How Darlington's Theatre Hullabaloo is Giving Children a Chance to Experience Creativity
Darlington’s Theatre Hullabaloo is all about making sure children in the North East have a chance to experience creativity
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m chief executive and artistic producer at Theatre Hullabaloo, the Darlington-based arts charity that truly believes that creativity should be part of everybody’s childhood. I went to university in York, and then Manchester, and then just kept moving north. I’ve been in the North East since 2007 and now live in beautiful Weardale where I can usually be found at the weekends sploshing around in the rivers with my seven-year-old son.
How did you get involved in theatre work?
I’ve always loved the theatre and was acting, singing and dancing as soon as I could toddle. I was part of some brilliant youth theatres growing up and was also lucky enough to do lots of drama at school. My dad was a playwright, so we wrote a number of plays for children together and I occasionally appeared in some of his professional work for adults too.
Until I went to university I was determined to continue acting, but it’s a tough business and I soon realised that making and commissioning your own work is really where the creative fun is to be found, so I moved more towards writing and producing. My MA in Applied Theatre at Manchester University confirmed my passion and belief in the value of the arts for social change, not in a dull and instrumental way, but to give people the space to dream and be joyful together.
Highlight of your career so far?
My career highlight so far has certainly been opening The Hullabaloo, our purpose-designed venue for children and families in Darlington, in December 2017. Having always worked for touring companies, I never particularly wanted to run a venue, but it became more and more obvious that for people to really understand the importance of the arts for children, we needed to embody the belief that children deserve art, which is as brilliant as they are, in bricks and mortar.
The Hullabaloo provides a programme of world-class performance, family events and activities and creative play, with a particular emphasis on work for the very young. We’ve had more than 60,000 visitors since we opened and we work hard to keep activities low-cost or free so everyone can enjoy them. The Hullabaloo is the only venue of its type north of London and I’m so proud that our children have access to all these wonderful experiences.
After all the hard work to build and open the venue, closing the doors in March 2020 because of the pandemic was heart-breaking, but it has been brilliant to welcome people back over the last few months and the building is full of fun and laughter again.
What are your roles at Theatre Hullabaloo?
Theatre Hullabaloo is a charity with a small staff team, so we all wear a number of hats, but my role is to lead the organisation’s artistic programme and work with artists and children to develop new ideas which might become shows, play spaces, exhibitions or installations. I also get to choose the shows and activities that take place at The Hullabaloo and at our festival Hullabaloo in the Park. I’m very lucky because I get the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented artists and have time to talk and play with children about the things that matter to them. That’s the fun bit of my job, but I also spend lots of time writing funding bids, juggling spreadsheets and talking about all the less creative things that go with running a business.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I love the germination of a new idea, whether it be a story idea or a new event or project. All our work is inspired by children, so usually it’s a conversation with a child that will seed a thought or an image and then, with the help of some very clever artists, it develops into a story or a soundscape or a design. The best bit is then seeing children’s eyes widen with delight if we’ve got it right. I’ve worked on more than 40 shows for children over the last 20 years and the process still feels magical.
Why should all children experience Theatre Hullabaloo?
We tend to think of play as being something which is fun and not very important, but for children – particularly young children – play is crucially important. It’s the way they learn about the world, about ideas and about how relationships work.
At Theatre Hullabaloo, we champion play and the opportunities to investigate the world creatively as a fundamental right of childhood. When you visit The Hullabaloo children will be surrounded by opportunities to play and engage creatively with their grown-ups through experiences that have been specially designed for younger visitors and audiences. Of course there’s lots of fun to be had, but it’s also about communicating to children that their ideas and experiences are just as important as those of adults.
Why is it important to have such a theatre in the North East?
The Hullabaloo is the only purpose-designed theatre for children and families north of London and we have a particular commitment to work for babies and toddlers, because we know the developmental benefits it brings. We built the venue in Darlington because all children should have access to these wonderful opportunities with their families, and they shouldn’t just be available to those in major cities.
The Hullabaloo is based in one of the one percent most deprived wards in the UK and, particularly at the moment, lots of the families that visit us are really struggling financially. That makes us work even harder to ensure that we continue to offer the fantastic low-cost and free activities, because we don’t want those children to miss out on what should be part of everybody’s childhood.
What do you enjoy most about working in the North East?
I love the people; the children and families who visit us, my colleagues at Theatre Hullabaloo and all the many people who support what we do. My family originate from South Shields and, it’s a bit of a cliché, but people from the North East really are the warmest and friendliest.
Your favourite show/exhibition this year so far?
When we went into lockdown in March 2020, we were in the midst of rehearsals for a new version of the Baba Yaga stories – the child-eating witch of eastern European fairytales. Our version was a story of two children who were escaping war to find safety, so it felt very topical when we finally managed to stage it almost exactly two years later. Watching audiences from local schools so transfixed that some of them said they forgot to breathe as they watched two actors storytelling this dark fairytale felt really special after not being able to be together in a theatre for so long.
Advice for anyone looking to work in theatres?
There are many, many jobs connected to theatre and the creative industries more generally, from sound designers to technicians, writers to prop makers, actors to administrators, so if you enjoy being in a creative environment and seeing the impact of your work on people’s lives, it’s a great career choice. Most people who work in the arts are really gorgeous human beings too.
What does the future hold for Theatre Hullabaloo?
Christmas is always the best time of the year in children’s theatre, so we’re looking forward to lots of magical things to see and do at the end of the year, including the Christmas show, How to Catch a Star – an adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ much loved picture book for everyone aged three years and above.
We’re also busy planning a Hullabaloo in the Park – a nine-day family arts festival outdoors across Darlington next July, and tonnes of other fantastic shows and events at The Hullabaloo between now and then – it’s always busy!