Derby Rises: A very special night back at Derby Theatre.

East Midlands Theatre writer Kathryn McAuley considers how it felt to be back inside one of our most loved regional theatres watching live performance with a socially distanced audience.

With ‘Derby Rises’, Derby Theatre gives us a tantalising glimpse of what we’ve been missing; what will return; and the power of community. Whilst the ‘ghost light’ has been resident on the stage, indicating a theatre otherwise in darkness, Derby Theatre has not been idle.

Through a series of workshops, led by artistsLeo Kay, Baby PeopleMaison FooMilk Presents and Not Too Tame, they have engaged with local communities. The workshops were bound together by the baking of bread; a slow, manual process, which allowed space to explore shared experiences. And – to consider what they hoped for when the current situation eases. Various artists were then invited to respond to these interactions.

What is striking – and glorious – about this cabaret-style evening, is the breadth and variety of styles and artistic expression. From classical favourites to street jazz, from roller-skating divas to plain talking poets, what it showcases is the eclectic and diverse nature of the community in Derby. It also provides a sense of universality, recognisable in every city, if we care to look. And by simultaneously streaming live on Facebook, a wider audience is engaged, whilst those of us lucky enough to be physically in the theatre (socially distanced, of course) have the thrill of soaking up that electric atmosphere when audience and performers interact.

Jamie Thrasivoulou declaims his heart-felt poem reflecting people’s clear sense of isolation and dis-connection from the powers that be; “Elite vultures flocked around the funding pot”. In a brilliant bit of programming, this is contrasted with a string quartet from Sinfonia Viva playing popular classical pieces. Interestingly, they played an animated piece by Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer who is only just being recognised.

In a piece framed as ‘reclaiming identity’, Symone, a hula hoop artiste, dancer and roller-skater performs a duet with artist Sky. It is mesmerising, colourful and confident, a dazzling display of skill and attitude. Next up, Mr Supreme, an East Midlands rapper, brings waves of energy to the stage with his creative street crew, performing two numbers which have the audience vibing in their seats. A special mention to Laura Goulden, proving BSL interpretation, and clearly loving every minute of the different styles she is required to interpret.

In another complete contrast, Amy Pennington reads her ‘bread and butter’ letter about her memories of bread throughout her life and how these had ‘fermented’ during her bread-making activities. She advises it is best to ‘rest and digest’, a tool to explore memories and meaning. Finishing the evening in spectacular style is Loosen Up from Derby Jazz, a street-style band which was put together specifically to provide free entertainment during lockdown. Led by Dennis Rollins MBE, they samba and groove and are quite frankly having so much fun performing, it felt that the theatre doors should open and we should all follow them out into the street for a New Orleans style street festival.

It is joyous just to be in a theatre again, witnessing a live performance and even more so, to see Derby Theatre focus on the importance of theatre to community and to our shared humanity. Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director and CEO focusses on our shared experiences and finding a way to express them, in a safe and supportive environment. It is surely the way forward if we are to find a lasting, positive legacy from something that has been so devastating and disruptive.

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