Christina Fonthes Speaks to Theatre Director & Writer Cheryl Martin
Cheryl Martin is a Manchester-based theatre director and writer, as well as a poet and jazz singer. Cheryl’s contribution to the educational and professional art community of Manchester is renowned. Her accolades include serving as the Chair of Common Word (a writing development organisation based in Manchester) and Associate Director for New Writing/New Work at Contact Theatre. Cheryl is the winner of two Manchester Evening News [MEN] Awards. In addition to publishing her poetry, Cheryl has also had over twenty stage and radio productions as a writer. Her most recent work, Alaska – her first solo poetry collection, was launched in May this year along with the performance of Alaska her one-woman-show.
You are a Manchester-based artist but the accent doesn’t sound very Mancunian – can you tell us a bit about where you’re from and how you ended up in Northern England?
I am originally from Washington D.C. and I went to university at Williams College, Massachusetts where I got three scholarships – one was a Fulbright and I used that to teach English in France where I lived for a year. Then I went to Cambridge on another scholarship and did a second BA. And then I got another scholarship to do a PHD in Manchester. I was writing up the PHD when I got married and then I wanted to do my own writing and stopped doing my PHD while I was writing it up so I never finished it. I’m divorced now but I’m still here.
Earlier this month you performed your one-woman-show Alaska, which has been described as the “poem that’s not in the book” why did you decide to produce both a book and show?
Well the book came first. I have a long history with Crocus Books [the publishers] and Common Word going way back to the early nineties. I was in a group called Identity Writers run by Common Word and they were the ones who got me my first commission and my first residencies. So when Pete Kaloo (the current head of Common Word) asked me if I wanted to do a collection it felt like coming back home. They were putting some real cash in – real cash is hard to find, and I thought with that little bit of funding I can turn this into something else. The idea was to make the physical book like a work of art in itself, so I got more funding to get illustrations and a beautiful cover to make this book gorgeous and did an E-book version as well. I started off as a performance poet and I’m really good at performing and singing and I thought I would go back to my strengths and do something based on Alaska the book. So the show was us experimenting on how we’re going to make the whole show next year.
Both the book and the show come across as very personal – you delve into self-harming, mental health and you touch on your sexuality – can you tell us what inspired you to create this work?
Again, the poems came first and there are poems in the book that go back to when I was twenty so the fact that they’re about all those things is just because those are the things that made me want to write. And then we decided to turn it into this stage show. I’ve known Darren Pritchard (the director of Alaska) since he was 14 when I taught workshops and he grew up to be this great choreographer and I used to ask him to come and work with my poets to get them to move and it suddenly occurred to me that he would be perfect to direct me. And that turned out to be right. We both wanted to get away from conventional theatre so it’s not linear, it’s extremely visual. I was looking for killer words and killer visuals and I’m finally getting to do that. Darren describes the show as “the poem that’s not in the book” because it should fit together the way a poem does, which means that it’s not rational but it’s coming from the same place that the poem comes from. It’s almost from behind where the poem comes from – it’s almost the subtext.
As a multi-disciplinary artist who works both on and off the stage, what is your favourite discipline?
I like singing more than anything else and I do it the least. I like singing and I never wanted to make money doing it. Because once you start making money then it’s a job and you stop
enjoying it. I used to sing at bands a lot and you get into that grind where you’re doing the same set over and over. In the end I hated it because it was the same thing over and over – it’s the same thing if you keep reading the same poems over and over you have to stop reading the old poems and write something new.
What brings you the biggest satisfaction when you exhibit your work?
It’s that connection with the audience. It’s a feedback loop – so when it’s good you can feel that the audience is with you and then because the audience is with you, you get better. And when you’re doing something really, really good and you can feel the audience is with you, it’s fantastic and I really liked that.
A lot of artists and writers go to London in search of opportunities – why did you decide to stay in Manchester? And how would you describe the arts scene Up North?
Because I’m stubborn! I know that London has its problems; mostly that it costs too much to live there. I come from D.C. not New York and I think that made me also not want to go to London. Part of me thinks if I had gone to London I would have made more money but I don’t want to live in a shoebox in London. I’ve got a whole house here with a garden across from a park with very little rent. I can live up here and concentrate on my work without having to go corporate and without having to do work I don’t want to do. It’s impossible to do that in London. The theatre scene in the whole country is so small that there are immense crossovers from Scotland to London to Manchester. In Scotland, there is no black theatre scene – it’s very difficult as a black person to get work up there but if you get something on, it gets reviewed, which means if you’re any good then you get noticed a lot more easily than in Manchester or London. The scene in London is difficult because people are under the cosh in terms of money. In Manchester, it’s not like we don’t need money but we can breathe a little bit more and so – especially in the black theatre scene – a lot of people know each other but we also are extremely supportive of each other. When I get funding, lots of people get funding – it’s not just me. I always get a team and a whole bunch of us work together. I always work with emerging artists, Darren himself is a first-time director and a lot of people are getting their first chance doing this type of work on Alaska. It’s like a virtuous circle – I don’t feel like we have to backstab to survive.
When can we expect to see the final production of Alaska the stage show?
It looks like we’ll be doing it for Flying Solo next year at Contact Theatre in either March or May and I’m going to talk to a theatre in Glasgow and one in London so we’ll do two days at Contact Theatre and maybe two in London and two in Glasgow so we can do a big tour. We’re also looking for more time for the book because we didn’t have a lot of time at the start and considering how pretty the book is, you’d never believe it. I want to add some new poems including some of the stuff from the show and we’re going to have much expanded visuals.
If you could work with any artist or writer dead or alive who would it be?
It would be Matisse. I would ask if he would let me write some poems to go with his images. While I was working on Alaska I went to the Matisse Cut-Outs and they were so alive. If I could talk to anybody, I would talk to him and ask if he would let us do animations from his stuff. My god, can you imagine?