A couple of years ago Tricia Ellis asked The Gazette to print an article appealing for local ladies over the age of 50 to join a running group.
It is fair to say that back then she didn’t have a clue it would inspire a piece of theatre that might one day, with a bit of luck, be performed in the West End.
Jog On, a musical, is the work of Cleveleys girl Stephanie Smith. It has been awarded £12,000 of Arts Council money and is being developed at a workshop this week at the Winter Gardens.
“It is so exciting to get this far with what started out as a little idea and me sitting on a bench with a pen and paper on the promenade in Cleveleys,” said Smith, a bright and bubbly 27-year-old who went to Rossall and Arnold schools before doing a masters in Theatre at the University of London.
“Whenever I tell somebody what this musical is about – a group of women from Blackpool who hit 50 and decide to run marathon – they smile and say it’s definitely the kind of thing they would come and see.
“Now we just need a producer to pick it up, invest some money, and we can get it in the theatre.”
More of that later, but let’s rewind to the start.
It was 2011 when Ellis, a medical secretary from Bispham who volunteers as a UK Athletics coach in her spare time, came up with an idea.
“I put a story in The Gazette, throwing down the gauntlet to the women of Blackpool to join my running group,” she explained.
“The idea was to run a marathon in London Olympic year, 2012, but to qualify you had to be a woman, who had never run before, and over the age of 50.
“I asked anyone interested to come to the hall at Forest Gate church and I couldn’t believe it when I arrived that first night and found 37 women there.”
What happened next was rather inspirational. They began training four times a week and, after a few drop outs, a group of 25 women – nicknamed The Goalden Girls – completed the 2012 Edinburgh Marathon.
“We wanted to do London but we couldn’t all get in, and it had to be all of us running or none at all,” explained Ellis.
The group raised £30,000 for various Fylde coast charities and won Sports Team of the Year for Blackpool. Ellis herself was awarded the Spirit of Lancashire Unsung Hero award.
And that would have been that. However, among the group of veteran female runners, was Michelle Smith, fairly well known in these parts for her work at Blackpool Carers Centre. And it just so happened that her daughter found the story interesting.
“We were travelling back from London on the train one day after an event and Michelle said to me ‘my daughter is a writer and she wants to do a story about this’. She asked if I’d come and chat to her,” said Ellis.
“Stephanie was a lovely girl and she spoke to me for four hours, asking why I did it, how it felt, what it was like to organise and motivate a group of 25 strong, professional women.
“I thought nothing would come of it if I’m being honest, and here we are now – she has written a musical.
“My two passions in life are running and musical theatre and they’ve been brought together by Stephanie.
“We can’t wait till it gets to the theatre now. We’ve all got our frocks ready for the opening night!”
That might be some time off yet. There are more funds required, the script and songs are still being fine-tuned, it needs someone within the theatre world to pick it up and, so to speak, run with it.
But this is one of those feel-good stories, like Calendar Girls, that has a real chance of becoming a hit.
And, importantly, it is moving closer towards becoming a bona fide production rather than just a pipe dream.
The £12,000 Arts Council grant has enabled Stephanie to do a two-week workshop with professional actors and a director. The first week was in the Barbara Jackson’s Theatre Arts Centre at Farmer Parr’s in Fleetwood, and this week Stephanie and her team are at the Winter Gardens.
“These two weeks are about experimenting with the script and trying different things because certain scenes work better than you expect and others don’t work at all,” explained Stephanie.
“It is great for me because it is all about fine-tuning what we’ve done so far and trying to improve it. With the money we’ve been able to hire proper actors, so we’ve got the likes of Pauline Fleming (Mike Baldwin’s girlfriend, Penny King, in Corrie) and Andrew Secombe, who is the son of Harry.
“I’m based in London now but I’m really pleased we’re having the workshops in Blackpool because Jog On is a Blackpool story, celebrating a group of women who did something really cool.”
For those who want to see where the musical is at, a free showcase of songs and scenes will be performed in the Winter Gardens’ Derham Lounge at 6pm on Friday. Anyone interested is invited to go along.
“I hope people turn up to have a look at what we are doing because I want to get as much feedback from locals as possible,” Stephanie added.
“We want this to be something that people in the town are proud of, and something that is as shared and as open as possible.
“I am really proud of where I come from and I see this as a musical for the whole of Blackpool.”
The rehearsals were in full swing when I visited, with the cast running through Stephanie’s words and lyrics and bringing them to life.
Fleming, who has also been in Brookside and Emmerdale and is playing the part of Tricia Ellis during the workshops, spoke highly about the musical’s young writer.
“Stephanie seems a lovely girl but what I really like about her is that she isn’t precious about things, so you can discuss the script and how we can change bits,” she said.
“That’s not always the case - I’ve worked with writers in the past where they won’t change a single word because they’re so precious about what they’ve written. Steph actively encourages it, which is good.”
I asked Fleming if she felt Jog On had the potential to become a hit.
“In a word, yes,” she replied. “It is a feel-good piece, like Calendar Girls or The Vagina Monologues.
“Some people might say that genre is exhausted. But I think when there is a visual, and in this case it is the jogging, it really inspires people and catches the imagination.
“It has got every chance of one day being a success and I wish her all the best with it. It’s lovely to be involved right at the start.”
Whatever happens this fortnight though, it is the next stage that is likely to be most crucial.
“After this we will do a single showcase and invite as many people within the theatre world to see it, in a bid to get someone to financially back the show,” said Stephanie.
“The producer we’ve got at moment has got us the Arts Council funding, but to get further we really need a big commercial producer to back it, so fingers crossed.”
She’s an impressive woman is Stephanie Smith. Clever, ambitious and talented.
But there’s just one question that remains. Being the author of a musical called Jog On, does she practice what she preaches and pace the streets herself?
She laughs. “The chances of me running a marathon are non-existent. It is just such a long way and the idea of running four or five hours fills me with dread.
“My limit is about 15 minutes...then I flop on the settee and eat three chocolate bars!”
l A concert of Songs from the Shows, sung by Monica Sik Holm, Charlotte Peters and Jennifer Lucy Cook, takes place at the Elgin Hotel tonight with all funds going towards the production costs of Jog On.
It starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £5 on the door.