Strokes of Genius

Special Features   Strokes of Genius
 
In The Pitmen Painters, Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall tells the true story of British miners who became art world sensations.

Michael Hodgson, Christopher Connel, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker and Brian Lonsdale in The Pitmen Painters.
Michael Hodgson, Christopher Connel, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker and Brian Lonsdale in The Pitmen Painters. Photo by Keith Pattison

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Nestled in a small town in northern England, hours away from the hustle and bustle of London, is the once-booming coal site of Woodhorn. A museum there houses paintings that tell the history of a people that — like the mine — have gone extinct.

The Pitmen Painters, written by Billy Elliot Tony Award winner Lee Hall, tells the true story of a group of miners from the 1930s who became nationally renowned artists in Britain.

Hall now sees his critically acclaimed and award-winning U.K. play on Broadway, featuring original cast members, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

He says he was inspired to write The Pitmen Painters after stumbling upon a history book in a used bookshop in London. "I originally thought, 'This is a really odd combination — miners [being] artists.' I read the first chapter of the book and I immediately knew it was going to be my next play," Hall said during a recent visit to Newcastle upon Tyne — a metropolis minutes away from where the paintings are currently on display.

"This play is about a group of miners who hired a professor from a local university to teach them art history. Because they had never seen any actual paintings before, the professor gives them exercises and they start to become artists themselves," Hall said. "Within a year they start having exhibitions in London, but they remain working miners. Every day they [pull] nine-hour shifts hauling coal out of the ground, but then come up and paint these fantastic paintings."

Hall, who has garnered much success with both the film and musical versions of Billy Elliot, sees his latest project as a sort of prequel to Billy — the story of the young danseur's grandfather.

The Pitmen Painters had its world premiere in 2007 at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, in northeast England — the area where the actual paintings were created, where Billy Elliot is set and where Hall grew up. The playwright explained the common thread: "Like [Billy and Pitmen], art really changed my life. It transformed it. I think it's something that I really wanted to explore...an autobiographical way of saying how difficult it is for a lot of people. A lot of people are excluded from art by class... but there are opportunities that people [still can] have."

Hall added, "The story of what's happening to communities and how they change things collectively or challenge things collectively, [but find] some redemption from chaos, is a very contemporary theme."

Frank DiLella is the theatre producer for NY1 News.

Oliver Kilbourn's "My Life as a Pitman," one of the real Pitmen paintings.
Oliver Kilbourn's "My Life as a Pitman," one of the real Pitmen paintings. Photo by Ashington Group Trustees. Used by permission.
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