Blog: Melanie Whitehead

The founder of a Blackpool theatre company explains how it was inspired by the back rooms of pubs, cake and witchcraft

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Last September, I started a community theatre company in Blackpool. I was feeling increasingly alienated by the majority middle-class audiences in attendance at shows I watched, the press validation that seemed to be in direct relation to the size of the budget, the starriness of the actors and the a-la-mode-ness of the hosting London producer. I was increasingly saddened by the lack of audiences at regional venues versus the massive queues of eventists attending West End shows and “live” cinema broadcasts from there. I was frustrated by the hit-and-miss quality being wheeled out by commercial theatre makers. And I was annoyed by the lack of programming imagination that chief execs of these vast (mostly Victorian) proscenium arch stages that sit centrally in towns and cities across the UK are employing to reimagine them as 21st-century spaces.

I had spent the summer reading about how the likes of Joan Littlewood, Ken Campbell and Mike Bradwell had rooted their theatrical activity in working-class communities and how this had resulted in some of the most unfiltered, deeply-felt and genuine responses to live performances. I learned how social clubs, marketplaces and pubs became the new hubs of artistic boundary-pushing and so felt motivated to try it out in Blackpool.

Thanks to the support of the out-of-season pub management contingency, we met each Wednesday night in a variety of back rooms. Our numbers waxed and waned, settling at a core of around 15 regular attendees of all ages and backgrounds, and together we spent time playing and exploring where theatre as we know it in the West came from. We tried masks and spoke in chorus like the Greeks, jeered crowds of peers with silly hats, accents and physicality in the approximation of a St George mummers play and moved through Christian morality tales to the complexity and depth of Shakespeare’s language. A whistle-stop tour indeed!

As Christmas was approaching, word had spread about The Electric Sunshine Project Community Theatre Company (or TESP CTC – all suggestions for a snappier name very welcome!) and we were asked to do some festive presentations. Our group performed a variety of appropriately-themed snippets from books, poems and plays. For many this was their first ever public performance. However, for some, the stress of performance was too much – our numbers waned a little more.

In January we started once more – our core group now at 10, lessons learnt, social bonds formed, friendly, supportive atmosphere and half-time cakey-breaky still recognised each week.

I asked the group what they would like to work on and the message was clear – they wanted to devise something new, something that was inspired by a local story, factually correct but not necessarily script-based. They wanted to explore the Pendle Witch story but if they were doing that they wanted to be able to put their own spin on it – to bring it into context with the world today, to include some elements that could be pre-filmed, to try out a bit of shadow puppetry, to have some narration that could be read rather than learned and to have a musical element too!

The result of all of these ideas coming together and the hard work and brilliant focus and energy of the group over the last 10 weeks is The Pendle Witch Project – a 45-minute long piece that uses shadow puppetry, music, movement, live puppetry, drama, poetry, narration and some factual modern context to tell this well-known story to new audiences.

What happens next for TESP thesps is still being decided. It is likely we’ll be offering some regular drop-in sessions alongside specialist classes for more advanced performers and the opportunity to audition for traditional plays. If you have any ideas, or would like to find out more, do please contact me at, call 07940 502450, or sign up to receive email updates here.

The Oendle Witch Project will be playing on Monday 10 April at Blackpool Palatine Library at 11am and Central Library at 3pm the same day, then at the recently DIY SOS refurbished young carers centre on Wednesday 12 April.

Photo: CJGriffiths Photography

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