The 56 – how and why FYSA Theatre decided to shine a light on a real-life tragedy

A blog by Matt Woodhead, Artistic Director of FYSA Theatre & Gemma Wilson, Co-Creator of The 56

‘There shouldn’t be a sporting occasion, a theatrical occasion, any occasion where people don’t come back home ever.’ These words are taken from the testimony of a man who was at such an occasion. On May 11th 1985, 56 people who went to watch the football at Bradford City Valley Parade would never come back home.

Although the Bradford City Fire is a significant event in the cities recent history, Bradford is a city that keeps its grief to itself. My colleague Gemma Wilson, Bradford resident and co-creator of ‘The 56’, grew up going to matches in the rebuilt stadium where references to the fire were understated – there is an annual memorial service held in Centenary Square in town, a minute of silence at the last game of the season and a 30 second clip on BBC Look North – but publically that seemed to be all.

Gemma and I went to The Bradford City Fire Memorial Service last year. After realising we were two of the youngest people there we began wondering how the disaster would be remembered by a younger generation of football fans. We had just graduated Sheffield University and our Verbatim Theatre Company, FYSA, was beginning to take off. The aim of our company is to make theatre for communities by communities and here we found a community whose story had been buried under the weight of a collective silent grief and heaps of Yorkshire pride.

The thought of representing the stories of survivors in a piece of theatre was daunting. Not only were they twice or sometimes three times our age, but they were all living with memories that are as raw and horrible today as they were thirty years ago. People were, understandably, reticent at the beginning of the process to trust a young theatre company with their stories. However, as we began to build links in the community word began to travel until, eventually, we ended up with interviews from over sixty policemen, firefighters, footballers and football supporters. Their stories were all united by a collective desire to contribute to some sort of legacy.

We have distilled the stories into three characters who act as a mouthpiece for the sixty people we met. In the show the cast simply and honestly recount first-hand experiences from the day: the bald man who initially felt the fire as heat on his scalp before seeing it; the policeman whose hair spontaneously ignited; the supporters helping each other climb the six foot wall from the paddock and onto the pitch; the sight of a man total enwrapped in flames.

At first it felt strange bringing theatre and football together as they are unlikely brothers. But throughout this process we have discovered their strong similarity: they both provide a shared unifying space for a community to come together. For me, the most poignant moment of working on this show was staging the play in the rebuilt main stand at Valley Parade to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fire. I also take great pride in the fact we have managed to raise over £3,000 through ticket sales and donations for the University of Bradford’s Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit.

Some families lost two or three generations in the fire. Many described the aftermath as a ‘city in mourning.’ But from grassroots funding initiatives to the Bradford City Football team’s decision to attend all 56 funerals, a theme that resonates is that the community pulled together. This, ultimately, is what the play ‘The 56’ is about: recovery, rather than tragedy; love, rather than loss.

We are very excited to be performing the show at Battersea Arts Centre in London to conclude our year-long National Tour.

The 56 was developed with The Lowry and The Civic in Barnsley and runs from 1-7 Oct at Battersea Arts CentreE15 will play at Battersea Arts Centre in the spring 2016.

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