Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview

Anna Holmes: SHED

By | Published on Friday 20 October 2023

Coming up this week at The Place is a fab dance-theatre performance from Yorkshire-based multidisciplinary company Northern Rascals that has a focus on the topic of mental health issues faced by young people. 

The piece is created by the company’s leaders Anna Holmes and Sam Ford. I was really keen to find out more about what to expect from the show in terms of themes and genre, and also learn more about the group behind it.

I spoke to Anna ahead of the upcoming show. 

CM: To start, can you tell us a bit about what to expect from ‘SHED’ in terms of style, genre, format… what kind of a show is it?
AH: Of course, ‘SHED’ is a unique show – it’s a full-length work in three parts, it’s a mix of genres and it’s performed in an actual wooden potting shed on stage by a cast of four dancers.

It contains contemporary dance, theatre, spoken word and digital art – all of which come together to create a rounded, cinematic experience that allows the audience to zoom into those intimate, hidden moments that make us human.

It’s this mix of disciplines, combined with the original narratives and raw, authentic performance that makes it our Northern Rascals style – expect it to be powerful, poetic and unmistakably Northern!

CM: Does it tell a story? 
AH: Oh yes! ‘SHED’ is a triple bill that tells three short stories…

Story 1: ‘Sunny Side’ is an excerpt from a full-length work of the same title by Northern Rascals. It follows a central character K, who is struggling.

At nineteen, he’s living in a world that’s rushing full-steam ahead. In an attempt to understand and reconnect, he revisits pivotal moments of his life but is left paralysed by an overwhelming future.

Anger. Frustration. Despair. It questions where young men stand in a world that seems to have no place for them.

Story 2: ‘A Small Life Just Like Mine’ follows a modern-day love story. Birthed in a period of social disconnect, it follows our two lovers through the seasons. Far from the romances we see on screen, their story is shrouded in the mundane, the messy, and the beautifully simple reality of partnerships.

Story 3: ‘Blackcurrant Lips’ follows two friends who come together at the end of the night. Recovering from an evening tainted by threat, the pair consider themes of female safety, power and what it means to be a young woman in today’s world.

CM: What themes are explored through it?
AH: The show considers themes of love and loss, of gender, of societal constraints, of mental health, of the essential humanity that resides in us all.

CM: What was the inspiration for the show? What made you want to stage pieces exploring these themes? 
AH: ‘SHED’ was created during that aforementioned period of social disconnect where our lives were linked through snippets on screens, in windows, through doors.

These moments felt isolated and incredibly personal; they belonged to us, our lives and our four walls.

Yet, when we regrouped after the pandemic, with our creative collaborators and our community, we found that our stories were not singular but collectively shared. ‘SHED’ is a response to that. 

CM: What message does the show have? Is the intention to raise awareness of mental health difficulties facing young people?
AH: Our aim with our work as Northern Rascals is to take the experiences of today’s young people and shape them into fictional performance works that are rooted in the current social and political landscape.

We see our work as a platform to amplify that voice that is often unheard – the voice of young people, particularly young people in the North. We cannot offer solutions, but we can raise awareness of problems and experiences that are directly impacting the young people of today.

Our hope for ‘SHED’ is that the work continues to do that. To share a glimpse into the messy, complicated lives that we all live.

For our audiences to leave taking a part of ‘SHED’ with them, perhaps a familiar story, or one that’s unknown, a moment, a feeling. Something that continues the conversation beyond the theatre doors. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process you go through in putting together a show like this? 
AH: It’s a long, difficult but beautiful process that requires the love, passion and commitment of everyone involved.

It begins with an idea, an image, a feeling, a memory, which is taken into the studio with our professional collaborative team of dancers, actors and designers and with our local community. 

Both community and professionals undergo the same creative experiences, the same tasks, the same conversations – sometimes in the same room, sometimes apart.

Then, we – me and Sam – collate all of the information, pull all the moments of desire, the bits that stick and begin to shape a show together. ‘SHED’ in particular was researched and developed, and then piloted over a couple of years before reaching its national tour.

Our next show ‘SUNNY | SIDE’ has taken four and a half years. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of resilience and a lot of belief in yourself and your work that it will all come together and be worth it – it always is!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Northern Rascals? How did the company come into being and what are its aims and ethos? I loved that when I looked at the website it said ‘Ey’up’. 
AH: Post graduation from Northern School Of Contemporary Dance, Sam and I decided to apply for a small commission from the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal under the name of Northern Rascals.

Until then, it was just a dream made up on late student nights, spent drawing logos and names on scrap paper in our favourite pizza bar. Northern Rascals, Northern Monkey, Northern Collective etc…

The moment we got that commission and we were in front of the audience and we got the applause and the feedback, we just knew… this was it, what we were meant to do. From them, our success snowballed with ACE funding and commissions from numerous institutions.

Soon, we were back leading workshops at the place we’d graduated from, receiving funding as choreographers from the places we’d been rejected from as students and dancers, gaining respect and conversations from people that previously hadn’t given us a second glance. It’s been a wild, surreal ride.

We knew that – from being performers and having the perspective of being young in the industry – that we had the potential to rewrite the narrative that we knew too well, and that became the ethos of our company.

To lead with kindness, to create safe supportive spaces that celebrate rather than reject. To instil an environment that allows the individual – whether professional or student or audience member – to feel taken care of, so that they in return can lay down their guard and reveal what makes our work special – the ability to just be human. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What drew you to an arts career? What did you do to get it started?
AH: I grew up in a barn on the hills above Hebden Bridge – a small Northern rain-soaked paradise for those who aren’t familiar with ‘Happy Valley’.

My childhood was full of play and freedom as my siblings and I were left to explore the moody moors that surrounded my home. Sometimes isolated in this space, I think I always leaned into the desire to create narratives, to let my imagination escape and run wild.

I was always a very observant child, my emotional receptors heightened so that I would be able to gauge the room and balance any energy that was misplaced.

I think this is really the root of my career, of how I fell in love with storytelling, and performance, and using the body and movement in moments where words sometimes fail us.

I’ve always tried to trust my gut, trust that eight year old girl and fulfil her dreams of having this career – I think we’re getting there!

Sam, on the other hand, fell into dance purely out of sibling rivalry. To one up his younger sister who already was a better tap dancer than him.

Sam’s passion for dance was an outlet for his misplaced energy; a place where he could thrive outside of an education system that isn’t made for thirteen year old boys with hormones, dyslexia and ADHD.

He joined The Brit School for his A-levels, before going on to study his degree at Northern School Of Contemporary Dance, where he met me. 

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far? 
AH: We think our biggest career highlight so far has been the creation of our brand-new work ‘SUNNY | SIDE’, hopefully touring autumn 2024.

We’ve been developing this work for over four years and we’ve poured everything into it. It’s our first fully-scripted show, and that combination of movement and poetry has just been game-changing for us and our company’s identity.

The show tells the story of a young northern male who is struggling with his mental health – it’s a vital and important topic and we put in so much hard work to make sure that we told the story with the sensitivity that it deserves.

We just finished our final preview show last week in Leeds to a sold-out audience with a full-standing ovation and it’s still not quite sunk in. How do you digest the culmination of four years of work?

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
AH: Our aim is to keep growing, to keep reaching new people around the country and also beyond the UK.

We believe in the power of performance art and its capacity to teach, connect and heal – and we hope we never lose that belief in what can be a difficult career to survive in.

We hope someday to become a regularly funded company so we can lean away from the endless cycle of ACE submissions and be able to fully immerse ourselves into what we want to do – create and connect.

We’d also love to have our own space at some point in the future, a home-base where our community can come and gather – and so we can get some of the million props out of our house!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AH: The end of the year brings about a lot of outreach work across the UK which is exciting.

We will be holding our first ever dance theatre intensive in London on the 30 Oct for three days, where we will work with a group on the themes of ‘SHED’ – tickets available to book now!

Then we’re teaching in Birmingham, Manchester and York… we’re going to be busy Rascals.

In the new year, we’re heading into our most ambitious project yet called ‘Reviving Her’, which will be a full-length work with a professional and community cast.

It will look at themes of female safety, empowerment and reconnecting with a self that has been lost from living in a society constructed by the male gaze. We can’t wait!

‘SHED’ is on at The Place on 28 Oct, see the venue website here for info and to book.

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Photo: Elly Welford