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Sarah McDonald Hughes On...Once in a House On Fire

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Sarah McDonald Hughes is an actor and writer whose career is going from strength to strength. Her plays have been produced at The Lowry, the Royal Exchange, the Contact, Paines Plough and by BBC Radio 4. As a performer she's worked extensively in touring theatre, tv and radio. She is Co-artistic Director of Monkeywood Theatre, based in Manchester. For them has written and performed in A Song For Lovers, Maine Road and Last Orders. The company's latest production is Once in a House On Fire, developed with The Lowry Studio and opening there in March. The four shows at the Studio have almost sold out and because of they have added an extra date in their Quays Theatre on Monday 11 April.

Tell us a bit about the play?
The play follows a family of sisters growing up in the 70s and 80s. It’s based on the true story as told by Andrea in the book of the same name and deals with some quite difficult experiences including domestic violence and poverty. But at its heart the story is about sisters and survival, about people taking care of each other in the small ways that get them through.

What have been the biggest challenges in bringing it to the stage?
We started working on the play last year in a collaborative research and development project with the creative team working with local schools and colleges to explore the themes, characters and places in the original book. This way of working is new to us as a company and so it did feel strange at times to be working without a script – we felt a bit anchorless for a while!  But it was an important development for us – we want to open up the making of our work as much as we can, as we believe this is how we’ll make the best theatre, and theatre that is rooted in our community and in people’s lived experiences.  So hopefully it will be worth it!  In terms of the writing it’s been important for us to allow the book to be a help rather than a hindrance – so from the beginning we were strict with ourselves about not feeling limited by the book but being inspired by it instead.  

Having said that, though, it is definitely a bit scary to be telling a story which is loved by so many and we really hope that people feel we’ve done Andrea’s story justice and that they connect with our play in the way they’ve connected with her book.

You must be learning all the time as more of your plays get staged. What has been one of the most important learning curves?
Definitely – with every single project we’ve done we’ve learned so much that we’ve then applied to the next project, so we’ve built up like that, really. I think it’s the same for most companies as no one really teaches you how to do it, you just pick things up along the way. These days, though, we evaluate our processes and our work quite systematically to ensure we’re always able to see clearly what each project has taught us both creatively and professionally. We never assume that we know it all and always try to keep an open mind. Each project we have done has been really different so we’re learning all the time.

One key thing that we keep re-learning is to aim high creatively and as a company, to try to make each project the best one yet.  Fingers crossed that will be true of Once in a House on Fire!

Monkeywood are a very supportive team. But with funding sparse in the arts, there must be low times. What keeps you going?
Well...you have to remind yourself why you do it, I suppose. We really believe in the power of theatre to change people’s lives for the better, and we believe it should be accessible for everyone. The current situation is pretty disheartening for everyone working in the arts, especially when there’s this short sighted perception within the current Government that the arts aren’t important or worthy of funding.

I suppose one thing we feel quite strongly about is that we’re lucky to be doing what we do and that we need to continue to step up to the opportunities we have been given in terms of the quality of the work we produce. I get a bit depressed when I go and see theatre that feels like it hasn’t been worked on enough, that people haven’t invested time and sweat and tears in – stuff that feels cynically made and half arsed. Also, we enjoy working together and are friends, so that helps. We spend a lot of time together as Monkeywood and I don’t think it’d work if we didn’t get on…its nice when we clock off at the end of the day and go to the theatre or for a drink together.

Last Orders was staged as part of Re:Play. Did you make any changes to the original piece?
We are firm believers that a play is never really ‘finished’ and when we were offered the opportunity to produce the show again we did do some rewrites to ensure it was the best it could be. However, we didn’t want to detract from what it was – a short ‘mini-play’ that works best in a pub – we were keen for audiences to experience it in a similar way that they had in the Royal Exchange’s Pub season (which is what it was originally commissioned for).  So we were really pleased when the Contact and the Library helped us find a site specific pub space for it, and that audiences seemed to really go with it and identify with it.

Maine Road was so successful that you took it onto the road. What was the reaction like outside of Manchester and how did it differ to Northwest reactions?
Well...we’d be lying if we said that the play didn’t get a particularly special reception in Manchester. We were made up to see so many City fans in the audience and many of them got in touch with us afterwards to tell us how affected they’d been by the play, how it had tapped into their own feelings and experiences. And the play was an unashamedly Manchester based story – really rooted in where we are from and where we live, and Mancunian audiences love that.

That said, though, the reaction on tour was great. At its heart the play is about a boy who’s losing everything, it’s about love and loss and caring for your family but not being able to tell them. Plus the tribal element of supporting football, and that being a real part of your identity, and something to cling to when times are hard elsewhere…I think people ‘get’ that, whether they’re football fans or not.

I know you are great supporters of local theatre. What pieces have you seen recently that you really enjoyed?
All three of us loved Love Love Love by Paines Plough at the Exchange.  I also thought Winterlong at the Exchange was blazing, it really knocked me sideways, made me think. Similarly Mogadishu at the Exchange was just stunning – a really impressive, contemporary play with no easy answers. Other things we have loved this year were Cathy Crabb’s Beautiful House at the Library, and Theatre Bordello’s Tales From the Blackjack at The Lowry, in which Alex Moran was absolutely incredible. We also always go and see JB Shorts and I think what they’re doing in terms of making good quality, well written and performed theatre, accessible, cheap, and part of a night out is brilliant.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?
We’ll be touring with House on Fire until the Autumn but we’re currently in the planning stages for our next project which will be launching towards the end of the year. I don’t want to jinx anything so can’t say too much…but fingers crossed it’ll be something a bit new for us…

Sarah McDonald Hughes was speaking to Glenn Meads

Once in a House On Fire is at the Lowry from 31 March - 2 April and an extra date on 11 April.


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