Benchmark Theatre has moved into its own premises in a mill building. VAL JAVIN talks to one of its artistic directors Paul Danby
`When you have an audience that might have a few beers inside them, then the actors have to be fearless.’
IT IS something that Paul Danby dreamed of as a young drama student.
Now he and his co-artistic director Richard Nutter are living the reality of running their own theatre company in their own studio.
And what is so exciting about this latest move by Benchmark Theatre is that Paul and Richard are determined to share their theatre vision with other young theatre practitioners.
So far they have delivered on many projects.
They run a successful youth academy, teaching dozens of young people new drama skills. Three of their students have just got into a London theatre school.
Benchmark performs powerful theatre pieces in challenging and unusual venues; try staging the show Fightclub in an underground car park, as they did last year.
It stages open-air community shows with casts of young people, tour a family show at Christmas and also put drama in front of pub audiences.
And if that were not enough the company has just taken on what could be its biggest challenge yet; its own studio on the edge of Huddersfield town centre.
Benchmark’s studio at Radiant Works in William Street is in a four- storey mill building which has a number of creative enterprises already in residence.
But Benchmark is its first theatre company.
“Downstairs is a big warehouse for an electrical company. We have the lion’s share of the upstairs space,” said Paul.
“What we needed was so bespoke. We needed to find a space that we could turn into a rehearsal space and that is what we are doing.
“We can throw ideas about with other people. There’s a real creative hub about the place. One of the main attractions is for other people to come in and use the space.
“We want to open it to local practitioners, drama groups and theatre companies to use it as a rehearsal space. If they want to pilot things for a small audience they can do it.
“We’ve kitted it out with lights, DVD and sound equipment. It’s ideal for one or two-handers or for experimental pieces; somewhere that’s affordable.
“We want to hire it out to people who similarly have little money to pay for space that they can afford.
“I remember for my interview at drama school they asked me what I thought I could offer the industry. I said I wanted to open my own place where people could come in and work.”
Paul combines his role as co-director of Benchmark with a three day a week post as head of acting at Thomas Danby College in Leeds.
He added: “We are completely independent at Benchmark. We don’t apply for grants, so there are no provisos to what we do. It’s lovely to have that freedom. We are not in the process of ticking boxes.
What Benchmark is doing is packing its schedule with work. It is touring three shows. One is Jim Cartwright’s play Two, which is touring high schools and colleges.
It comes with a skills-based workshop and will be seen both at Greenhead College and New College.
Then comes Christmas Spirit, a full musical which will play Kirklees primary schools and at Chapel Allerton, Leeds, over the festive season itself.
It’s described as a “lovely modern tale with a moral and a twist.” What it isn’t, says Paul, is about religion.
Show three is an improvisation piece in which Richard will lead a team of 10 local actors. Whose Pint Is It Anyway sees a comedy express style of theatre.
“People will be surprised at how many high-quality performers there are around,’’ says Paul. “When you have an audience that might have a few beers inside them then the actors have to be fearless.”
“It’s like a modern take on Shakespeare.”
Benchmark continues to be heavily committed to its academy, which helps young people to develop not just theatre skills but the confidence and social skills that will support them in many other things.
On Wednesday and Thursday evenings Benchmark runs classes for young people. On Wednesdays the nine to 11-year-olds meet between 5pm and 7pm at the new studio followed by 12 to 13-year- olds from 7pm to 9pm.
On Thursdays, the 14 to 15-year- olds meet first, followed by the 16 to 18-year-olds.
But it is not just the youngsters who are benefiting from the new facilities and the Benchmark skills.
The company offers urban dance classes (Mondays), script-writing for TV and film (Tuesday) and introduction to the industry (Friday). Oh and there’s a Benchmark beginners’ kids club on Saturday mornings.
It all adds up to a theatre company that is working hard to open its doors and share both its facilities and its skills to all.
l If you want to talk to the company about using its space, booking one of its shows or attending a class, then call 07912 758 752 or go to the website email@example.com