We’re Itching To Talk About… is a series of blog posts in which we feature some of the brilliant things our theatre-making friends are doing across the region and further afield.

mac birmingham has very recently welcomed a new addition to its Arts Team — the wonderful Jo Carr, who joins mac as Performances Programmer. Jo is no stranger to Birmingham’s arts scene — she’s a familiar face through her work with Untied Artists and as a producer, tour booker and project manager for companies across the region.

We checked in with Jo (sadly, not over a plate of mac’s cheese on toast, still officially the best in the city) to ask her about her new role and what exciting things lie ahead.

Gareth: Tell us about three pieces of theatre which have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.

Jo: That’s a tough one and there are far more than three that have made a big impression, but I’ll go with…

The Street Of Crocodiles by Theatre de Complicite (as they were called then) at The National Theatre. I went with my Uncle Graham who was Head of Drama at Fern Hill Secondary School and his sixth form drama students. I think I was about 14 and it was all very exciting. We got a coach to London and I fell in love with the Southbank Centre and that whole brutalist concrete cathedral to the Arts. And then I saw this show where people were climbing up walls of books and dancing with chairs. And there didn’t seem to be a beginning, a middle, and end. And then I learnt that this whole production was based on a series of short stories! What? How does that work? I thought this was a play!

This was the first time I got a glimpse that theatre didn’t have to be people just speaking to one another in a suburban living room and walking around furniture.

This was the first time I got a glimpse that theatre didn’t have to be people just speaking to one another in a suburban living room and walking around furniture. Or doing Shakespeare! Performers could dance, or they could communicate pages of text just by using movement, or they could invent their own vocabulary, or speak foreign languages with no translations or apologies. It completely blew my mind. This would have been about 1986 so we hadn’t got to the point yet where we couldn’t leave the house without falling over another “Physical Theatre Ensemble”. It felt like proper exotic stuff that belonged in Belgium or Czechoslovakia, not right there in front of little ol’ me!

Second is A Woman In Waiting, written and performed by Thembi Mtshali Jones, and directed by Yael Farber. This was an engrossing and beautifully performed one-woman show by a Zulu woman about her childhood and upbringing in South Africa. It explored Thembi’s need to understand her mother’s decision to leave her in the care of an auntie, whilst her mother went to work as a wet-nurse for a white woman in another town – just so that she could earn enough to feed and school her own children.

I was project managing this show in Edinburgh in 2000 and it was really the first time I got to know a performer from another continent. Thembi was so generous with her personal experiences both on and off stage. At the end of each show, members of the audience would be waiting to hug her and to tell her how sorry they were for the devastating impact the actions of the Apartheid authorities had had on her life. We would all just stand around crying and smiling and nodding at each other – before having to do the 15-minute get-out!

Finally, Intimate History by Jake Oldershaw. I can’t not mention this piece of theatre because it was the first time Jake (now my partner) and I worked together collaboratively, and it was also my first experience of one-to-one theatre where a show is designed just for one audience member at a time. This piece did that so sensitively. It was just gorgeous! Jake and Craig Stephens wrote six individual pieces of music theatre inspired by Theodore Zeldin’s book An Intimate History of Humanity. Each mini-show was accompanied by original music from the brilliant Derek Nisbet on grand piano, and placed the solo audience member at the very heart of the story. Themes ranged from love, travel, loneliness and anxiety, and they all featured Jake’s incredible singing.

We did a run at Battersea Arts Centre during a festival there and the audiences loved it and kept coming back and choosing another one of the six shows that were on offer. It went to the British Council Showcase and caused much emotional kerfuffle between both male and female delegates from various corners of the world!

Image: Jake Oldershaw in Untied Artist’s Intimate History.

Gareth: What is your favourite memory of mac?

Jo: I have two…

Firstly, coming here on the very last day before it closed for the refurbishment in 2008. The building was full of people, the sun was shining, Talking Birds were performing The Whale outside, and I had only recently moved to Birmingham from London. I felt very much a part of a friendly, vibrant arts community here.

Secondly, coming back here as a mum with a small child and feeling that it was a safe, bright, welcoming place that would not judge me in my snot-smeared, baggy jumper, baggy-eyed state. There was always something on at the flicks, or in a theatre, foyer or gallery that we could be part of, have a conversation about, and be saved from the many black holes of a 15 hour day trying to educate/entertain/feed a child!

[I plan on] championing regional theatre makers, musicians and artists who are creating high quality work that has something to say and has considered its audience as part of its process.

Gareth: What are some of the elements of your vision for the performing arts programme at mac birmingham over the next three years, and how would you like to use the different performance spaces available?

Jo: OK, well…

Early years and children’s work. Developing and diversifying the offer we have and making certain that families in the region think of mac first when they are looking for a theatre or arts experience for the young people in their care.

Championing regional theatre makers, musicians and artists who are creating high quality work that has something to say and has considered its audience as part of its process.

Funking up the music programme a little. And I don’t just mean by booking funk bands – I mean broadening the offer and possibly working with other music promoters in Birmingham to do that carefully.

Looking at how we can use the park and outdoor spaces more creatively in our programme.

Thinking more about how older audiences are reflected and catered for in the work that we present and collaborate on.

Trying to work out how we can offer longer runs or regular slots to some companies where the work has that potential.

And finally, to try really hard not to eat the cheese on toast here more than once every two months!

Gareth: Through our work with East Meets West, we’re interested in reducing barriers between theatre-makers and venues within the entire Midlands region. How important is it for you to support and showcase regionally produced work?

Jo: It’s really important, which is why it’s part of my plans here. We want to be flag-wavers for the excellence in, and development of, our local arts ecology. The East Meets West Symposium was a great idea by the way – you must do it again!

Gareth: What advice would you give somebody who wanted you to programme their work at mac?

Jo: OK… Don’t ring me up with a 15 minute spiel about your last / current piece of work that I can’t actually go and see anywhere. Do introduce yourself and your work in a short email and follow that up with a well considered email that shows that you know something about the venue, spaces, programme, and audiences here at mac. Include a one-page summary of the company / show, including who the creatives are, what they do, what they’ve already done and what your ethos is, and tell me a bit about what you’re trying to achieve with this one piece of work that you have to get on somehow. Send me images, short promos or films of the piece, and send me dates of where I can see the show or the work that you have on now. Also send me details of when you want to tour it. Don’t be vague, be bold!

We want to be flag-wavers for the excellence in, and development of, our local arts ecology.

Gareth: If money were no object, which artist or company would you like to bring to mac?

Jo: Oooh, it wouldn’t be just one…

Kate Bush, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Robert Lepage. Nina – Josette Bushell Mingo’s exploration of Nina Simone’s career and how it impacted on her own life. A premiere of a new Mike Leigh play. The Specials. Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

I would get James Brown’s best backing band of all time back together and book them with a different vocalist each night. For a week!

I’d also commission a new piece of work for children and programme it here for a month and then send it on a national tour. Lastly I’d have a Birmingham version of Meltdown curated by and featuring a host of brilliant Midlands artists and performers spilling out into the park and our outdoor theatre.

Gareth: As well as being a Programmer, you’ve also worked as a Producer (mainly for the wonderful Untied Artists.) How do you think your independent producing experience will influence your venue programming work?

Jo: Prior to being an independent producer and one half of Untied Artists, I was Creative Producer for an NPO company for 6 years, and before that was a tour booker / project manager for UK Arts International working with children’s theatre, performance artists, dancers, mid-scale theatre and everything else in between. So I suppose I could say I have a very broad understanding of what it takes to try and exist and develop and get booked as an artist or company – and it’s bloody hard! I also like to think I have a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t for a venue, and why. And finally I’d like to think I can say, “No thank you, that’s not for us” in a way that’s clear but not too brutal.

Gareth: Who has had the biggest influence on your career to date, and why?

Jo: All the artists I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with.

Gareth: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the independent performing arts sector at the moment, and how do you think we can overcome it?

Jo: Hmmm… Where does one start?

Funding and a lack of understanding of how a little money can go a really long way.

TV – there’s soooo much of it.

I question the validity of work that is either too derivative or too self referential.

And possibly most importantly the fact that we’ve been drip-fed a dangerously right-wing notion of what is normal and what is “good” and “bad” for us as a society by the media and the government for so long.

I question the validity of work that is either too derivative or too self referential; work that doesn’t have a story, engaging enough performances or a driving narrative at its heart; work that isn’t simply breath-taking enough in its own right to leave us astounded and / or delighted. Having said that I also like a good laugh. Honest!

Image: Pin And Needles’ production of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas.

Gareth: Amid the wealth of Christmas shows that Birmingham has to offer, mac is establishing itself as the venue in the city that caters for early years audiences and their families. Tell us about what we can look forward to at mac this Christmas.

Jo: From 30th November until 30th December, we present our main house show: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. Merry Bloomin’ Christmas! – in his own words.

Father Christmas is a Pins and Needles and Lyric Hammersmith co-production that is beautifully performed by an ensemble made up of an actor, puppeteer and musician. The design is exquisite and very true to the original book, and the narrative is accompanied by a live Foley soundtrack — which in itself is great fun to watch.

Tickets for the show are selling fast so hurry up and get yours quick! Oh, and we’re also doing pyjama galas where you can come in your pjs for the 6 o’clock shows, have milk and cookies while you watch it, and then head home all ready to be tucked up for a cosy night’s sleep. Brilliant! [For more information about Father Christmas, visit mac’s website]

Besides those two corkers we also have Barbara Nice’s Christmas Cracker, an absolute must for one of the best nights out during the festive season — even the most humbuggy amongst you will enjoy it. It usually involves messy mince pie eating races, dancing in the aisles with strangers, a mass competition between two halves of the audience, and the best/worst raffle prizes known to humanity.

For a musical treat you can enjoy The Albion Band’s annual Christmas Show — fine folk indeed! And in the cinema we will have the much-anticipated arrival (in my house at least) of everybody’s favourite old brown bear… Paddington 2.

Gareth: We passionately believe that mac’s cheese on toast should be officially recognised as the best in the city. Are you as much of a fan as we are? Or is there something else on the menu you are most drawn to?

Jo: Please refer to my aforementioned comment relating to this culinary dilemma.