Julie Hesmondhalgh is one of those rare human beings: an actor who is instantly recognisable from her performances in popular TV dramas such as Broadchurch and Happy Valley, and as Hayley in the ITV soap opera Coronation Street; but at the same time, one who remains grounded in a politically engaged, compassionate, activist, grass-roots theatre practice in her native Lancashire. Here, in an extract from her new book, An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning, she explores the roots of that activism in her childhood, and in the inspirational figure she encountered at drama school.
A is for… Activism
I blame the Baptists.
And my brother.
And Brian. Especially Brian.
So maybe this section should come under B, actually.
Let me explain. When your childhood soundtrack is a mash-up of stirring old-school hymns, happy-clappy gospel songs and Never Mind the Bollocks (with a bit of Paul Robeson thrown in for good measure); when you know the security of ‘FELLOWSHIP’ and ‘COMMUNION’ and the thrill of ‘BEARING TESTAMENT’; when Jesus is your poster boy and your big brother buys you Billy Bragg EPs and sneaks into your room after the pub to teach you about ‘IMPERIALISM’ and ‘RACISM’ and ‘CLASS’, it kind of sets your stall for a life of some sort of evangelism. And when you later become aware of some of the more problematic parts of organised religion (‘Hello, homophobia! Hey, The Patriarchy! How ya doin’?’) and become at worst agnostic, at best Buddha-curious, you find you never really lose that bit of yourself that wants to heal the world and storm the barricades at the same time.
I always loved acting, but when it came to deciding about careers, I was so consumed with the idea of being of service to the world (insufferable right-on god-botherer that I was) that to go into the arts felt frivolous to me, and at odds with what I believed was my purpose on this earth. (Evangelism and grandiosity often go hand in hand.) I wanted to help people, goddammit! Like Jesus! I thought I should go into social or probation work instead – after a stint of volunteering ‘in the third world’, of course – and be of use to society. It never occurred to me that I could try to do both. Be an actor and try to be a useful citizen. I had no sense that art could actually have a purpose beyond pure entertainment.
It was my brother Dave who persuaded me to audition for drama school and to take a different path than what might be expected of someone from Accrington. And because I do everything that my brother tells me to do, I did, and I got in!
When I started at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), I met Brian Astbury, who became one of the most important and influential figures in my life. Brian was a white South African who set up The Space in Cape Town in the early 1970s, along with his wife, the actor Yvonne Bryceland, and playwright Athol Fugard. The Space was the first multiracial theatre of its kind, and was operating at the height of apartheid. Police raids were par for the course in a country where it was illegal for black and white creatives to work together. There is a story that I love to tell to tired actors (oh god, so many tired actors) about the black actors at The Space working all day as manual labourers, then turning up at the theatre to rehearse into the night, in a room where brooms were strategically placed against the walls, ready to be grabbed the moment the police inevitably turned up. Because if the black people were sweeping the floor they were allowed to be there, of course.
To put on the plays they were producing – plays like Athol Fugard’s provocatively titled Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, about an illegal love affair between a man of colour and a white woman – was an act of huge resistance, and also of courage. Brian and his colleagues at that theatre were in real danger of arrest and imprisonment for making art that spoke truth to power. As the apartheid regime became more and more brutal, many people were forced to either take up arms or leave the country. Brian and Yvonne, lifelong pacifists, left.
Everything that Brian taught us at LAMDA was imbued and inspired by his first-hand experience of seeing the power of art and of theatre to be a force for change, even when that change doesn’t happen straight away. He believed passionately in our responsibility as artists to engage with injustice, to start conversations and to tell stories that help us make sense of the world and hold the powerful to account. He kick-started in me a lifelong passion for making work that challenges convention and that has something to say. And under his mentorship, I started to understand who and what I wanted to be. I discovered that my happy place is in the crossover point of the Venn diagram that has Art in one circle and Activism in the other. Like Brian, I believe that to be apolitical is a place of absurd privilege. How can you live in this world and not question the greed, the poverty, the inequality? It can only be if you’re unaffected by it, or worse, if you benefit from it.
For the last seven years I’ve co-run a political theatre collective in Manchester called Take Back. We have made a lot of work: some immersive and installation-based stuff, including collaborations with the university and bigger theatre spaces, about migration, refugees, and, more recently, sex work. But we’re best known for our award-winning script-in-hand responses to social and political events: joyful evenings of FELLOWSHIP and COMMUNION where we’re in a room together, starting conversations and emboldening each other in the face of unbelievable amounts of despondency and apathy out there.
Our model is simple: we ask ten or more writers to create a short piece on a theme, then we come together in a space to share them with an audience. Our first was Ten Takes on Hope in 2015, at a time when things looked like they might be on the up – if you can imagine such a thing! We took over a room above a pub at no cost, set up ticket sales on Eventbrite, sold out twice in one night, and had enough money in the account to hire a bigger venue for Ten Takes on Capital a few weeks later. Other shows have included Take Back Our Bodies, Take Back Our Girls, Take Back America (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) and Take Back Togetherness (after the Brexit referendum).
Some shows have been more successful and nuanced than others; some evenings have needed a serious edit (Take Back Our NHS, I’m looking at you…). Of course, we have never been so naive as to think that we might effectively heal the deep divisions in our country caused by Brexit, or that we might topple the Trump administration with a bit of cleverly curated spoken word at The Comedy Store. But what we have done, I think pretty successfully, is bring together a group of artists who broadly share a worldview – a worldview that feels a bit out of step with the spirit of the times – and who have a hankering to exist in the overlap of that Art/Activism Venn diagram. And I believe we have had some success in helping those artists, and our audiences, to feel less alone in it all, and sometimes even feel, dare I say it, empowered by the experience.
Last year I had the privilege of producing, with Take Back, Lucy Kirkwood’s short and powerful howl of pain that was Maryland, her response to the murders of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. We brought together fifty women of all ages and backgrounds, dis/abilities and ethnicities, and rehearsed for two days over a weekend, then performed it twice on the Sunday night. The material was raw and painful, especially the sections written specifically for the women of colour in the cast. There were tears in the readthrough. And in the performance. It was overwhelming.
But in spite of the subject matter, and the unspoken personal memories of sexual violence for many of us; in spite of (or perhaps because of) the unadulterated rage we all felt as the play reached its harrowing climax; in spite of the stunned reaction of the audience who sat in silence for ten minutes after the second performance had ended, and the difficult and upsetting conversations that inevitably took place in the bar afterwards; in spite of all this, that weekend was one of the most exhilarating and joyful experiences of my working life. I will never forget it. Because in that accelerated way that can only happen in theatre, friendships were formed, connections were made, everyone held each other steady, and we all united in the most powerful way imaginable over something that we all desperately needed to express in that moment. There is no feeling like it in the world. Using our voices and raising each other up.
As an unapologetically political group, we have been asked many times about what we hope to achieve with our work, when we are so clearly preaching to the converted in most cases. But as someone who grew up buzzing off bearing testament, and to all intents and purposes literally preaching to the converted, I can testify that there is joy and purpose in just that. Because coming together and connecting over ideas and feelings and hopes and beliefs in a room is actually a really, really important and uplifting thing, especially in this age of isolation and doom-scrolling.
I’m not sure that anyone who was part of our sharings of Maryland, as an artist or an audience member, necessarily had their minds changed about anything. That was not the purpose of making this piece of political theatre. But I feel that every single person left the theatre that night feeling as though something in them had shifted. Something deep and unsayable had been said. And we were all a bit changed by that. And the world felt a bit different as a result.
This is an extract from Julie Hesmondhalgh’s book An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is in conversation at Contact Theatre, Manchester, on Thursday 17 November, 7pm, when she will be signing copies of her book. Tickets available here.
She is also appearing in conversation at The Dukes, Lancaster, on Wednesday 30 November, 11am. Tickets available here.
Author photo by James Melia.