Tuesday 13 September 2011

Mikron Celebrates 40 Years on the Waterways

Mikron has been floating through the waterways of my life from an early age. My mother met her partner on a narrowboat, and they remain keen boaters. I remember summer days, beer gardens, and salt 'n' vinegar crisps providing the backdrop for a travelling troop of multi-talented performers.

Perhaps the play that stood out most for me was If You Go Down to the Woods... tales from the Newbury by-pass. It epitomised the resourcefulness of Mikron's prop department when one actor managed to represent an entire human wall. Wearing something akin to a milk-maid's shoulder board, he unfurled two life-sized cut outs of workmen on either side and - hey presto! - a security line. Ingenious.

It was a huge honour to be involved in working with Mikron earlier this year in my capacity as a Charity Consultant. Seeing first-hand the hard work and dedication that goes into continuing the fantastic achievements of the last four decades.

Here, I talk to Artistic Director, Marianne McNamara, about the stories that inspire Mikron, and their own hopes for the future.

Artistic Director: Marianne McNamara

Mikron is celebrating its 40th anniversary of touring the waterways this year. That's a long time for a small company. What do you think it is that makes Mikron so special?

We are unique and accessible. No other company tours by narrowboat and not many companies break down as many barriers as we do at Mikron. The actors engage with the audience before the play, during the interval, and afterwards. The people that support and follow us appreciate this. They feel that they are part of our extended family.

Most of our supporters and friends have followed us for years. In fact, lots of them know more about Mikron than I do! We will, can, and do perform practically anywhere. All we need is a plug socket. I think that the relaxed nature of our shows, the lack of pomp and circumstance that surrounds our work, as well as a high standard of professionalism are what make us so special.

What have been the most memorable moments during your time as Artistic Director?

This time last year we were really on our uppers. We had just had all of our formal funding cut, and were even talking about having to sell our beloved narrowboat, Tyseley, in order to fund our 40th year of touring.

Then we launched our Ruby Appeal and slowly the letters and the cheques started to roll in. People of all ages, and from all over the UK, dug deep into their pockets during the hardest financial time that we've faced as a nation in years.

Individuals sent photographs and memories, and told us how Mikron had affected their lives. To date the Ruby Appeal has raised £38,000. This saved the company, and ensured that our 40th year happened. It also reaffirmed the faith and passion that people have for the company. This was such a humbling experience. I am so proud to be a part of a company that evokes such an amazing response.

Has Mikron produced any famous names over the years?

In my first year working with Mikron as an actress, we'd often hear the phrase 'oh it was so funny when Mark Williams was in the shows.' I think he's the most famous person to have worked for us, especially since his appearance in the Harry Potter films. Buffy Davis, who plays Joleen in The Archers, is another. Many other actors have gone on to have very successful careers - Sarah Parks springs to mind.

Who comes to see your shows, and how do they help you on the tour?

That's the million dollar question!

Many boaters come to see our shows, lots of families, people with an interest in history, and people that like a pint!

We have a friends scheme that is probably like no other. Not only do people support us with annual membership fees, but our friends have also been known to move the van, move the boat, cook our meals, wash our clothes and costumes, and deliver us eggs on tour!

How do you choose the type of plays you perform? What is important about the messages Mikron take out there?

Different shows happen for different reasons. Mikron likes to tell the stories of the people behind the big events and movements in history.

We often commemorate anniversaries, but also we choose subjects that are important to us. For example, next year we're producing a play to commemorate the bicentenary of Luddism, alongside a play about allotments.

There have been occasions where different companies or groups have commissioned us to tell their stories. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) commissioned us to write Striking the Balance, which explored and celebrated forty years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act. The Clarions were also happy for us to tell the story of the Socialist Cyclists in Pedal Power.

Forty years is an amazing achievement. What have you got planned for the future?

Yes, we think it's an amazing achievement too, and we hope that we have another forty years in us!

We were thrilled to secure funding for next year from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. Once again testament to the fact that people think our work is worthwhile. This grant is two-thirds of what we need to ensure that next year will happen.

I'm thrilled to reveal that we are commissioning two new shows and two new writers. Maeve Larkin will be writing Can You Keep A Secret? - the rise and fall of the Yorkshire Luddites. Deborah McAndrew will be writing our allotment show Losing The Plot - earthy passions and pitchforks at dawn! We'll be touring these shows nationally as we do every year.

Who knows what will happen after 2012, but I assure you we'll do our best to secure funding and ensure our future. 

If anyone would like to commission a Mikron show, or has an interesting story that they think we ought to tell, then please get in touch.

I'd Go Back Tomorrow
The history of Mikron Theatre
Available through Mikron's Shop.

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