Here Comes The Sun - An Epic Story of the Workers’ Struggle and the Will to Win - Making It Happen! encompassed our civic and international engagement ethos in a collaborative partnership between the University, Culture Liverpool, the Institute of the Arts Barcelona and Liverpool Everyman Youth Theatre.
Dr Andrew Sherlock, has worked locally, nationally and internationally as a writer, director and producer of drama for over 30 years and has been based in his native Liverpool since 1989. As an academic and Senior Lecturer in Drama he is about to enter his twenty second year of service for LJMU. Here, Andrew shares how it all came together and the rewards and highlights for all involved:
In April 2017 I met with Claire McColgan of Culture Liverpool who asked me if I would be interested in recommending somebody to take on an opening ceremony event at the Liverpool Arena. Culture Manager Robin Kemp’s brief included.
- A festival of global union worker connection and solidarity
- Our battling success stories
- Liverpool the port: slavery to emigration
- The TUC at 150
- The centenary of the women's right to vote
- Working class roots, achievements and heroes of Liverpool
I discover that the Congress launches with an Opening Ceremony which includes all the delegates as well as a number of other key stakeholders, media and local organisations.
It is a high point of the event, where we aim to create a sense of emotion, pride and motivation. We have to impress. We are ambitious. Large scale, big impact with breath-taking moments, we push for tears of joy, where souls are touched and where we reconnect with our roots and core purpose of emancipation, justice, fair play and good work. The opening ceremony will include four speeches of 5-7 minutes, followed by a 40 - 60minute performance element.
Not much to pull off here then! But having spent most of my career as a dramatist based in Liverpool re-finding its narratives, redefining its image through drama and creating performative, creative and educational opportunities - and having been awarded an LJMU PhD in published practice for doing so - I said I’ll do it myself.
I then met Philip Jennings the self-styled CEO of UniGlobal, part Welsh Valley Boy part World Statesman, in July 2017, to see if we got on.
After the initial meeting in the Cunard Building City Offices we adjourned to a nearby public house to talk of many things. We both came from working-class backgrounds and the manual labour of the Welsh pit and the Liverpool building site (my father had been a union rep for Liverpool plasterers). But had both also been encouraged to take our education seriously and not just for our own benefit but to encourage and represent others. Philip had found the trade union movement after completing his MA at the LSE and I had found drama and telling people’s stories after completing a Post Graduate Degree at the Sherman Theatre then part of Cardiff University and not far from Philip’s home. Both of us however had been searching for something similar - for a new story to tell in our troubled times - a transformative narrative that looked forward to tackling the challenges and the issues and then beyond the difficulties to a better future. A world driven by fairness, co-operation, communication and agreement, solidarity and support, and the protective care of an unflinching, compassion gaze into an uncertain future. After a couple more drinks I think it is fair to say, we got on.
A few weeks later and Robin Kemp and I are flying out after work to Geneva and then on to the UniGlobal offices in Nyon on the opposite side of the lake, to be briefed by and pitch something to the whole team. As ever with this kind of client-centred commissioning process, it is part courtship, part interview, part sudden-death elimination. You are expected to impress without being too full of yourself, come up with ideas whilst listening and taking on everyone else’s and the unspoken deal is we know what we want but we need you to tell us what that is. We arrive tired and late to the Germanically clean but Spartan hotel to briefly compare power point presentations and catch a few hours sleep before a full day of meetings starting in the morning. By that evening my head is exploding. They want a non-language based international presentation with a distinct Liverpool flavour that deals with the global, economic crisis, warfare and world peace, modern slavery, climate change and global warming to be delivered in around 45 minutes. The UniGlobal Executive leave having explained, hoped, dreamed and unburdened. I sit alone in their foyer of their now empty building. Luckily it has a fully stocked canteen kitchen with tea, coffee and its own beer on tap. I pull out my note pad and begin to write. Single words at first ‘women’, ‘youth’, ‘protest’, ‘action’, future ‘data’ - then short phrases, ‘ an office worker/business owner loses his/her business’, ‘credit cruncher goes around with henchmen randomly beating people and robbing them’. Then a narrative spills and pours out on 4 or 5 scribbled pages. The story of the show. Then next day I talk, act and walk it through in Philip’s office at times jumping around, possessed. Philip is staring at me and for once silent – he tells me he’s never see a pitch like it and later tells his team I am a mad man.
Months later I am in a farmhouse on Anglesey with my core creative team pulling the story apart and putting it back together again. Paula Simms my colleague from LJMU Drama, Chris ‘Tommo’ Tomlinson my old student LJMU Drama Graduate and now YEP (Young Everyman and Playhouse) director, Andy Frizell my colleague from years of sessional work for LJMU and now Liverpool University Music Dept. and Valentina Temussi my colleague and movement tutor from our partners at IAB (Institute of the Arts Barcelona) who is also now also a Drama PhD student on an LJMU international scholarship award. As well as the narrative challenges, I put it to the team that we should try to redefine the way that this type of opening is made. No jumping up and down in synchronised movement sequences ending in fireworks but a visual story told with depth and meaning on a huge scale. I also want to build into the project genuine engagement and legacy with international MA and graduate students from IAB working with, UK national LJMU undergraduates, with youth theatre members of YEP many of whom are still at school. With a core of professionals also feeding the process, including local performers like Nick Birkinshaw and our own Angela Walton from Dance, this will also be a giant skills sharing experience, with peer to peer learning and knowledge transference from the local to the global and all discussing the issues and themes of the story. With so many elements it is a potential recipe for chaos but later as we sail back under the Menai Bridge with night closing and sails flapping on the three-masted sloop Paula has organised for our research, it all makes sense. We imagine what it must be like to be left alone floating at sea in darkness – survivors clinging on the wreckage of a failing global economic system. We have a story.
In January we bring on board our funded LJMU graduate interns and create a studio snapshot performance of the show we have in mind in the Everyman YEP studio with their young actors. At one point when the history of the unions is called upon to save our sinking ship with a montage of images and the singing of the old protest son ‘Joe Hill’ the whole of the UniGlobal Executive and all the affiliate members present are crying. Now all we have to do is live up to the expectation we have created.
Rehearsals begin in earnest in May and the challenges soon become apparent. We have a youth theatre with limited evening and weekend availability and a Level 5 cohort from LJMU Drama still finishing their course work. The good news is that LJMU have also provided funding for 24 Level 5 performance and production internships along with our continuing graduate internships. The not-so-good news is that the IAB group in Barcelona will not be able to join us until the week of the performance. So we are rehearsing across three sets of group availability in two countries. The process is also tricky with three directors one for each of the groups, myself and a choreographer from YEP Grace Goulding translating all our ideas into rehearsal language young people can understand. Throw in Andy Frizell’s music, Vox Pop choir, giant on-screen graphics from specialists Illuminos, design from Olivia du Monceau and costume by Mary Lamb, lighting and sound design and we are on creative overload. A mixture of fierce organisation, artistic chaos and the usual production and budgetary complications leaves the team and I hanging on to the tiller of the project with LJMU graduate Production Manager Lucy Graham and Culture Liverpool’s Producer Bev Ayre with me battling to keep on course. Meanwhile Valentina Temussi gives birth in Barcelona and I also have to fly out to IAB to help get them started. The last week is monumental with all the production and technical team wanting to see a run of the show before it is finished and rehearsals at times with a full cast and choir crammed into our John Foster Studio. It is a relief to finally get into the Arena on the Saturday before the show on Sunday. But playing side rather than the usual end on to an ultra-wide stage has effectively created a new theatre space no one has worked with before. The technical rehearsal is epically long with lights, sound, music, choir, screen and entrances and exits for a cast of over sixty taking their toll in a thirteen hour working day. All the students and young people just get on with it and behave immaculately and far better than most professional companies I have worked with.
On the day of the show, Sunday 17 June 2018 we still have a mountain of work to do. Finish the tech and create a union banner parade with affiliate trade union delegates and volunteers. Despite numerous attempts and emails to try to pin them down we have no idea how many people will turn up though Lynn Collins from TUC North has made sure there are at least twelve union banners at the Arena. Graduate intern Ross Howson sets them up and we display them in the space, we will have one half an hour to it sort out before we have to clear for the audience. Just as we are getting back on track I am then told the UniGlobal producer wants to dismantle a major part of our set to adjust the conference screen which sit behind it then reassemble it for the show. We have no way of knowing if it will go back exactly as we need it and this will further pressure my already beyond stretched team eating away even more at our precious remaining time. Despite one of quite a few frank and full discussions with the producer in question the dropping of our set a couple of hours before the performance goes ahead. One result is that I now have less than fifteen minutes to rehearse the banner finale with now a number of volunteers who have turned up. As usual chaos and organisation collide and we pull something together and hope for the best.
In the show the students and young people are brilliant in performance, the complex technical effects, music, sound and visuals come together. The banner volunteers are so excited they stand and get ready to come on about fifteen minutes too early and have to be held back. But when they flood into the Arena to surround the stage, with the music blasting out Here Comes The Sun, the company and choir in full voice and the visuals shining out it is one of those live theatrical experiences never to be forgotten. The audience rises to its feet, delegates and performers are in tears and even Jeremy Corbyn is recording it on his phone. We make the magic happen and hit just about every LJMU strategic target along the way.
Watch the full event