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Theatre in Education

The shows Julia devised in her early years as a playwright were influenced by her interest in politics and social justice, concentrating on the theme of female empowerment. Julia’s earliest plays explore women’s sexuality and autonomy over their bodies in addition to adolescence and motherhood. An important strand in her writing featured women gaining confidence to be agents of their own actions. As she told writer Avril Deane for an interview in The Journal published in June 1989: ‘I’m not interested in attacking men, more of extolling women and their strengths.’

Support was given to Julia at the age of 30, in April 1987, by Newcastle City Council and Northern Arts when she was appointed writer-in-residence for the city, based at Kenton Youth and Community Centre. It was a six-month residency working with community groups, which received local press attention. Julia was quoted in the City News as saying: ‘By using the natural capacity for expression in Geordie dialect, previously suppressed by education, and allowing the ability that North Easterners have for wit and humour, whole areas of life can be redefined and discussed.’

The residency helped establish Julia, who at this time had two very young daughters, as a professional writer based in Newcastle. One of her earliest plays Victory Harvest, is set during World War II.

It tells the story of the friendship between five members of the Women’s Land Army sharing hard graft and fried beetroot sandwiches on a farm in 1943. The music by Ivan Sears, included the catchy ‘Tractor Driving’. Victory Harvest was performed by Chopwell Drama Group at venues around Gateshead, and Newcastle’s Live Theatre revived the play in 2002. An abridged version was included in Rendezvous 2 (2015) – a celebration of Julia’s work featuring extracts from plays, poetry, fiction and music.

Julia’s first commission was the comedy Growing Pains (1988) for Tyne & Wear Theatre in Education. TiE had a solid base in the North East, aided by the work of Geoff Gillham, who founded Live Theatre and was dedicated to engaging young people in drama. The ethos of TiE had spread across the UK after the foundation of Belgrade Theatre, a group providing free participatory drama to children and young people in Coventry in 1965. Geoff was passionate about the power theatre has to humanise, open up debate, and change behaviour. TiE explores cultural, social, political and moral issues, setting off children and teenagers to investigate challenging situations for themselves.

Based at the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle’s TiE worked with schools and youth clubs, using plays to address problems ranging from bullying to teen pregnancies. Growing Pains was inspired by the experiences of teenage mothers, as researched by Julia, and featured Kay Hepplewhite, Huffty Reah and Cindy Afflick. The play emphasises decision-making and choice based on information and education. ‘The main aim of the play is that you have control over your life,’ Julia told the Newcastle Post. Despite the difficulties involved in teenage pregnancy, she also hoped to highlight ‘the positive aspect to young motherhood’.

Asked by the Evening Chronicle about Growing Pains, Julia said: ‘It looks at what the options are for young women and what the realities and the expectations are about pregnancy. It looks at the reluctance of young women to go to family planning clinics or carry condoms… The play looks at the issue of why young women deny their pregnancy and won’t admit what’s happening until they find themselves giving birth, and it explores the choice of abortion.’

Following critical acclaim for Growing Pains (directed by fellow Poetry Virgin Fiona MacPherson), North Tyneside Youth Theatres commissioned Mother of Invention, which evolved over a three-month series of workshops. Mother of Invention, written in 1988, explores a sterile post-AIDS future where wealthy couples marry by contract, employ surrogate mothers and subsequently nannies to look after their children. The witty play features the life of working-class surrogate mother Dot, midway through her fourth pregnancy, who is disillusioned with her role and critical of society. ‘She feels that she is not influential in either the present or the future and sets about a course of action to try and change this situation.’

 Mother of Invention played at the Gulbenkian Studio at Newcastle University (a space which became part of Northern Stage in 2006). Speaking to the Evening Chronicle in July 1988, Julia said: ‘People joke there is always a baby and a telephone in my plays and, so far, I think it is true. I’m going to make a positive effort to leave them out of the next one!’

Her next play was Young, a joint TiE and Live Theatre venture, which toured in February 1989 and marked the beginning of a working relationship with Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. The protagonist Maxine is a teenage, virtually homeless lesbian making her way in Thatcherite Britain where she faces alienation and homophobia. The complexity of teenage relationships is at the heart of the play along with the painful issues of establishing one’s own identity and sexuality. Julia said at the time: ‘If the alternative representation of young people on the stage opens up other doors, then the theatre is a good tool for establishing young people’s identity.’

In this prolific period Julia was commissioned by Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in Education & Community Company to work with teenagers for a show, which toured in March and April 1989. This classroom comedy called The Cure features Shaz and Conker experimenting in their science lab in a quest to discover a cure for pre-menstrual tension. As the flyer explains: ‘Soon they have turned the world as we know it upside down, and embark on an adventure that takes then into an exciting world where fantasy becomes reality.’

Even though we’re in arrears,
There’ll be no more crying, no more tears,
Pre-menstrual tension will be gone,
Our mothers will have loads of fun.

Julia’s fast-moving musical comedy Gone with the Lettuce was commissioned in 1990 by Northumberland Women’s Youth Theatre. This was an important outlet for creativity as it didn’t hold auditions, instead encouraging ‘such qualities as enthusiasm and commitment’. The ethics extended to workshopping with Julia so that ‘the ideas and opinions of the group members would be reflected in the writing’. Julia describes her plays at this time as being ‘devised as much as written’ with plenty of input from the young people she was working with. Writing in 2005, Julia explained: ‘Plays, especially youth theatre plays, were often in a state of change right up until the opening night and had no shelf-life at all. It was all about the process, not the product.’

The Northumberland Women’s Youth Theatre’s production of the play was directed by fellow Poetry Virgin Charlie Hardwick, and despite the lack of shelf-life, was performed several times. The press release promised that the play would ‘nourish the parts other plays cannot reach!’ and the brochure states:

‘To the outside world the ecologically safe and sound “Lettuce Parlour” seems the ideal fast-food restaurant. But to Rachel, Angie, Jilly, Maria and Miranda – the loyal staff – and their aspiring manageress, things are not that simple, especially when Mrs Potts sticks her rake in…’

Julia’s work in TiE provided a sturdy foundation for her playwriting skills and laid a model for future close collaborations with actors, directors and artists. Many of her early theatrical themes, including gender, sexuality and prejudice, as well as characters gaining control over their own decision-making were to continue throughout her work.


Copyright Tamzin Mackie