Operation Crucible

‘Schmelztiegel’, German for ‘Crucible’, was the code name given by The Luftwaffe to a bombing operation which saw the destruction of huge parts of Sheffield city centre. When the city was blitzed in 1940 it resulted in huge numbers of casualties and massive damage to many of the city’s most prominent buildings, none more so than the bombing of The Marples Hotel, which cost 70 lives and reduced seven-stories of the grand hotel to fifteen feet of rubble. ‘Operation Crucible’ is the story of four men trapped within the ruined hotel, and we got in touch with Kieran Knowles, who both wrote and acts in the play, to find out more about the performance heading to the Studio Theatre.

In your own words, what would you say the play is about?
It’s really about these wartime workers just stumbling through the Sheffield blitz. I wanted to make this story about four ordinary people dealing with their own things who suddenly find themselves feeling the full effects of war.

Tell us a bit about the part you play.
I play Tommy, and I suppose the simplest way to describe him is the most broad-shouldered member of the group. He’s almost like a father figure. His own dad died at The Battle of The Somme, and now he’s found himself going into the mills like so many did at the time. I based Tommy quite a bit on my own granddad, who was a man of few words. If you gave it enough time, you could needle these great stories out of him though.

Are any of the other characters based on real people?
When we were researching the play we interviewed all these people from Sheffield who lived through the Blitz, and their stories were just so fascinating that we had to include some of them in the play itself. We didn’t base each character on any specific person – even Tommy is only partially based on my granddad – but we wanted to recreate that generation of dads who never talked about the war. Instead they just demonstrated that great Bulldog spirit really, that sort of “yeah, we lived through it, but we’re fine now – so no point moaning about it.”

Why did you focus particularly on The Marples Hotel?
The way it started was we were all just a group of unemployed actors who decided that we should write and create something instead of just waiting for a phone call from one of our agents. We wanted to do something related to Sheffield, so we researched a few stories and settled on the 1940 bombings. Obviously The Marples Hotel attack was the biggest single loss of lives across the duration of the bombing. We wanted to explore the loss of community that came from this. It was really important for me to tell the story from the perspective of someone who’d grown up in peace times, because then I could really emphasise how scary it must have been to be the people living under the bombs.

What other research did you do in preparation?
All sorts. There were loads of really useful newspaper articles and books, and The Kelham Island Museum was really helpful too. But as I found out, it’s really important to recognise when you’ve got enough research to be going on with, because I didn’t want to write a history document, I wanted to tell a story.

How do you think your role as the writer affects your performance as an actor and vice-versa?
Interesting question. When I first started writing the play, I was thinking about it from an actor’s perspective because, like I said, I was an out-of-work actor. The weird thing is it’s one of the most difficult plays I’ve had to learn! It’s so dependent on other parts working together, and one word, quick exchanges can be really hard to learn but are really important to remember. I was really lucky that everyone was involved from the start because I knew exactly what it would look like with the right actors, and the collaborative process really helped the play. I wouldn’t say being the writer has really affected my acting perspective within the play though; when we started rehearsing we all just basically forgot who wrote it, and I even started criticising the words!

So you’ve never been tempted to jump into the director’s chair for a bit during rehearsal?
I haven’t, and that’s the great thing. I’m lucky to be working with such an amazing director that I don’t have to. Bryony [Shanahan] is fantastic to work with from a creative standpoint, and, as she’s a female director working with a cast of four men, she really offers a different perspective.

Operation Crucible comes to the Studio Theatre 7 Sep–24 Sep.

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