Acts of giving

I’ve just done a bit of reorganising on this blog: not a redesign, because I’m technologically quite lazy and unexpectedly fond of its bubblegum pink; more a gentle rethink of how each post is categorised (goodbye argument, hello thinking – more friendly, no?). Apart from other usefulnesses, the exercise made me realise how little attention I’ve paid on here to a really important strand of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood: the commissioning of new or adapted work specifically for one or more of NTiYN’s participating towns. It’s a story that has developed slowly and emerged piecemeal, through a series of really interesting and heartening events, each one demonstrating how vital this strand has been.

Some of those events have been responsive: Fuel encountered a work one place, and proposed producing it as part of NTiYN in another. Such was the case with Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, which he made in association with ARC in Stockton-on-Tees: it begins with Dan spending a few days in a town, gathering stories of people’s lives and local events, and ends with a walking tour, in which Dan relates those stories back to the audience, weaving them with historical knowledge and an invigorating reminder that a town’s life and future depends on its people – and can be changed for the better by its people. Fuel loved the premise and programmed the work in Margate; I was at the Theatre Royal recently for a performance of a new show by Dan, Going Viral, and people in the audience afterwards said they had come because they had enjoyed Story Hunt and wanted to see more of him. Bingo!

Similarly, Fuel saw Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral – a live-animation puppet show set in a fading seaside town – in a concrete box at the Edinburgh festival, and instantly recognised that it would sit perfectly in two actual seaside towns, Margate and Poole. They invited the company to remake Feral specifically for those two places, giving them research and development time to redesign bits of the set and a few of the characters to reflect recognisable local landmarks and public individuals. In both instances, audience numbers far exceeded expectation – and, when I saw the show in Poole, it was gorgeously clear from instinctive vocal responses what a difference it made to everyone in the room that what they were seeing had been made with them in mind. In each place, locals were invited to make their own films to be screened before the performances, creating a lively conversation between different views of the areas, different art forms, different experiences.

It’s there in the title of The Preston Bill who that work was commissioned for. And the story of how it came to be made is itself emblematic. It began just over two years ago, with Andy Smith taking a tour of Preston as part of a series of Artists’ Missions – reconnaissance visits from a motley set of artists to the NTiYN towns, time spent getting a feel for the place, finding out about its identity, its people, its secret nooks and crannies, and thinking about a work that could be made in response.

Andy’s record of his day in Preston contains so many germs of The Preston Bill: the story of a man, in the industrial north, told with a left-leaning political slant; a man who has a very particular relationship to education and learning, who works for BAE – it’s fascinating to look back over the Mission text and images and, with hindsight, see in them clues to the contents of Andy’s play. I saw The Preston Bill in two places in the south while it was still in development: in Margate, where older men in the audience talked fascinatingly about the ways in which their lives did and didn’t intersect with Bill’s, and asked each other and Andy how they felt about the character, whether or not they sympathised with him; and in London, by which time Andy had introduced a big old “power in the unions” singalong that gave me goosebumps. Seeing it in Preston for the first time at the end of October, I was struck by the oddness of Andy’s opening lines: in this room, in this theatre, we can be both here and in the North, in a town called Preston. But we are in Preston!, the logical-realist bit of my brain cried. That statement felt so vibrant and magical in the south, simultaneously holding us in the room and transporting us elsewhere; in Preston, it felt obtrusive.

But that’s me quibbling. Other quibbles emerged in the post-show discussion: one man, for instance, took umbrage at Andy’s inauthentic pronunciation of Bracciano’s, name of a famous local cafe. But there was also pride: that this was a story of and from a town that should have stories told about it, that should be on the cultural map. And there was sadness: at the demise of industrial employment for working people in the area, the lack of apprenticeships, the diminishing of opportunity. I love that this single show was able to inspire such polarised discussion; that, in telling a seemingly simple story, it invites a complexity of response.

To accompany the Preston performances, Fuel also commissioned two local artists, Garry Cook and Toni-Dee Paul, to create their own short works. I caught Garry’s and it was a fascinating complement to Andy’s play: a series of photographs juxtaposing world events from the past 80 years with scenes of town/city and domestic life in Preston, slow-moving at first then erupting with rambunctious energy as Instagram took over. It made me think about how history is documented, represented and retold, what makes up a life, what impacts on a life – and how our lives today will be remembered 80 years from now.

The Preston Bill is the only finished work to have emerged from the Missions so far, but I don’t think that’s surprising: a one-man show which prides itself on having no set, no complicated lights, no touring requirements – literally, all Andy needs is his ukulele, and a chair which he finds in the venue – The Preston Bill is about as lo-fi as theatre gets, and even that took just over two years to be “finished”. Other works, by Sylvia Mercuriali (for Malvern) and Abigail Conway (for Poole) have, like so much in theatre, not come to fruition because of scheduling issues. I think more work will be born of NTiYN, and in the meantime, the Missions documents are entertaining, astute and often beautiful works of art in their own right. The artists – very few of whom already had a working relationship with Fuel – were invited to represent their visit on this blog as they chose, and they did so with text and images distinctive and characteristic in their focus and lens.

The one other work to emerge directly from the Missions wasn’t a commission: it was created by Slung Low five years ago and has been quietly popping up around the country ever since. The Knowledge Emporium is an alternative economy, a celebration of community, a sideshow and a compendium of stories in one. The premise is quite simple: Slung Low pitch up in a town in an air-stream caravan and spend a week inviting people to share their knowledge in exchange for sweets. At the end of the week, the performers read the knowledge back to the town in the time it takes to make a tortilla. Two years ago, Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane went on two Artists’ Missions: to bustling Colchester, which has four theatres of its own, and to nearby Jaywick, which is completely off the theatre touring radar. Fuel could have asked him to take the Emporium to Colchester: it certainly would have been easy; instead, they paved the way for a stint in Jaywick, which finally happened last month. Alan’s account of the week is one my favourite things I’ve ever published on this blog: it’s sad, and honest, and fierce, not least in its commitment to art that makes space for people’s voices to be heard. It’s one of the best things to come out of NTiYN, and it happened almost invisibly.

As part of the wrapping-up work on NTiYN, I’ve been interviewing other producers, theatre companies and artistic directors about their approaches to its questions around audience engagement; transcripts and a synthesising essay will be published here over the coming weeks. In one conversation, Vicky Featherstone talked about the vital role within the National Theatre of Scotland of community-specific programming, and how exciting she found the challenge of creating work that speaks directly to a social group or a building or a locale or an identity. And maybe it could be argued that all theatre aims to do this: but in that strand of NTS and this strand of NTiYN, that aim is foregrounded and explicit.

I’ve struggled from the beginning with the ways in which NTiYN can be interpreted cynically as a hyper-inflated marketing exercise; but at its best heart, its gestures are more generous than that. What I love about all the works I’ve gathered here is how giving they are: the lengths they go to give people, communities, a chance to see and hear themselves; the different ground they tread to do so.


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


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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