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.

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The listeners: Slung Low’s Knowledge Emporium in Jaywick

by Alan Lane

By many measures Jaywick is Britain’s poorest town. A collection of bungalows south of Clacton, it is, regardless of whichever measure you use, an area of some deprivation. Old amusements stand burnt down, many of the streets aren’t really streets in any modern sense and there are few of the contemporary touches of affluence that one might expect. Which is my way of saying that the nearest Costa coffee was 3.4 miles away.

There’s also a defiant air about the place, an almost punch-drunk sense of independence. The last time I was in Jaywick [on one of two research visits to the area, which began Slung Low’s relationship with NTiYN], a confederate flag flew high in a yard above a pile of old boat engines and land rovers. The pile remains the same but now the flag is rainbow, an equally contentious statement in UKIP central.

This narrative, of a town lost and desperate, has been captured by a recent TV documentary. I didn’t see it but it’s the first thing I hear when I arrive and the constant snare drum through our week:

“Are you with the Tele? They can fuck off! They just showed the bullshit. Lying bastards they are, they told us they were doing one thing and then did another.”

There isn’t one person we meet that doesn’t mention it. The television company is hated. They got their easy narrative and scarpered.

I don’t know. I haven’t seen the show. But, beyond any morality, I do know that if you make a film about a community and you end up this hated by your subjects then it’s a pretty short-sighted view of community engagement and documentary making. A slash and burn approach. But maybe that’s the point. The betting is that these places will be burned in the not so distant future and there’s no real risk in being hated by the people who live in Jaywick. Maybe they’re right. Personally I think they should make the same team do a follow up doc in a year’s time but then there’s a reason why I’m not in charge of commissioning at Channel 5.

Whatever your opinion on emotionally manipulative, social vulture, class sneering poverty porn documentaries – and there have to be some folks who like these things because they’re always getting made – we can all agree that they got their narrative and buggered off.

And then, about a month after it aired, Slung Low arrived.

A silver airstream caravan parked up in the centre of the town. In bow ties and candy-striped waistcoats, four of us stood outside. If anyone approaches and asks what we are about then we explain that we are a sweet shop that accepts no money: we trade our sweets (a whole bag of your selection) for your knowledge which you enter – unobserved – in our Great Big Book of Everything That We Know.

Suspicion and open disdain always disappears in the face of actual sweets. Once it’s been ascertained that there is no catch and this is no cruel trick, most people get involved. Most came back day after day with new knowledge for more sweets. A deal is a deal.

That’s the easy part of the Knowledge Emporium. It’s easy because it’s simple and it works. Sweets for knowledge. Everyone loves sweets.

The rest of the week was harder in Jaywick. We struggled. Stood in a candy striped waistcoat, it’s not easy to hide. There was a man who stood in the car park in the town centre shouting, to no one specifically, that the police had come and taken his little son. Again. We ended up talking to him for a while that day – there was no one else about, the town abandoned during the day – but for all the talking I never found anything useful to say to him.

There was the man who came to explain to us that Iceland had sold him mouldy meat and he was going to take it back for a refund. It became clear as we stared at him in confusion that we were as close to authority figures (if your idea of an authority figure wears bowling shoes) that there was around and this rehearsal of his story an important boast of confidence before he got on the bus to argue his case with the supermarket (he got a refund and vouchers).

There was the unbelievably friendly older woman who kept returning day after day. Her pride in her new husband and his various achievements (endlessly told in winding anecdotes) sharpened by the sight of the actual man in front of us withering with Parkinson’s. That she had found someone new to tell all those old stories to had a clear, profound effect on her: a little, rare new audience for her memories. The two of them isolated by his disease, we were – only for a moment, but still – vital.

But it was tough. Not just emotionally draining. We expended a lot of energy combating the various and frequent attempts to steal Alfie the Airstream caravan, and there is a limit to how much aggression that even a neon candy-striped waistcoat can defuse. For all the light and shade we found, Jaywick is the hardest place we’ve ever taken the Knowledge Emporium.

At the end of a residency, we perform a reading of a town’s knowledge. We type up all the knowledge, placing each piece on a scrap of paper, which is then drawn at random from a box and read to an audience. The show is timed according to how long it takes for a member of the audience to cook a tortilla. In Jaywick the reading took place at a village fete thrown to mark the anniversary of one of the Martello Towers opening as a museum and art space. The reading was competing with a local community African drumming band, a very hard working acrobat show and a woman set up just behind the reading who was singing plaintive covers of the hits of the Cranberries. If art can ever be a competition then we lost with this one. The African drums overlay everything, the departing acrobat audience walked right through ours without a second glance and the mournful rendering of already mournful songs still echo in my ears: “LiiiiiiiinGARRRR”. This was not Slung Low’s finest moment.

But that’s OK. The realisation that the Emporium does its real work long before the reading is many years old. The vast majority of people who came to the caravan weren’t at the fete. That’s not a criticism of the fete, nor of the caravan. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged some of those people to the fete. But regardless, the Emporium had done its work, and performed its important function by simply standing and listening. In a town so full of loneliness and the tangible sense that no is listening and no one cares, the simple act of standing and remaining available was the most useful thing we could have done.

And in standing and listening, what was overwhelming in nearly every conversation we had was how very proud people were of the Jaywick they live in. Not the “we don’t care if other folk hate us” of some towns (Leeds, I’m looking at you), nor the “We’re glorious” (side eyes Manchester), but: “It’s so wonderful here, the people are so kind, we don’t understand why everyone else can’t see it.” If we had read out every comment that talked about how wonderful the sense of community in Jaywick was, the reading would have been a week long.

Jaywick’s knowledge turned out to be made up primarily of how great it is to live there.
As we were reading out the knowledge, I found myself facing directly the area’s councillor who had turned up on a Saturday morning. If we only had one audience (and we weren’t far off at times), then this was the one that made it worth the effort.

Slung Low talks a lot publicly (and certainly within the press) about our large, explosive shows full of fire and politics and vainglory and noise. I cannot express the importance within that context that we give to still doing the Knowledge Emporium: which, if it goes well, doesn’t involve setting fire to anything. The simple usefulness of going to a place, offering a fair trade and listening.

It’s normally reliant on piggybacking on an existing structure: a street festival, a theatre with a progressive marketing budget, Christmas light switch on. Jaywick doesn’t have any of those. Without Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, there is no way that the Emporium could have gone to Jaywick. As challenging a time as it was, there was a clear sense and understanding that the ground had been prepared for us. Relationships made by Fuel with key people in the community to ensure that there was room for us to stand, hold space and listen. You can’t rock up to a village and look to make any sort of positive impact without real relationships. And Fuel created those relationships and created the space for us to be able to place the Emporium.

Maybe that’s what the TV people were missing. Someone like Fuel, who had taken the time to make the relationships needed to REALLY see what Jaywick is like and who lives there.

Alan Lane is the artistic director of Slung Low.

Read. Read again. Act.

by Maddy Costa

It’s become horribly habitual that a post on this blog starts with an apology from me that nothing new has been posted in weeks. Two months is a really long time in the rapid-fire world of twitter and buzzfeed and rolling news and constant updates. But that’s the nature of working with a company that tours, and does so seasonally: sometimes Fuel are the focus of my attention, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes Fuel are in your neighbourhood, sometimes they’re not. What does it mean, in the rapid-fire world of the internet and click-on-demand, to maintain relationships across time and distance? To remember, and hold a thought, and pick up where we left off?

If I’d written this in early January as I was supposed to, the blog posts I want to link to would have been fresh and current. Published on consecutive days at the end of December, they feel strangely old. And yet, the ideas in them are vital to the vision I have for what British theatre culture could be, and what I believe New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is working towards. A culture in which people don’t feel intimidated by contemporary theatre, or feel like it’s a club to which they’re not invited, or feel that it’s something they’re supposed to have particular expertise or education to “understand”. A culture in which theatre isn’t valued for the amount of money it prises out of people’s pockets and directs back into government coffers, but for the effect it has on how people see themselves and each other, how they understand human behaviours, how they vision they own futures, how they accommodate their pasts. A culture in which theatre isn’t a weird kind of cinema where you’re not allowed to eat popcorn or whisper to your friend, but the place communities go to share a moment in time, see each other, and understand each other better.

For instance, in the first post, writer/theatre-maker/Fun Palaces agitator Stella Duffy told the story of her nephew, an electrician who happened to be working within the contract team renovating a London theatre, who almost never goes to theatre because, like so many people, he’s never given the impression that it’s for him. Stella wrote:

“this is OUR fault, it must be, we keep saying we want to include everyone – the Arts Council has arts for all as one of its five core goals, and we’re just not getting there. Arts for all should not be able to be a box ticked-off by a school visit, or one example of community outreach, TRUE arts for all really would mean a sparky working on a building site that is a part of one of our arts institutions feels welcome in that space, is welcomed in that space, is welcomed and wants to stay on, after a long day’s work, because he feels that the space has something to share with him.”

The following day, Alan Lane, co-artistic director of a Leeds-based company called Slung Low, had this to say on the subject of ticket prices, and the introduction of Pay What You Decide – in which audiences are invited to choose for themselves what they want to give at the end of a performance – as a financial model:

“I want a [theatre] system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.

Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.”

I remember lots of people reading these posts and being really enthusiastic and supportive of the arguments, but I wonder: how many have re-read them? Acted on them? Is an argument on a blog something people read in five minutes on the bus to work, or over a snatched coffee, or in the final stretch of a lunch break, a genuine inspiration and call to arms, or just another bit of noise in a day of scouting the internet? Or is all this writing seeping through the industry, and actually effecting some change?

Sometimes I feel hopeful: for instance, looking at the ARC in Stockton, one of the NTiYN venues, which rarely uses NtiYN’s resources because it’s already doing much of the community-based work that the project proposes. This season, every theatre ticket at ARC is Pay What You Decide. I feel hopeful whenever I re-read the Albany Theatre’s rejection of the Theatre Charter published last summer. I feel hopeful reading the piece on the Guardian website today by the artistic director of the Point in Eastleigh, which recognises that there’s a world of difference in theatre between financial resilience (which tends to be emphasised) and emotional resilience (which tends to be overlooked). Sometimes, however, I despair that the arts-for-all manifestos articulated by the likes of Stella and Alan aren’t common practice already, the fundamental way that theatre operates. They’re things other people read, not what they do.

The third December blog was by Mary Halton, a radio producer by day who has only recently found the confidence to begin writing about theatre. Mary can thank by name the people who gave her the confidence not just to go to the theatre but to express what it makes her think and feel. And she thinks the job of giving that confidence isn’t just down to big institutions (be they theatres or schools), but to all of us individually. For instance:

“We need to stop just telling people about theatre. It’s not that people ‘should’ go, like they ‘should’ eat their greens. We don’t just need to eulogise and market at people, we need to bring them along. Each and every one of us can do this. Bring someone into a space, make them feel like it’s somewhere they are entitled to be, and they’re allowed to love, hate or feel entirely like they didn’t understand what they saw there. …

I’m thinking especially about critics here. I’m thoroughly and completely guilty of bringing a] other critics and b] friends who could and would buy a ticket to the performance as my +1s to press nights. [But:] Imagine if each and every one of us took a friend/colleague/relative who doesn’t normally go to theatre as our +1 to everything for a month. A year. The rest of our careers.”

That challenge has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking about the ways in which critics are implicated in the skewed economics of theatre. People writing online mostly do so for free: the way we are paid is by being given free tickets. That helps perpetuate an idea of theatre as product, commodity, a financial object. Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder: on the days that I’m being paid to write about theatre, what might happen if, instead of accepting free tickets, I agreed to pay for them, on condition that the theatre gave the two complimentary tickets to the electrician working behind the scenes, or the shop-owner two doors down, or the woman who organises the local book group who thinks theatre isn’t for her? How many people could be welcomed into theatres by that method?

It’s possible to do a lot of talking about theatre and reading about theatre – I know, I’m at it constantly. But I want to see, physically see, more doing. I want to see more people in the theatre industry not just reading Alan’s or Stella’s blogs once but reading them again and again, then acting on them. I want to see more critics not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Maybe this is a feeling sharpened by this being the final year of NTiYN as a research project, and so the transition year for putting the research into everyday practice. It’s a slow process, but Fuel are committed to changing how they work: not just how they tour their own work, but how they talk to audiences, meet communities, and support other theatre-makers and producers. Are you?

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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