A phone call, a follow up email, a beginning of an opportunity. In February Contact Theatre’s Audience Development Producer Ailbhe approached the community team with a proposal.
Could we engage a group of young men who access African and Afri-Caribbean barber shops in Manchester to watch their new production performed at the Royal Exchange throughout the month of March?
The play is a Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse co-production and part of Contact theatre’s ‘Contact in the City’ A city wide programme of performance during Contact’s building transformation.
It didn’t take long to recruit twelve students from year 9, 10 and 11 to attend the opening night of the Barber Shop Chronicles. The story sold itself;
“One day. Six cities. A thousand stories.
Newsroom, political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world. These are places where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always telling.
A heart-warming, hilarious and insightful new play that leaps from a barber shop in Peckham to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra over the course of a single day.
Written by Inua Ellams. Directed by Bijan Sheibanithe. Barber Shop Chronicles is a heart-warming, hilarious and insightful play, set in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops. Sometimes they have haircuts, sometimes they listen, more often than not they talk. Across one day, six cities and a thousand stories Inua Ellams presents the Barber Shop Chronicles.”
The students, like African men across the world use barber shops not just as a place to get a haircut, but as a space for shared community.
The theatre on the other hand is a relatively new place and space for the group to see their community represented in a significant production. Especially a space unashamedly grand as the Royal Exchange.
The students had no idea what to expect. Yet, travelling to the theatre in the school minibus, the group sang and performed throughout the journey; sounds and beats only an hour later they would see on stage in The Barber Shop Chronicles.
The Barber Shop Chronicles is a production like no other. The play uses submersive theatre to bring the audience into the story. The audience do not enter an auditorium. Rather, they are brought into the performance space to have their hair cut or talk with other customers whilst waiting for the next barber’s chair to become available. Others can dance to the music of the barber shop’s resident DJ, freestyling on the barber shop floor.
Never to miss on opportunity, the students entered the stage dancing, singing and performing, absorbed in their shared world of the barber shop.
Twenty minutes later we took to our seats. One member of the group asked when the show would start.
‘It started as soon as you went on stage’ I responded.
And then, the story began to unfold, many stories, in fact.
The group watched, laughed, joked and sang their way through an hour and a half of theatre. Theatre which placed the students’ community and their world centre stage.
No sooner had the show finished, the group began planning their performance, what it would be and how they would perform it. Their challenge was to develop a creative response to the performance of the evening; their own Barber Shop Chronicles.
The students joined forces with spoken word poet and creative artist, Reece Williams to tell a story, their story of life in the barber shops of Moston Lane.
Three weeks later seven students returned to the theatre for the production’s closing weekend to make their impressive debut performance in the Royal Exchange, presenting their own barber shop stories personal to them.
Their audience not only included 800 members of the public, but the professional actors who three weeks earlier were performing for them. The students wowed everyone with their confidence, humour and honesty.
During an organised Q&A session an audience member had asked what the professional actors’ defining memory will be performing in Manchester at the Royal Exchange. The cast didn’t hesitate in their response-
The memory of Manchester they will take away with them will be the energy and enthusiasm from the group of young men they met on the opening night from a local school, MCA.