Narrowboat Entertainers - Mikron theatre company gear up for their 40th birthday celebrations
PUBLISHED: 02:39 29 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:34 20 February 2013
Members of the Yorkshire-based Mikron theatre company travel from show to show in a vintage narrowboat. Tony Greenway joins them as they gear up for their 40th birthday celebrations
For a troupe of strolling players, the members of the Mikron theatre company dont actually do that much strolling. No, floating is more their thing specifically around Britains waterways on a beautiful 76 year-old narrowboat called Tyseley.
During the war Tyseley used to carry sand for sandbags from Birmingham to London and then make the return journey with barrels of Guinness. Now it carries actors from show to show.
Yet this vintage barge is more than just a means of transport for Mikron performers. Shes also their home, the place where they live, eat, rehearse and relax. Shes so integral to their way of life that shes become another member of the Mikron team, albeit one that sleeps eight.
When I meet Mikron whose land base is in Marsden, Huddersfield theyve cruised out of Yorkshire and are moored on a leafy canal side in Sandbach, Cheshire. They invite me on board and serve up bacon and sausage sandwiches and coffee while Tyseleys engine chugs reassuringly in the background. If this is an actors life, I could stand an awful lot of it.
Cruising along the canals eating brunch and spotting kingfishers seems like such a romantic existence.
So do they ever forget that they have a show to perform in the evening? No, says Pete Toon, Mikrons producer. The ultimate aim of the day is to get to work. Its just that our commute isnt two hours on the M62 moaning about the roadworks. Our commute is slower - we can only go at 3mph - but were going somewhere with a purpose. Getting to the show is like a performance in itself because its a real team effort. The actors travel light, so props and cowwwstumes are minimal and stored on Tyseleys roof and in various cubby holes.
The seeds of Mikron were established in 1963 when Mike Lucas, his late wife Sarah Cameron and Ron Legge took a show to the Edinburgh Festival (Mikron is an amalgam of their names but is also a word that means small in Greek). The company was established properly in 1972 when Mike realised that he wanted to take theatre to unusual venues and worked out that cruising around by narrowboat was a really good way to get to hard to reach audiences.
Mikron toured its first play, called Still Waters, in 1972 and has since performed 4,000 shows to 280,000 people in a variety of offbeat venues, including pubs, village halls, community centres, festivals and rallies. Its even performed inside a tunnel, in the bows of a docked boat and in peoples own front rooms. When they reach their destination, the actors can set up anywhere. They dont need a stage. A corner of a beer garden will do nicely.
This summer, Mikrons specially commissioned shows are about Luddites and allotments: Losing the Plot (with music by Northern Broadsides Conrad Nelson and a script by his wife, Deborah McAndrew) will be performed on allotments around the UK and Can You Keep a Secret?, the story of the Yorkshire Luddites, will be performed in pubs, cafes, museums and even a football club.
This, then, is not a regular thespian job; nevertheless Mikron attracts lots of interested actors. Over the last four decades, many successful names have worked with Mikron including The Fast Shows Mark Williams while founder member Mike has appeared in everything from Doctor Who to the Liver Birds. If you join Mikron for a year you never forget it, says Pete. Its a unique experience for an actor. This is, after all, the only theatre company in the world that travels to its stages by narrowboat. It does mean, however, that nipping back home to water the plants or feed the fish isnt an option.
We do feel cut off but in a pleasant way, says Pete. On a normal day we get up at eight-ish, boat all day, get to the venue, do the performance that evening, have a pint afterwards and get back on the boat to go to bed. We do that every day for six days and then have a day or two off.
Pete and Marianne are former Mikron actors and, even though they now are office bound, they know what its like to travel on the barge. Theyve been there, done that. When you join Mikron you take on a new life, says Marianne. So, actually, your day off on the boat is a wonderful thing.
Of course, being in such close proximity to your co-stars means that you have to be a certain type of person so in the castings and auditions, Pete is brutally honest about the kind of pressures a Mikron actor will face. In fact, precious actors who have ideas of flouncing on board and asking wheres my dressing room? need not apply. Everyone just mucks in, whether its making the tea, storing the props, steering, mooring, emptying the bilges or operating canal locks.
Actor Nicholas Coutu-Langmead, fresh out of drama school, joined the company for Losing the Plot and Can You Keep a Secret? He remembers
his first discussions with Pete. He kept telling me that Mikron was really hard work, he says. And the advert I replied to said: This job is hard work! three times. Nicholas admits he has learnt more with Mikron than in his entire time at college. Wake-up call doesnt begin to describe it, he says.
I have three characters to play and develop and the entire script to learn. Im offstage for one and a half scenes the rest of the time Im either acting or playing an instrument or moving a set. Then, afterwards, we sell things in the shop and we have to market the company, too. Theres nowhere to hide.
Mikrons unique selling point is Tyseley. For me, the barge is a reason to work for this company, says Nicholas. I just met her today and I fell in love immediately. I want to do these shows for this boat now.
In 2005, Mike Lucas began to step back from Mikron, handing the companys day-to-day running over to Marianne (who became artistic director in 2009), Richard Povall (now honorary artistic director) and Pete. This is the first year that Marianne and Pete have been fully in charge of the companys artistic destiny, however.
Its scary waiting to hear what our regular audiences think the people we call the Mikronites, says Marianne. Were not changing the product, though. Were enhancing it.
And Mike was really generous in the way he handed the company over to us and has faith in us.
Even so, Pete and Marianne must be feeling the pressure right about now. Theres a massive weight of responsibility, agrees Pete. This sounds schmaltzy but weve inherited a unique theatre company from a unique man. Also we feel responsibility to the Friends of Mikron who support us.
These are people who bring us dinner, do washing, and make birthday cakes. Ive never worked for a company like it.It hasnt always been (mixed metaphor coming up) plain sailing. Recently, Mikron lost all of its funding and its members wondered if the company would reach its 40th anniversary, let alone stage another floating tour.
We have a big following up and down the country, says Marianne, so we launched an appeal spelling out the different ways in which people could help. Suddenly these letters started coming in from various people: a 70 year-old man whod been watching Mikron his whole life sent us 5; someone wed never heard of sent us 5,000.
In the end, Mikron raised nearly 45,000, meaning that they could embark on their 2012 shows and feel optimistic about the future. Then, at a party attended by actors and directors and others who had been involved in the company across four decades, it became apparent that Mikron mattered. We listened to their stories and their experiences and PEOPLErealised what it meant to people, says Marianne.
The really great thing about Mikron, though, is that it doesnt have ambitions to get bigger and take over the world. We cant be complacent and were always looking to up the ante and keep things fresh, says Marianne. Yet people do say to us: You must want bigger casts and to play bigger venues. But thats not us. We dont want to dilute who we are. Small is what we do.
The print version of this article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Yorkshire Life
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