Performing in a pig farm

PIGS IN MUCK The ARTTS Advanced Course class of March 1993.

A Young Playwright’s next theatre.

The cluster of red-brick farm buildings showed itself on the horizon from a great distance, as a small bus full of students traversed the flat farming country of the East Riding of Yorkshire, me amongst them.

For someone whose first theatrical fantasies were hatched in a shearing shed, this place felt a little like coming home. I’d gotten myself to the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world to be transformed, and that long-winded process really began in the pig farm that had been converted into an international media training centre.

ARTTS International (‘The Advanced Residential Theatre & Television Skillcentre’) was the vision of John Sichel, (a television and theatre producer-director) and Elfie Sichel, a couple who struck-out on their own in 1990 with a vision to train young people in the skills they needed to survive in the entertainment industry.

John was immediately engaging, larger-than-life, in-your-face and over-the-top. He was like a beacon that you could not easily hide from. His greatest attribute, I believe, was his ability to train anyone who was even partially open to being trained.

My class hit the ground running. There was no time to think. Thinking was a creative killer. We were at there to learn by doing.

Within days we were crewing and presenting in the ARTTS television studio, rehearsing plays and other performances. The nuts and bolts of industry processes were learnt through continually putting pieces of television, theatre, radio and film together, very often under pressure.

Living and working with the same people 24/7 also meant that learning to get along with others was an essential part of the training. On Saturday afternoons, the bus took us into the city of York for shopping, cafes, and a brief experience of the outside world, before we made our own fun back at the pig farm.

No side of the performing or recorded arts was off limits – everyone took formal voice, dance, singing and acting classes. The latter was my big fear. I was attracted to acting, but totally afraid it would reveal all my secrets.

But I fell in love with it, and also the writing. Almost every week there was some original project to create, in every genre imaginable. No sooner was it on paper than we were shooting it or rehearsing it. The repetition of the process made us courageous and competitive, reliant on everyone chipping-in.

The landscape around the tiny village of Bubwith revealed itself slowly to me. Another Australian student and I used the centre’s bikes to pedal our way to the four winds, literally. The flat landscape was blasted by cold air coming off the North Sea as we pushed our way to tiny local pub lunches.

Gradually I learnt the history and heritage of the region – which trees had 16th century Catholic martyrs hanged from their branches, and the tiny stone church up the road where their graves were hidden under the floor; and the local castle with its nearby abbey … it all seemed like undiscovered country.

Eventually we started making use of these places as locations for our short film and television projects. The immediacy of making pictures in the open-air vibrancy of a landscape became my favourite part of the filmmaking process, and remains that way to the present day.

On the stage I got to play some great roles, including one of Thorton Wilder’s wonderful stage managers, and Shakespeare’s Malvolio. We also co-wrote original plays, and an entire musical. When I think about it now I can’t believe the amount of work we go through in only 42 weeks.

SKILL CENTRE The cluster of red-brick farm buildings that was ARTTS International.

ARTTS was not a college or a university. It was a skillcentre, and I certainly came away with skills I could use immediately to get employed in the industry.

But there are some life skills that cannot be taught, they have to be lived, and though I managed to transform as much as I possibly could in my year at ARTTS, there were still layers yet to come off. I needed to go out into the real world and learn the rest by doing.

As remote as the place is, one of the pleasures of ARTTS in its heyday was the support the Yorkshire locals gave to students, particularly as the audiences for our many stage productions. I can imagine that the village of Bubwith lost much when it lost John Sichel in 2005, and soon after ARTTS closed down.

John was a high-stakes, high-drama kind of man. That he turned those energies to education was a great gift to an entire generation of international media practitioners who passed through the barn doors.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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