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.