In praise of: Amy Rainbow

by Maddy Costa

One of the (many) ambitions for this blog is to contribute to movements already happening in the six NTiYN towns to develop a more vocal and vibrant local critical community, whether it’s by flagging up writing on here, or giving workshops to inspire writers to be more adventurous in how they review. Someone I’ve been meaning to flag up for a while is Amy Rainbow: based in the Malvern area, she writes for a site called Behind the Arras, and has a lovely, friendly, no-nonsense voice. A brave one, too: I love the fact that, when writing about Fiction, the new Glen Neath/David Rosenberg show that takes place in pitch darkness, she does so fully confessing that she had to walk out, it made her feel that queasy. She’s since seen two other Fuel shows, Uninvited Guests’ endlessly gorgeous Love Letters and the same company’s This Last Tempest, and her writing on the latter is full of tenderness and admiration. It’s a while before Fuel’s spring season kicks in, but I’m already looking forward to reading what Amy makes of it.

From the community, for the community

by Humira Imtiaz

I moved to Middlesbrough eight years ago and it took me a while to set down roots, so Stockton is a recently discovered destination for me. But it’s also become a favoured destination due to my relationship with Stockton ARC Centre. It’s led me to pursue creative writing and become a member of ARCADE, their network for performance artists, which allows me to see many performances for free. Being able to watch as much performance art and theatre as I have over the past year is helping my writing exponentially.

With this membership I have become a regular visitor of Stockton and discovered that this ‘lovely’ town is host for a variety of performances and holds its own cultural art festival, Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF), annually. The performances I have been to see range from surreal to breathtakingly awesome – of course you always see one which disappoints, but if it inspires you to do/find better and allows for intense discussions with friends, any performance can be enjoyable to an extent. Going to the theatre or odd social club to see a performance has helped me become part of a community, befriending people whom I may never have met due to never stepping out of my comfort zone.

My personal tastes have also been challenged and I feel like I have discovered a part of myself. At times I have been surprised at what I have enjoyed, and what I like in performance pieces. There is something pure and personal in these intimate performances, which can be cherished by the audience. I really think we as a community need more performance art in our lives, to help aid in building friendships and discovering different experiences.

Performances within large cities get a level of promotion from the national newspapers, such as the Guardian or Independent – but this is not how I am able to get the information I crave about what is happening locally within the community, particularly Stockton and Middlesbrough. We need to showcase the amazing work that is happening to more extensive audiences. Art is for all and not those who seek it and we need to encourage the public, who think performance art is a little too different for their tastes, to be a part of the audience and discover these unique performances and experience the magic of their local community – especially Stockton where they have such amazing facilities. We need to encourage the public to have an input in what they wish to see within the public sphere of art and performance, not only local to them but nationally.

This is why I wanted to join the North East Artist Development Network’s Reviewers’ scheme (have a quick look at this lovely website full of reviews!). One of the big positive aspects of this scheme is how it encourages the local community to take part in the performance process, even if that’s just letting others know what is out there. Plus, from a personal perspective, the scheme let’s me see what other performances are out there, beyond Stockton. So far I’ve seen one performance piece in Newcastle, but I am sure there will be more to come soon!

But my friends and I are also trying to raise awareness about performance within the Teesside area. Our vision is to have a platform where all artists can freely promote their work, performance, exhibitions, etc. This is a shameless plug, but: Arts Events Teesside has been set up on Facebook to share dates and times of events for the public, and a few critical thoughts on performances we have attended. We are hoping to encourage the community to join in on what is available right on their doorstep, whether is it big events such as SIRF or some small performance down at the local pub. Once I myself had a small taste of watching performance pieces, I began looking for ways to keep actively going to more events but at times I have found it difficult to find information on what was on within my locality and beyond. I really feel that by joining up with others in the community, we can share what is within our area and show others the talent of Teesside.

Facts and fictions

I’ve known my friend Andrew for 22 years, and for most of that time he’s lived in Ingol in Preston, which ought to mean it’s the place I know best of all the NTiYN towns. Sadly, I’m quite a rubbish friend, so have relied on him visiting me in London, and haven’t returned the favour since 1999. So we were both really excited when I started working on this project at the prospect of seeing more of each other – even though he quickly confessed an element of cynicism about the work I would be doing. The New Continental has good music gigs, he told me, but isn’t really a place that attracts a theatre-going audience. And, he argued, the best thing about going to theatre is that it finishes early – no frantic dash for the last bus home – so why would anyone want to stay for a post-show discussion?

It’s taken a surprisingly long time, but on Friday night I finally had my first visit to Preston, and the Conti, for Fiction. It was a chilly night of squally showers, and as we made the 15-minute walk through winding back streets from the bus stop to the venue, Andrew and I feared the worst. Our journey was well over half an hour: who else was going to do that if they didn’t have to? In the dark and rain? And the Conti isn’t on the same side of town as students, making it even less likely that people would come. Let alone stay for the Theatre Club.

Settled into the pub’s lovely snug – with roaring fire! – Andrew and I got our first gratifying surprise: we discovered that the show was sold out. The capacity was 60 people – even if only a tenth stayed, I argued, that would still be enough for an interesting discussion. But at the end, everyone poured out of the theatre – and it seemed Andrew’s dire predictions were coming true. Except they weren’t. Everyone had disappeared to take advantage of the offer of a free drink for the discussion, and within a few minutes, people started coming back in. First two people, then five, then a whole crowd: we’d arranged the chairs into a big circle, but it just wasn’t big enough, and people crowded at the back so they could join in, too. In the end we had about 30 people, half the audience – one of the biggest theatre clubs I’ve ever led.

And it was brilliant. Fiction takes place in an astonishingly complete darkness, and lots of people talked about the insecurity that made them feel; one woman confessed that it induced a state of such panic that she’d had to leave. We talked about whether the makers take enough care over communicating just how dark it’s going to get, and the games that can be played with the imagination because of that darkness. We shared our different experiences of visualising the things described in the show, and how that was affected by the different qualities of the recording. We compared the extent to which the many invitations to fall asleep in the text of the show had affected our alertness; one woman talked fascinatingly of her experience of hypnosis, and how similar this had felt. We asked who had “understood” the show, and whether not understanding was frustrating, and enjoyed the way that the movement and content of the text is as surreal as a dream. One man actually said this was the best instance of surrealism in theatre he’d ever encountered. Apart from a brief moment of splitting into small noisy conversations, for most of the hour we talked as a single, albeit huge, group, listening attentively to each other, enjoying everyone else’s individual perspective.

As we travelled home, Andrew confessed he was amazed – and that his cynicism had been overturned. He’d not only really enjoyed the conversation, but the event had proven him wrong: people in Preston WOULD come to this sort of thing, AND have a brilliant time. This shift in his perspective showed me again what’s properly great about the NTiYN project: it can make people who’ve lived in a town for decades reconsider their relationship with it, and discover that it’s not what they thought it was. And it does this patiently, one person at a time.

Thinking big by thinking small

by Maddy Costa and Ruth Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I – Maddy here – travelled to Malvern for an event I called Meet the Neighbourhood: basically a chat in a pub with people who make and see and support theatre work in the local area. The pub was quite out of the way (at least, it felt that way to a non-driver) and the group who came was small but passionate. Michelle Pogmore, who is one of Fuel’s Local Engagement Specialists for Malvern, is a theatre-maker herself, and talked about her desire to galvanise her local community, not least to see more work; she also talked about how difficult it is for emergent or mid-career local makers to form a relationship with a big, commercial venue like Malvern Theatres – which, for me very personally, is my least favourite kind of venue, not at all intimate and strangely inflexible. I completely understand – and often share – Michelle’s desire for validation and support from those at (what looks like) the top of the hierarchy. But Bridget Floyer, the producer for NTiYN, who also produces the Campsite – theatre in tents! – while sympathetic, also argued that Michelle shouldn’t wait for permission, but focus on creating the grassroots scene she really wants to live in. Bridget told us about Ruth Mitchell, and Outpost, and a new collective blossoming in Plymouth, who used to hanker for space in the (similarly massive) Theatre Royal, but have now taken a DIY approach, and started programming their own and other people’s work in found venues. I still cherish the way Michelle took hope and inspiration from the knowledge that other people are successfully doing what she dreams of. A few days later, I contacted Ruth and asked her to write a bit about Outpost, to share that story more widely.

Incidentally, speaking of DIY, there’s a completely brilliant book of that name edited by Robert Daniels of a company called Bootworks, which collects a series of essays and approaches to making theatre outside of hierarchical structures and is my own source of immense hope and inspiration.

Over to Ruth:

It makes me sound ancient but I have been living in the South West of England since the dawn of the new millennium. I didn’t move to Plymouth by choice but because of my partner’s work, and I moved here thinking that life and work would carry on in a similar fashion to how it had in the 1990s. It was therefore a huge shock to find that for freelance theatre practitioners or, more precisely, mid-career theatre practitioners, they had to leave the city in order to find work. There were no opportunities for practitioners, such as myself, to have a freelance career in Plymouth.

So how could an independent theatre scene grow and thrive if people were constantly moving away to find work? In the almost 15 years since I moved here there is a generation of theatre artists missing because there weren’t the opportunities and support for them, a case of leave the area or leave the profession. Every year there are 1,000 graduates in the arts coming out of Plymouth but with little or no opportunity for them to stay, they move away.

From 2008 to 2011, in order to make work in my hometown and also give other practitioners the chance to stay put, I co-produced large scale Arts Council and Heritage Lottery funded site specific theatre events called Hidden City. Though with local funding becoming more and more stretched, it seemed that large-scale work would not be sustainable in the long term and the way to go forward in Plymouth was to maybe scale down and make smaller steps.

Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, said in Arts Professional earlier this year that the funding imbalance between London and the regions has resulted in “a continuous brain drain where talented new artists get a professional introduction in the regions, but are then obliged to head to London, like Dick Whittington, to gain access to the scale of budgets and creative opportunities that are simply unaffordable to regional companies”. The flip side to that coin is that young people, having finished their training in London, are heading back home because they simply can’t afford to live in London while looking for work in a notoriously difficult business.

Earlier this year a meeting was announced on Twitter and within 24 hours there were around 20 people crowded into a Plymouth pub interested in creating an independent theatre scene. Some had come back home to the south west after training, some were training here in Plymouth and some already making work but not getting the opportunity to show it in their home town. What we had in common was a need to make work in the city, now.

Something that has grown out of that meeting is a collective of freelance practitioners who have been getting together regularly since March to try and move that independent theatre scene forward and we invited Ed Rapley down from Residence in Bristol to talk us through the initial stages of getting a collective together. Between us we span three generations and are eclectic in our practice but we are all passionate about being a community of artists who can share, collaborate and support each other’s work; this will not only feed each other artistically, it will hopefully create more opportunities for DIY performance work.

Then in June 2014, 11 different companies from Plymouth took work up to the Exeter Ignite festival, this didn’t go unnoticed by Tom Nicholas, director of one of the companies, New Model Theatre. Tom had been hosting monthly scratch nights since the end of 2013 using space at the Theatre Royal and the Barbican Theatre, alternating between the two theatres each month. A lot of the work initially shown at these Beta scratch nights had grown and made its way into Exeter Ignite.

This also came to the attention of the Theatre Royal Plymouth who, on the back of Beta, asked Tom to curate a season of work from those Plymouth-based companies who had made a splash at the Exeter festival. That season became Forge, a six-week showing of work by independent theatre makers, which took place within a new theatre space, the Lab at the Theatre Royal; a space made possible with an Arts Council Capital grant for investment in theatre buildings. Tom, along with the performers, realised then that independent makers didn’t have to compete alongside the work happening in the NPO organisations, and the audiences showed that. He went ahead to create a pop up theatre space within Plymouth and Outpost was born. Along with producer Dan Baker, he programmed three respected touring productions alongside two commissioned pieces by emerging companies, plus his own play Parliament Town, which is all about the city it is performing in.

Outpost took place within the Town Bakery in the Royal William Yard, a naval victualling yard that has been given a face lift by Urban Splash and which boasts penthouse flats and an abundance of eateries and wine bars; what is now obvious is that it needs a performance space as well, one that doesn’t just pop up.

An interesting outcome of the Outpost programming was the percentage of work performed was pretty much split between companies from Plymouth and Exeter, which illustrates another relationship that is growing, one between the Plymouth theatre scene and the Exeter independent theatre scene. So much so that at the beginning of 2015 From Devon with Love, a festival that has played the Bike Shed in Exeter for the past two years, will also play at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. This festival is about celebrating work that is born and bred in Devon and it now spans the county, two venues and two cities. There is also talk about other festivals within the year being split between the two cities, and there are conversations being had about creating ways to transport the theatre makers from one city to the other to support one another, as the rail links are sadly lacking in the evening after 9.30pm.

It’s obvious that if we want to grow an audience for an independent DIY theatre scene then we have to lead by example and support one another. By sharing our work and advocating for one another we start to spread the word and by watching each other and learning from each other we should create a quality of work that audiences will want. Some regular funded organisations have started to take notice by giving space for the work to be shown and this year Plymouth University built a brand new state of the art performance space (The House) in the centre of town. One of the emerging companies from the Plymouth theatre scene, Blasted Fiction, will be the first resident company in the House and when students and audiences see a valid and strong alternative to other offerings, then graduates may stay to make work here and a Plymouth theatre scene may have well and truly arrived.

We use the hashtag plymouththeatrescene on twitter
The collective will be called Pseudonym (it’s only taken seven months to find a name) and our web site will be up by the end of the year.