Artist mission – Javier Marzan in Preston

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 the blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Javier Marzan. You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project a t

I am on Piccadilly station waiting for the eight thirteen train that will take me to Preston.  Many times I passed through this city on my way to somewhere else, all I know  of Preston is platform number three, they are many  platforms on this huge red brick station, and many people that, just like me, seem to be passing through on their way to Manchester, London or  Edinburgh.  Today I will get off at Preston and step beyond the station, I am a man with a mission. The train is here.  I am sitting next to some students hard at work on their papers and a gentle old couple reading the news, the rain taping on the glass faster and harder as we speed along. Bolton, Chorley and here we are, Preston.

It is a rainy day, one of many I am sure, and the town seems to be illuminated by a huge fluorescent batten. My first meeting on this day curated for me by Chantal Oakes is at the Korova arts café just of the high street, five minutes walk  from the station.  Although I get a bit lost and have to ask for directions, everybody I ask knows where the church that gives the name of the street I am looking for is, but nobody knows where the street is or heard of café Korova . I walk up and down a bit and on this short stretch I pass by three churches, this is indeed a priest town. I also walk by Theatre street where there is not a single theatre or cinema any more, the name is just an echo of the past. At last following my nose and retracing my steps  I find the meeting point.

-Good morning, Chantal?


-Nice to meet you

– This is Sam Buist, have a coffee and a chat and I will see you later

Sam is the man who runs this arts café. Some tables and chairs and small bar area at the front, a chill out area behind  with sofa, coffee table and carpet; upstairs a tiny black box room is the venue.

Sam is an enterprising man who opened this venue a month ago and already has managed to bring an audience in, he also organizes the Tringe festival which is the Preston fringe. He is passionate and a bit of a fighter. We talk about the city and and it’s cultural offers. We talk about, how things seem to happen in pockets, the lack of interaction between the people in the arts, the lack of sharing between the amateur groups, the university and the independent writers and actors. There is a fear of dialogue, an overprotection of ideas that prevents growth.  We talk about the Preston Guild, a celebration that happens once every twenty years,  where all the trades parade through the city and hand their tools to the next generation. It is still going on even if the trades are not there any more but it is a direct link to the past. I am fascinated by this, and the fact that still is an event that happens only every twenty years says a lot about the people of Preston, they’re quiet unassuming and patient.  Sam agrees and says it is the people he would miss most if he was to leave this city, he says they are very  welcoming of strangers, perhaps becaus  of the docks and the arrival of people from all over in its history  prestonians are very accepting. And it is true, there are prestonian, Caribbean, Indian Chinese communities and very little tension amongst them. Maybe this is why, Sam thinks,  you don’t hear much of Preston on national news. People of Preston don’t like to brag or shout.

We have been chatting a while and now another Sam joins us,  Samantha Blackburn who works as a cultural developer for the city council.  Samantha lived in Canada for many years and now she is back here where she was born, she still has that American twang on her speech.  Sam and Sam agree on many points.  One of them is how people in the arts administrations are somehow afraid of the new, they are conservative with small c, not politically, as the polls show here people vote labour.  They agree in that there is a lack of spaces where to present work, there is not an arts centre as such, plenty of empty buildings but not the will to open their doors to an arts enterprise.  And if there is one thing Preston needs it is an arts centre ,where the theatre, the visual arts and etc.. can share, for is in a physical space where a dialogue amongst all this pocketed groups can flourish.  It is very telling when Samantha takes us to the museum that the only place available for local artist to show their work is on the walls by the stairs.  There are simply no outlets for the creative industry.

Samantha is keen to change attitudes from the inside but even within the council there is a lack of dialogue and the little money available for the arts is controlled by a financial department that decide what artistic project to fund  and, much to her frustration, without listening what the cultural developers have to say.

⁃  He is an accountant. He plays golf! Doesn’t even ask what we think! He wanted to spend £33,000  exhibiting a mock up of the terracotta army when we could do so much more!

There is the Preston guild, and the rolling the egg down the hill and the Mela and the Caribbean carnival and the Chinese new year which people love and get involved in.   And there is the Guild theatre, a shopping arcade entrance guides you to it, a theatre encased in seventies purpose build architecture where they program shows with acts that used to be on telly or had a success years ago in the commercial circuit which is run by the council and bleeds money, but they won’t program anything else.  I am sure that with a bit of imagination it could develop and educate an audience but it is a not very inviting space, it is a space that says: come watch the show and go!  If you want to talk about what you’ve seen do it somewhere else, and don’t hang around before the show either for I have not room for you and I am not going to offer you a coffee or a tea either. Purpose built, like much of Preston, like the wonderful brutal bus station that divides opinion.  The problem is that this places are not open to change, they  where built for a purpose and now that things have change and their use is not the same they stand there big and proud but not knowing what to do, like the strong  hands developed by many people here  who worked manufacturing cars or textiles or in the docks and are now folded  inside a pocket now the work is gone.

Sam and Sam, Chantal and me walk around the town, Millers arcade and its empty shops, the museum by the square, where we see what huge mills the town housed withtheir tall chimneys and today flat as a pancake, a ceremonial barrow and spade used to inaugurate the buildings now the only thing remaining of it.  It came and it went in no more than two generations, or four Preston guilds, as they say.

We make our way through from the guild theatre and, through a series of  doors and  a crossing tunnel bridge, into a  car park on top of the bus station and we have not been outside.

– Purpose build architecture. Chantal says .I don’t find it intimidating,this is the type of surrounding where I grew up.

I do find it a bit intimidating.

-woahh! This car park is huge! I say

-Yes there is talk of grounding the station but this car park is just too useful.  Chantal says.

We are off to “The Continental”, which is like the grown up well to do relative of Korova café.  This is the place where Fuel will present their work.  After a nice lunch we nose around the venue and have a good chat with Robin Talbot who runs and programs it.  It is a very flexible and roomy place well kit out for music.  As Robin says is in music where he can make a bigger return.  It is simpler than theatre to prepare the gig and can fit twice as many people as the sitting is not required.  Still this is the sort of space that is ideal for this city.  It feels a bit out of the way although is just a fifteen minute walk from the high street, and is the kind of place you will like to hang around. But again, it is a private enterprise with the need of making money; even so it runs an imaginative and novel program.   And the council still looses money on the Guild theatre.  Preston needs an arts centre, and people like Robin that help to run it .

Our plans to walk back through the park, Preston unlike the workers of the mills has good lungs, are negated by the rain . We will meet to see the show at the Korova.

For a couple of hours I walk around Town continuously slapped on the face by the rain. They are folding the stalls at the market. A great  Victorian covered space, no walls, ornate iron columns sporting a high roof.  It has been used as a makeshift cinema, and I think it is an ideal place to use as a venue for many types of work .

I see the permafrost of corporate outlets, betting shops, chain restaurants and pubs.

It is in the pubs and clubs where you can find a crossover audience, young and old drinking and having fun in the same venue. Like football brings generations together, so does beer. The arts has catching up to do .

Preston is a depressed town, or pressed more like it, pressed by the lack of money and lack of work, like many industrial places where the industry has gone there is a hole difficult to fill.

After changing my very wet socks I make my way to  Sam’s  tiny theatre to watch “In a land much like ours” by breathe out theatre.  It feels as I am part of the action sitting so near the actors ,who do a great job by the way. It is a drama ,a very linear narrative of a couple whose daughter is killed (it is Grimm up north).  Running alongside there is a parallel story, the fable of David and Goliath narrated by one of the three actors using a lego world in which after killing the giant David becomes one himself clumsily destroying the town he wanted to save ( it is Grimm up north)

The audience really liked it.  Having the fable of David cutting trough the main narrative gave the somehow pedestrian story another flavour.  Chatting to a couple of audience members afterwards, both in amateur dramatics, I find out that  it is precisely this David fable that had them both really confused and did not know what the meaning was. They quite frustrated about this .

The theatre offers in Preston are minimal and very mainstream giving very little space for the imagination of an audience to grow.

If was to make a piece of work in Preston I would try to make something that encouraged  the artists of the city to collaborate and share, and like in a night club will bring generations together.

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