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Brief Encounter With … Richard Gregory

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Quarantine was set up in 1998 by directors Renny O’Shea and Richard Gregory and designer Simon Banham. A core team of four now operate from its Manchester base, where they produce innovative theatre. They work with both experienced performers and people who have never performed before. Using their personal histories and experiences, they invent a theatrical form that’s tailored to each piece. Their current production Susan & Darren (first seen five years ago) is back in Manchester, as a trailblazer for the Queer Up North Festival. We spoke to Richard Gregory to find out more.

I know the show, Susan & Darren has been staged before but for newcomers, can you tell us about the concept?

We originally began devising the show in 2005, with first performances in 2006 at Contact in Manchester, as part of that year's Queer Up North Festival.  Since then we've performed it all over the UK and in Europe - most recently in Berlin and Dublin (where it won the Best Production Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival). The show's made with Darren Pritchard, who's a trained dancer - and a very good one - and his mum, Susan, who works as a cleaner. We call Susan & Darren "an event with dancing" - it's full of different kinds of dance, choreographed by Jane Mason. Throughout the show, there are videos running on 6 screens. The videos are shot in their living room - friends, neighbours and family sat on Susan's sofa. Sometimes we hear people interviewed. Sometimes they just sit and watch with the rest of us. We're rehearsing at the moment to update the show. The show takes the form of a party. During the course of the event, some of the audience help Susan to prepare a buffet, which is served as the performance comes to an end.  At the party at the end of the show you can eat, drink, dance and chat to Susan and Darren. They've both been great party animals in the past - we'll see if they can take the pace now that they're getting older!!! It will be a unique version of the show at Sachas Hotel.  It's taking place in a function room - the Washington Suite. There'll be a cash bar and a live dj after the performance. It's a very intimate and moving piece of theatre. It feels warm and raw and human. Some of it is really funny, and at times it's devastating. A bit like life really.
How does it feel being the trailblazer for Queer Up North?
We're really proud to be invited. We hope to kick the festival off in great style - with an event that grabs people's attention yet is full of substance.
Why do you think this festival is still important?
It's vital that we have high-profile platforms for voices that sometimes exist on the edges of society. The joy of QUN has always been that it's not dull and worthy or exclusive - it has constantly challenged and exposed its audiences to some of the best work around - from Britain and abroad. From the early days the festival has been a leading voice in suggesting that 'queerness' as a concept isn't just about sexuality, but about taking a stance in society that challenges the norm. The creative energy of Manchester has always grown out of dissenting voices that come from the margins - before we drown in huge-scale events that rely on vast PR machines to convince us that we want them, let's not forget that, and hang on to the energy of events like QUN...
Do you think attitudes towards homosexuality are changing or have they remained static?
A tricky question.  I'm of the opinion that most forms of prejudice are born out of ignorance. I grew up in a small town in Derbyshire in the 60's/70's, where many attitudes - to race, sexuality, gender - were deeply entrenched. To a certain extent, they still are, compared to the far more diverse environment of a city like Manchester. I was as guilty as anybody of casual use of homophobic, racist or sexist language and behaviour when I was growing up - as times have changed and I've been exposed to other people's lifestyles and cultures I've learned that it's not acceptable to offend other people's ways of living. It's exciting and enriching - and challenging (it's important to acknowledge that it's not easy) to live amongst people who don't live like you. It's a complicated subject - we have to find a way to voice our differences as well as celebrate our similarities. Knee-jerk tabloid-type responses about "political correctness gone mad" don't help here - we need a more mature and complex approach. Generally though, I think we keep moving forward. Some people will always prefer to keep their feet in the same place. More fool them, I say.
You are touring following the Manchester date. Do you find audiences are a tad livelier in the North?
We certainly have found a difference in response to Susan & Darren from audiences in larger urban locations - cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham etc. I guess it connects with the previous question - audiences in big cities are far less likely to be phased by the kind of relationship Darren - a mixed race gay man - has with his mum - a white working-class woman from an Irish background. It's familiar.  In small towns, people have responded well to the universality of the show, but perhaps found Susan and Darren - what? - a bit unusual maybe?  Perhaps this makes them a little more polite. In bigger cities, people are more likely to recognise themselves up there, or people they know, so they're more at ease with letting go perhaps.  I think it's more to do with cities than Northernness - although the audiences we had in Newcastle were the wildest, and that's the furthest north in England we've been!
They say never work with children and animals, you've done both in Old People, Children and Animals. How was that experience?
Fascinating and tough. I look back on that project as a kind of failure to be honest. It wasn't about problems with children and animals. The reason I've chosen - on many occasions, not just that one - to work with children and animals, is that they bring an element of unpredictability, which is important to me in theatre. I like to have elements there that are outside my control. The children and animals in the show were predictably unpredictable. The problems in Old People, Children and Animals came from elsewhere - we found it difficult to develop material with some of the performers and I was perhaps a little complacent about bringing quite so many unpredictable elements together in one show...
What about working with relatives? Do we get to see different sides of Susan & Darren's relationship through art which we would not see in their every day lives?
You'd have to ask our performers really. I've never worked with my own relatives but what I see from the outside is that making a piece of performance together seems to offer relatives a new experience, a new way of being together and seeing each other  The process relies hugely upon trust and openness, which of course varies hugely between people.  Susan and Darren have an extraordinary relationship. They are very open with each other, and hugely supportive. I think that Darren found it a big responsibility at first - he'd persuaded his mum to do this, to step into his world. But Sue completely rose to the challenge. Now the responsibility feels shared. And through having this experience together, they've found a new strand to their relationship, a different level of understanding and closeness. It's fascinating and quite humbling to see that, five years on.

What are your plans following this tour?
We're always dead busy! In the week that Susan & Darren leaves Manchester to go on tour (starting at Sadler's Wells - imagine! - before going on to Leicester, Glasgow and Bristol), we're opening a piece at Manchester City Art Gallery.  The Soldier's Song was made by my co-Artistic Director at Quarantine, Renny O'Shea. She worked with currently serving soldiers over a 2 year period, and has developed a karaoke video booth - you go in one at a time, select a song and a soldier and, if you choose to, sing a duet with them. I think it's a fabulous piece of work. Simple, and quietly very provocative. After that, in the future we have a whole range of stuff on the cards - making a new project for Fierce festival in Birmingham, developing some work about death with the new and exciting Inbetween Time Festival in Bristol, making a collaboration with 2 artists from Beijing and Manchester's Chinese Arts Centre, plus talking about new plans with National Theatre Wales, Tate Modern and the Royal Exchange. It never stops...  If people want to keep updated, the best way is to sign up to our newsletter via our website.

Richard Gregory was speaking to Glenn Meads

Susan & Darren runs at Sachas Hotel Manchester from tonight, 30 April - 8 May as a trailblazer for Queer Up North.


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