The Barn Swallows is a unique Western drama written by Helen Jones. It will be performed at The Hope Street Theatre in Liverpool on 6 to 9 March 2019. Directed by Meg McFarlane and produced by Make It Write, this the first completely original play set in the Old West to be performed in the UK written, produced and directed by women.
I caught up with Sharon Colpman from Make It Write to learn more about this interesting show and the upcoming performance.
The Barn Swallows has been described as a Gothic Western Mystery. This is an interesting combination of genres. Why did you choose this play to be Make it Write’s first full length production?
I come from quite a masculine family and when I was growing up Westerns were constantly on the television. My brothers loved The High Chaparral and the John Wayne type genres but I was quite into horror so the idea of a Gothic Western with a mystery really appealed to me.
Helen Jones who wrote The Barn Swallows has a very unique writing style. It’s very rhythmic and floral and very of the time so it’s really nice. It’s a really nice rhythm and you really get it if you do the American accent as well. It’s set in Fort Griffin in Texas so it’s got that lovely southern American accent.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the story?
There’s a female bounty hunter with a difficult past and she’s bringing the body of somebody who she’s captured to a sheriff to collect her bounty. But the coffin is empty so they think there’s a body snatcher on the loose. They set about trying to solve the mystery of where the body went. A stranger comes into town and decides to help the bounty hunter. Four of the characters, the sheriff, the stranger, the bounty hunter and a widow all have traumas in their past; it’s set just after the American Civil War, which was quite bloody. It’s where trench warfare was first used and a lot of people were suffering from trauma after the war had finished.
The protagonist is female which is quite unusual for a Western. Is that one of the things that influenced you when you chose the play?
I think all the four characters were very strongly written. Helen said she’d written monologues for each one and you can really tell how character driven the drama is and really believe in each one of them. I think that the fact that the characters are so believable and the subject of shell shock that’s still around today – we still have a problem with lots of people suffering trauma – so it’s still relevant today, the idea of people are not functioning properly because they’ve had a trauma, I thought that was quite an interesting avenue to go down.
The play is set in the Old West but the production itself is very much of Liverpool. You have a Liverpool writer, you’re from Cheshire which is nearby, the director is from Liverpool and the cast are all from Liverpool?
Yes I think mainly. We’ve got Pete Gibson who is Manchester based but it is very much a home grown Liverpudlian western, very scouse. Though they’re obviously not doing the scouse accent, they’re doing American accents! Hope Street Theatre have a page called something along the lines of Made in Hope Street and it’s very much the case that it’s been made in Hope Street.
It’s an unusual western because it’s a stage western that’s done in the old film style. I think it’s the only Western around like that on the stage and I think Liverpool should be proud to have that first stage Western that isn’t a comedy and isn’t a musical. It’s a proper sort of Tarantinoesque type thing.
Do you think that the issues in the play are reflective of the issues that people are facing in Merseyside today?
A lot of the characters are trapped in life because of their growing up in poverty and the inability to really progress beyond what they’re already doing. They all feel very trapped and they’re all desperately trying to escape and getting this bounty for the dead person that disappears would have meant that the bounty hunter could have escaped. It’s equivalent to winning the lottery and moving out of your council house, it’s that kind of thing.
Are there any particular themes you would like your audience to be thinking about after they’ve seen the play?
I think mental health after trauma. It’s quite a big thing that mental health is an unseen illness and people expect you to just pull yourself together and get on with it after you’ve had a trauma. I’ve had ill health and people don’t expect me to have suffered mentally because of it but you do and I think anybody who has lost somebody in difficult circumstances like some of the people in the play are not going to just carry on as if nothing’s happened. The grief is going to hit them for a long time afterwards. People that you meet in the street, they’ve all got a story. They all could have had a trauma and if they’re behaving oddly or they’re not very friendly or they’re being quite strange, there may be a reason for that.
Make It Write have produced a couple of shows now.
We did a showcase of new writing in June last year and since then we have been developing new writers who are writing full plays. Helen Jones who wrote The Barn Swallows, and another one, Ste Mc, came from the Play’s the Thing which Kiefer Wesley Williams ran. Everyone in that ended up with a full length play and a lot of new writers, when they write their full length play, no one wants to put it on. The Play’s the Thing is done at a mainstream theatre and they are quite happy to look at your plays and comment on them, but they won’t put it on. The whole point of Make It Write is to give people that first step on the ladder.
We may be fringe theatre and we may not have a lot of money but at least we are taking that risk and putting the new plays on and to be honest I don’t even think it’s a risk. Everything I have put on I have got absolute faith in.
It’s given the new writers the experience of working with a director, the stresses and strains of putting on a production, everything that goes wrong, everything that goes right, and all the marketing. It gives people that opportunity and I’m going to keep on doing it.
You’ve mentioned Kiefer who is quite a prominent figure in Liverpool theatre. Is there anybody else, local or otherwise, who has particularly influenced you?
Well we’ve got James Gaskin on board who did Ticket to Write for five years, which was a Beatles themed competition. He really knows his stuff and he’s putting on his own plays, More Deadly Than the Male as well.
Alan Anderson from Liverpool Playwrights helped me set Make It Write up in the beginning and Sam Donavan gave me a good old kick up the backside when I first arrived in Liverpool to start Make It Write up.
Emma Bird was the first person I met in Liverpool. I came in to do comedy improv and met a lot of people through her.
Do you have a favourite Western?
I really like Once Upon a Time in the West. I think it’s the tension of the harmonica player. You don’t know what the harmonica player is all about until close to the very end when you realise that a young boy was having to play the harmonica while his brother was stood on his shoulders with a noose around his neck and he had to carry on standing there to save his brother. Of course he becomes exhausted and eventually his brother dies because he can’t stand up any longer. It’s a very interesting Western and the music’s fantastic. We wanted to have some fantastic music for The Barn Swallows so we took on Reed Anderson who wrote us a fantastic soundtrack which you can hear on all our trailers on Facebook.
As we’ve said The Barn Swallows is Make It Write’s first full length production. What else lies in the future for you?
We have a collective of writers called the Writing Together Collective who came out of a workshop where we tried to create a writers’ room. All their monologues and duologues are being put together for Write Up Your Street which is on 17 March.
Then we’ve got James Gaskin’s two plays, More Deadly Than The Male.
Following the showcase Virago last year, this year’s showcase is called Monstrous Minds. and we have Elaine Stewart directing with Nick Fawdry assisting. They are putting on the four winners of the competition again.
We also have the preview of Ste Mc’s play Death and All His Friends on during the Liverpool Fringe Festival.
What piece of advice would you give to somebody wanting to produce their own play?
Just go for it. It’s nerve-racking and you really need to get the marketing right so that you get those bums on seats. I think that the biggest problem we’ve got in Liverpool is that we need to be developing our audience. I think most people who come to see fringe are other fringe creatives, so developing an audience in Liverpool, getting people off the sofas and out of the pubs and into the theatres is the biggest thing.
Getting your marketing right so that in the end you can pay all your actors and pay the theatre is the most important part and that’s a big part of the producer’s job, but if you’ve got a piece of work that you’ve got great faith in, go for it. Especially over the Liverpool Fringe Festival. They’ve got some free venues that you can use but you have to get in their quick because there’s only a certain number of spaces so if you want to do that you’ve got to get yourself into the Liverpool Fringe Festival.
You can buy tickets for The Barn Swallows here.
Please let me know if you see the show and what you think of it.
Break a leg to everyone involved in The Barn Swallows!
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