Engaging, not marketing

by Chantal Oakes
In 1724 or thereabouts, Daniel Defoe, the son of a butcher from Stoke Newington in London, asserted that no Briton was more than 24 miles from water. As the train pulled me and my fellow passengers through the countryside, from Bristol up to the Midlands I would have said that 24 miles was an exaggeration. We passed miles and miles of rambling becks, brooks and streams, each side of their banks lined by wild trees and hedgerow that divided the fields we passed through. As a visual artist what stuck in my mind most on the journey home was a glimpse of old Bristol just minutes out of the station. At one point I saw from the train that the River Avon squeezed through some city streets and in my head I flashback through the centuries, imagining a seagoing ship with naked masts anchored dockside, unloaded and calmly waiting for orders to sail off around the world. Tall stumps of residential flats and retail shops mimic the tree-lined streams I see further down the line. I am thinking about the past and landscape again, a recurring theme in my work. Clusters of humanity living and working by water – but for the modern high-rise blocks it could have been Manchester, Preston, Onitsha, Lagos…

I saw “Make Better Please” by Uninvited Guests in the Cooper’s Loft of Bristol Old Vic, after some lovely red wine and plenty of jokes in the downstairs bar the night before. It was interactive, immersive and quite often made you feel like you are in a Dogma 95 production by Lars Von Trier (in a good way). Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist from Stockton, said her audiences will love the noise and it was unlikely the actors would be able to get enough silence to hear themselves above the shouting. What a difference in style from the bonhomie of Inua Ellam’s The 14th Tale – yet both performances worked, intellectually and emotionally, proving how, when fully formed, the live/lived experience of performance is its unique selling point.

Unique selling point – that’s very marketing, and something we in Preston are considering as part of our evaluation of Fuel’s engagement here. Was it the marketing of The 14th Tale that deterred audiences when it played at the New Continental earlier this month? The local theatre crowd mostly stayed away; in the days afterwards, I wondered whether it was because they were thinking: “What can this artist tell us about our lives?” or “We need development for our own scene.” I tried to engage with the local black communities, but they mostly stayed away, too. What, I asked myself, are the perceptions about black performers here? When I was talking to people, I even found myself saying: “There’s no swearing…” We also plugged the event heavily to the Lancashire Writers Hub and I thought my whimsy about popular theatre might have intrigued them, but none of them showed. Then, a week later, they were invited to write – guess what – a monologue for a new book published by the Heart Foundation. How inspiring The 14th Tale could have been… Somehow we never reached them.

A good thing about blogs is that they enable reflection. I’ve been thinking about the history of theatre in Preston, and where diversity fits in. Preston had a heyday of carousing theatres along its High Street. Then municipal, social works with theatres took over, centralising and defining the site of theatre and its contents. As economic times have changed, municipal theatre has become less and less viable: now even the pantomime looks shaky. In the shadows lies a possible saviour, though they are gasping for breath now, crumbling and tired. A bundle of social clubs – with their own buildings and car parks and small, awkward stages – still exist. Could we use them to put challenging or new performances in among the community?

As Fuel’s local engagement specialist in Preston, it’s my job to begin the process of dialogue about where and how we can develop the accommodation of theatre here, and make it accessible to its rightful audiences. Fuel has a place in landscapes other than big cities because there is a willingness to share. I look forward to helping artists and cultural fans here better understand their motives and possibilities. There’s plenty more work to do…

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A twist in The 14th Tale

by Chantal Oakes
This week, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams comes to the Continental in Preston to perform The 14th Tale, on the 12th and 13th of March. It promises to be a fascinating performance, and this entry explains why I got involved in the project that will bring him here.

I am a massive fan of seeing performance. I didn’t see any theatre until a school trip to Billy Liar in the West End when I was 13 – but what caught my eye as a 7-year-old was the cardboard theatre owned by my sister, with actual lights powered by battery. I was very covetous and have since always tried to be involved in theatre performance in some way.

I have seen videos of some great American performance poets but very little live work around Lancashire (rather than Manchester or Liverpool). The idea of spoken word, for me, raises sharper memories of the great exponents of what used to be called monologue performance. Thora Hird, for example, who was born in Morecambe. And Uppards, a Lancashire version of Longfellow’s famous poem Excelsior, narrated by Stanley Holloway, another great monologist. Where did monologues go?

Right up until the 1960s and the end of colonialism, in much of West Africa as well as the rest of Britain’s colonial world, the act of delivering monologues was part and parcel of the concert-party line-up and the ex-pat experience. My favourite and one my mother tried unsuccessfully to teach me is The green eye of the little yellow god, a monologue containing the telling tale of the British Raj meddling with local religions!

In Nigeria, the performance circuit left behind post-independence was quickly utilised by Nigerian artists eager to revive traditional methods of theatre, and the monologue melded into the work of Wole Soyinka and Duro Ladipo, for example, as well as that of the jeli, griots and storytellers.

Performance poetry, or spoken word, is obviously not quite the same as many of the old music hall style monologues, nor as accessible as Alan Bennett’s television work such as Talking Heads – it is more visceral than that.

All these performance styles – of delivering words instead of music or drama – are only distantly connected to the art of performing epic literature. According to Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales, they do, however, all have ‘commonalities concerning the oral composition of traditional storytelling’.

This is why I’m looking forward to seeing The 14th Tale for the first time. I will not, however, be poking the performer with a stick like Marriott Edgar’s Albert, or trying to steal his jewels like Mad Carew!

Stories told, stories shared

by Maddy Costa
As an outsider, and a non-driver, and a somewhat anxious woman, the journey to the Lakeside in Colchester feels significantly more intimidating than I suspect it is for people who live here, and drive, and don’t feel scared walking on the edge of murky parkland after dark. If I were a student here, I tell myself, from the safety of the back seat of a cab, I’d see everything programmed at the Lakeside. Then I remember that when I actually was a student, I barely even bothered seeing the theatre work my friends were making: chances are, student-me wouldn’t go to the Lakeside at all.

Sure enough, the auditorium – capacity 217 – is less than half full for Inua Ellams‘ The 14th Tale, touring here as part of the NTiYN project. As always in rooms that are less than half full for work that is intricate, funny, thoughtful, tender, revealing, optimistic, I feel sad and confused and a little bit angry that there aren’t more people here to appreciate it. Sad because I think people are missing out on something wonderful, confused because I don’t know yet how to entice them along, a little bit angry because I’m pig-headedly sure someone else does know and hasn’t taken the time to act upon that knowledge. Rationally, I realise it’s not as simple as that.

The 14th Tale is an autobiographical romp giddy with mischief and mayhem: Inua as a child, raiding the buffet at a family party; Inua slightly older, puffed up with pride as he invents the Bible story he didn’t read for homework; Inua arriving in London, struggling to assimilate, electrified by the discovery that the cane is no longer an accepted punishment in British schools, running riot, exhausting even his own capacity for disobedience. He describes himself as a trouble-maker from a long line of trouble-makers, and as he wonders what havoc his future son might wreak, I think of my own family of trouble-makers, my father who at the age of eight walked from his village in Cyprus to the Troodos mountains to see snow with his own eyes, my brother whose favourite game at the age of eight involved a roll of toilet paper and a box of matches, the son that has come to me, only four but already a cheeky blighter with an angel’s smile. Now and then I glance at the people in the audience and wonder: what are your stories? What rules did you break? And if you weren’t the trouble-maker in your family, who was?

I’d like to ask them, but the post-show event doesn’t make room for that. The discussion follows the traditional format of a panel of talkers – that’s Inua and me – being asked questions, mostly about writing, first by an interviewer (Anne Langford, NTiYN project manager) and then by the audience. It adheres to the existing model beautifully. But this isn’t a conversation; people are invited to ask questions, but in a way that doesn’t give them room to speak.

Among the show’s audience were members of the university’s Afro-Caribbean society, who came on the encouragement of (I think) Jordana Golbourn, who is working locally for Fuel on audience development. They came because they thought it would be a nice change from what they do usually – a social activity like going out bowling – and perhaps a bit more grown-up. They showed no intention of staying for the post-show event until Inua asked them to do so. I suspect it’s because there is very little that feels “social” about going to the theatre when, having already spent an hour sitting together in silence, you then have to continue to sit in silence for another 40 minutes. If theatre is going to feel like a conversation, it’s not enough to talk at people about it: we have to talk with them.

The post-show event I’d love to hold after a performance of The 14th Tale would eliminate the hierarchy of maker, critic and audience, and invite everyone to sit and talk equally. Rather than have the audience ask me questions, I’d like to ask them questions: what was the naughtiest thing you did as a child? What did you get away with? What was the worst that happened when you got caught? What did The 14th Tale bring back for you?

In between seeing that show and writing this, I read the Live Art UK document Getting It Out There, and was struck by Bryony Kimmings‘ description of how she built up her audience in Manchester. The words “I go out for drinks” come up a lot. She isn’t “developing an audience”. She’s making friends. And you don’t make friends by talking incessantly about yourself. You have to do some listening, too.