MATE Productions is probably undergoing the biggest changes in its 14 year history.
The Halewood-based company was set up in 2000 by Gaynor La Rocca, who always balanced a career in education and arts management with her passion for the group. Now, for the first time, she is throwing her efforts into MATE full time.
“When I started, I felt there was a need for a community theatre company led by professionals; something more aspirational than am dram – something providing skills, training and a stepping stone to other things if people wanted,” she says. “It has that community vibe and that’s very much part of that we have been about, making people feel part of the community.”
MATE attracts members from their teens to their seventies, creating an inter-generational dynamic that gives their productions a rather unique quality among their peers – in fact, their upcoming production Grace and the Sea was written especially for them by playwright Rob Brannen (more on this later).
The company meets weekly at the Arncliffe Centre in Halewood, and work on taking their biggest shows up to the Edinburgh Festival. Members of all ages have developed such a passion for theatre they have studied it to A Level and beyond; others have moved on to learn from Hope Street Ltd, and even RADA. But MATE proves such a supportive and friendly environment that most people stay in touch when they move on.
Gaynor graduated in drama from JMU, and was working as a drama lecturer at Edge Hill University when she started up MATE in 2000; initially an acronym Merseyside Arts, Theatre and Education, the name stuck. She has now staged more than 25 productions in those 14 years and taken five of them up to Edinburgh, as well as site-specific works in parks and great halls in the region, produced with creative partners such as Spike Theatre, Croxteth Hall and the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. “The constant aim of the company is to produce professional standard work,” Gaynor says
MATE’s last show, and the one that brought the company to the attention of MADEUP was 2011’s The Yarn (reviewed here), a play originally written for youth theatre about the inhabitants of a country village. Despite featuring characters of all ages, it had never been performed by a cast spanning generations. Writer Rob Brannen heard about the production , saw it during its run at the Edinburgh Festival, and loved the interpretation.
Now head of the school of arts at De Montfort University, Brannen – who hadn’t written a new play for some years – was inspired to write Grace and the Sea especially for MATE. Granted a sabbatical from the university, he made frequent journeys up to Liverpool (where his father was from) to run creative workshops with the company. The show will combine film, live music, physical theatre and storytelling combine in “a celebration of the landscape and those who have left their mark upon it”.
“It is so exciting because every part has been written for each particular actor,” says Gaynor. “Grace and the Sea is set on Crosby beach and is inspired by real people and real stories of the coast – including memories of the beach from company members who shared their stories.”
The company will perform Grace and the Sea across Merseyside later this month before taking it up to Edinburgh, but the work won’t stop there. After that they will begin working on the RSC Open Stages project, where they will develop a special promenade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Blackie next year, and then tour to Croxteth Hall and park and Stadt Moers Park in Knowsley in summer 2015.
Gaynor has also developed MATE Studio, to encourage more intimate work and new writing (Jim Cartwright’s Two will be performed at The Pilgrim pub in Liverpool city centre in October, followed by John Godber’s Shakers early in 2015), and MATE Young Actors, who will tackle Dennis Kelly’s DNA. Rather than being in the position of expanding the company to fulfill the obligations of funders, MATE has admirably done things the other way round, wanting to show there was a need for the offer and that they could provide it first.
This approach has paid off – Grace and the Sea is funded by BBC Performing Arts Fund, Arts Council England and Liverpool, Knowsley and Sefton councils.
Gaynor says: “So far we have managed to do things on a shoestring, and with our own fundraising and subs. We have been sustainable, and that’s why we’ve been here so long. We want to build on what we have got; we’re not a flash in the pan and we want to grow and develop – and that’s why we are so grateful to everyone who has made Grace and the Sea possible.
“MATE has always leaned towards physical theatre, clowning, storytelling and oral tradition. I’ve always been passionate about teaching and lifelong learning, and passionate about people. There’s something unique and special about MATE – we all care for each other. It’s such a great company and there is something magical about it.”
Grace and the Sea will be performed at the Atkinson Theatre, Southport, on July 19; the Unity Theatre in Liverpool on July 23 and 24; and Halewood Academy, Knowsley on July 29. For more on the adventures of MATE, visit their new website at www.mateproductions.co.uk.