Starting a conversation

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.

More first adventures

by Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

11am: It’s a gloomy day in Colchester but not yet raining. The cab from the station to
Lakeside Theatre on the University campus takes us past Go Bananas, Aquaspring and a couple of other leisure attractions. There’s a lot to do in Colchester.
Meet Barbara, Steve and Janine at Lakeside. What a warm and welcoming place and group of people. Barbara talks about wanting to reach young people who may not think university is for them. Finding people who might be eligible for scholarships. I think this project is going to work here.
1pm: We have lunch with Jordana, the newest member of our team. Fusion restaurant on the campus is great. We find out that students stay on campus. There’s a big army presence which changes the feel of the town on a Friday and Saturday night. It doesn’t feel like a Uni town.
There’s a real international flavour to the student population. Lots of Asian students. Very strong business course. Lots of history of philosophical and political thinking about utopias and ideal societies.
2pm: Steve takes us on a tour of Colchester town centre. We visit the arts centre and the box office staff let us sneak a look at the space; it’s a gorgeous cavern that smells like many a great night has taken place there. The incredible Victorian red brick water tower is begging to be used as a site for a show. On to 51 Queen Street: a hub for artists, with office space, meeting space, and a very friendly and productive vibe. I’m jealous – Fuel needs one of these. We visit the controversial First Sites Gallery – a great building with teenagers hanging out inside playing top trumps. The Weatherspoons used to be an old cinema; it has
mannequins dressed as silent movie screen stars and fake movie cameras dotted around. The dress circle is still intact. It has stories in its bricks.
Steve tells us about Jonathon Meades’ documentary The Joy of Essex, which we should watch. He tells us about the miners striking on the docks because coal was being brought in from Holland. We decide we can squeeze in a visit to Wivenhoe. What a lovely village. The River Col. Reminds me of villages in Devon. It has a train station. There were two blue tits dancing a duet that we watched for a while. Wivenhoe bookshop is the cultural hub of Wivenhoe. The local bands all practise on a Wednesday evening when the bell ringers
practise to drown out the noise. Wivenhoe is a place where lots of arts people and university lecturers live.
5.30pm We do our presentation. It’s dark and rainy – will anyone come? Yes, they will. There’s a great bunch of people, some from Uni, some from the Afro-Caribbean society, some local artists and all the Lakeside staff. JANINE HAS BAKED A COFFEE CAKE AND CARROT CAKE HERSELF. Just for this presentation. What a gesture. The theatre is a lovely space. People tell us about their hatred of the Essex stereotype, the recent rape on campus and the Roman wall. A warm, engaged and friendly chat.
Colchester today was welcoming, unexpected and multi-layered.

11.30am We arrive in Thornaby station, the first station in the North East. The cab from the station was full of information. HE moved here because his mother was ill and after she died he never left.
Meet Annabel and Kelly from ARC and spend time chatting with them about their space and their audiences. We talk about how her audiences care about people visiting Stockton having a connection. We talk about artists skyping into the theatre and taking photos of themselves in a well-known Stockton location each time they visit then sharing it with the audience.
1pm: We meet some local people and they tell us about Prometheus Awakes as part of Stockton International Riverside Festival. About the inner and outer ring of Stockton. Poverty and wealth starkly side by side.
3pm: We are given a guided tour by local Labour Councillor David. He is ace: focused,
informative and direct. He takes us to the high street a short walk from ARC. It’s the widest high street in Europe. They are regenerating it. No one uses the shops. It’s dead. They are laying new pavements, building some green space. Knocking a building down to show the river – at the moment you wouldn’t know the river is just behind and parallel to the high street. It will make a big difference. The High Street is not a place to go at night. Fights.
We go into the Re:Discover Stockton shop. There’s a picture of our show Electric Hotel on the wall. We have our photo taken with David. We walk along the river. There’s a nice bit called the Green Dragon square where we did another one of our shows, Knight Watch. There’s a disused Art Deco 2500 seat theatre. The council want to reopen it for comedy and music gigs. There’s a disused 360 room hotel that Whitbread owns and no one wants and because of a difficult subletting agreement no one can knock down. The river causes a big divide: no one from over the river will come into Stockton. Students from the Durham Uni campus there go to Middlesborough/Newcastle rather than into Stockton.
Into the car for a quick tour of the outer edges of Stockton New town, Eaglescliff, Billingham and Norton. There’s an energy-saving initiative that reclads houses giving better energy
efficiently, saving money on bills and sprucing up the look of an area. 1500 houses have been given this support in Stockton. The regeneration of a condemned housing estate has stopped because money has run out. Lots of houses have been knocked down but some people are still living in the ones that are left. NHS is the biggest employer. Unemployment is very high.
4.30pm: Back to ARC for a tour of the building. It’s like Alice in Wonderland and the Tardis: doesn’t look that big from the outside but there’s magic inside.
5.30pm: The presentation in the workshop. Lots of people come: Dorothy, the 80-year-old ‘friend’ of Northern Ballet; Richard, the Head of Regeneration at the council; some local I Love Stockton bloggers; ARCADE members and lots of ARC staff. A feisty debate begins when we start asking questions about Stockton. People here are fiercely proud of where they are from. They are wary of artists coming in and telling the artistic community that exists what they should do. Lots of talk about how bad the shops are. No one will tell us what the
scandal of Stockton is but highlights have been a recent visit by Kate Middleton and the white water rafting area that is the best in Europe. Dorothy goes to West Yorkshire
Playhouse in Leeds for breakfast on the bus and stays all day. She can’t convince her friends to come to ARC at night. Lots of people stay around afterwards and seem flattered that we are here. There’s a good energy in the room.
On our visit Stockton was ever changing, resilient, defiant, bold and welcoming.