I am an actor, director and founder of new arts and theatre space 53two in Manchester. 53two is in a pretty big and slightly eerie space in the viaduct arches near Deansgate – especially when you’re on your own. The trams travelling past the window on the bridge overhead sometimes make it feel a bit surreal – like I’m in a film. I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m allowed to be here. I still half expect someone to come along and say we didn’t really win the bid to transform this unbelievable space and chuck us out.
Before we took over in June this year the two arches that make up 53two had been empty for years. Before that they were part of a famous car showroom in Manchester. Two years ago it closed down suddenly, causing quite a shock – locally it had been a bit of an institution for 40 years, selling all sorts of muscle cars like Chryslers, Corvettes and Hummers. The huge Bauer Millett sign from those glory days we’re keeping in place. For one thing it makes 53two easy to find but we also want to celebrate its history.
With 53two we’re trying to create a theatre and arts space that’s like nothing else in Manchester at the moment. There’s the King’s Arms in Salford for smaller performances and then there’s really big prestigious venues like Home and the Royal Exchange in the city centre. But nothing in between. I think that’s what helped make our bid against 20 other proposals for the space a success. We don’t own the building – we’re just allowed to borrow it for a few years (hopefully more if we’re well behaved) due to winning placemaking funding from the owners.
North South Shorts is our first ever show at the space so it’s a huge deal. Whereas most weeks I’ve been doing glamorous jobs like painting walls and installing toilets, we’re now into proper rehearsal mode and I know the performances are really going to be something special. North South Shorts will tell stories from the north and south of England. For example, one of the plays – Closer to God by Bruntwood Prize winning Anna Jordan – is set in a London tower block, while another play, by Joshua val Martin, is set high above Oldham’s Failsworth Precinct. Joshua is a great example of the sort of success story we want to nurture and develop. He’s from Bolton and took part in the Royal Exchange’s playwright scheme and since then has gone from strength to strength.
I suppose I’m quite well connected in acting circles, due to my work as an actor, director and teacher in London and Manchester, so I know we’ve got loads of people in the theatre world hoping it will work out for us. But even beyond that I feel like people are giving us a chance here in Manchester that we wouldn’t get elsewhere. I don’t feel like I would have been able to do this in somewhat saturated London. Manchester is changing and the arts have a huge place here. You just have to look at the Unabombers – a couple of DJs who have now taken over the Refuge restaurant at the Palace Hotel five minutes away from 53two and are smashing it.
With 53two I hope I’m moving in the same direction. And I’m trying to do it in a way that makes sense to me, by paying all our actors as fairly as we can, for instance – not something that happens very often in this industry. We’re also going to be running 53two as a charity so any profit we make will go back into training and developing upcoming artists, actors and musicians to develop their work. Supporting local actors in the North West is really important for us, giving them a stage that they might not be able to get on at some of the bigger venues.
I am keeping everything crossed that North South Shorts as our first run will be well supported. After all, everyone who goes will be part of Manchester cultural history in the making – not bad for £12 a ticket.
North South Shorts is at 53two, Manchester on 11-22 October. Tickets are £12 plus £1.20 booking fee and can be booked in advance here