Getting to know The Preston Bill

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By Georgette Purdey

I have been working on Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood for 18 months and it feels to me like we have all been building towards The Preston Bill. It’s the moment the project has come together in a perfect storm: great show, great venue, great artist. It’s a marketing gal’s dream team!

Andy Smith has been planning this show for almost two years. A Lancashire lad, he was the perfect artist to write a piece in response to Preston. I had seen an open rehearsal of the show in Camden People’s Theatre in London a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Fast-forward to the final night in Preston and the show has come on leaps and bounds.

The New Continental is far from what you might think of a Prestonian boozer: it’ s swanky and welcoming, nestled on the corner of a beautiful park. It’s the perfect intimate venue for The Preston Bill and Fuel worked hard to make sure the audience had more than just a good night out.

Gathered in the pub about half the audience arrived early for Garry Cooke’s work, a photographic journey of life through the past 80 years. As we sat with our pints we laughed at the juxtaposition of images from people’s own photo albums sandwiched next to world events. It’s important to remember that Uncle Ted washing his new car was just as mission critical in his life as NASA landing a man on the moon!

We then moved into the theatre space, which was bare apart from a chair and a ukulele. Andy held the audience spellbound with his beautifully lyric piece The Preston Bill. The embodiment of an ‘everyman’, the story of a life, an ordinary life. Sometimes that life seemed small and pedestrian but it illuminated much bigger debates and trends in society. I am not from Preston, but that didn’t matter, to me Bill was my Granddad born in South London, living through the Blitz, National Service, the Printers’ strike. His mother’s fond bedtime words were my Dad singing Que Sera to me every night as a child. He had captured the beauty and the pathos in everyday life.

As I looked around I had a bit of a ‘Henry Higgins’ moment – the denouement of the last two years of NTiYN. The audience were engaged, experiencing new writing, with a local artist in a versatile pub theatre. This was it – we had cracked it!

I couldn’t help but think about my childhood theatre experiences sat in church halls watching the work of companies like Eastern Angles – this was great storytelling stripped back to its bare bones.

In ‘the snug’ after, the Theatre Club was a lively debate fuelled by local pride and a sense of loss for the Preston of old. Understandably the dialogue moved to politics and although it’s easy to see The Preston Bill as partisan, I think that misses the point. The Preston Bill experiences life under Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – he is a prism through which we see the past 80 years played out. Things change, gay rights make advancements, some things don’t change so much. Throughout the play women remain benevolent characters but bit-parts, in a reflection on the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

The Preston Bill goes on tour in spring and I am confident that in theatres all around the country it will move audiences with its lyric narrative and leave them pondering on the legacy of their own lives.

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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 – 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