Preview: Take Back America

When the Tory Party conference came to Manchester in 2015 Julie Hesmondhalgh formed a band of politically minded theatre makers to raise their voices against austerity. Now they’re tackling Trump

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Actor Julie Hesmondhalgh believes that 2016 was “at times a difficult, challenging, surprising and heart-breaking year”. But it was also a “year full of unity, comradeship, courage and selflessness, where we have seen love in action and hope shining through the darkness.”

One of those rays of hope is Take Back, a Manchester-based theatre co-operative including Hesmondhalgh, theatre-maker Rebekah Harrison, photographer Grant Archer and hundreds of other creatives dedicated to “taking back our voice, by making a space, through grassroots theatre initiatives, to explore social issues.”

The collective has already taken on the Tory Party conference, the budget, austerity, Brexit and even birth with an installation at the Royal Exchange. Last year also included appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe and No. 6 Festival as well as organising van-loads of donations for the camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Their first initiative of 2017 is an evening called Take Back: America on 23 January, inspired by the inauguration just a few days before of US President Donald Trump.

“We’re hoping for people to leave with some hope of how to move forward, as well as anger about the tough times ahead,” says Hesmondhalgh of an evening that should include a couple of dozen five-minute “urgent responses” to the US presidential election from leading UK and US writers.

The pieces will be performed, script in hand, by an impressive array of theatrical talent, many of them well-known faces, from Manchester and beyond.

“The whole Take Back thing basically kicked off when the Tory Party conference came to Manchester late in 2015 and we wanted to do an artistic response to that, specifically against the policies of austerity,” she recalls. “Becx [Harrison] sorted that out and it was quite a rough evening of theatre pieces and new writing, then a panel discussion afterwards about theatre’s role in politics and social issues.

“But it really seemed to excite people to have a chance to be involved with something so immediate and urgent. So afterwards Becx and I, with Grant, who designs the beautiful flyers and films, had a conversation about trying to set up an unashamedly political theatre company that’s not agit-prop but that’s about people getting together and having a conversation in the moment, responding to different social and political events.

“For instance, the afternoon we did at the Royal Exchange inspired by the Brexit vote was called Togetherness and was very much about seeing a way forward, not just moaning.”

Their fleet-footedness and deep roots, in what Hesmondhalgh describes as “an artistic community in Greater Manchester and beyond that loves, cares and gives so willingly of its time, talent, dedication and passion”, helped after the Trump victory took them by surprise.

“We already had Ten Takes On Bodies, dealing with gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights, slated for 23 January at the Comedy Store, but as soon as Trump was elected we knew we had to get cracking and organise a response.

“It soon became clear that we couldn’t limit it to 10 takes. The appetite was clearly there to express and channel some of the rather big feelings and fears that this strange moment in history has invoked.

“As with Togetherness, we will create a Tumblr page for the pieces we can’t use, but we’re anticipating around 25 four-to-five minute pieces on the night, with the usual amazing cast list, and the wonderful Generation Now from the Everyman Young Company singing for us.”

Take Back: America is at the Comedy Store, Manchester, from 8pm on 23 January

Photo: Elspeth Moore

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