Sparking desire

by Maddy Costa

It’s been a good couple of weeks for reflections on how more people might be encouraged to come to the theatre. Playwright David Eldridge revived his blog with a rumbustious argument for “a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience”. He confesses to a growing anxiety that: “new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art.” He believes most people are put off by that kind of work; most people “want to go the theatre when they think they’re going to have ‘a good night out’.” And, he states, theatre-makers can best give them that by: “making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action”.

A few days later, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What’s On Stage, reflecting on David’s blog alongside a couple of surveys of audience numbers and demographics. While agreeing with David to a point, Matt argues: “Accessibility is more than a matter of plain comprehensibility.” Attention needs to be paid to the culture beyond the show itself: as Matt puts it, people come not only because they anticipate a good night out, but when they “have the resources and the desire to get out to see these shows”. It matters not only what the work itself is like but where it’s programmed, how much it costs, how people hear about it, and what residues remain.

These are all questions Fuel are addressing through New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. In developing the local engagement specialist model they’ve been looking at how word-of-mouth and personal invitations encourage more people in to the theatre, employing people who live and work in each community to make contact with local groups who might feel a particular sense of connection to a show. They’ve been looking at how touring work might be tailored to reflect a specific community, giving additional R&D time to Tortoise in a Nutshell to remake their show Feral for Margate and Poole. With Phenomenal People, staged in a gallery space in Colchester, and The Red Chair, programmed into a community hall in Malvern, Fuel are beginning to look at how they might attract audiences by staging their work outside of theatre buildings (which they do as a matter of course in Preston, programming their work into a pub, the New Continental). And, through the Theatre Clubs that I host for them, they’ve been looking at how post-show conversations might give audiences a chance to digest what they’ve seen in a fun, informal, social way that encourages them to come back and see more.

These shifts in Fuel’s relationship with audiences are vital because a lot of the work they produce is experimental, innovative and collapses the boundaries between theatre and live art – that is, precisely the stuff that David represents as elitist and off-putting. But NTiYN refuses to see this work as inaccessible to a wider audience. It says it doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolchild or a retired schoolteacher, if you earn £5,000 a year or £50,000: whatever your background, this work could be for you. It says that this work, like more traditional theatre, has the capacity to make you laugh and cry and think, it just does so in different ways. Above all, it concerns itself not with a generalised “wider audience” but a series of communities, each one made up of individuals, each one with their own resources and desires.

Working on NTiYN has encouraged me to look past the big picture to a panoply of small ones. When Matt talks about theatre shows as “social interventions that should leave a mark”, I think about Kathryn Beaumont working with groups of women in the Stockton area: women who didn’t make it along to Phenomenal People so won’t show up in its audience figures, but had a heartful time together thanks to its existence. I think about the conversation I had with two teenagers at Phenomenal People in Colchester, explaining the UK political system to them. Two years after this happened, I still think about the two teenage lads in Poole who were given free tickets to see a show by Inua Ellams, and afterwards sought him out to shake his hand, they’d loved it so much. For both of them, it was the first time they’d set foot in a theatre. It matters to me that it might have been their last, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter at all.

Theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin had similar stories in mind when responding to Matt’s piece through a series of tweets. She reflected on her own work in “community-based storytelling participative theatre” – work she doesn’t even call “theatre” when talking about it with prospective or actual participants, because: “it’s an unuseful word”. This work doesn’t show up in the kind of audience surveys that Matt made reference to, because it’s usually free or “pay what you decide”, and its profile is even lower because it doesn’t get reviewed: as Hannah puts it, “I wouldn’t invite a critic to it as that’s not who it’s for”. (I always feel a bit sad when “critics” are considered a separate species of human.) This work happens off the radar – yet it’s vital to the UK theatre scene, being the very definition of a social intervention that leaves a positive mark.

In Hannah’s work, and in the touring model NTiYN is developing, theatre isn’t a product but a cultural interaction: an invitation to step out of the ordinary, to reflect on previous experience and encounter or imagine something new. And the thing Matt doesn’t really address in his column is the extent to which, at this moment in time in the UK, under this government, the value of such cultural interactions is being systematically eroded – and, along with it, the possibility that more people might have the resources or the desire to go to the theatre. At this moment in time in the UK, under this government, theatre isn’t seen as essential to education, to social debate, to a definition of citizenship, to the health of the human brain. It’s superfluous, unless it can be quantified and measured according to market values. This is what makes me anxious every time there’s talk of “wider audiences”, every time percentages are used in reference to people. I feel like the economic argument, and the terms of that debate, are winning.

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A community fuelled by theatre

by Michelle Pogmore

I am a Midlands-based theatre maker, performer, programmer, general manager and events consultant. Phew. The things you have to do to to earn a living making theatre. I began a few years ago after leaving uni as a mature student and with a child of eight. I set up my own company Red Dress Theatre and took a solo piece on tour. I also joined Reaction Theatre Makers and we’re currently booking our autumn tour for 2015. I feel that it is important for Worcestershire that companies such as ours drive forward into national territories to help put this part of the region on the map. Worcester has felt like a small place in the past and reaching out to others beyond this community has been essential for it to grow and stay alive to the possibilities of what can be achieved.

A fundamental turning point for me has been my part in New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as a local engagement specialist in Malvern. Fuel has made me feel part of a wider community of artists and valued for my ideas, and given me the rare opportunity to explore creative ways of promoting the work coming into our neighbourhood. Fuel has brought new life into Worcestershire and some of the most inspiring, intimate and challenging theatre to new and existing audiences. It has created debates and highlighted the ongoing necessity to create not only the opportunity for great theatre to be seen, but for us all to use this as an opportunity to come together. It has made us brave, it has made me brave.

That began two years ago with the most incredible piece of work: Zero by Clod Ensemble – the coming together of live music, story and choreography. We brought musicians to see dance, dancers to see theatre and all of us into a wonderful world of live music. What’s more, we had a wild after-show party in a gothic mansion house with the cast and musicians playing until 3am. But this wasn’t just a party for the cast. It was the planting of a seed that has grown here. The opportunity for audiences to come together and be a part of the experience, to join in and feel involved. To talk and laugh, discuss and feel included. This has been a part of the legacy that NTIYN has fostered.

Over the next year, our work with Fuel comes to an end, but I actually feel no sense of an ending. It is a continuation of all I have learned and experienced by attending others’ work and by working with Fuel. The reflection on our local theatre environment they encouraged led me to want develop cultures and environments that were not only about turning up, watching and going home, but a place to feel a part of something, as this is something that we felt was lacking in this area. A welcoming environment made up of the people who are present.

I had the initial idea to set up an online hub on Facebook called Fuelled by Theatre, where anyone could find out about innovative work within and outside of the region. The kind of theatre people might not know about, a place not owned by anyone but created through many voices, all passionate about seeing, reviewing and sharing views and information on artists, companies and performances touring throughout our region and sometimes beyond. Again this idea was valued. Fuel have funded the development, marketing and launch of the Facebook page in order for it to expand and thrive as a meeting place for everyone. And Fuel are not just taking their funding and running when the project comes to an end: they are continuing to support our growth and the growth of innovative theatre in our community.

Also with Fuel’s encouragement, myself and Tiffany Hosking are now programming work into a community arts centre in Malvern, the Cube – and bringing Clod Ensemble’s latest work The Red Chair there in June. Tiffany and I opened with our first programmed piece earlier this month: we had a full audience but what pleased me most was when people remarked on the atmosphere of the place, the art work hung that afternoon from a university student, and the relaxed and friendly nature of the space.

I am part of a community here in Worcester and my voice speaks for many who are developing work and events and who value the growth of our own thriving arts community. Fuel have breathed new life into Malvern. New and innovative theatre, new networks, contacts, friendships and support. It’s amazing what a little value can do to a person or a place. We are fuelled by theatre here, and passion and endeavour.

Looking back, looking forward

by Maddy Costa

With New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood approaching its second birthday, it’s about time that this blog attempted some kind of progress report, surveying the aims of the project and its place in the wider theatre landscape. Catherine Love wrote the last one, all the way back in July 2013, and there’s been nothing of the sort since. I’ve had good intentions: in March 2014 I conducted interviews with Fuel’s co-directors, Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell, and with Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, but both of those recordings are yet to be transcribed, let alone edited into publishable text. Poor show me.

What follows is more-or-less an account of a productive and heartfelt meeting held last month, bringing together the entire Fuel team to look at what is working well with NTiYN, what’s been less successful, what we want to develop further in the project’s final year, and how we might share all this information with other touring companies. The key point, agreed by everyone, is that NTiYN is no longer a “project”: it’s how Fuel wants to work with all venues and with all shows. What that means in practice is:

1: Touring shouldn’t be a series of business transactions in which human relationships fall to the wayside. At its very best, NTiYN has given Fuel the resources to develop personal connections with venue programmers, directors and communication staff, to devise show-specific marketing with them, and build from that to commissioning work for specific communities. At its absolute worst, NTiYN hasn’t succeeded in doing any of these things, a disconnect persists between venue staff and Fuel’s producers – and the effect is demonstrated in the box office, with small numbers of people coming to see the work. Relationships don’t develop overnight and this is an ongoing process, but the important thing about NTiYN is that it foregrounds the desire to work in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all but to think about what works for each venue and each show on an individual basis.

2: Touring thrives when there are local people in each community who can advocate for theatre, and encourage people to come and see it. Within the context of NTiYN, those community figures are Local Engagement Specialists, who are paid by Fuel to do specific, targeted outreach work for each show. They haven’t always succeeded in boosting box office, but again, it’s an ongoing process – and one that should be additional to engagement work carried out by the venue, not a replacement for it or in competition with it.

Positive stories of LES activities abound: in Malvern, the two LES have been inspired by their engagement with Fuel to start up a new theatre site on Facebook, advocate for other people’s touring shows, and curate their own scratch nights. In Colchester, the LES has forged new relationships with school groups and other local theatres, and is beginning a Student Ambassadors scheme, which will benefit all of the work coming to the Lakeside theatre. In Preston, the LES is tying together her work with Fuel with her own freelance producing work to create a network of interest in adventurous performance. The emphasis is always on boosting engagement with theatre, not just with Fuel.

Meanwhile, Fuel has already begun using the local engagement specialist model elsewhere: when the Uninvited Guests show Love Letters toured rural Scotland this autumn, audiences were significantly boosted by the presence of people in each local community doing informal outreach work. This isn’t rocket science: people are always going to be more inclined to see a show if someone they know and trust tells them that it’s worth seeing. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool theatre has – and in the LES model, word of mouth is given the respect and consideration it deserves.

2a: Again, common sense recognises that it’s a lot easier to talk about a show you’ve seen than one you haven’t. Where possible, Fuel have arranged for Local Engagements Specialists and venue marketing staff to to see touring shows in advance. Instead of relying on the artists’ and Fuel’s marketing copy to describe a show, LES and marketing staff can translate their own experience of it into a language that suits the individual or group they’re seeking to engage. Not everyone speaks theatre: for many people, even the most apparently simple and direct marketing copy can appear impenetrably abstruse. I think of this as the Megan Vaughan argument: on her blog Synonyms for Churlish, Megan writes entertaining, inventive and honest theatre reviews that invariably make me want to see what she’s seen – and she does this by prioritising feeling over thinking. But it’s hard to describe an emotional effect until you’ve seen a show yourself.

3: Touring can be about more than just putting on a show. This is the bit where I get to be shamelessly self-trumpety, but everyone at Fuel is a gratifyingly big fan of the post-show Theatre Clubs I host for them, which invite audiences to stick around for a drink and a chat about what they’ve just seen. It’s a flexible model: in some places (and particularly when I run them) the Theatre Clubs are for audiences only, without any of the show’s makers present; in other places, they take the form of an informal Meet the Makers conversation, like the traditional post-show Q&A but in the more relaxed environment of the venue’s cafe or bar. I’m more interested in the former, book-group format, because I believe it gives audiences a chance to interpret the show for each other, to absorb views that might contradict their own, and through that reach a richer understanding of what they’ve seen – all without asking the theatre-makers to “explain” it for them.

There’s been some debate about how to find the resources for Theatre Clubs to continue after NTiYN as a time-based “project” ends, but my feeling is that as long as there’s someone in the local community who’s interested in talking about theatre, and as long as there’s a spare pound for a packet of chocolate digestives, that’s all that’s needed to get a conversation started.

Those, then, are the headlines from the NTiYN interim report. We have a year left on the project in which we hope to build on what we’ve learned so far, try out new experiments and really bed this learning into Fuel’s general practice. We’re especially interested in building on a success story of Margate, where Fuel has been the catalyst for new closer relationships between different cultural institutions (the Theatre Royal and Turner Contemporary in particular): it feels really important that the theatre(s) in a community aren’t isolated but are in conversation with other organisations and art venues. Much as I love taking part in them, I’m hoping to hand the hosting of Theatre Clubs over to local engagement specialists and think about how I can contribute to the forming of neighbourhood groups around theatre, how I can help encourage local critical communities by inspiring more people to write about theatre, and how I can build on learning from the past, by doing a bit of proper research into the ways other people have created Good Nights Out (and yes, a re-read of John McGrath’s book of that title might well be a starting point). I’ll be doing more regular progress reports over the next year, because again, it feels important to share everything that’s happening within NTiYN across the theatre industry, because this project isn’t about selling a few more tickets for Fuel’s work – it’s about building sustainable local audiences for touring work, for the benefit of everyone.

In praise of: Amy Rainbow

by Maddy Costa

One of the (many) ambitions for this blog is to contribute to movements already happening in the six NTiYN towns to develop a more vocal and vibrant local critical community, whether it’s by flagging up writing on here, or giving workshops to inspire writers to be more adventurous in how they review. Someone I’ve been meaning to flag up for a while is Amy Rainbow: based in the Malvern area, she writes for a site called Behind the Arras, and has a lovely, friendly, no-nonsense voice. A brave one, too: I love the fact that, when writing about Fiction, the new Glen Neath/David Rosenberg show that takes place in pitch darkness, she does so fully confessing that she had to walk out, it made her feel that queasy. She’s since seen two other Fuel shows, Uninvited Guests’ endlessly gorgeous Love Letters and the same company’s This Last Tempest, and her writing on the latter is full of tenderness and admiration. It’s a while before Fuel’s spring season kicks in, but I’m already looking forward to reading what Amy makes of it.

Thinking big by thinking small

by Maddy Costa and Ruth Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I – Maddy here – travelled to Malvern for an event I called Meet the Neighbourhood: basically a chat in a pub with people who make and see and support theatre work in the local area. The pub was quite out of the way (at least, it felt that way to a non-driver) and the group who came was small but passionate. Michelle Pogmore, who is one of Fuel’s Local Engagement Specialists for Malvern, is a theatre-maker herself, and talked about her desire to galvanise her local community, not least to see more work; she also talked about how difficult it is for emergent or mid-career local makers to form a relationship with a big, commercial venue like Malvern Theatres – which, for me very personally, is my least favourite kind of venue, not at all intimate and strangely inflexible. I completely understand – and often share – Michelle’s desire for validation and support from those at (what looks like) the top of the hierarchy. But Bridget Floyer, the producer for NTiYN, who also produces the Campsite – theatre in tents! – while sympathetic, also argued that Michelle shouldn’t wait for permission, but focus on creating the grassroots scene she really wants to live in. Bridget told us about Ruth Mitchell, and Outpost, and a new collective blossoming in Plymouth, who used to hanker for space in the (similarly massive) Theatre Royal, but have now taken a DIY approach, and started programming their own and other people’s work in found venues. I still cherish the way Michelle took hope and inspiration from the knowledge that other people are successfully doing what she dreams of. A few days later, I contacted Ruth and asked her to write a bit about Outpost, to share that story more widely.

Incidentally, speaking of DIY, there’s a completely brilliant book of that name edited by Robert Daniels of a company called Bootworks, which collects a series of essays and approaches to making theatre outside of hierarchical structures and is my own source of immense hope and inspiration.

Over to Ruth:

It makes me sound ancient but I have been living in the South West of England since the dawn of the new millennium. I didn’t move to Plymouth by choice but because of my partner’s work, and I moved here thinking that life and work would carry on in a similar fashion to how it had in the 1990s. It was therefore a huge shock to find that for freelance theatre practitioners or, more precisely, mid-career theatre practitioners, they had to leave the city in order to find work. There were no opportunities for practitioners, such as myself, to have a freelance career in Plymouth.

So how could an independent theatre scene grow and thrive if people were constantly moving away to find work? In the almost 15 years since I moved here there is a generation of theatre artists missing because there weren’t the opportunities and support for them, a case of leave the area or leave the profession. Every year there are 1,000 graduates in the arts coming out of Plymouth but with little or no opportunity for them to stay, they move away.

From 2008 to 2011, in order to make work in my hometown and also give other practitioners the chance to stay put, I co-produced large scale Arts Council and Heritage Lottery funded site specific theatre events called Hidden City. Though with local funding becoming more and more stretched, it seemed that large-scale work would not be sustainable in the long term and the way to go forward in Plymouth was to maybe scale down and make smaller steps.

Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, said in Arts Professional earlier this year that the funding imbalance between London and the regions has resulted in “a continuous brain drain where talented new artists get a professional introduction in the regions, but are then obliged to head to London, like Dick Whittington, to gain access to the scale of budgets and creative opportunities that are simply unaffordable to regional companies”. The flip side to that coin is that young people, having finished their training in London, are heading back home because they simply can’t afford to live in London while looking for work in a notoriously difficult business.

Earlier this year a meeting was announced on Twitter and within 24 hours there were around 20 people crowded into a Plymouth pub interested in creating an independent theatre scene. Some had come back home to the south west after training, some were training here in Plymouth and some already making work but not getting the opportunity to show it in their home town. What we had in common was a need to make work in the city, now.

Something that has grown out of that meeting is a collective of freelance practitioners who have been getting together regularly since March to try and move that independent theatre scene forward and we invited Ed Rapley down from Residence in Bristol to talk us through the initial stages of getting a collective together. Between us we span three generations and are eclectic in our practice but we are all passionate about being a community of artists who can share, collaborate and support each other’s work; this will not only feed each other artistically, it will hopefully create more opportunities for DIY performance work.

Then in June 2014, 11 different companies from Plymouth took work up to the Exeter Ignite festival, this didn’t go unnoticed by Tom Nicholas, director of one of the companies, New Model Theatre. Tom had been hosting monthly scratch nights since the end of 2013 using space at the Theatre Royal and the Barbican Theatre, alternating between the two theatres each month. A lot of the work initially shown at these Beta scratch nights had grown and made its way into Exeter Ignite.

This also came to the attention of the Theatre Royal Plymouth who, on the back of Beta, asked Tom to curate a season of work from those Plymouth-based companies who had made a splash at the Exeter festival. That season became Forge, a six-week showing of work by independent theatre makers, which took place within a new theatre space, the Lab at the Theatre Royal; a space made possible with an Arts Council Capital grant for investment in theatre buildings. Tom, along with the performers, realised then that independent makers didn’t have to compete alongside the work happening in the NPO organisations, and the audiences showed that. He went ahead to create a pop up theatre space within Plymouth and Outpost was born. Along with producer Dan Baker, he programmed three respected touring productions alongside two commissioned pieces by emerging companies, plus his own play Parliament Town, which is all about the city it is performing in.

Outpost took place within the Town Bakery in the Royal William Yard, a naval victualling yard that has been given a face lift by Urban Splash and which boasts penthouse flats and an abundance of eateries and wine bars; what is now obvious is that it needs a performance space as well, one that doesn’t just pop up.

An interesting outcome of the Outpost programming was the percentage of work performed was pretty much split between companies from Plymouth and Exeter, which illustrates another relationship that is growing, one between the Plymouth theatre scene and the Exeter independent theatre scene. So much so that at the beginning of 2015 From Devon with Love, a festival that has played the Bike Shed in Exeter for the past two years, will also play at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. This festival is about celebrating work that is born and bred in Devon and it now spans the county, two venues and two cities. There is also talk about other festivals within the year being split between the two cities, and there are conversations being had about creating ways to transport the theatre makers from one city to the other to support one another, as the rail links are sadly lacking in the evening after 9.30pm.

It’s obvious that if we want to grow an audience for an independent DIY theatre scene then we have to lead by example and support one another. By sharing our work and advocating for one another we start to spread the word and by watching each other and learning from each other we should create a quality of work that audiences will want. Some regular funded organisations have started to take notice by giving space for the work to be shown and this year Plymouth University built a brand new state of the art performance space (The House) in the centre of town. One of the emerging companies from the Plymouth theatre scene, Blasted Fiction, will be the first resident company in the House and when students and audiences see a valid and strong alternative to other offerings, then graduates may stay to make work here and a Plymouth theatre scene may have well and truly arrived.

P.S
We use the hashtag plymouththeatrescene on twitter
P.P.S
The collective will be called Pseudonym (it’s only taken seven months to find a name) and our web site will be up by the end of the year.

The lion, the wytch and the wardrobe

by Sylvia Mercuriali

Lost in the Darkness 

I arrive at Malvern at 9pm.

Beyond the lights of the station building I am surrounded by darkness.

It is cold and I need to find my way to the hotel. I Imagine that Malvern is small enough to walk around , so I set off on foot.

I ask somebody for directions and before I know it I am sitting in a warm car, with the heating on full and an expert driver at the wheel. Sue, has very generously offered to give me a lift.

She lives in exactly the opposite direction to where I am going, but in a very friendly spirit that I will learn is quite common around here, she goes out of her way to help me out.

Having dropped my bag at the Hotel, I set off to find a place to eat, soon finding my way to ‘The Flute’, a very good little Indian restaurant owned by a man who lives in Birmingham.

There is a big party of friends celebrating a birthday at the restaurant and as I eavesdrop on their strange conversation I start to feel that I am somewhere quite magical where dreams take on some surreal tones and one might encounter witches flying on their brooms  in the moon light….but maybe it’s just me, the fresh air of Worcestershire and the delicious spicy food!

Manda, my secret agent here, has encouraged me to have a walk around at night as the town is really nicely lit.

In truth it feels like being in a Neapolitan nativity reconstruction where stone houses are lit in pools of dim sodium lights…and it being almost christmas…well it couldn’t be more perfect…apart from a weird shady figure in the main square standing still looking straight ahead with scarf and a hat on…

I wonder what they are doing…are they drunk? are they waiting for someone? are they so immersed in their thoughts that the cold of the night doesn’t bother them at all?

I leave ..off to bed.

The great wall of Malvern. 

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The morning after I awake very early to meet Manda and set off for a walk in the hills….

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Manda used to work for the Council in the Arts department and is now a freelancer artist and amazing tour guide.  She tells me about the feeling that Malvern hides behind its hill somehow [???]

The curse of being such beautiful place where people come to gather their thoughts as they enjoy long walks and imagine Tolkien’s like atmospheres, is that anything else happening here seems to be obscured.

Malvern sits amongst the famous hills: Great Malvern, Little Malvern, West Malvern and Malvern Link… (I might be making the names up a little)…so it is that wherever you are in Malvern you can always see a hill. 

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I discovered that the hills naturally would have lots of trees on top but by law it is conserved bald…..some rule set up during the victorian period to make sure they are left as much as possible in their beautified version of themselves.

I do love the hills.

I would like to make an audio piece to be listened to sitting on this bench looking at the horizon and imagining the surroundings as the backdrop for a story..maybe real maybe fictional, in which the listener feels immersed fully.

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From here the horizon is so vast and peaceful. The wind is blowing hard and Manda and I are pushed along the path and must make sure not to get blown away.  Nature is taking over today and  my plan of recording our walk definitely encounters some obstacles.  It’s a typically ‘sublime’ landscape and would make an ideal subject for a paintings and books and Music.

We talk about pagan rituals and hippies and teenage sleepovers on the hill. We talk about the old Spas that made Malvern so famous and affluent in the past until somebody got typhoid and all the Spas got closed down and turned into Boarding schools.  We talk about The Malvern Gazelle….an independent satirical publication which doesn’t exists anymore… we talk about how, even though the place is very small and there are less opportunities then in the big city, there is the sense that people really want to make things happen in an independent, guerrilla style and are always backed by the community.

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We visit the parish church, where the vicar is battling through an enormous pile of leaves to get in through the door, possibly wanting to admire the beautiful tiles that used to decorate the floor and that have now been moved onto the walls to preserve them.

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We visit the Winter’s Garden with it’s lake and duck and the statue carved out of a fallen tree, a celebration of water and life that comes with it. The artist decided to carve some little houses at the top of the statue that look like they are being swept away by the current. This vision turned out to become reality a year later when a great flood swept away the houses around the hill.

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Finally we visited the Theatre, built in 1885 and renovated in 1998 and comprised of three different spaces.  The large modern theatre and foyer reflect more practical times and have a sheen of modernity,  but the old theatre has been left untouched, as has the little cinema, the only space that remained open throughout the war.  It is said that the ghost of Bernard Shaw still makes an appearance from time to time, in the back row, up in the gods or down by the old theatre bar, now just a store room that I have the fortune to visit.

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Unfortunately I did not see the ghost, but I was slightly scared by the massive portrait picture of Burt Lancaster half hidden amongst the fake Narnia wardrobe’s doors for the next production.

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Manda and I get in the car and drive all around the big hill. The landscape changes so much from one side of the hill to the other; a large expanse of flat land is in front of Great Malvern with most of the buildings concentrated there  and spreading out at the feet of the hill. Over to the other side is hill after hill and little pockets of smaller inhabited areas.  Bald hills and furry hills where the trees are growing strong and the colours change with the seasons.

Today the leaves are falling and the wind is blowing them around the country like kids on a funfair ride.

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We drive past the installation that appeared all around the side of the hill towards West Malvern…or was it Little?…three stone cottages big enough for a small family of mice to live in beautifully built and cherished by the locals.  A reminder that rules can be bent and that if something is worth having there is a way to make it happen.

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I discover that in 1942 the  anti-aircraft radar and searchlights were moved to Malvern. During the war the coastline was far too exposed and the scientific labs and research groups were moved here… and stayed, leaving Malvern with a high scientific population  to this day. The new system to regenerate the old gas lamps in a more eco friendly way has been developed in Malvern and is now being adopted by London as well.

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Off course I mustn’t forget to mention the beloved local hero Sir Edward William Elgar, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. It also turns out that the shady figure in the main square is not a drunken soul at all but a statue of Sir Elgar, which has been dressed up for the season with a woolly hat, a scarf and a cosy woolly moustache.

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It is almost time to go for me but I can’t leave before having seen the famous WORM .. a tunnel built at the height of the Malvern’s fame as a Spa heaven to connect the station to the basement of a former hotel (now the Girls College) to allow passengers to access the miraculous waters directly, without the hassle of even seeing the roads.

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This is very exciting! You can clearly see the tunnel from both station platforms.  The old door is now shut and boarded up, but there is a bit of an opening through which I can peep. It is pretty dark in there, but there is some light coming in from the other side of the tunnel, as well as from some oval windows on one side.  Yes it is just a long corridor….but you can almost see the tiles on the walls on one side.

Malvern is like…Moriana, a city of two sides…one one side is grand Victorian and Edwardian houses, lush former hotels and the beauty of nature…but you only have to walk in a semicircle to discover Malvern’s hidden face … radar dishes, guerrilla art installation, music and a little bit of witchery.  

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