Mikron Theatre Company

Company Name: Mikron Theatre Company

Founders: Mike Lucas, Sarah Cameron, Ron Legge

Current status: Still in operation – Mikron Theatre Company

Established: 1963

Reason: To take theatre to unusual venues and new audiences outside London

Area of work: Community & Street. Mikron Theatre originally sought to produce drama documentaries about the history of the canals, adaptations of one-act Harold Pinter plays, revues and adaptations of Shakespeare plays. In 1974 they refocused their efforts to concentrate on the marginalised history of the British canal systems.

Policy: Mikron’s commitment to the preservation and visibility of the history of the canals, amongst other marginalised histories, was fundamental to the work they produced in the 70s and 80s – and still is today. In 1972 Mikron established a unique method of ensuring that remote communities situated alongside the British canal systems were able to access their work, touring by narrowboat to remote pub venues. Though Mikron never pushed a formal company policy or manifesto pertaining to their vision for society or political affiliation, their ethos, to produce theatre that is entertaining, accessible and of a political/historical nature, was (and still is) fundamental to their work. Mikron employed the use of original songwriting, live music and original storytelling to facilitate a shared of knowledge of the history and development of the canals, the individuals and communities they had been apart of, and to offer an affordable form of entertainment that resisted the exclusivity of bourgeois theatre.

Structure: Artistic Director-led, Administrator, Producer and Fundraiser; the latter role was developed in 1984. Actors were employed for the length of a tour, though this was not fixed and they could stay on, and were paid Equity minimum.They registered as a charity in 1973.

Based: London, 1963-1978. Marsden, West Yorkshire, 1978-present.

1973-1975: received donations from well-wishers, including Lord Montagu who is now a patron of Mikron, and some small grants from regional arts associations
1975-1984: received an annual grant from the Arts Council, and continued to receive support from Kirklees Council after their Arts Council grant was suspended in 1984
1984-1985: received grants from West Yorkshire County Council and raised some funds through public appeals
1986-present day: have received sponsorship from local and national businesses, local authorities and regional arts councils, and they established a ‘Friends of Mikron’ donation scheme and continue to benefit from patronage

Performance venues: In 1963 Mikron’s first production The Bubonic Plague Show, a satire about the danger of germ warfare, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival after performing at John Arden and Margaret De Arcy’s arts festival in Kirbymoorside. From their first lunchtime shows at the Kings Head, a newly opened pub theatre in Islington, a festival in Little Venice, National Waterways Rallies, to school venues in Hemel Hempstead Mikron have performed in non-traditional venues. In their early tours they booked village halls in remote areas, working on the assumption that these venues would be at the heart of the community and well placed to attract new audiences, they soon realised that the real heart of the community was the village pub. As a result, in 1973 Mikron made it their policy to book canal and riverside pubs as their main venues. They toured nationally in a variety of alternative venues throughout their time including pubs, village halls, festivals, houses, grass verges and tunnels situated alongside the British waterways, and later, internationally in Belgium and France. In pub venues they performed in close proximity to the audience with no off-stage area. In outdoor venues they performed on grass verges, marquees and in 1986 they even performed The British Amazon and Just the Job on the decks of the péniche Peterborough in Belgium. They transported set, costumes and cast by narrowboat – and when weather did not permit this they traveled via van or car. They never cancelled a performance even in extreme weather conditions or times of personal injury or loss.

Audiences: From their inception Mikron has attracted a loyal regional audience during their annual tours. Their audiences have varied from ex-boating people to lower and middle class people living in remote communities, through to school children and people interested in cultural heritage. In taking theatre to new audiences outside London, Mikron has entertained generations of families and communities throughout Yorkshire and beyond.

More images can be found on Mike Lucas’ web page.

Company work and process:

Between 1972-1986, Mikron’s creative process was spearheaded by Mike Lucas, involving a period of original research followed by editing of the material for inclusion in the scripts. This process would often be completed within 2-4 weeks. The methodology for the research phase was steered by the availability of relevant resources and/or people. For example: material for I’d Go Back Tomorrow was largely informed by the lives of ex-boatmen and women whom Mike and Sarah Lucas had befriended during their time touring the waterways; Mud in Your Eye was informed by the experiences of the Waterways Recovery Group; Puddle It was largely informed by Anthony Burton’s 1972 historical account of the fight to build canals in Britain, The Canal Builders. Original songwriting played a large role in the work too, though occasionally devised by participants of the research period as with the song I am a boating man written by ex-boatman John Saxon for I’d Go Back Tomorrow, they were typically written by Mike (or other company members) until Jim Woodland began writing songs with Mikron in 1988.

The nature of the venues, often pub’s and canal side grass verges, and their mode of transport naturally informed the construction of minimalistic sets and small casts playing multiple roles. The set was comprised of a 6ft x 8ft screen for actors to change behind, though they would often change onstage. Thus space, or the lack thereof, would demand a disciplined approach from actors with respect to stage direction and intimate interactions with the audience. The transport and storage of the set, props and musical instruments had to be carefully coordinated; everything had a particular place on the narrowboat – also home to the company during tours.

Shows were often directed by Mike, who also performed, until 1986 when he took over the administration of the company in addition to his Artistic Director role. Prior to 1986 Sarah Lucas coordinated the administration of the company, organising bookings and press appearances with little more than a wooden stool and cigarette for company in her office, and a nearby phone booth in the early days. Sarah played an important role in building relationships with venues. She was also vital in the day-to-day running of the company, including the payment of staff wages – often at the expense of receiving her own wage.

In bringing to the fore the marginalised history of the canals, the impact of progress in transport on the communities of Yorkshire, they have supported the work of the Waterway Recovery Group, the National Waterways Rally  and the Inland Waterways Association. Mikron survived the deterioration of the canals in the 1970s, brutal Arts Council funding cuts in the 1980s and the challenges of touring via narrowboat with cast, crew and family on board. Since their move to Marsden in 1978 they have curated local exhibitions, supported the development of activities at the Marsden Mechanics community hall, established the Mikron Youth & Community Theatre and Marsden Jazz Festival – amongst other community projects. In 2011 it was estimated that Mikron had written 49 original shows, composed and written 294 original songs, supported over 210 actor/musician contracts, performed over 4,250 times to 300,000 people, and spent 22,000 hours boating on the inland waterways.

Personal appraisal & thoughts:
For audio extracts from Mike Lucas reflecting on his time with Mikron click here.

In the early days Mikron enjoyed publicity from the Daily Telegraph, London Weekend’s arts programme Aquarius, three feature length documentaries including Narrowboat in Still Waters (1973) and Still Carrying On (1983), a piece for the BBC’s popular programme Blue Peter (1975), Omnibus, the Today Programme and PM at 5pm – amongst others. Most of the reviews quoted below can be found in Mike Lucas’ book I’d Go Back Tomorrow and reviews for their most recent productions can be found online here.
‘A group of attractive young people have put together Still Waters…it is a cheerful somewhat hobbledehoy piece of work but it chronicles interestingly enough the story of the canal boom in 18th century and the inevitable decline as railways took over.’ (Daily Telegraph, 1972)
Keep Yer ‘ands Off
‘Some segments of the production were positively brilliant’. On the release of their third album in 1981, Waterways World described it as: ‘… a fine recording of a memorable and frequently moving show, one of Mikron’s best… Musical accompaniment throughout is by the ever versatile members of of the company performing on guitars, banjos, harmonica, mandolin and even a penny whistle and spoons.’ (Banbury Guardian, 1974)
From Where I Stand
‘…touching, comical and magical.’ (The Halifax Courier, 1983)

With their Arts Council grant about to be cut at the end of 1984 reviews and support for Mikron came thick and fast, further reviews on this theme can be found here: Mikron reviews continued.

Productions: [table id=36 /]

Additional information about Mikron’s productions between 1972 and 2016 can be found: Mikron Theatre 1972-2016

Interviewee reference: Mike Lucas and Anne Engel

Links: Mikron Theatre Company Website, Facebook, Twitter. I’d Go Back Tomorrow by Mike Lucas.
It’s The Narrow Boat Show (HTV,1977)
The Mikron Archive is now placed at Archive Centre, Heritage Quay, Huddersfield University

Existing archive material: Mike Lucas is currently investigating suitable venues to house his extensive archive material some of which is accessible via Mikron Archive Material. Please put requests for viewing original archive material in writing via post to: Mikron Theatre Company, Marsden Mechanics, Peel Street, Marsden, Huddersfield, HD7 6BW, or email admin@mikron.org.uk

I’d Go Back Tomorrow by Mike Lucas (Staffordshire: Waygoose 2001)

Acknowledgements: This webpage was constructed by Emma Jackson (Unfinished Histories) with the help of Dr Jo Stanley (Oral Historian and principal interviewer for the Mike Lucas interview), Mike Lucas (Mikron Theatre Company founder 1963-2011), Alistair Macdonald (Film Director for Mike Lucas interview and associate of Mikron Theatre Company), Marianne McNamara (Mikron Theatre Company Artistic Director 2003-present). November 2013

The creation of this page by was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.