Artist Mission – Andy Smith in Preston: Man in Preston or North Western Story

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 Andy Smith.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

NOTES AND FRAGMENTS

WORKING TITLE

MAN IN PRESTON or NORTH WESTERN STORY

A PLAY IN FIVE ACTS

PROLOGUE:  IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD

The prologue should talk about the weeks leading up to his trip to Preston.  About how in this time he thinks a lot about what the word ‘neighbourhood’ might mean. He thinks about how it might present ideas of location, place and belonging.  He considers proximity and trust, friendliness and diversity.  He thinks about identity and community, about networks and support.  He thinks about if he lives in a neighbourhood, and about whether the word is in danger of being devalued in its use by politicians, the media, and maybe even initiatives with titles like ‘New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’.

He also sings this a lot.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5seuin47ayk

He thinks about what he is doing or going to do or think about in relation to this day in Preston that he has.  He thinks about how a day is not much.  He thinks about how he wants to spend time on his own getting a feel for the place as well as talking with others.

He also thinks about what ‘New Theatre’ means.  He thinks about what he might expect and what might be expected of him; a writer or theatre maker person who is categorically not from that neighbourhood but is going into that neighbourhood to think about it, (and talk to) the people that he meets that day.

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ACT ONE:  APPROACHES

In the car on the way to Preston he thinks about how any document or piece of writing that begins with the sentence ‘In the car on the way to Preston’ will inevitably be a fiction in some sense.  This work will be a report of him in Preston, a re-presentation of him in Preston, an experience that he has attempted to be made comprehensible by turning it into words and pictures.  This is an intimation or imitation of Preston, of a man in Preston.  This is a story.

For some reason he can’t get the car radio to work, so as he drives down the road there is only fragments of music that drift in and out of his thoughts.  He looks through the windscreen and surveys the landscape as it plays.  The music might be from a playlist called ‘North by North West’.  It features desolate hillsides, overcast skies, street corners abandoned too soon, useless MP’s, shoeless children, grey fogs, and inevitably matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs.

He drives and he listens and his mind wanders.  And he thinks about flat caps and ukuleles, cotton mills and clocking off, the steam age and the railways. He imagines the industrial North, the Grim up North, the Northern Echo and the Northern Sky.  He parks the car at the legendary bus station, pays the parking and descends in the lift to the terminus.  The wind whips about.  The sky is overcast.  The plastic of the seats is garish and uninviting.  A sign hangs above pointing downward to the exit.  He enters the subway, where others advise him to keep left.

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CONTEXT (PERSONAL)

I am from The North West, or rather The North of North West.  I come from the North of North West.  I was born in Carlisle.  Even further up the west coast mainline than Preston.  At the moment I live in Lancaster.  I think about how these are all different but all pretty small sizes of city.  Further North than what I think a more general perception of The North West is.  They aren’t Liverpool or Manchester, that’s for sure, their identity or importance more of a struggle.  All of this makes me wonder about what it means to be from here.  What the North West is now.  Whether there is a divide between it and The North East, or it and The South.  Age old questions.  How these landscapes define us.  Why?

ACT TWO:  CENTRES

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At the start of act two he goes to the local library and museum.  The gold letters on the portico read “To Literature, Arts and Sciences. To them indeed, he thinks.

He seeks out and finds the local history section.  In it, there are biographies of Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, lots of books on Railways, factories in Manchester, Liverpool and the slave trade and ‘murderous’ Bolton.

–       Excuse me… are these all of the local history books?

–       Yes they are.

–       It’s just that I can’t seem to find any about Preston.

–       No. Those are upstairs.

He looks at books and statues and crests.  He looks at a computer designed to impart local information.  He reads about ‘The Preston Guild’, the oldest festival in England.  It happens every 20 years.  He learns that things that happen rarely are sometimes described as happening “once every Preston Guild”.  He thinks that a guild is to do with a trade right or agreement that people joined, a collective of merchants and traders that worked in the city. Or something.  He’s not sure exactly.

He leaves the terminal and goes upstairs to another gallery and looks at famous faces from Preston.  He looks at old bones and skeletons. At carvings and statues and scrolls.  Conscious of time, he pauses for breath to try and make the artefacts connect, but struggles to do so.  Time for some life, he thinks.  So he leaves the building and heads for the town centre.

–       Excuse me… sorry to bother you… is this the way to the town centre?

–       Yes… but really it’s a city centre.

He walks through the town city centre.  The shops are as he might have expected, the signs and structures familiar.  He thinks about other ways to get information.  He goes into a newsagent.

–       Does Preston have a local paper?

–       Yes.  The Evening Post

–       When does it come out?

–       Every morning.

He has a coffee sitting below an escalator in the middle of a shopping centre.  Looks at the paper and opens his notebook. Looks at his surroundings.  Mostly he could be anywhere.  It’s hard to say what defines this place. Perhaps it is better, or easier, to think about what happened here rather than what is happening now.

 CONTEXT (HISTORICAL)

–       Visited by Charles Dickens, Franz Liszt and Karl Marx (who proclaimed it “the next St. Petersburg”).

–       First town (it was a town then) in the UK to get a KFC.

–       Made the UK’s 50th city in the 50th year of the present Queens reign.

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ACT THREE: THE CONVERSATION

Where he arrives at his destination (a venue called The Continental) and where a long conversation takes place and takes in the following themes and subjects:

Communty and communities, arts practice, film making, theatre making, arts strategy, where we come from, how we make culture, public spaces, local and universal art, local politicians, children, the long term and the short term, what The Continental is and was, BAE systems, culture and cultures, railways and bus stations and connections and being connected, documentary film and theatre, reality and fiction, real people, parch peas, food and identity, living up to expectations, Preston being ‘third city’ (or always the bronze medal), coming back, getting out, the venue, the expectations of this project.

This is by no means a comprehensive list.

CONTEXT (LOCAL)

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The fate of Preston’s iconic bus station remains in the balance after a Government minister delayed a decision on making it a listed building.  Culture minister Ed Vaizey had been expected to give his verdict last week after examining a submission from English Heritage.  But at the 11th hour Mr Vaizey decided to call it back for another look and could now make a personal visit to view the giant terminus topped by a multi-storey car park.

ACT FOUR:  IN THE CITY

He walks around.

–       What do people do here?

–       Mostly, they leave.

He walks around some more.

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CONTEXT (QUESTIONS)

Why might we make theatre in and from here?  Who might a piece of new theatre be for in this instance?  Where might it be for?  What might it be for?  Why?  What purpose would it seek to serve?  Why might it be important for this place?  Could it and should it be important for other places too?  Why?  Is it important that it should know these things before it is made?  How might it be made?  Who should it be made for and who should make it?  Why?

This is by no means a comprehensive list.

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ACT FIVE:  THE JOURNEY HOME

In the car on the way home he sits in the traffic and recounts his day.  He thinks about the light and the sky and the smells and what Preston might be made of. He thinks a lot about cliché and archetype, and wonders if there was anything that he saw or heard or thought about that surprised him.  He wonders if he wanted to be surprised.  He thinks about things that might be good or bad about Preston.  About what the culture and ‘culture’ of Preston is or might be.

He thinks about what theatre might and can do about and in all of this.  About the many things that theatre can be. He thinks about responsibility, about story and experience, about being together.  About what we do and what we can do.  What might a work about or from this place say? Why?

EPILOGUE

That was a story about a man in Preston

Who wondered what it meant to be North Western

And that was what he had to say

About the thoughts he had in the course of his day

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A longing to share

The New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is moving into a new phase now, as you can tell from all the brilliant posts on here by theatre-makers who have gone on think-missions to the towns where, it’s hoped, community-specific works will slowly be created. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on the first phase, encouraging new conversations between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. Two events so far have been particularly important to me in demonstrating how fruitful this dialogue can be: one I’ve already written about on here, the bubbly-fun Theatre Salon hosted by Lorna Rees in Poole following a performance of The Victorian in the Wall (which one of the performers, Matt Steer, gratifyingly describes elsewhere on this blog as “better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with”). The other was at ARC in Stockton back at the beginning of May; although I didn’t have time to write about it then, I’ve been hymning it ever since.

It wasn’t just the theatre club that struck me, it was the entire day. I arrived in Stockton early enough to have a walk around the centre of town. I was expecting the worst, if I’m honest; instead, it came across as a really likeable place. “But what about all the boarded-up shops?” someone asked me. “The preponderance of pubs, the drug addicts?” I live in a very muddled-up bit of south London, rich and poor in close proximity; I’m on greeting terms with the druggie who hangs around outside Costcutter but rarely-to-never talk to my neighbours; and I have three bookies within a few minutes’ walk of my house, two of which are on the high street, which is otherwise cluttered with competing mini-supermarkets, hodge-podge cheapo shops, charity shops, a pawn shop, fast-food chains and cocktail bars. Where’s the difference from Stockton? Just because it’s got middle-class cocktail bars and not pubs doesn’t make my high street superior: to suggest otherwise is class prejudice of the filthiest kind.

So I liked Stockton. And I really liked Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist, who told me about the weird layout of Stockton – wealthy in the suburbs, deprived in the centre – and her mother’s fury when her own nearby village was swallowed up by gentrification and she couldn’t find a basic white loaf for less than £2.50 in the bakers any more. Julie took me to the garishly bright regeneration centre on the high street, and to A Way Out, a charity set up a few years ago to help women who have become stuck in a life of drug addiction and prostitution to find their way back into education, jobs, decent housing, hope. The spokeswoman we met there told us that for the women who come to A Way Out, ARC is nothing more than a big glass building to meet people outside; even if they did pluck up the courage to go in, the well-heeled clientele looking down their noses would soon make it clear they weren’t welcome. And yet, two of the women had been brought the night before to see a performance of Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart. It was their first time going to a theatre, and they loved it. They hadn’t known theatre could be like that.

It would be really easy, Julie told me, to drive around all the village suburbs of Stockton and chat to their genteel inhabitants about ARC, encouraging them to experiment a bit more. But where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the satisfaction of coaxing a new audience whose lives could genuinely be changed by theatre? She’d rather, she told me, bring in two people from the council estates up the road from ARC, than 52 people from the suburbs. Because theatre isn’t just for a certain group in society: it’s for everyone. And that message is more important to communicate than ever.

The thing is, you can’t just tell the uninitiated to come inside and then abandon them. Even the friendliest front-of-house staff can seem intimidating when you don’t feel like you fit in. And who is there to talk to if you walk out having not understood the show, or found it difficult, or traumatic? This is what I love about the Theatre Club at the Young Vic, established by Lily Einhorn last year for participants in the Two Boroughs project. Nearly every time I’ve been to it, someone has said they don’t go to other theatres in London, because they don’t feel posh enough. And they don’t talk to other people about theatre, because they don’t feel smart enough. Only at the Young Vic do they feel at home.

In some ways, ARC feels like a really homely place. It has a vibrant programme of work for children, and a really enticing programme of activities for the over-55s. And yet, there’s also something off-putting about it. The cafe seemed quite pricey to me, particularly the biscuits; I felt guilty for doing it, but bought my dinner at Marks and Spencer’s round the corner. As far as I could tell, there’s no dedicated playspace for kids, while the oldies dominating the public spaces keep teens and twentysomethings at bay. And when the show ends, everyone just hunches their shoulders and heads out into the night: unless I’m mistaken, the bar doesn’t stay open for them.

The night I was there, the bar did stay open, for a Dialogue Theatre Club – the events I’ve been running (following the Young Vic model) with my friend Jake Orr, opening up space for people to talk about a show, not with the makers but just with each other. I had a good feeling about the ARC club, because the show being discussed was Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, an extraordinary, challenging, noisy, furiously political piece that looks everything that’s awful in the world square in the eye before exorcising it in a punk-rock frenzy then replacing it with quiet, delicate stories of hope. You form enough of a bond with your fellow-audience members, poring over newspapers together, then poring over humanity, that by the end, you’re curious: what did they all think?

Not everyone stayed for the Theatre Club – there were a few schoolchildren who had to go home, a couple of others with things to do. But the 12 of us who did stay sat talking intently for over an hour; every so often I’d notice someone from Uninvited Guests, otherwise occupied with clearing the theatre, peek round the door and marvel that we were still at it. We talked about how the show had made us feel about our media, and our consumption of media, the narratives of optimism and negativity foisted on us, but that we also foist on others. We talked about how it felt to be assigned imaginative roles in the gruesome stories we’d read, of kidnapping, murder, accidental death. We marvelled at the structure, the care with which we’d been taken on a journey, the breath of fresh air when the exorcism ends, the loveliness of sharing hope. And then one woman, who had been fidgeting uncomfortably for the first 30 minutes or so, finally felt compelled to speak. She hadn’t liked it at all. She’d felt hectored and even attacked by it. She’d found the full-frontal, visceral, obnoxiously loud exorcism upsetting. She had been abused in her life, and it brought the horror of that experience flooding back.

It was a view on Make Better Please I hadn’t anticipated – one that made me, and everyone else singing its praises, see the show in a whole new light. And we were even more startled when another, older woman, who had also sat hunched and silent, was encouraged by the first woman’s confession to make her own: she, too, had been abused in her life, and she, too, had found the show very difficult to watch. And, unlike the first woman, she hadn’t come with a friend. She didn’t have anyone to help her decompress, work through her response to the show, and let it go. She was alone.

I love that theatre takes me to difficult places. But I can’t just absorb it: I have to process it. Sometimes it’s in conversation with friends, sometimes it’s in my blog. The atmosphere in the Theatre Club shifted after those two women spoke: we discussed the responsibility of theatre-makers to their audiences, how important it was to invest in the sharing of hope at the end – and how useful it was to be able to continue the audience community outside of the show, swapping thoughts, finding out more about each other. One of the attendees later wrote a review of Make Better Please, with a few lines on the discussion, which he’d found “fascinating”, in which he said: “I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever.” So, why doesn’t it?

Since that night, I’ve thought a lot about the offers that theatres make to their audiences, and the offers they don’t make. Most of them revolve around money, or rather, extracting money from audiences then making them feel a bit privileged: pay this much and you’ll get to buy your tickets earlier (for a small discount, if you’re lucky); pay this much and you can dress up in uncomfortable clothes and come and feel awkward at a champagne do. And then there’s the offers theatres make around talking to artists: in the auditorium, in clearly demarcated spaces, apart. Where are the membership schemes that say: join our club and we’ll invite you to a monthly tea party, where you can meet other members and the artists we’ve programmed and chat informally over biscuits and cake? Where are the membership schemes that say: hey, we’ve started our own discussion group! Don’t worry if you can’t afford to buy a drink as well as your ticket – we’ll give you one for free. It’s not your money we’re after. It’s your company.

I bumped into Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC, in Edinburgh last month, who told me something that, quite honestly, made me want to hug her. Since my visit, they’ve begun experimenting with new ways of getting artists to interact with potential audiences: she’s been putting theatre-makers together with local creative-writing groups, and is about to try hosting a tea party, for people to come in and get to know the people she’s programmed. She told a story about Daniel Bye, who has been working a lot at ARC this year, sitting down in the cafe with a group of over-55s who attend ARC regularly, not for theatre, for creative classes. They asked him a whole bunch of questions, none about his show, all about him personally: when and where he was born, if he has siblings, if he’s married, if he has kids. They didn’t want to know about his work. They were looking for the personal connection that would make them think: yes, I like you, I’m interested in what you do.

Interactions like these are really easy to make happen, aren’t they? So are theatre clubs, and discussion groups, and anything else that breaks down the barriers between the people who make theatre and the people who watch it. All it takes is a different way of thinking about theatre: not as an economy, with tickets to sell that need to be bought, but as stories being told and listened to, by people with hearts and lives and a longing to share.