"5 Minutes With...." John Tomlinson//SBC Theatre

Journeys Festival International is taking to the streets of Manchester for the first time this year. From 01 - 12 October #JourneysFest will produce a diverse programme of events across the city, celebrating the incredible stories and artistic talents of exceptional refugee artists.

Ahead of the festival, we wanted to find out about other events happening in the city, following the themes of Journeys Festival International. We caught up with John Tomlinson, Director of SBC Theatre, ahead of the opening night of their latest production, TANJA at The Lowry.

(16 - 17 September)

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Hello! I'm JT, Programme Manager at Contact, Manchester (3 days a week), freelance producer some of the other days. I work on a huge range of different projects across the country and, on top of that, I am the Company Director of SBC Theatre! It's a variety of work and keeps me on my toes all the time. I'm very lucky to have worked on some remarkable arts projects, and with some brilliant companies and artists in my career.

SBC Theatre Company - How and why did it start?

SBC began after I graduated from University of Salford. I wanted to create characters and narratives that I couldn't find anywhere else, that people hadn't seen before. Rosie MacPherson was brilliant at putting pen to paper and I was good at getting the planning in place to make something happen. We made our show at Salford Lads Club in 2010, invited some friends and industry people to see it. It went well. Well enough that The Lowry were interested and booked it the following year - which gave us an opportunity to properly plan, budget and develop it to tour.

We've always been interested in hearing stories from people in situations you don't hear much about. We still are and that's what we've continued to do.

How has SBC Theatre developed since its formation?

SBC is a company that Rosie and I have developed slowly over years. We have big ambitions individually, but always work together to make something that we feel nobody else is talking about. We've made five shows together now and they've all been very different, but always reflect what we were thinking about politically and artistically at the time.

There's three of us now. Hannah Butterfield, an extremely gifted theatre-maker, musician, director and choreographer, was recommended by our friends Third Angel and completes our jigsaw. It means that we can offer so much more as a creative team. We don't see ourselves as separate entities of Producer, Writer, Director, but rather a team of experienced theatre people that are obsessed with making important work that gets a reaction.

It's the opening night of your latest production 'TANJA' this evening. What's the production about?

Where to begin? We've worked with City of Sanctuary, an organisation that supports asylum seekers and refugees. They introduced us to Emily Ntshangase-Wood, a woman from Zimbabwe who now lives in Leeds. Her story is so important. 'TANJA' is our opportunity to create a platform for her story, and the stories of many other women who have been in an immigration detention centre. I didn't know anything about Yarl's Wood three years ago, but the moment I did, I knew we had to do something about it. 'TANJA' is a small part of a movement, by lots of organisations, to expose what is happening in there and to try and get it shut down.

Emily plays the role of 'TANJA,' the pseudonym given to a woman who alleged that abuse was going on in Yarl's Wood in a press report a couple of years ago. It's a story of hope, courage and determination that fights against an atrocious system set-up for people to fail. Emily is an incredibly inspiring woman and has changed the way that we all think about the world. I'm proud of what she's achieved in being part of this with us and can't wait to see the impact the production has.

What affect would you like TANJA to have on its audiences?

Our main aim was to explain what Immigration Removal Centres are, to educate and expose the secrets. I hope that audiences understand how much it has taken for Emily to be in front of them, if nothing else. We want them to feel like they've been given an interesting insight into the world of seeking asylum.

How do you begin to construct the narrative? Especially when dealing with such personal stories?

The refugee and asylum seeker experience is a huge topic, so we focused on tackling the subject of detention specifically. We think that this is one area that can be changed if enough people shout about it and express their opinions. Being an incredibly sensitive area, we realised the need to show gratitude to those who have shared their stories with us, so we've shared lots of material with people who have contributed along the way.

We did a sharing at the Houses of Parliament, which was incredibly nerve-wracking, but we felt we got the support and backing that day, from people who this has affected. A key part of the story is the hope, love and faith that gets people through difficult times - a universal feeling for any audience. Emily has got a brilliant stage presence and great singing voice, so we started from a good place. Rosie, Hannah and I play the other roles that support her story to unfold.

You were recently awarded the UK's first 'Theatre Company of Sanctuary.' What does this mean to you? How will this affect SBC work in the future?

This means the world to us. Everyone wants to win an award - but this means so much more. This is a significant reward for the work we've done on this project and is a statement of intent and promise that we will continue to work with and support those seeking sanctuary in the UK.

During the course of this project, we've met hundreds of amazing people - many of whom have gone through unimaginable things. As a company we will educate, embed and share the values of a culture of welcome in everything we do.

Last night (Thursday) we did a workshop with nearly 100 refugees and asylum seekers from across the globe, where we wrote some poems together, sang songs and shared stories with each other. I loved every minute of it and it was a timely reminder about why we've made 'TANJA.'

What are you most looking forward to in the JFI programme?

I can't wait for Burning Doors by Belarus Free Theatre. I've loved everything this incredible company have done and followed them since I saw Minsk in Edinburgh in 2011. They're incredibly gifted theatre-makers who always stand up proud about their plight.

'TANJA' opens TONIGHT with Journeys Festival International Producer, Charlotte Mountford part of the post show discussion panel.

16 - 17 September at The Lowry

For event details and to book CLICK HERE



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