A caterer, a coffee roaster, an imam and a former drug dealer were among the first to show up at Leeds Playhouse on Thursday. On Saturday, they will be joined by fellow workers of the world including a midwife, a dog groomer, a bricklayer and an astrophysicist.
The somewhat mind-bending gathering was taking place in preparation for a 12-hour arts event that could be described as an epic documentary theatre performance. Or a live exhibition of people.
At the heart of it is work. What people do for a living, whether it is helping deliver life or building a wall. “So many people are really unaware of how remarkable the ways they spend their time are,” said Richard Gregory, a co-artistic director of the company behind the event, Manchester-based Quarantine.
The seeds of the project were sewn in the autumn of 2019, Gregory said. “It was peak Donald Trump time when all the messaging was about having very limited views of who society should involve and embrace and invite in.”
Then came the pandemic, which prompted so many people to question the lives they were living. “Like others I sat down and started thinking: why do I still do my work, 40 years on … does it contribute anything to the world?”
Originally conceived as a 90-minute touring show, the concept has morphed into a 12-hour experience, getting its world premiere in Leeds on Saturday, starting at noon and ending at midnight.
Audiences might see participants answering questions: 670 of them have been compiled, ranging from the straightforward “What do you?” and “Where have you travelled from?” to “How much would you spend on a new pair of shoes?” and “Do you know how much your parents earned?”
Other participants will be doing things. A painter and decorator will spend up to nine hours wallpapering walls. There will be presentations, such as the midwife explaining about a baby passing through the birth canal. A cook will prepare dinner to share with the audience. The astrophysicist will talk about stars. “It is a form of mass portraiture really,” said Gregory.
There will be banal moments and, organisers hope, ones of real excitement. “We had some amazing moments in rehearsal where we were bowled over by the extraordinariness of people and their lives. Particularly when you talk to people about their work.”
Jean Armstrong, who owns Shiloh coffee roasters with her husband, Mark, will be roasting beans and serving coffee and talking about her work. “I love talking to people about coffee and what we are all about, especially the ethical side,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
Kev Devonport, 49, from Leeds, is today an artist but was a drug dealer, spending a big chunk of his life in jail as a result. He will be there on Saturday talking about his life, and hopes it will encourage others.
Art had helped to change his life, he said. “It’s not been easy. I’ve really had to swim against the tide. You go from one world where you are accepted and trusted, the criminal world, to a world where people don’t trust you and they just spew you back out.”
Most of the audience probably won’t stay for the whole performance, although they can if they want. “You can absolutely make sense of the project if you want to drop in,” said Gregory. The expectation is that some people might come in for a while, leave and do their shopping, and dip back in.
Amy Letman, the creative director of the Leeds international performance festival Transform, said she would happily be there for the duration. “I did initially think ‘wow, 12 hours’ but I went to the three open rehearsals in Manchester and you just can’t leave, they draw you in. It is about celebrating the extraordinary in everybody.”
12 Last Songs, part of Transform, is at Leeds Playhouse on Saturday.