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Northern Art: Remembering the 56

The 56 credit Joseph Samuel Priestley

FYSA Theatre is a Yorkshire company, not just because they’re based in Sheffield, but because that’s where their productions mean the most. Formed at the University of Sheffield in 2012, they’ve taken two successful shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and produced a number of different performances in their home city.

It’s safe to say that the company has already made something of a name for itself. But their new raison d’être, according to Creative Director Matt Stevens-Woodhead, is to create theatre that matters to the communities they work with. And it’s something they’ve been working on for nearly a year.

FYSA is now midway through a national tour of the most personal project they’ve ever tackled, and one that has taken nearly 12 months to evolve into its current form. The production that’s travelled from Yorkshire to Edinburgh, and back again, is an original verbatim production entitled The 56.

On May 11 1985, a fire ripped through Bradford City Stadium during a match between Bradford and Lincoln City, killing 56 of the spectators and injuring hundreds more.

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of English football’s worst fire disaster and since last June FYSA has conducted nearly 60 interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses to the event in an effort to commemorate the victims and pass their stories onto a younger generation.

“We were overwhelmed by the amount of people who wanted to open their doors to us,” Matt told me. “I think the fact it’s verbatim theatre won a lot of people over, because we’re collecting their stories, and it’s truthful and it’s factual. The show isn’t embellished.”

The fact is that it doesn’t need to be. One of the striking things the company has discovered during the last year is quite how deeply the event still affects the people who were there.

“One man told me, after seeing our preview in Bradford, that he felt he could start to remember [the fire] now. And that’s incredible, because it is something that happened to Bradford and it’s part of a collective memory. I think the great thing about this show is that it brings that home to a whole new generation 30 years on.”

It’s true that Bradford Stadium’s fire has received far less media attention than the Hillsborough disaster, even in its anniversary year. But Matt says that, after having spoken to so many survivors and their families, this isn’t surprising.

“I think it comes down to the way Bradford’s dealt with it. It’s a credit to the city, really, that they’ve put their arms around themselves and said, ‘We’ll deal with this tragedy ourselves,’ for so long. Now though, I think people – at least the people we’ve spoken to – are ready to have their stories heard.”

But FYSA isn’t only interested in telling the survivors’ stories. In a further effort to honour the victims and their families, all profits from the show are being donated to Bradford City Hospital’s Burns Unit, which treated hundreds of casualties on the day.

To date, the company has raised £1,000, and Matt says he wants to keep the project going for as long as possible this year in an effort to raise even more.

“One thing this project’s taught me is that there’s no point in [making theatre] if there isn’t a purpose. I think if I ever run out of ideas or if it runs dry, then that’s me out.

“The great thing about this show is that it makes the tragedy into a collective memory. There’s an ownership over it there for people in Bradford, and now we get to pass it onto a younger generation, and make sure that it isn’t forgotten.”

National tour dates for The 56 can be found here.

Words: Laura Elliott.
Photo by Joseph Samuel Priestley.

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