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.