Julie Hesmondhalgh, The Dressing Room and giving something back

Rob Martin
Written by
Rob Martin
Correspondent, Time Out Manchester

There's nothing particularly news worthy about a theatre café getting a makeover but there's nothing particularly ordinary about the Chorlton based theatre and arts venue, The Edge. Time Out Manchester spoke to one of its patrons, actress and writer Julie Hesmondhalgh, about what makes the venue different, about community and about hope...

The Dressing Room launches in July – what makes it more than just a theatre café?

‘For me the thing that differentiates it from just another café in an arts centre is that it’s going to be used as a training space for adults with learning difficulties. It’s a brilliant idea but a rare one, and there’s actually a waiting list for people who want to work here as part of the apprenticeships programme. It’s going to be providing a space where these people get a real chance to build their confidence, not only working in the café but through other parts of the organisation as well. So it’s got a real sense of being a community hub, what with the network of people doing great things here – a group of homeless people perform here, and there’s a drama group for those out of work… It’s wonderful, and it should be better known. It deserves to be. I only found out about it myself because a friend of mine, Jenny Platt, was in a play here called "Dreaming Under a Different Moon" and I just thought the place was amazing.’

It’s part of The Edge Theatre and Arts Centre of which you are a patron, alongside Mark Rylance. You must get asked to lend your name to many organisations, so what appealed about this one?
‘I think it was the fact that their community remit is so far reaching – the number and variety of different groups they work with. But that would be all for nothing if the quality of the work wasn’t so good. I’ve been very impressed by the shows I’ve seen here and I know there’s a some great collaboration going on with places like The Booth Centre and Expressive Edge. Everyone wants to get ‘community engagement’ right and it’s hard, but they really do it here. Chorlton has a certain reputation but of course it’s a very mixed place with many different types of people, and The Edge reflects that diversity. To be honest, I was really chuffed to be asked.’

You’ve been associated with several arts projects which have strong social and community ties, like Slave at The Lowry and Black Roses, as both a theatre piece and film. Even your TV roles reflect this. Obviously it’s important to you but why, and where does that passion come from?
‘It’s combination of luck and making certain choices. "Coronation Street" was the start of it, really. It was such an amazing part to play, but also it was incredible to see the power in something like a soap opera, and how good writing, a great character and real storylines can help to bring about positive change. Trans people are much more accepted now – trans actors are being considered for roles they wouldn’t have been before. It was perfect timing for me, playing Hayley. I’m pretty vocal about how TV or the arts can challenge and change, break down barriers. "Cucumber" was a dream for me, like something from my wildest dreams. It was divisive, I know, but my character got to explore sexuality in women, being a mother, porn, so much and I’m so proud of that. I guess I try to choose roles based on what I’d like to watch myself, and now I’m in a position where people will come to me, knowing where I stand on certain issues.’

Famous people often get a lot of flack for getting behind social causes, as if finding fame means that you should only care about trivia. And yet you and Maxine Peake seem to have escaped that – people really seem to respect what you stand for. Why do you think that is?
‘Do they? That’s nice! I do feel a responsibility to try and use the profile that Corrie gave me to help highlight certain issues and help some of the more voiceless people in our society be heard, and now it’s more important than ever. Maxine is the same, we’re both unapologetic Socialists. I love Charlotte Church for what she’s saying and doing – she was brilliant on "Question Time", I wouldn’t have the guts to go on it! – but the abuse she’s getting for it is terrible. All she’s saying is that she wants a fairer society and she gets all that thrown at her! I guess being young, beautiful and having something to say is just not allowed. I’m hoping I get to meet her at the anti-austerity rally in London on Saturday. For me it’s a no-brainer. I just believe in peace, equality, workers rights, good public services, welfare, the NHS. I don’t think that makes me naïve or anachronistic.'

I’ve coincidentally sat just behind you at two Patti Smith gigs. You clearly love her music and the social and political messages in it. What art inspires you to put more back into the community?
‘Well I’m all over the place with that. It depends where I am with things. After the election I watched "Last Testament" about Tony Benn which was inspiring as he never lost hope. I needed some hope! Owen Jones is another one, he’s wonderful, I love his writing. I’ve always listened to Billy Bragg to fire me up, and me and Maxine have both just discovered Sleaford Mods, who are incredibly political and angry. It’s about being inspired to keep fighting to change things. But inspiration comes from many places for me. it doesn’t have to be overtly political. I’m inspired when I see people engaging with their communities, when I see them being creative. I saw a brilliant group of students from Bolton College performing my husband Ian Kershaw’s play, "Star Cross’d" in a church graveyard recently: a reworking of Romeo and Juliet with a muslim and a white family at the centre of it. It was a joy to see all these talented confident young people telling the story so fantastically. Every time someone writes a song, picks up a guitar, dances, acts, sings, it changes the world a bit for the better. It makes me hopeful. You have to keep hopeful that things will get better.’

Find out more about The Edge Theatre and Arts Centre, Chorlton

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