by Maddy Costa
It’s called the Lighthouse but it’s not by the coast. The landlocked harbour is 15 minutes walk away, glinting in the cold winter light. The tourist information office is across the road from the water; most of the leaflets describe outdoor pursuits, nature trails, water sports. What part does theatre play in this town?
Some background might be useful here. I’ve lived most of my life in London: north of the river and south, in poor parts, affluent parts, higgledy-piggledy parts. Most of that time, I’ve lived within socially (ethnically, culturally, linguistically) diverse communities, but never
developed a strong sense of local community myself. If I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the UK, that’s because I can’t imagine living without the excess of art on offer in London. It’s too much, and I exist in a state of constant frustration at how much I miss, but I love knowing that all those galleries and museums and gig venues and theatres, especially
theatres, are there whenever I want them.
The usual chains on the high street. A Greggs right next door to a traditional baker. Charity shops and mobile phones. I bet it’s dead along here by 6.30pm. I spent six grim years in a suburb not dissimilar to this, where the teenagers had nothing to do but loiter outside 7-Eleven and grope each other in alleyways. I didn’t have theatre to cradle me then.
I’m in Poole with a small team from Fuel, the theatre producers: co-director Louise Blackwell, producer Christina Elliott and head of production Stuart Heyes. We’re here for two reasons, one of which is taking us on a guided tour of the town centre. Her name is Paula Hammond, and she’s the programming manager at the Lighthouse arts centre. We work our way through the shopping centre, along the high street, past the local history museum, whose glass facade and sharp angles look melancholy beneath louring clouds. The life of Poole
centres around the harbour, Paula tells us; the town looks dead in the bleak midwinter, but come summer it’s thronging with people along the shoreline. Paula’s mission is to remind those people that there’s a theatre here, too.
Two tattoo parlours.
Two old-fashioned sweet shops, shelves stacked high with jars of sherbet and strawberry laces.
Two second-hand record shops.
Two men asleep on benches in the local library.
Two art deco vases in the Poole pottery shop. £529 the pair.
The name is like salt in a wound, because actually, if the Lighthouse were by the coast, it would be much better positioned. Instead it’s marooned within a snarl of roads, and
although the bus station is directly opposite and the train station 10 minutes walk away, it feels like the kind of place you’d feel safest coming to by car. That, already, is excluding.
The Lighthouse is a proper arts centre – in fact, the only thing missing seems to be visual art, although there is a tidy white gallery space waiting to be filled. There’s a cinema programme, the Bournemouth Symphony performs regularly, they hold gigs and comedy nights. And, of course, there’s theatre. Safe bets for the main hall – The Woman in White, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Abigail’s Party in from the West End; it’s nice to see Kneehigh in that mix, even if the show is Steptoe and Son. A curious selection in the Studio, from Hull Truck’s adaptation of Jane Eyre to a piece called Alaska that isn’t credited to its makers (Black Fish) and an experimental evening of short plays.
I look around the foyer for evidence of interest in this theatre programme. There are two boards with pages photocopied from the local papers, but they’re all gossipy news items about this or that minor TV celebrity appearing in the Christmas panto. Nothing to get
visitors excited about the shows coming up. No quotes from reviews or blogs praising
productions that have already played elsewhere. Theatres in London feel like second homes to me. The Lighthouse foyer feels as welcoming as an industrial unit.
A statue to chief scout Baden-Powell. A manufacturer of luxury yachts, sleek and gleaming Arctic white. A housing estate, its facade painted with pink and peach zig-zags: once upon a time those colours would have gleamed in the seaside sun. Now it looks forlorn and grey. A modern block of flats, mostly empty in the week, mostly second homes. We walk along the coastline and the people here are cheery. Cockle shells scattered on the path. I find out later that there’s a street-theatre festival here in May. Yes, that would work.
New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood
This is the second reason for Fuel to be in Poole. New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood is
a long-term project that aims to connect the theatre-makers that Fuel produces with
communities across the UK, and encourage those makers to create work specifically for those communities. “Site-responsive theatre that is distinct and unique, inspired by local area; its people, its stories, its sights and sounds” is how Fuel describe it. It aims, too,
to forge a direct relationship between Fuel and audiences, so that even if people don’t
recognise the name of the theatre company or performer appearing at their local arts venue, they do recognise the name Fuel, and trust that. And it aims to make performers
feel more integral to the towns they are visiting: not fly-by-nights with a suitcase full of
loneliness, but people whose presence is anticipated, welcomed, enjoyed.
It’s about making friends, basically.
And yet, so fixed is the language of marketing and business and monetary value around
the arts, that it’s quite difficult to talk about New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood without
sounding like you’re just trying to wheedle more bums onto seats. Of course, Fuel are – but in a more genuine and meaningful way than those words suggest. Talking about the project, Louise compares the relationships she hopes to forge to those between neighbours: you might not speak to each other for weeks at a time, because you’re too busy getting on with your own lives – but every now and then you get together for dinner and have a riotous time, drinking and laughing and putting the world to rights. Coming to see the work is only a part of it: really, it’s the dialogue with the makers, before and after, at a workshop, at an
after-show discussion, over drinks in the bar, at a tea party, about and around the work, that counts.
In a lovely independent cafe on the High St, I talk to Emily, who asks me who Fuel’s work is
for. I tell her about Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, and how it’s an
“experimental” “performance” in which audiences dedicate songs to people they love, and those
audiences are teenagers, married couples, parents, the children of parents, young and old. Fuel’s work is for anyone, anyone with a curiosity about the world.
I meet Michele, who has lived in Poole all her life, and works as a storyteller and maker. I’m the first blogger she’s ever met. Finding audiences is hard, she says, the hardest thing about what she does.
I contact Angel Exit, one of the four associate artists at the Lighthouse. They love the idea of New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood, would love to be more involved with life at the Lighthouse.
I copy down email addresses from noticeboards: people who run book groups, art groups, creative writing groups. People who might find inspiration in Fuel’s work. People I’d like to talk to.
It’s about making friends.
Reaching out. Making contact.
Theatre is something we make happen together.