It was a surprise to me, when I recently spoke to five members of local theatre company Nice Swan, that they have only been in existence since 2009. Theatre companies set up and disband all the time; people lose interest in continuing the hard work needed to keep them running, they produce one show, perhaps two, and then the whole venture just dissipates to nothing. But despite Nice Swan’s young age, the company already has an impressive CV of past productions, the operation is fairly substantial and impressively professional, and it looks to be continuing from strength to strength.
Producer Jamie Gray, 22, tells me, “The company was set up by me and Ben Hunt because Ben had a dream of putting on a production of Rent. He approached me and asked me if I would produce it for him.” Nice Swan now regularly produces shows around the North-East and runs workshops for younger people, but was that the idea from the start when the two friends got together? It seems not. “The show was only planned to be a one-off, but we both enjoyed it so much, and we had so much talent in the cast, we thought we wanted to do more with it, and it was a waste to just stop there.” After searching for something that wasn’t just another “obvious ‘amateur society musical’ that people do over and over again”, they found Spring Awakening, the rock musical adaptation of the controversial 1892 German play by Frank Wedekind, which concerns teenagers who are discovering the inner and outer tumult of sexuality.
This was where Jane Hutchinson first got involved with Nice Swan. “I was in the show, and did a bit of marketing for it, and then I wanted join the team, because I saw how inspirational it was. No-one else seemed to be doing the same stuff.” Particularly, the team think, here in the North-East. “London seems to have the monopoly when it comes to the great shows and great plays, but we’ve got some fantastic, phenomenal talent up here, and yet no-one seems to be taking notice. It’s like, ‘Hey, look! We are here!’ London is amazing, but we are amazing up here too, so why shouldn’t we show that off?”
The company clearly has very high standards, and everyone must audition for any of the shows they produce. The process is fun, they say, and exciting, as they continue to discover superb actors and actresses. “It’s getting harder and harder though,” says Jamie. “We’re getting to know so many talented people that we can’t work with them all at once.”
Which is why they decided for their latest venture to put on two plays, at the People’s Theatre in Newcastle, so they “could give more people a chance.” A Streetcar Named Desire had already been put forward by new resident director Lewis Pilton, but when it became clear that they’d need another play they went for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Two straight, serious plays by pretty heavyweight American playwrights – a far cry from the world of musical theatre. Was this a deliberate decision?
“It was for me,” Lewis tells me. “I’ve got an English Literature background, and I’m not big on musicals to be honest. But I was confident that I knew this play, and that I could put something worthwhile on.” So the weight of the piece didn’t prove daunting? “To me, it’s easy enough to work with because of the writing, the quality of the script. There’s comedy moments in there too, you just need to try and draw them out a little.”
As well as producing full scale musicals and plays, Nice Swan also run workshops for 10-16 year olds, which are so popular they’ve developed into an academy of four classes with around 20 students in each class. It’s all part of their ambition to offer opportunities for young people and nurture their talent, as well as helping to build their confidence and inspire them to believe in themselves.
Lee Rosher helps run the workshops and has his degree in acting and contemporary directing. “The great thing about the workshops,” he tells me, “is we bring them a degree education at the age of ten to sixteen. We break it down for them so they understand it better, but it’s stuff that some teachers maybe think, ‘Well, they’re not ready for this’. But we’ve done things like TV scripts and radio scripts with [the students] and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, what’s this?!’”
Nice Swan is obviously a company that inspires great ambition in young people who, as the website says, “enjoy drama and would like to pursue it as an interest or career,” something which Katie Gibson, who plays Blanche in Streetcar, is just about to do. She moves to London straight after these productions finish. “I was supposed to go in November,” she says, “but I had an audition for Crucible and Streetcar. I didn’t think anything would come of it, because the talent is so overwhelming, but I thought I’d go along, I’ll audition, I’ll see what comes of it. The next day I was going to London to look at flats, and Lewis rang me and said, ‘You’ve got Blanche’.” She decided that it was an opportunity, and a part, that she simply couldn’t turn down, so she put her plans to move on hold. “It’s the best decision I’ve made in the last three years of being at Uni!”
So what’s next for this North-East success story? “We’ve got another big show in September,” Jamie confirms. “It’ll be a musical again, it’s just deciding what to do. We like to do something different.”
“Whatever it is we decide on,” Jane concludes, “we’ll make sure that it’s not done the way that it’s ever been done before.” Something which is obviously core to the ethos of the company and which will certainly see them grow from strength to strength – in this region and, perhaps, beyond.
You can find out more information about the company, including their auditions and workshops for young people, at http://www.niceswan.com