I first met Sonya Moorhead when I volunteered at the much-missed social centre, The Basement, in Manchester. We instantly became friends through music, as she invited me round to have a jam with her and her lovely-half, Will Lenton. Over the years, she and Will have been like surrogate parents, ferrying me round to gigs and feeding me up before rehearsals. Now that they've become parents themselves, I just hope I can return the favours in the years to come.
Sonya (or Boo as she is known) has always remained an inspiration to me: she never lets worries about trivial things such as money and jobs get in the way of her ambitions to make theatre in unusual places. She started her theatre company, Canopy, a few years ago now and I thought I'd use the opportunity of Inspirational Woman Wednesday to find out more.
So how did you get into acting? Was it a child thing whereby you went to drama groups and started getting parts in cheesy musicals, dreaming of going to stage school? What made you want to take it seriously?
Not at all; I used to try out for school plays but I was useless, I was always third snowflake from the left. Never Mary! I had a fantastic anarchic English teacher at secondary school though and she gave me a love of poetry and theatre literature and was very encouraging of my writing. She entered my poems into competitions. She also provided opportunities for me to read things out in class which was huge for me, because I’m dyslexic I’d loathed reading out prior to that. I guess that was the bug, a little bit of showing off and special attention. Plus I always loved dancing and movement. I went to a lot of dance classes and workshops in my teens. Again, I was pretty bobbins at it but there was a real desire to get better and I just enjoyed it so much.
Why did you choose to study acting, and why cross the sea to MMU?
MMU was the only university out of the six I put on my UCAS form that would interview me. Everyone else looked at my predicted grades for A levels and said ‘no chance, love’. I knew I wanted to leave Northern Ireland, it just felt like I was ready to go and see how other people did things. Northern Ireland is beautiful but a bit rigid. People are very clear about who they are and what they do and I just didn’t know what I was or what I wanted to do so I left and went on a mission to find out.
What was the best thing about your course? Did you have any life-changing moments whilst studying, tips and lessons that will last with you forever?
If I could do it all again I’d wait until I was older to study at university. I didn’t really understand what was available to me at MMU. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing there or what I was trying to achieve so I asked all the wrong questions and used my time up doing all the wrong things. I could have got so much more out of that time. But you live and learn. It brought me to Manchester and that was the beginning of everything.
Your sisters have chosen theatrical paths in life, too. Was the theatre a big thing at home? Is your mum a theatre-goer?
My mum does like going out and seeing a good show, and we did see things when we were kids; we went to stuff at Belfast Arts Festival every year. My mum was very conscientious about supporting that. We are all attracted to creating whether it’s with words or making stuff.
So when did you decide that acting wasn't enough and you wanted to actively make theatre, too? Had you always written your own plays?
No, I never really wrote plays. I never thought, ‘I’m going to be a playwright’. Truth being told, I get bored very easily and I didn’t get any acting work after I left university; I put my hands up to that, too, I’m rubbish at auditions as I get really nervous.
But I did get into street theatre and made more and more outdoor shows with bigger, more experienced companies and just loved it. I saw people making a living and having fun at the same time. I met really talented people with incredibly diverse skills. Most importantly, they weren’t precious; they were willing to share their knowledge and guided me into the wonderful world of outdoor arts. I do everything now: writing, singing, acting, fundraising, production management, arts admin. So no chance of getting bored at all.
You're not enamoured with the typical theatre space and you want to take your shows out into the wild. Why is this? Is the theatre boring and stuffy, in your opinion?
Indoor theatre has its purpose, but its very privileged. Theatre makers can completely control the environment and people pay to sit in the dark. Then the more you pay, the better the experience is for you because you get to sit closer to the action.
I love being outdoors because you can’t control the environment and often people who would never go to the theatre, who would never pay for a ticket, interact with performances, participate in performances and have a much more profound experience. I think celebrations and communality has faded away, out of our society. People aren’t religious and families are dispersed all over the world. I love it when people congress, come together outdoors for the pure pleasure of seeing something, being entertained. I particularly love the idea that people could do this in wild places and add to the experience with fresh air and food in a really beautiful location. What could be better for the soul?
Tell me about the orchard. You've been saving since you were small, haven't you? Why an orchard?
I love orchards. They are humans’ way of organising chaos. So silly looking: orderly queues of trees, but functional and beautiful at the same time. I have socked money away for the day I might buy a plot of land and plant some trees, but we are a long way off that, I think.
So when did you set up your company? What are your aims and what is your mission?
I set Canopy up in 2010. I wanted to make really fun shows and community events and have somewhere to aim my creative output while my family is growing. The vision has got more and more ambitious. As well as sending out street theatre acts to festivals, I’m making landscape theatre in the area I live and taking on commissions from festivals further afield. The plan is to bring the fantastic artists I know from years of freelancing together to make brilliant theatrical experiences.
Obviously, it's a precarious time to find work and start companies - especially in the arts. Do you have 'oh god' moments? What keeps you strong?
Starting up as a new company, you can feel like you’re haemorrhaging money. I can’t work freelance a lot at the moment because I’ve got small children but I can spend my free time making my own shows, researching, making stuff, networking and getting Canopy’s profile up and out there. You don’t go in for a career in the arts to make money. But I am as savvy as I can be about cashflow and maximise opportunities. We’re lucky, we work very hard at something we love and just about make a living. And have a very happy life.
I do believe the arts as a whole needs to look at its financial viability and work on ways to be sustainable as an industry; one that isn’t wholly dependent upon funding and benefactors. It provides huge revenue for this country in the form of recreation and tourism and has a role to play in health and education. Now, during the dark days, is a brilliant time to think about restructuring and fighting our corner.
Your work is community focused and you've performed and written pieces directly for your neighbours in your village. Why is this important to you?
I live in an odd little village, an ‘in-between-places’ place, but I believe where there are people, there is an audience. The people in my village are as valid critics as any theatre-going city audience. I really don’t want to be the blow-in who goes out of the area for work and doesn’t add anything to the community.
From doing community events, I’ve met brilliant people and it’s so lovely knowing my neighbours. It’s very easy in modern life to become isolated and that’s not healthy, it’s not natural. I have huge support from the people around me which can makes all the difference when the chips are down. I want my village to be the best place for my family to live but to get that, you have to show willing and put in a bit of leg work.
I’d also like to be part of the revolution of bringing world-class theatre practitioners to unlikely audiences. Not everyone can go to the Big Smoke to get their culture fix. What would it mean to people in Yorkshire, the UK’s biggest county, to have the likes of Royale Delux turn up in Halifax, rather than London or Liverpool?
Tell me about 'walkabout' theatre, strolling performers and performances. Why is this medium appealing to you?
It’s a hoot. That’s why I like it. You go out on the street, or wherever, in character and play with an unsuspecting public. People don’t pay to see it but you can make someone’s day. I like to make detailed work, characters that have lots of dimensions to them and complex life stories; real humanity that people identify and sympathise with. I’ve had some of the best performance experience doing walk about.
What does 2013 look like for you and Canopy?
There’s a very exciting plan in the pipeline. We’re talking with City of London Festival (COLF) about a commissioned theatre piece to accompany COLF’s 2013 mobile orchard. The story will parody the banking crisis and is based on a myth about the Roman Goddess, Pomona; she’s the goddess of orchards.
I’m also working with a brilliant and passionate outdoor play facilitator. Between us we’re running a series of wild play workshops in and around our village for local children. The aim is guerrilla play, encouraging them to reclaim wild and public spaces for play. The strolling shows are also gigging out and about on the festival circuit this summer. So, if it all goes off, we’ll be busy enough.
What are your ultimate ambitions? When will you realise them?
Oh my god, the vision is so clear but so far off I can’t even go there. A field full of fruit trees, glasshouses full of food, a team of brilliant, fun people, making joyful celebrations and beautiful uplifting art, touring the world and sharing our work abroad, a happy family, plenty of parties and music, time to eat good food, lots of silliness, a few guardian 5 star reviews… a life’s work in progress.
Check out one of Sonya's intrepid pieces of theatres, made for the residents of Cornholme, West Yorkshire: