-female cast and is set in rural Britain, yet swaps the dramatic landscape of North Yorkshire to the dense forests of North Wales. Farnhill wanted to write a play that actively engages with the fact that it’s characters are female, rather than them just happening to be the tellers of the story, tapping into folklore and psychological horror to externalise the experiences of being a woman, and being watched. However, our main focus and priority currently is our 2022 Tour of The Hunger! We shall be touring our original production The Hunger in unique, independent Northern venues in York, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, and – of course – Sheffield. Keep your eyes peeled for the set up of our social media and publicity, launching soon!