Centre Stage: photo exhibition at The Lowry puts theatre critic in the spotlight

Kevin Bourke

An art show at The Lowry turns the tables on gallery goers – and puts them in the frame.

As a theatre and arts reviewer throughout my working life, I must have been to The Lowry hundreds of times since it opened in April 2000 and immediately, in my view, reinvigorated the whole of Manchester’s arts scene. But it was something of a “poacher turned gamekeeper” moment to be approached by the organisation and asked not to write about an upcoming exhibition but to take part in it. It wasn’t just me who was asked, of course, but many other theatre and gallery goers too, who were then either photographed or filmed for Centre Stage: Portraits of a Lowry Audience, an exhibition that sets out to show “how a love of the arts can be life-changing”.

Documentary photographer Katherine Green and filmmaker Hilary Easter-Jones were charged with turning their cameras on the audience, the idea being to reveal “how the arts has the power to bring people together, offer them the freedom to express themselves and provide inspiration” through their images. Kate Farrell, the exhibition curator, reflects that Centre Stage represents “a unique opportunity for us to work with and get to know some of our audience members, placing them at the heart of the artistic programme.”

For London-based Katherine Green, the commission was completely at odds with her normal line of work. The photographer, whose images were most recently seen in the Olympics-inspired Road to 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery, can usually be found taking pictures of marginalized or under-threat communities. For her, however, The Lowry commission wasn’t such a stretch. “Living and working in London, where theatre tickets are expensive, I was immediately struck by how accessible The Lowry was for so many different people,” she says.

“I wanted to capture people’s stories in the place where I found them”

And so it is that her subjects span cultural and social divides, such as the ballet dancer forced to flee Iran who now watches ballet at The Lowry with her partner, who happens to be one of the founders of the Iranian National Ballet. “I wanted to photograph people within the familiar surroundings of their homes and to show how diverse the audience was, regardless of their background or finances,” says Green. “So I looked for a method of treating every audience member equally. Using spotlights for the first time in this kind of work, the result has been a kind of role reversal, where the audience member is centre stage. The purposeful lighting creates a subtle sense of drama, whilst encouraging the viewer to pick up the details of the participants’ homes to give further insights into their lives.”

Like Green, filmmaker Hilary Easter-Jones was asked to pick her subjects from the crowd, approaching them as they waited to take their seats in the theatre or as they walked around the galleries. Easter-Jones knows what it’s like to be in front of the camera – she has previously toured her own one-woman show. In fact, we first met when she gave me a flyer for a show of hers at Manchester’s now-closed Greenroom theatre. For The Lowry show she chose six members of its theatre audience and filmed them in situ, hoping to “capture their stories in the place where I found them, both to put them back into context but also to try and capture an emotional response to familiar surroundings.” It is an unusual and intriguing exhibition, one that turns the tables on what we might normally expect to find at The Lowry. Of course, being part of the show itself puts a whole new slant on it – so as for what I think of it, well, who cares what a critic has to say…?

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