An interview with Pauline Thompson from Manchester Locksmiths

I’m sitting on zoom with Pauline, one of the founding members of the Greater Manchester-Based experimental theatre company 'Manchester Locksmiths', as they prepare to celebrate the anniversary of their first show...

Fraz: Hi Pauline, it’s great to speak to you. How are you doing?

Pauline: Yes, good to put a face to the name!

Fraz: So, can you tell me a little about yourself and how you came to start Manchester Locksmiths?

Pauline: Sure. I’m a theatre maker and performance artist, and before the pandemic began I’d been working on establishing a new theatre company. I’ve always been interested in that break between life and art. About ten years ago I toured with a production of an immersive reimagining of Pirandello’s 5 characters in search of an author where the cast was acting the role of the audience and the audience were the characters in search of an author. The show was mostly unsuccessful (our most successful venue was a loft room in a bar in the Edinburgh Fringe where we performed at 2am). But it got me thinking about the performative role of the audience. Theatre is about the whole experience – everyone who comes to see a show is participating in theatre, it isn’t just the cast who are acting…

When the pandemic hit we were all thrown into unfamiliar waters, and that was a real struggle particularly for performers. The government were obviously permitting essential work to continue, but everything else was just expected to stop. We realised a loophole – if we were going to someone’s house to carry out essential repairs, ,we could also perform. So we devised a bespoke style of performance according to whatever our audience needed doing in the house. Manual labour is just another kind of semi-improvised choreography.

Fraz: That’s fascinating. Could you tell me a bit more about the other people on the team? Have you worked with them before?

Pauline:Yes, so the team is made up of a core group of 6 of us, but with about 15 other people who are also on hand to do other bits of work. We had to have plenty of people on the team because the nature of the work is that it can sometimes require specialist training for certain types of repairs. So as well as working with people who have experience in performance art, dance, and theatre, we also have several tradespeople on the team, who are interested in the arts, but are actually trained in skills such as locksmithing, joinery, bricklaying, and plumbing. Of the core group, a lot of us went to art school together in the 90s, there’s a sculptor, a metal worker, a painter, a singer… we’re a pretty weird mix….

Fraz: Tell me a bit more about the kind of performances that your audiences might expect

Pauline: Every performance starts with a problem – there needs to be some genuine maintenance work that needs doing. We’ll get a phone call saying that a door is jammed, or a pipe is leaking, or there’s some brickwork that needs repointing. Once we know what the problem is, we can work out the best team for the job. Usually the preparation will be up to a day of workshopping ideas and devising the piece – this will take place between an expert in the thing that needs doing, the actor(s) who will be doing the job. And 2 or 3 other people to observe and help facilitate the workshopping process. It’s really important that we do carry out the repair to a good standard, but the delivery of it is also important too. It’s such a fascinating marriage between pragmatic physicalisation that comes in the trades (pick up a drill, use your body weight against it etc) and the angle from the aesthetic side, with the gaze of the audience taken into account.

Fraz: So , what you’re doing is just the same as any tradesperson? You fix the thing that needs fixing?

Pauline: Yes, but we do it as a performance. We think about the audience.

Fraz:Have you ever had shows where the people employing you don’t realise that it’s a performance?

Pauline: Oh yes, sometimes they don’t even watch. But those who do watch find it to be a transcendent artistic experience.

Fraz: I had a broken door and someone from your collective replaced the lock. I was transfixed. It was such a phenomenally self aware experience – totally removed from the chains of labour for the sake of labour and instead engaging with the idea of work for art’s sake. Do you have plans to continue the collective after the restrictions are lifted?

Pauline: Yes, I think we’d all like to continue in some way. It certainly pays better than theatre…