Jo Carrick: 'Theatre is everything to me'
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Jo Carrick was born into the theatre.
Her first appearance in the world was announced to a packed house from the stage of a festive pantomime performance of Mother Goose; her earliest memories are of rehearsal rooms and actors.
At the time of her birth, her father, the TV actor Antony Carrick, was artistic director at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, and the subsequent review of the panto in the local newspaper even mentioned the timely arrival, referring to her as ‘the Queen’s baby.’
And from that moment, theatre has been her lifetime’s work.
Jo, who is the artistic director of Ipswich-based theatre company Red Rose Chain, says she was fortunate to have been introduced to world of theatre at such a young age.
“Theatre was everything to me. I didn’t ever want to do anything else and as a young person, that was my vocation.
“But it was only when I was older and started to put things into practice that I found new ways of doing things and creating in innovative new ways.”
Her family moved to Suffolk when she was seven and initially lived at Pin Mill before settling in Ipswich.
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It is that landscape, and its history, that has shaped her writing, acting and directing.
Later, she studied English at Cambridge University and went to drama school, as she created her own path in the performance arts.
Her father, who turned 90 on February 16, went on to appear in numerous well-known TV productions ranging from Morse to Kavanagh QC and Yes, Prime Minister, while her mum Julie taught drama and speech.
Red Rose Chain is based in the Tudor manor house of Gippeswyk Hall in Ipswich, where a £1m Heritage Lottery Fund grant has enabled the addition of The Avenue Theatre as a “rehearsal, incubator, and performance space”, and also be home for the company’s extensive community work.
Jo, who has a multi-faceted remit that embraces playwright, actress, theatre director and film-maker, explains: “What is unique about Red Rose Chain is that we are a professional company that does a huge amount of community work, particularly with marginalised groups.
“Our professional actors work with our participants and they all learn from each other. We do not see it as a hierarchy and our participants have an amazing experience learning from professional actors, who love working with the participants too.
“It is an exciting incubator for new ideas and talent and we are also bringing the arts to people who would not usually enjoy and experience them.”
The company, formed in the 1990s, is renowned for Theatre in the Forest, the popular outdoor Shakespeare event which has been running for 20 years. Initially at Rendlesham before moving to Jimmy’s Farm, it moved this year to the world-famous Anglos Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo, where it will stage a production of Macbeth (July 27 to August 20).
“While the outward facing part of my job is to direct the theatre work and make it accessible, exciting and innovative and to engage our very diverse audience, a huge part of that is the community work as well.
“That involves being in the rehearsal room with professional actors and our participants, driving strategy of where we are heading as a company, how to reach people and engage more of our community, and what we are going to schedule. This is all a day-to-day activity for me.”
Writing for Jo, however, began out of necessity. When the company first staged Theatre in the Forest at Rendlesham Forest and wanted to create a piece about the suspected UFO incident there, it found that no such play existed about the events of late December 1980.
“So, I needed to put something down on paper and that is how I started to write and it developed from there,” says Jo.
Having then penned a play about Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist who campaigned against the slave trade, she was inspired to write more historical plays.
Her most recent, a new play written during lockdown about Matthew Hopkins and the witch trials, will be produced next year.
Entranced by the legend that the heart of Anne Boleyn is buried in the church near Erwarton Hall, where the second wife of Henry VIII visited her aunt and uncle as a child, she went on to develop that connection to write Fallen in Love.
It explores the relationship between Anne and her brother George and how they began to “fuel each other’s ambition”, before the accusation of an incestuous relationship led eventually to her execution.
This project involved working with women recovering from drug addiction and coming away from street prostitution in the wake of the Ipswich murders.
“They were fascinated by the story and as well as me writing my play, they also created their own play which was a parallel story based on the Anne Boleyn-Henry VIII dynamic,” she added.
Fallen in Love was well received in Ipswich and was later performed at the Tower of London, the place where Anne Boleyn was imprisoned and ultimately died.
Red Rose Chain has always been independent, with funding from multiple streams, including donations and grants, but ticket sale remains a core element of its income.
“We have a really loyal following,” Jo says. “Over the pandemic we created digital products which our audience bought into. In the first year, we did Theatre in the Forest ‘at home.’ When people could not come out, 5,000 joined us on the first night and we raised £25,000 towards our community work.”
The theatre also benefited from cultural regeneration funding throughout the pandemic, and has Arts Council and Heritage Lottery support, with the Big Lottery Fund backing the community work.
The name Red Rose Chain originates from a lesser-known quote from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, about Venus (the God of Love) wrapping the God of War in a ‘red-rose chain’.
“For me,” explains Jo, “Red Rose Chain is kind of my life’s work and I started it quite soon after university.”
Following her acting studies at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the company evolved into a full-time enterprise.
Over the years, it has provided employment opportunities to freelancers and brought theatre to people who “would not necessarily experience it.”
“That has been the mission, but why it started was because I was not prepared to be an actor that sits around waiting for the phone to ring but wanting to create work and be the generating source of opportunities, which has been a very exciting journey.”
During her career, Jo has also acted in various TV productions, including Casualty, and touring stage productions.
“One show I was in that was really influential on me was a play about schizophrenia,” she recalls. “That was an example of how to use theatre to explore issues, which is something I have done for years now.”
That approach has seen her and the company working with young people in care, those with learning difficulties, prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts and creating educational projects across all sectors of the community.
“I am passionate about working with people who are really hard to reach,” said Jo.
The work with prisoners, often those serving long jail terms in Norwich, Whitemoor and Warren Hill prisons, continued during the pandemic with inmates writing plays and sending them to her.
“We are now working with some of those prisoners as they are released and creating new projects to help them with that difficult transition.”
Red Rose Chain runs three community companies: Avenue Community Theatre (ACT), which includes adults with disabilities, learning difficulties and those struggling with mental health and addiction; youth theatre, The Chainers, for young people aged 11 to 18 that develops their skills and confidence through performance; and The Gold Chainers, a group of young people with learning difficulties.
The Gold Chainers were at the dress rehearsal stage of a production called The Nightingale when the pandemic lockdown caused it to be postponed, but it will be staged at the earliest opportunity.
“These young people will also be performing for audiences of young people with learning difficulties and their parents, families, carers and their teachers and setting the record straight about how much they can offer as actors.”
Meanwhile, The Chainers are currently staging a show called Outcast, which is based on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Written during lockdown via Zoom, there are performances at The Avenue Theatre tonight and on March 4 and 5.
Giving a voice
Red Rose Chain is “passionate about raising aspirations” for people to realise how much they as performers have to offer.
Jo says: “This idea of taking people who are usually not listened to and creating work that gives them a voice, and being really exacting about the standard we have for that work so that it is superb and represents them properly, is something we believe in.”
For Jo and the team at Red Rose Chain, high points come in the form and seeing milestones in the progression of groups and individuals.
“It is that moment when you have a participant who has not found their voice and then they do,” she says.
She points to a prisoner who had barely spoken to anyone for a decade but through the drama project began to communicate with others, and form friendships, and then go on to play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, while a member of The Gold Chainers group, who rarely spoke, has become an eloquent young woman.
“We have been able to unlock her voice."
In another success, a film called Moving on Up, made with people in care, went to the Los Angeles Film Festival and won an award at Newport Beach but a production of Jo’s that stands out for her is “Put Out the Lights.”
It tells to the story of Alice Driver, a farmer’s daughter from Grundisburgh, and one of the Ipswich martyrs burned at the stake at the Cornhill in Ipswich for their Protestant beliefs during the reign of Queen Mary.
“For me, writing a story like that about somebody who people do not know about but was willing to die for her beliefs, and giving a voice to her, is the highlight.”
For the future, the move to Sutton Hoo is the major innovation but there are ambitions too to further develop Red Rose Chain’s community work, create new groups and attract more recruits.
“We want to give opportunities to people who do not usually have opportunities. “We are also looking at how our disabled young people can work at a higher level so that doors can be opened to them for professional opportunities; we want to put those participants at the centre of what we do going forward.”
As with all theatre organisations, lockdown was particularly challenging, but Red Rose Chain persevered with innovative ways to continue to bring performers and audiences together.
“We are a small team and hardly did any furloughing,” she says. “We decided that this was not the time to stop, it was the time to really keep on pedalling.”
Using experience of film-making and technical expertise, they created shows on green screens that were sent to actor’s houses along with costumes.
“This is how we made Twelfth Night. Each actor would act their parts in their home and send the tapes into us and we matched them together. It sounds impossible but we also did the same with Alice in Wonderland the following Christmas.”
Community director Katie Frost created backgrounds while David Newborn, the company’s producer – and Jo’s husband – edited the green screen productions.
“We decided we wanted to give everybody a go,” she says. “All our freelancers have been having such a difficult time, so we had over 20 actors in that show with green screens in all their different houses.”
Today, Blythburgh is home with husband David, who she met at drama school, and their son Ted, who is 17, doing A-levels and appearing in Outcast.
Jo, who enjoys exercise and swimming, is currently looking to develop her TV writing.
She has spent most of her life around Suffolk but does have an Italian heritage.
“My mum was from Little Italy in London and I have some Italian ancestors and want to find out more about them,” added Jo.
“I have spent quite a lot of time in Italy but I love Suffolk, though there are probably too many ghosts for me here, living where I had grown up, because behind every corner is a memory but that is what it is; it is a beautiful place.”