Why playwright Chris is glad to be back home

Playwright Chris York returns to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre for his new work
Playwright Chris York returns to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre for his new work

From kicking a football round with his mates in Manor Road park to having his name in lights above the Stephen Joseph Theatre – it is all so refreshingly natural for Chris York.

There is nothing theatrical or precocious about the Scarborough-born lad who spent his teenage years playing football, computer games, getting into trouble and blagging his way into bars.

Chris York and his leading lady Serena Manteghi

Chris York and his leading lady Serena Manteghi

“I always did well at school but the minute we got out of the gates ...

“I would finish my work and to avoid any hassle I would pass my book round the class so my mates could copy my work and it would be finished.

“When I was 10 I wrote and directed plays for school 
assembly and teachers would say ‘you should go to Rounders or the YMCA’ but I didn’t want to do it. Because of the friends I had and the kind of boy I was I was always up against it,” said Chris. “Even in the 1990s being in the theatre was considered effeminate.”

Chris went to Childhaven, Gladstone Road School and Sixth Form College, where he took A-levels in art, English and drama. “Even in my late teens I did not do drama outside of college.”

Build A Rocket runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from August 31 to September 8

Build A Rocket runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from August 31 to September 8

In fact he was 20 – acting in Lorca is Dead at York Theatre Royal – when he first realised he could make a living at acting and writing.

After Sixth Form College, Chris went to the University of York where he got involved in covering sport for the uni’s newspaper and commenting on Scarborough FC for its radio station – and on his way to being a sports commentator.

He found himself in a play due to “comedy stuff I was doing” and then his first play 
Ta-ra Luv, set in Scarborough, was put on in York.

Once he realised he could earn a living in the theatre – and still have mates – he studied at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

His short plays Jimbob, Seven People, A Million Little Hands and Jesus is a Rochdale Girl have been performed at venues such as the Arcola, Southwark Playhouse and the Arts Theatre.

He is a recipient of the High Tide First Commissions Award as well as being shortlisted for the Old Vic 12.

As part of his time in Scarborough with his latest play Build a Rocket he has done workshops with Rounders – the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s acting group for young people.

“I said: ‘I cannot tell you how jealous I am that you get to do this as young people’ – when I think of the years I missed out on not doing theatre...”

Still, it’s not working out too shabby. Build a Rocket is at the Edinburgh Fringe until August 27 – the first time the Stephen Joseph has been represented at the arts festival.

It stars Serena Manteghi as Yasmin – a teenager who copes with pregnancy, child-birth and motherhood as a single woman.

The story is partly inspired by the statistic that Scarborough is the teenage pregnancy capital of the north.

It also takes its lead from personal experience.

“There was a girl I was at school with who had a child at 15. I was astounded at her resilience and that she went on to pass her GCSEs, go to college and university, get married and raise a wonderful human being. She is a phenomenal person,” he said.

“Teenage pregnancy is so demonised and we’re quick to blame teenagers.

“Kitchen sink drama is an amazing genre but I do not see how it is helpful. It is more helpful to celebrate the strength of young women who have their babies and try and bring them up to be an amazing young person.

“If someone makes the decision to keep their baby we should be working out how to support them.

“Even in 2018 we are still conservative about these topics. If we were more open and Scandinavian about how we tackled sex and sexual health, especially with young people, we may not have the statistics we do,” said Chris.

“The play is about any woman who has gone through childbirth.”

His dad, Mark, was a teenager when Chris was born and “I was definitely a mistake,” he said. His mum Helen had three more children. “As a young lad what my mum was going through stuck with me.”

When researching the play he talked to women about the emotional and physical challenges of having a child.

His grandmother thinks the language is too strong and Chris agrees but ...

“It has to be if I am going to reach the audience I want to reach. On one level it is about teenage pregnancy and motherhood but on another level it presents a protagonist that represents them, someone on stage they can identify with. It is for young women who are mothers or not, from Scarborough or not, someone they look at and see a bit of themselves in.”

For Chris that was Caroline Aherne’s Royle Family. “The first time I saw a northern family, sitting on a sofa, watching television and speaking with northern accents, I thought it was so real and funny,” he said. “We still have family ‘in-jokes’ and call mum Barbara after Sue Johnston’s character.

“Something I try to do consistently in my work is to find characters that people can identify with.”

He also likes to write parts, like women, he would never get to play. “It is way more exciting.” Acting or directing? “They are similar jobs. The job is telling stories, the difference is whether you are building the guitar or playing it.”

While in Scarborough for the play’s run at the Stephen Joseph, he is staying with his dad who was a sales rep for Dennis Printworks until it closed down. “We used to have naughty seaside postcards in the house which explains some of the play’s humour,” said Chris. Of course, he is catching up with his mum, who is a carer, and brothers James, Simon and Thomas.

Chris has lived in London for seven years and is enjoying being back in the town. “When I was a kid, I hated that time between October and May when the town closed down. When I left for university I was so ready to be out of here.”

His favourite places were Manor Road park and his best mate Jake Watson’s house in the Manor Road area of town. He has been friends with Jake, who is working away, since he was five and Jake’s parents Barrie and Caroline have tickets for Build a Rocket.

He and his friends also went to bars on ‘the Strip’ (St Nicholas Street where The Scarborough Flyer and Sanctuary are), Vivaz and Studio 1. “I had two mates who had birthdays around the same time (September) as mine and our mums hired Studio 1 for our eighteenths. We also went to Monday Club at Vivaz, which made college on Tuesdays really hard.”

He is now into long distance running and his favourite route is along Marine Drive and up to Scalby Mills.

“Each time I come back home there is a new coffee shop, a renovation here, there is the beach and on the other side the moors, Raincliffe woods, Peasholm Park ... Scarborough is a beautiful place.

“When I talk to people who come here and spend time here, they say the same thing.

“Getting to work at this theatre and have my name on a poster is amazing. The theatre has had a new lease of life over the past few years and to be part of the renaissance is incredible.”

His old school mates are impressed, too. “I have a character in the play called Nicky from Tindall Street. I hung around with Nicky from being five to 15. He messaged me to say how thrilled he was for me. That feels amazing.”