by Catherine Love
Sat in a brightly painted room overlooking rows of grey, identical houses, hands welded to cups of tea to guard against the bracing cold, we listen to Chris telling us a story. Chris runs Soundskills, a local and fiercely independent outreach programme at the heart of Preston’s Brookfield estate, and he’s recalling a community engagement project that was run several years ago by the Harris Museum in the city centre. Staff from the museum arrived, armed with folders full of landscape prints to ‘educate’ the residents, and were greeted by another kind of gallery. In a bare white room in Chris’s house, the walls were studded with images of the community’s own landscape, startling snapshots of the estate. And sitting on plinths dotted around the room were the members of that community, motionless and gagged. Robbed of a voice.
This wonderful, surprising tale of an unexpected live art intervention – a bold, unambiguous statement that shocked its well-meaning but misguided audience – underlines our visit to Preston with a warning. People here are friendly and eager to engage in dialogue, but they are not about to be spoken down to.
This visit is a beginning, the first step in bringing Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood initiative to the city and more specifically to the Continental, a small venue attached to a pub at the edge of the beautiful, wintry Avenham Park, quietly nestled next to the curving metal arches of a railway bridge. Initial impressions are that it’s out of the way, the sort of place you’d have to know about, but lunchtime reveals it to be a busy local hub. The theatre space itself, explains the carpenter who lets us in, used to be a children’s soft play area; it’s a space with an inheritance of inquisitive play. It feels right.
The Continental is programmed by They Eat Culture, an organisation whose work and ambition extends well beyond these four small walls. In our first set of discussions with Ruth, Robin and Jackie, we hear about Journey to the End of the World, a spoken-word project shooting out tendrils across the city and concentrated on the imposing Brutalist structure of Preston Bus Station. It’s a perfect fit for Inua Ellams’ work, already suggesting the potential for attracting new, curious audiences. A promising start.
Our tour of the city, led by Ruth, is dominated not so much by places as by people. As there are too many of us to squeeze into Ruth’s car, project manager Anne and I take taxis to Soundskills and from there into the city centre, during which the friendliness of the area is attested to by two consecutive cabbies. Strikingly, they both describe Preston – which only gained city status a few years ago – in almost exactly the same terms: not too big and not too small. Goldilocks would be right at home. They also tell us about the impact of the recession and the decline in jobs, although there remains an optimistic streak in their experiences of the city. One driver, hearing about Inua’s show from Anne, suggests that it might be a positive event for young people in the area.
Then, at Soundskills, we meet Chris. He’s been running the organisation for almost 20 years, offering opportunities for local people to get involved with music, visual art, photography and film-making. He talks about the wide dispersal of arts provision across the city, something we first noticed over lunch at the Continental when glancing at a map of the city’s arts venues, a spider’s web of locations that recalls the bewildering map in the back of the Edinburgh Fringe guide. There’s a lot of passion, Chris says, but not enough cooperation and coordination.
He also talks about the pub that used to sit on the forlorn scrap of land gazing up at us through the first floor window, a building that older residents remember as the beating heart of the local community. It was burned to the ground several years ago after a long
period of laying dormant, and its ghost now haunts the ugly square of straggly grass and charred bricks. It’s a space that, for all its echoes of loss, is immediately identified as having the potential for performance.
Before we continue our tour, Louise and Christina suggest that Soundskills might be the perfect location for one of Fuel’s ‘While You Wait’ podcast stations. These colourful, nomadic pop-up listening stations will be following the project around from place to place, offering people a brief escape from routine to listen to podcasts produced by some of the artists Fuel work with – something to pass the time while waiting. Just before we leave, Chris also shows us a heart-achingly beautiful music video produced by a young girl with whom the project has worked over the years and who is now producing a video to celebrate the organisation’s 20th anniversary while studying at the university.
The university itself – the University of Central Lancashire, or UCLan – is a dominant presence in the city, sprawling across a wide area and providing Preston with a transient, shifting population. While this creates a complex and sometimes problematic relationship with the city, we later learn that the university’s performing arts community forms a significant site of cultural activity, a site that New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood might be able to tap into. Many students aren’t even aware of the Continental, a university lecturer tells me later in the evening, suggesting one of the first areas to focus on.
After a bitterly cold, face-numbing walk back through the city centre and the stunning – if slightly soggy – Avenham Park, we get on to one of the main reasons for being here: the evening presentation. The small theatre space at the Continental steadily fills with local councillors, bloggers, university staff, those who are simply curious. From them we learn about the market and its nocturnal transformation into a cornucopia of local art, about the hair’s width proximity of wealth and poverty in some parts of the city, about the hidden architectural treasures and the area’s feeling of quiet, inward-facing pride. There’s an investment in the history of the place, as demonstrated by the Harris Museum and the ubiquity of the Preston Guild, and by the stories residents tell us about their collective past. Refreshingly, there’s no shyness about speaking up and sharing, just a friendly, straightforward honesty.
I meet blogger David, editor of local arts and culture website The Two Hats. His presence and interest excitingly hints at an active and enthusiastic critical community in the area; we talk briefly, exchange email addresses, look forward to chatting again at Inua’s show. I talk to a lecturer at the university, to a local film-maker, to the small team who run They Eat Culture.
I talk. We talk. And it feels like the start of a true conversation.