Words: Helen Brady
In early 2020, the inaugural winner of the Kay Mellor Fellowship was announced. The fellowship is a collaboration between Leeds Playhouse, Kay Mellor and her company Rollem Productions, and it will support a playwright over 12 months, encouraging them to develop their writing. There will be opportunity for an original idea for stage worked into a full-length draft on set and an original idea for a television pitch will also be created. Kay Mellor, OBE is a successful writer, actor and director, perhaps best known for TV series’ Band of Gold, Fat Friends and Girlfriends.
The first winner of the Fellowship was Bradford born Kat Rose-Martin. Kat has worked as an actor for Northern Broadsides, Shakespeare’s Globe and York Theatre Royal, as well as having written and directed large scale immersive experiences nationally. Kat explained, “I’ve always written in the voices of characters before I really knew that script writing was a job. I started as an actor, trained at drama school and after a few years working in theatres, I knew that I wanted to write plays that I could relate to. Plays that my friends would enjoy.”
With the arrival of a global pandemic right at the beginning of what should have been an incredibly immersive and creative 12 months ahead, Kat explained if she had since felt any pressure to produce work in such a turbulent time, and if she felt that work had to respond to the current affairs of the time.
“For me, it always starts with character and story. And there’s certainly a lot of pressure to make work about COVID but there’s also a lot of people saying, ‘make what you want to make’. Personally, I feel some of the survival pots of funding at this time should be less prescriptive – if you want to write about pandemics then great, if that’s not for you, also great. I think there should be no pressure either way – a lot of people have a lot to deal with right now, and we should focus our energy on getting through this.
“Personally, some days I find it really easy, others I need to take a step back and let my brain catch up with what’s on going. The audience appetite will always be a mixed bag – in the first few weeks most popular shows were Contagion and Tiger King – complete opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s hard to predict what an audience wants so it’s important to stay true to what you want to say. I’ve learnt that the hard way.”
Despite the circumstances, Kat was lucky to be able to continue with the fellowship remotely. “It’s certainly a scary time at the moment. Especially as an emerging writer with theatres closed and TV production on hold. The Kay Mellor Fellowship has been such a blessing in that sense. We’ve continued to work remotely, and it’s been a well-needed safety blanket – I would’ve really struggled without it. What’s interesting is that I’ve not had to travel to London as much for meetings with theatres and production companies which has saved me lots of time, money and stress. I’m hoping when Lockdown is over, companies will still consider meeting people virtually.”
Although the north/south divide is improving, there are still significantly more opportunities within the television and theatre industries for those based in London. An enforced shift in how theatres and productions companies operate due to the COVID-19 crisis has proven that remote working can be done, and this would be a welcome shift in operations that stays in place beyond the pandemic. Kat shared, “Everyone assumes you live in London or want to live in London. I’m more than happy in Bradford but it’s tough when I have to get a 6am train to go do four meetings on the same day and back home on the 8pm train then back to work the next day. London gets so much more funding than the regions. But things are changing, people are looking to hear more diverse, relatable stories. I look forward to the day when diverse is the norm and everyone can feel that they’re represented on stage and screen.”
Kat went on to say that although she does not intentionally set out with a ‘Yorkshire’ agenda, being from Bradford is a very important part of who she is and the stories she wants to tell, “There’s so many different people and stories across Bradford and Yorkshire that sometimes I need to get more specific about which postcode or street or neighbourhood a piece is set in because they can be vastly different and affect the story.”
Location is in part what attracted Kat to the Fellowship, which is a collaboration between Leeds Playhouse and Rollem Productions. “Both are on my doorstep and make work that I love. I’ve been to Leeds Playhouse countless times and performed there twice with Northern Broadsides. The spaces are great and the audiences generous. It seems like a natural fit for the work I want to make.
“And which Yorkshire female writer doesn’t want to work with Kay Mellor? I’ve always watched her shows and there’s so much that I can learn about story and about using your authenticity to say something important and making a long-lasting career in an industry that’s often unpredictable. When I found out that the KMF was a joint TV and Theatre development opportunity, I knew it was exactly what I needed. I want to work as much as possible in both industries and explore how they’re similar and how they differ.”
Coincidently, Leeds Playhouse is also one of Kat’s favourite places to perform and enjoy watching pieces by others. “I love Shakespeare’s Globe, I love Leeds Playhouse, I love theatre in non-theatre spaces. For me it’s about the connection between audience and the actors. And so much of that depends on the play, the production, the audience. But when there’s genuine connection between the action and the people experiencing it – that’s what theatre’s all about for me.”
2020 is quickly becoming one of the most challenging years for so many people. The unique set of circumstances people find themselves in means that unique types of support have had to be offered to ensure the survival of some of the North West’s most popular sectors. With the creative industries being made up of predominantly freelance individuals, it is easy for some of them to slip though the net and not receive any support at all.
Kat explained, “There’s lots of support from really wonderful companies who are doing the best they can. Bradford Producing Hub, Leeds Playhouse, Freedom Studios, to name but a tiny few. The Arts Council have handed out funding to companies and individuals. But it’s also really hard, there’s a lot of gaps to fall through and be left struggling. And there’s no doubt that the creative industries need bail outs that other industries have received. Once we’re up and running again, the entertainment sector contributes massively to the economy, but it will take longer and a lot of adapting to get to that point. So, until that time, theatres and TV Production companies need support.”