Artist mission – Abigail Conway in Poole: Poole Potty

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Abigail Conway.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

Mymosaic

The Poole tile for me is composed of fragment impressions and stories gained from my visit to the area on 11th July 2013.

There I met with Lorna Rees, Engagement Specialist for Poole. It was bright morning of summer sunshine when we greeted each other outside the museum. Lorna, most definitely the coolest cat to know around these parts, then drove me out of Poole town centre. This amused me. Why is it we always have to get out of a place to fully understand it?

Driving was a great way to get a sense of the wider community. The journey revealed to me varied and contrasting demographics and areas that were both economically deprived and wealthy.

Driving through beautiful heathland we to get to a humongous Tesco and Leisure Park. Crossing to Sandbanks I see grand houses worth millions built upon land where once stood ancient trees. Trees illegally cut down, in the interests of a better view for the wealthy residents.  Coming to the quayside I see elderly residents enjoying their fish and chips lunches as they watch the fancy yachts in the harbour. They, in turn, are watched by large flocks of opportunist seagulls waiting to pounce upon any dropped food. There are tourists getting on ferries to Brownsea Island. I see palm trees growing along the bay and glimpse a golden sandy beach. I see from a distance yet another ferry, a chain ferry, this time to Swanage. Dilapidated shop fronts with boarded up windows are shelters for the homeless; a green tiled pub is busy and in the town itself I see a vibrant local market. Some old cobbled streets remain and dolphins (not real ones) are peppered around the town.

Conversation flows freely in the car. Topics touched upon were education, local authorities, business, invisible borders, the need for transport and community highs and lows. The ‘Poole’ pieces of the puzzle were on display but I wondered what the final picture might be.

On parting company with Lorna I felt inspired by her passion, enthusiasm and curiosity for the town. I went to the museum where I spent some time reading about the history of the town and it’s past and present industry. I saw the Poole pottery exhibition in the museum. Poole had built its industrial identity upon boat making and pottery. The foundation and infrastructure of Poole is built from locally made bricks, clay and tiles.

It was here I took this picture of an interactive mosaic tile.

Looking at the tile I begin to understand that what gives Poole it’s identity and culture is the industry it is built upon, particularly Poole pottery, it’s unique landscape, it’s links to the sea; it’s people- where they work and play and it’s history.

Like a mosaic tile Poole’s identity is composed of many parts such as its environmental and architectural landscape, town planning, people, industry, culture and leisure influences and expectations. All are intertwined into a rich tapestry of history and experience. I cannot fully pick up one aspect- without looking to the other (and then looking back at myself to see how I look at them). This for me – is where it gets exciting! The mosaic tile effect illustrates, and epitomises, this fragmented, multi- layered place that is Poole. It offers an alternative storytelling. A story that can continue to grow, and change shape, depending on who is adding and looking to its design.

The words on my tile mosaic are things that struck me on my visit. Here are a few explained a little more;

*Harry Paye (day)– was pirate smuggler from Poole, Dorset in the late 14th and early 15th century. He became a commander in the Cinque Ports fleet. Lorna had told me of this mythical character, how he stole from over 100 French fleets and buried his treasure all around Poole. One day the French fleet came to Poole to find Harry and kill him.  They looted the town and set fire to houses. Unable to find him they killed his brother. The people revolted and drove the fleet out of the town. Every June the residents of Poole celebrate his life in a charity day. Lorna mentioned that the term ‘payday’ may have derived from this event. A romantic thought. I like the thought of people annually celebrating this ‘Robin Hood’ character centuries after it happened.

*Brownsea island– Running out of time I could not visit the island. It is a curious place though. Owned by the National Trust it is accessed by ferry. The castle on the Island is owned by John Lewis and used exclusively as a holiday place for their employees. I wonder how they see the town from the castle window view? The island was the first camp for the boy scout movement in 1907.  It is a wild life haven for red squirrels, peacocks and woodland plants too.

*Leisure town- Like every other town Poole has one. A big complex filled with all your leisure desires. I am saddened that pleasure seekers who use this facility often overlook all the free natural beauty, such as Canford Heath. Close to the leisure complex is a huge Tesco extra. Here local people come to do their weekly shop and buy into their leisure activities too away from the town and away from the beach. Such places make it hard for people to participate in local community life. They hinder the building of a community that is at one with its environment. These transitory places become familiar and comforting and yet effectively distance Poole residents from their home and town surroundings.

*Gilbert the whale– Gilbert, the whale was washed up on the beach of Alum Chine in 2009. She measured about 21ft (6.4m). The young female, thought at first to be a male, was initially sighted on 13th September between Bournemouth Pier and Branksome. Rescuers were not sure if it was shallow waters, or being caught up in nets, that caused the mammal to die. But it was understood that she had become lost trying to get to the Atlantic. Such a strong image for my mosaic impressions of Poole. I can see Gilbert, back then, on the sandy beach and feel that her death marked a moment. A communal mourning perhaps.

At the end of the day I found myself in the shop/ workshop/café of Poole Pottery. I felt I had come full circle. The clay tiles that I had been interested in at the beginning of the day in the museum were now placed among vases, teapots, teacups, and saucers all of which were exquisitely decorated and coloured.

On the same floor visitors can see the open plan workshop, the kilns and making area as it is being used by the pottery makers and artists who hand paint the pots. I went upstairs to the café and saw ‘a paint a pot’ section where people come and decorate their own pot or cup. Looking at these white cups stacked up I saw them also as a fragmented canvas waiting to be coloured in by a story, a word, or anecdote. I had an image of people making their own cup out of clay and sharing stories over a special tea party. I saw pathways and walls made out of unique mosaic tiles composed of fragments made by individuals that became pathways to places unknown and usually unseen in the town.

My idea to make a project in this town would be to somehow collate and collect all these diverse stories, anecdotes and associations and quite simply piece them together in a participatory way.

By asking what Poole means to the people who live there would create a natural political, anthropological and historical tapestry of perspectives, all equally celebrated. It is in the act of bringing these stories together that I would somehow like to make ‘performative’. Pairing up with an organization like Poole Pottery, using the local tools and industry already in place – to tell the stories of past present and future memories – using pottery or tiles to create a collage of, and for, its community.

Finally there is not one single stronger feeling, smell or image that I can take away. For me Poole is like the tile mosaic because it encompasses all that I don’t know, and all that I want to discover- as I try and piece this place together.

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Artist mission – Matt Steer in Poole

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Matt Steer.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

Arriving into Poole on the train promises much, glorious sunshine beats down on a beautiful harbour, water is lapping, birds are flying, boats are boating and windsurfers are showing off. I think about how many times i actually came here in my childhood. (I grew up 15 miles east of here on the Hampshire/Dorset border.) Definitely three.

There wasn’t much appeal I seem to remember apart from Splashdown at Tower Park – that accounts for two visits – or a futile search for the red squirrel (still not convinced it actually exists) on Brownsea Island – that’s the other. Basically everything Poole had was replicated somewhere closer: Bournemouth had its own version of Splashdown (and with a wave machine no less!); Christchurch had a harbour and boats and show-offs; and Hengistbury Head didn’t have red squirrels either.

Only when I started board-treading did the Lighthouse (a shabby Poole Arts Centre back then) arrive on my map. So stopping off at the old gal on tour with Will Adamsdale’s ‘The Victorian In The Wall’ was hardly exciting or like ‘going back home’ but it felt like…something.

Exiting the station brings a slightly different view from that of the harbour: a car park, a flyover, lots of concrete. Hmmm, lets walk along this main road for a bit then. Oh, whats this, a subway that’s very reminiscent of a harrowing scene in a disturbing film I wish I hadn’t seen. Let’s try the other way. Oh, what’s this, a massive and incongruous hunk of a building that must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in Eastern Europe and finally given up its travels on the edge of the George roundabout. Poole is weird. I’ve decided.

 

Two shows in the studio at the Lighthouse go well and there’s a post show salon event too that goes off better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with. Perhaps it was the 12ft table of nibbles on offer. (I laid down next to it, it was two me’s.) And before you can say ‘what happened to the nibbles?’, it is Sunday morning and our time here is done. Except for one thing. Rain? Check. Headache? Check. Awkward  luggage? Check. LET’S HIT POOLE.

Within moments I conclude that this area of Poole isn’t designed for pedestrians. It’s designed to be driven through on the way to somewhere else. The Lighthouse, the largest arts centre outside London, is situated opposite the bus station and the Dolphin Shopping Centre on the busy  Kingland Road. Hardly ideal for tempting pedestrians in with promises of weird and wonderful tales or a tea cake (in the rather pricey cafe/restaurant). I do worry about the location and physical appeal of arts venues and am often concerned that a venue isn’t helping itself by its location and its looks. Not that it has much say in either. Needless to say I am now worried about the Lighthouse. Even though both our performances sold out in the Studio and they seem to be doing just fine with a varied programme of touring theatre, music, film, dance, comedy and sizeable support from the Arts Council.

I take to the subway from the other day/that film. I take a picture then run. Cool picture actually. I look up and in front of me stands the lost hunk of building. Turns out it’s Barclays House and from this angle looks pretty beautiful. I take a picture. Cool. The rain has cleared, my headache has been paracetamoled and Poole and I, I think, can be friends. Next stop, the Quayside.

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I walk the High Street. It was probably quite quaint and pretty once. Now its home to all the usual suspects, some rather unappealing pubs and of course a cheap bakers. But at least it’s pedestrianised. So I zigzag irresponsibly whilst eating my 90p sausage roll. Now this is living.

I head to the Tourist Information Centre on the Quayside which is wall to wall colourful leaflets promising sea safaris, theme parks, outstanding natural beauty, red squirrels. Poole has a lot going down, I’d never quite realised. A tall pile of flyers for our show sit prominently on the side. They either had an absolute shed load to begin with or no one took one.

I am reminded that Poole is one of the largest natural harbours in the world; that Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust and was where Baden-Powell began the Scout movement; that the RNLI are based here; that Poole Pottery is famous; that Sandbanks is amongst the priciest real estate in the world; that Sunseeker make all their fancy boats here; that the coastline is known as the Jurassic Coast; that the Royal Marines train here; and that the Poole Pirates speedway team have historically been very very good. I feel guilty as I don’t think I’ve given Poole a fair crack of the whip over the years. I also wonder how the arts can compete with all this good stuff?

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I think back to the post show discussion. The crowd that stayed behind were all at least late 30’s I would say, mostly in couples, and a good few had travelled in from the surrounding areas (Wimborne, Christchurch, New Milton). They asked probing questions about the process, suggested ideas and provided constructive criticism. Basically they were into it, they dig this kind of thing. I wonder whether anyone from Poole itself comes to theatre at the Lighthouse? Whether they know there is such a great facility right by their bus station? I wonder what the school group of 11 year olds who came made of it all? And where they came from and why? I don’t know any of the answers. So of course, I worry. And I realise my headache has returned as a result of all the thinking so step outside for some good old-fashioned sea air. I duck a seagull who has no respect for personal space. I take a picture of a cool bit of rope and some water. And sit.

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I am confused by Poole. It seems to have no centre, it’s all rather dispersed, and yet it apparently offers so much. The Quay and the harbour I guess is where people gravitate to, (it’s certainly busy today on a not particularly pleasant Sunday morning) but this doesn’t help the Lighthouse as it’s in the opposite direction. The many pubs along the front seem to be doing good business though.

If I was to create a piece of work here, I would want it to appeal to the people of Poole, not just those who drive in for their culture fix then drive away again. Perhaps I would explore the history of the place: Poole was as an iron age settlement after all, a bustling 12th Century port, an important trade link to North America and a key player in the D-Day landings. And now it is a main ferry route to the Channel Islands and France, and has a large tourist industry. Everything it has and does is linked to the sea, which is why it came to exist in the first place.

I would talk to those school children and find out what Poole is to them, what they see themselves doing and will they even stay in the area? What relevance is it to them that Sandbanks is one the most exclusive addresses in the land, that the fanciest boats are built here or that the whole area is of ‘outstanding natural beauty’? Do they even like the sea?

I would like to find out what life is like in Poole away from the Quayside and the tourism and the glamour and I would interview a whole host of residents and workers and find the stories one would never otherwise hear. And I would explore further the confusion in my own mind: that away from the water, where Poole seems to have everything, it doesn’t appear to have much at all. I’d want my piece to appeal to the people of Poole itself and to see new faces coming to the Lighthouse.

And if none of that gets me anywhere I’d send Will Adamsdale back in and get 12 feet of nibbles out. That seems to do the trick.

Artist mission – Alan Lane in Jaywick

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Alan Lane.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

There comes a point when you are driving through Jaywick when you realise that it is no longer what can realistically be called a ‘road’. It’s something else, not a track so much but definitely not a road.

But that point is not precise, it just happens and then you realise.

On your way out, you think to yourself, you’re going to pay attention and find the exact moment when the road becomes a ‘non-road’ and maybe take a photo of it. And yet you’ll find yourself in the centre of Clacton-on-Sea without having found that precise moment and definitely on road again.

In Clacton-on-Sea there is money, real money. Not huge wealth (that’s further up the coast) but there is real money. And there are spots in deepest Jaywick where there is no money. Not comparative poorness but an actual complete lack of money. But there isn’t a single moment where you can say, here. Here is the moment where one becomes the other. It’s an almost perfect, smooth sliding scale.

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I experienced the most aggressive moment I’ve experienced in quite some time in Jaywick and the most generously happy moment I’ve experienced in quite some time in Jaywick. And I was in Jaywick for a maximum of 2 and a half hours. It’s a pretty special place.

It is a place of old diesel Land Rover Defenders. A place of old boats refurbed as plant pots. Of confederate flags flying on lanky flag poles. A place where everyone seems to have a dog or a mobility scooter, and sometimes both. A place where every other building is abandoned with the glass put through but the inhabited ones have their doors not only unlocked but also open. It is a place where people don’t want to bother with your bullshit anymore. It’s off-grid. Not literally perhaps but in all the ways that matter.

——-

I sling the van in the Jaywick Community Centre car park and take a walk around. The houses all around the top end have been burnt out. It’s bleak, feels abandoned. But I know it’s not abandoned, there’s pride here, this I know from before and what Jordana told me earlier.

Two lads play football lazily on a small pitch.

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There’s a confederate flag fluttering above the house at the end of the football pitch I want to take a picture of. My phone is out and click, photo taken.

Behind me a man explodes, louder than you can imagine. “What the fuck are you doing?” He is on the other side of the pitch but approaching fast. He’s as big as I am, wearing a bright red boiler suit open to the waist. It’s like someone has taken Rooster from Jerusalem and smacked him around the face with a bat. He’s still coming, still roaring.

The little I’ve learnt from rehearsing on city streets for a while now is you always walk towards the screaming man. Although the temptation to run in the opposite direction is strong, realistically I am not fast anymore and there is only (genuinely) one road in and out so running is not wise.

Move towards. Breathe, arms spread out, look big, calm.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

‘Taking a picture of the flag’ as loud as him but not as angry.

“Why?” He’s as loud but less angry.

“My mum lives in Georgia now and she’ll like that there is that flag in the town her parents used to live in.” Less loud.

‘Oh that is fucking fine mate. Fucking fine.’ We’re friends now it seems, it all happened quick. He’s drunk but no less pleasant for it.  He has an old US Army Jeep. Up on bricks but still a nice car if you like that sort of thing which I do. He has a van out the front that is covered in camouflage. It makes me laugh.

He doesn’t get why.

“If you’re hiding from the satellites mate you need to wear less bright boiler suits.” He’s cuddling his dogs now, talking to his neighbours. No one seems bothered by me now, the idiot that turned up 15 minutes ago in a bright yellow transit van in a town with one road in or out. I go down to the shore.

Jaywick coast

There’s 3 lads stood waist deep in the sea. Dad is stood knee deep trying to encourage their border collie to come in. He’s far too wise to swim in this soup of god knows what. “Come on Harry, Come on” the dad shouts. Dog barks back. ‘Dad!’ shouts the eldest brother. “What?” ‘Liam’s pissed in the sea.’ The dog barks.

On the drive home I get a message from my sister reminding me of the times we did exactly the same thing in exactly the same place over 20 years ago.

They are sat in their mobility scooter outside their beach house, something’s not right.

“You all right? Need a hand?” I ask.

“We did,” she explains. “Not now. We got his scooter stuck in the sand.”  She nods to him. They are both 70 odd, she’s decked out in yellow gold, he’s all big hands with longer nails than you expect from a man, especially this man; hands that used to work hard but now don’t so there’s a kind of pride in the longer nails I think. Like the hands my granddad had.

“There was no one around. We had to dig the wheels out ourselves. Us! We did it though.” He beams at me. He’s no-one’s fool, he’s still sweating from the effort of it all.

“It was because we’d done the big shop. Pop, a few bottles of it and milk, a big 4 pinter. Weighed us down, didn’t it. And then we sank in the sand and got stuck.” She is laughing now because it turned out all right.

“Well I’m glad it all turned out okay” I say. I turn to go but change my mind. “Do you mind if I ask, is this place nice? I’ve just arrived, half an hour ago and I wondering whether it is nice?”

“The best” he says, certain.

“Wouldn’t live anywhere else. Anywhere” she says.

How long you been here?

“Ten years. The most perfect ten years.” He says, she nods.

I look at the two room hut that is their house, fifteen yards from the beach. Do you not get stuck in the snow on those things I say, nodding at the mobility scooters.

“We don’t get snow here.”

“Ten years we’ve barely had any. Colchester they get a lot more snow. But not here.”

It’ll be the wind off the sea I say.

“It will be that” he says “Look at that sea” The sun is orange and bouncing off the water. It doesn’t look like Essex.

Where were you before I ask but I know the answer.

“Walthamstow.” She says.

Good Evening I say and bugger off. I had to actually stop myself from hugging them as I left. We talked like we were old friends.

On my way back I pass their house with their scooters outside. He’s left his wallet in his basket. I assume he’s done it on purpose, he’s no one’s fool.

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Artist mission – Alan Lane in Colchester

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Alan Lane.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

I stop off for a quick break on the A14 just after I’ve passed Cambridge. I look at the map and it’s clear to me that I’m approaching this town from the wrong way; the trains and proper roads all travel the other way. From Leeds- the North- it’s been 4 hours of dual carriage way- not even motorway. Trundling along beside increasingly unfeasibly large agricultural equipment. I’m aware that if I was coming from London it would have been a 40 minute train journey straight to Liverpool Street.

Where I live it still feels like we’re in recession. When last I was wandering around Liverpool Street it was clear that this was an area not still in recession. I wonder where on the spectrum of these two Englands Colchester will fall.

—-

First impressions were of the huge amounts of boys hugging. Unusually large number of groups of young men with new haircuts hugging.

A man stood outside a barbers with the most extraordinary mediterranean eyes- good god he looks like something out of the sea- stunning.

I’ve been here 2 minutes, Colchester might be the most homoerotic place in the world.

And hairdressers. I have never seen so many hairdressers. It makes a lot of sense of why everyone looks so bloody good here.

The homoeroticism fades as I spend more time here but the unbelievable number of barbers particularly is a regular theme of my day.

—–

I nip into a shop I see sells postcards and ask the owner where the good restaurants are in time where I could get dinner later on. “I can’t help you I don’t use restaurants.  But there’s an exciting new place up near the church. The young people are going.” I don’t know what any of this means. I walk to the church but can’t see anything that might be attracting the youth. There is a Wimpy’s though. I don’t think he meant here but seeing Wimpy’s always raises my spirits.

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——–

A sign that says Essex Cares. Popped in for a coffee in what looked like a community cafe right next to the tourist centre but was more a drop in centre for adults with mental issues. My arrival seemed to upset a lot of of the participants which wasn’t what I intended obviously. A woman asked my name across the cafe in a loud voice usually reserved for outside. Alan I replied. She then warded me off with what I thought at first was a crucifix. It turned out to be a Pudsey Bear. I felt a bit of a dick after that, which is no-one’s fault but my own, so I left. I popped in because I’d seen an ad for “Funky Drama Classes” in the window and wanted to ask what that was about. Now we’ll never know.

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Independent shops everywhere. I wonder if it’s just where I’m looking but a lot more independent restaurants and shops than you’d expect. I remember reading in the Stockton report from someone that a new independent Greek restaurant was sign of potential for risk taking audience in Stockton- seen 10 independent restaurants just on the walk from the car park to the hotel. Different worlds. More Liverpool Street than Liverpool it seems.

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Is the new art gallery any good? I asked the woman at the Tourist centre.

“It’s very contemporary. If you like very very contemporary things it’s great. The Arts Centre? Yeah they are very good. I went to sing along a wicker man the other night.”

Sing along a wicker man is a thing that exists in the world. And they say there isn’t a God.

——

‘Excuse me? Hi. Wonder if you could help. Where is the military base? The Barracks? Where can I find them?’ I ask a woman on the street.

“They are on Military Road.” She replies.

‘Ah, well should have guessed.”

She’s very pretty but that is not why I’ve asked her, she looked friendlier than the others. Now I am worried that she is going to think that is why I asked her and I’m getting flustered.

“Which way is Military Road?”

She points a way.

“Does this feel like a military town?” I ask. In for a penny in for a pound and she already thinks I’m a dick. Probably.

‘What do you mean?’ She’s now looking at me funny. I am a dick.

“Well I can’t see any men in uniforms or anything like that.”

‘They keep themselves to themselves. Most of them are away, abroad.’

“Except for Friday nights” Her mate now chips in.

‘They don’t go drinking in their uniforms though, do they?’

“No. But there are squaddy pubs. Pubs everyone knows are theirs.”

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The Art Gallery, Firstsite is a new sexy looking building. There are at least 60, maybe even 100, teenagers- all haircuts and clothes that look uncomfortable- sat outside the main doors on the floor and surrounding walls. The whole picture (glass building, haircuts, kids on floor) looks suddenly very European.

Inside I am one of 4 or 5 people which feels strange because it’s a very big art gallery. The LARGE Sophie Von Hellermann mural that splashes and drips the entire length of the gallery outlines (in the way you outline last night’s dream at breakfast) the entire history of the town. It is rather brilliant. Clearly ludicrous at times but epic and often beautiful. By contrast her smaller pieces based on idioms in the English language feel smug and demonstrative. Don’t really understand how the same person did both things.

I get a coffee in the entirely empty cafe. “Do the kids out front ever come in?” I ask the waitress.

‘Sometimes but they are not allowed down this end’ she says. ‘It’s a council owned thing so unfortunately it isn’t possible to ban them completely.’

I don’t have the heart to tell her that isn’t what I meant. The coffee is excellent.

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I find the Headway Theatre. The reception is manned by a man who appears to be dealing with 3 or 4 phone calls at once. The autumn season has just gone on sale. I wait for him to finish. This is the home of amateur theatre in the town. “Not all amateur theatre companies come here, and we have some from outside of town too but we like to think that we are the home of the town’s amateur theatre because we are.” They are busy it looks like from the programme. He’s busy too, the phone is ringing again so I bugger off.

I notice at the Mercury that there are some amateur companies playing there as well this season. The town has a passion for theatre clearly.

Little girl of about 8 gives me a flyer- colour photocopied A4 paper- for Colchester Free Festival. There are 7 or 8 other kids all handing out the flyers- they are very funny with their enthusiasm for something they don’t quite understand. I find the mum. She’s been dragged in because her brother is something to do with the organising committee. “It’s very popular. Especially with the younger, more professional lot.” A couple in office clothes in their early 20’s with very nice haircuts (why has everyone in this town just come from the hairdressers!) pass- she nods at them. “People like that, nice young people. They really like it. I’ll take the kids. We’ll have a lot of fun. It’s a regular thing.”

I look at the flyer. I don’t recognise any of the names. The kids are trying to give me a second flyer. Smart tactic having them hand out the flyers, “no-one is going to say no to them are they?” says mum as I take yet another flyer. http://www.colchesterfreefestival.org.uk

—-

Jordana walks me around town. She lives in Tiptree, where the jam comes from. She talks of the frustration there was in some when they cut the ensemble at the Mercury. And the different frustration there was in some when the art gallery promised so much, cost so much and delivered not so much.

She takes me around the night-time hotspots of the town. At some point in the past I will have asked to see them although as she’s showing me them I can’t recall the exact thought that tells me why past Alan thought this. It doesn’t matter, Jordana is wise about this town.

“There is a sense that everybody thinks Colchester is fine, everything is comfortable and no-one wants to rock the boat.”

She talks about how some who might otherwise be interested in what is happening with the programme over on campus are put off because there is an idea that it is ‘student theatre’.

I think that some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen is ‘student theatre’ but I know what she means.

—-

All over the town there are models of giraffes. It’s for the zoo’s 50th birthday. School kids and companies have painted them. It is the most polite, clean pieces of public art I’ve ever seen. I am amazed that there wasn’t someone who thought that they should chop the head off one of their statues and replace it with the head of a lion or an eagle or something.

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I had the most pleasant afternoon walking around Colchester. It’s a really lovely market town. I had chats with lots of incredibly friendly people. But, and I was trying quite hard towards the end, I struggled to find anyone who was enthusiastic or excited about anything. I asked 5 people “What culture is there in town?” most of them answered “The castle is shut this year.” I’m not being snidey, that seems a fair reflection of my time here. There is clear passion in a thriving amateur dramatics world as well as the interesting work out at the campus. But it is all working in isolation.

It is a very vanilla town. I spent a part of the afternoon wondering how a piece of queer spectacle would go down.

It is a very compartmentalised town.

I was told that large sections of the old army bases were now empty waiting for redevelopment. A show that could take up residence in these spaces- unseen and unknown by the majority of the town- could be really exciting as it would break some of that compartmentalised attitude down.

—–

Some time ago there is an actor from the Mercury Ensemble in the pub around the corner from the theatre. His conversation is interrupted by an elderly couple who lean in smiling, “We saw the show last night and we could hear everything. Everything.” They patted his arm and left happy that they’d supported their local theatre.

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Artist mission – Ben Pacey in Preston

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Ben Pacey. You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

Cycle into Birmingham, bump into friends as I lock my bike up. Run to the ticket machine. A quick ninety minutes –  and a coffee – on the train, and here I am.

Preston.

In the sunshine!

This is the city where I was born, and where I lived until I was eighteen. It wasn’t a city then, just a town1. And it’s not like I haven’t been back. My parents still live here, but it’s a long time since I really engaged with the place itself.

My preconceptions of the place, although based on experience, are tangled up with all the rest of my childhood and adolescence. I don’t think that highly of the city, to be honest. But perhaps it’s just teenage angst from 1994?

Whatever. The sun’s shining as I arrive, and I’m looking forward to spending the day here. Let’s go.

Out of the station, and faced with the Fishergate Centre. Terrible graphic design. I skirt round, not through.

Past the army recruitment office on Fishergate. An IRA bomb was disabled in a controlled explosion here in ’91.

The Korova’s just around the corner. The shutters are down, but I see Sam through the door. An (almost brand new!) arts cafe in Preston. I can’t remember what this building used to be. It would probably have been damaged by the explosion, had the bomb gone off. Sam makes me another coffee.

It early days for The Korova, but it’s exciting that it’s here. It’s exciting that Sam, from Essex, has settled in Preston after studying at the University here. We talk about how you grown into a place at university. I think more fondly of Swansea than I do Preston, but they’re probably similar in many ways, although Swansea does have the sea. Sam’s tiny performance studio offers an accessible platform for local writers and performers. Audiences are small, but growing. It’s only been a couple of months.

Artists, perhaps writers in particular, are frustrated in the region, Sam says. They feel excluded from the established venues. It’s hard to engage with the Exchange or the Lowry in Manchester, for example, and the fringe scene there has a patchy reputation.

Sam reckons people in Preston are “laid back”.

It’s time to head to the New Continental.

The bacon sandwich shop on Corporation Street has gone. The guy with the silver beard and ponytail must have been frying pig in there for 30 years. No more. “Steve Tat-2” is still in business.

Five minutes later, West Cliff. Some lovely houses here, just below the railway station.

I wouldn’t have drunk in the Continental when I lived here, but since the refurb I’ve been in a few times, especially now that the Fox and Grapes, on Fox Street, has become a “beach bar”.

In the pub, Chantal. She’s upbeat and enthusiastic. We look at the performance space, which I haven’t seen before. It looks good, bigger than I expected. In a booth by the window, Ruth joins us, and we talk Preston. In a little while, we adjourn to a restaurant on Winckley Square2 for lunch.

It turns out Ruth and I are about the same age, and both grew up in Preston. But we didn’t go to school together. I’m impressed by her choice to return, and by the energy she’s invested here since.

We talk about theatre audiences, or “Guardian-reading culture-seekers” as Ruth, probably accurately, identifies them. They’re not a demographic which Preston is overwhelmed by. Many employees of the university and the council live in Lancaster (quieter, “nicer,” nearer the Lake District) or Manchester, and seek their culture there, not here. With Manchester and Liverpool under an hour away, even those who do live here are probably in the habit of seeking culture (and employment, and shopping) elsewhere. Cursed with a good regional transport infrastructure, perhaps the city is doomed to decline into second-rate dormitory-city status?

I mention Preston Guild. I’d heard good things about last years iteration of this once-every-20-year civic celebration.  I’ve heard that it was a brilliant event, and really engendered a positive pride in the city. So I’m surprised by some negative feeling. Here, it seems there’s frustration that the organisers – particularly arts programmers – weren’t able to work with local artists as much as the local artists might have hoped.

But Ruth and Chantal are also frustrated by the local artists, who, I’m told, recently failed to attend Fuel-produced performances at the Continental, in part out of frustration that a platform was being given to artists from out-of-town, rather than themselves.

Lunch done, I suggest that there must be a massive pool of un-used (or under-used) manual skills in the city. I remember Strand Road in the ’80s, then a brick-build industrial gorge, the road cutting between two factories each half a kilometre long. General Electric’s heavy engineering on one side, British Aerospace (BAE Systems) on the other. Today, part of one factory, previously General Electric, is left, as Alstom. The Aerospace site is now all bland housing and a retail park. Ruth, some of whose family sill work for BAE3, reckons I’m a generation late. Those factories closed in the late ’80s, when there would have been a skills surplus4.

Ruth reckons Sam’s description of local people as “laid back” is optimistic.

“They’re apathetic”, she says.

Twenty years ago, it seems to me that people were either charmingly stoic and polite, apathetic verging on hopeless, or viciously frustrated.

Chantal and I head off to meet Sam and Nigel, who work for the council. On the way, we agree that seeing other peoples work is an artist’s responsibility.

We park in Sainsbury’s car park, by the bus station. This brown-brick-block hasn’t been a Sainsbury’s since the ’80s. On the left, the bus station. On the right, and over the footbridge, there’s still a local radio station broadcasting from a converted church.

The bus station!

This place is brilliant. Famously the largest bus station in Europe5. A classic example of brutalist architecture. To me, it’s a dilapidated location for a sci-fi film set in a world where society really values (and funds!) public transport. It’s an epic space. There’s glass, concrete, beautiful timber beams to lean on, and that weird rubbery black flooring which is always slightly sticky. There’s 80 separate bus stands. Stand 33 for bus 33. Stand 35 for bus 35. Both will take you back to my childhood, or at least my parents house. Somehow I can forgive this place for the uncountable hours I must have spend waiting here.

If it were a film set, the orange plastic bucket seats in the cafe would be filled with tourists, thirsty for greasy 50p tea and an authentic taste of their beloved film. Perhaps it’s an atmospheric spy thriller, or a tale of repressed lust exploding into a brutalist brief encounter, or just a quietly moving portrait of everyday northern dignity and stoicism?

In reality, after decades of under-funding, the bus station is on its last legs, and the council is doing its best to be rid of it, despite vocal opposition. Ruth’s been working with architects and artists to develop ideas for restoring and repurposing the structure. Nigel, who’s part of the planning team, doesn’t really want to talk about it. He admits the council wasn’t prepared for furore caused by the announcement of demolition plans.

I chat to Sam and Nigel in the Harris Museum. Just across the foyer, the pendulum6, swinging, has always been there. This is an odd conversation. I can’t quite tell if their language is council bureau-speak, or if they’re being actively evasive. Everything we speak of seems somehow far away. Maybe I’m just in a post-lunch slump?

Briefly boosted for the Guild in 2012, the arts budget, predictably, now leaves everyone under-resourced. But I can’t tell if the arts team are interested in engaging with artists, or not. During the Guild, it seems, someone was employed to communicate with unsolicited contact from artists, who were attempting to engage so vigorously that – at least during 2012 – “we couldn’t just send them all holding emails”. Budgets cut, so presumably the auto-responder is back on.

I’ve just missed the deadline for a project called “Forgotten Spaces”. RIBA, in collaboration with Preston Council, invited proposals for imaginatively re-purposing underused or forgotten urban spaces in the city. There are lots of those, here. The public could apply, but the focus was on professional – or student – architects. It sounds really exciting, but disappointingly, there’s no money to realise any of the competition entries. It’s focus is on raising the city’s profile and attracting development investment. Incidentally, entrants were not permitted to make proposals to reinvent the bus station: “The building remains in use and is therefore ineligible under the competition rules”.

We talk about audiences, and whether Preston has any. The Guild was massively popular, but then it’s only once every 20 years. I’m interested to hear about the Preston Passion7, and Preston Remembers (a heritage event which ran in parallel to the restoration of Preston’s cenotaph) – both of which attracted large audiences and popular engagement. Sam and Nigel identify Preston as being a religious and military city. Anything with a connection to either, they reckon, will be popular here. The “religious” tag I get – this is Priest-town, after all – but I’m surprised by “military”. There’s a small barracks in Fulwood, there’s the aerospace connection, and the un-exploded army recruitment centre. I’m told about archives rich in film footage of soldiers departing by train in 1914.

Conversation over, and I’m free-range.

A quick look around the Harris Museum. The “Discover Preston” exhibition looks contemporary and shiny. Refurbished in time for the Guild, I guess. A handful of kids are hanging out here. They avoid me. Upstairs, I’m impressed by a temporary exhibition of video art called “Workplace”. It doesn’t feature any local artists, so far as I can tell.

Back out in the sunshine.

The town centre’s struggling. An influx of charity shops.

The (beautiful) outdoor covered market is hanging on. On days when there’s no market, or car-boot, it’s a brilliant covered space for “outdoor” events and spectacle. It recently sheltered Preston Mela – usually held in one of the parks – from the rain. The larger of the two spaces reminds me of the warehouses in Nantes where Les Machines De L’Ile are based. I hear a rumour that the council want to sell these spaces for redevelopment.

I’m told  that the indoor market is thriving, but I don’t visit. Incongruously, in a run-down arcade, piped radio reports that J-Lo has caused international controversy by performing in Turkmenistan.

I pass back through the bus station to take some photos. The pedestrian underpasses are empty. I remember them bustling, and choked with cigarette smoke.

It’s now 5pm on a Monday, and the Guild Hall is also deserted. And stuck in the 1970s. Not just the building, even the programming. It doesn’t look like anyone thought to spruce this place up for the 2012 Guild.

I spotted Theatre Street earlier, and want to check it out. The highlight is the derelict orphanage, one of the “Forgotten Spaces” from the RIBA project. I’ve never noticed this massive building before. It’s hard to imagine it revitalised as an arts or workspace complex. So much money! Perhaps the university could do something with it? More likely apartments, if it’s still here when the economy picks up.

I head to Avenham Park. Ten minutes from the city centre, it’s green and amazing, especially in the sunshine. The grass slope rolls down into a massive amphitheatre, with a tree-lined avenue and the river as a backdrop. The damp hulking concrete “bandstand” which I remember has gone, replaced by a new cafe. It’s all sleek timber and exposed architecture. But disappointing as a cafe, I hear.

The adjoining Miller Park looks amazing. Another Guild year transformation, perhaps? Hope there’s budget left for upkeep, but both parks look brilliant today.

As I re-approach the New Continental, I’m intrigued by a strange space beneath the railway arches.

Pass the pub this time. Following the river, I soon diverge to walk down Strand Road.

I could visit the docks, now surrounded by apartments, retail and offices. I don’t.

Under the railway again, swallows swoop low over the canal, catching flies. Tea time. I head home.

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Notes

1. City status was awarded in 2002 as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

2. A gorgeous rolling tree-lined square, just back from the high street (Fishergate), and enclosed by mostly original Georgian town-houses (now offices). Unfortunately, there’s no view out from the basement restaurant(!).

3. One of my family’s next-door neighbours, a skilled carpenter, would have been part of this generation. A skilled carpenter, he was mostly unemployed through the ’90s, which would have been the final decade of his career. His son runs a small one-man-band furniture and upholstery business, rather than making timber formers for aircraft wings.

4. BAE Systems is still a significant employer in Preston, manufacturing military aircraft at two out-of-town sites at Samlesbury and Warton.

5. Although, according to Wikipedia, “some claim that it is the second largest bus station in Western Europe”. So maybe I was duped.

6. Wikipedia tells me it’s a Foucault Pendulum, which acts as a “reasonably-accurate” clock, thanks to the rotation of the earth.

7. According to the BBC, the Preston Passion was “a ground-breaking live event marking Good Friday with a contemporary and ambitious exploration of the Passion story. A unique combination of spectacular mass participation performance and three original recorded dramas based in Preston past and present, drawing on the enduring universal themes of the story of Christ’s condemnation and crucifixion.”