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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One thought on “Engaging, not marketing

  1. Oh – what a lovely post Chantal – it’s funny, I did a lot of telling people in Poole that “there was no swearing” in it too. The evening we had was wonderful though, full of people who adored not just Inua’s work, but the conversation we had about it afterwards. It should feel – as you assert – like a conversation and not just marketing.

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