While theatres remain closed due to Covid 19 – Sunderland academics alongside a renowned regional stage director have devised an online learning opportunity offering students access to some of the UK’s leading playwrights.

Each year, a collaboration between Newcastle’s Live Theatre and second year University of Sunderland students offers access to the venue and interviews with actors and writers as part of their Performing Arts degree.

However, because of the impact of coronavirus, the module is moving online and has so far secured the support of playwrights Lee Hall, Willy Russell, Shelagh Stephenson and actor Brian Lonsdale (The Pitmen Painters and My Romantic History) – all will be working directly with the students next term through online live interviews.

Dr Adelle Hulsmeier, Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts and Programme Leader for Screen Performance, is working in partnership with the Live Theatre and its Emeritus Associate Director Max Roberts, also a Visiting Professor of Theatre Studies at the University, taking the initiative with digital theatre and continuing to enhance the student learning experience by moving the ‘Page to Stage’ module online.

Adelle explained: “Working out alternative delivery for any module is not easy, so we are extremely excited that not only are we able to offer the students something close to original delivery but we are able to actually go beyond this in engaging such prestigious industry figures to influence and underpin the work.

“We have always had such a great relationship with Max Roberts and Live Theatre, and the care and attention they provide to the student’s learning is tantamount to how successful our residency with Live Theatre has been.

“Max is offering the students such a great and bespoke experience and I know the involvement of such developed playwrights will be a real benefit to the student’s learning and the programme as a whole. We are so excited to get started!”

Max added: “I’m delighted to confirm that Willy Russell, Lee Hall and Shelagh Stephenson have agreed to make a contribution to the BA (hons) Performing Arts course this coming Autumn.

“Their vast experience and outstanding achievements in writing for stage and screen will provide a unique and valuable insight into the Industry and give an unprecedented profile to our work at the University of Sunderland.

“Joining them for the special online live interviews will be Olivier Hannah and Elijah Young, two young and fast developing writing talents currently under commission from Live Theatre.

“Their contemporary sensibilities will bring great diversity to our season of guest interviews and I believe our students will find an immediate identification with these younger talented writers who have recently entered the profession.”

Adding their voices, Willy Russell, best known for Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Educating Rita which Max recently directed for its 40th Anniversary National tour,  said: “I’m delighted and more than happy to contribute to the University’s series of guest interviews and look forward to it. It’s an impressive list of writers.”

Lee Hall, known for the 2000 film Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters directed by Max, Network and the recent screenplay for Rocket Man, said: “It’s brilliant that you have put together such an interesting group of writers to talk to your students.

“I’m especially delighted that Elijah Young and Olivier Hannah are included, who represent Live Theatre’s commitment to supporting younger and emerging writers.”

Shelagh Stephenson, the actress and writer known for Memory of Water’ Oliver Award winning best play, Five Kinds of Silence, and for Live Theatre’s A Northern Odyssey and Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing directed by Max, said: “I’m very happy to contribute to the project and look forward to it and being involved with the young creatives who can map the future.”

Max Roberts has directed many plays at Live Theatre which has earned a national and international reputation as a Centre of new writing for the stage.

They include The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, which was also staged in New York and at the National Theatre before embarking on a UK tour, Wet House by Paddy Campbell and Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing by Shelagh Stephenson.