Elephants in the high street – Artist mission to Stockton by Oliver Lamford

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 Oliver Lamford. 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 spent a weekend directly asking people about Stockton, about theatre, and the place of the one in the other. Ask people about Stockton, and many will complain about the high street of pawn shops, pound shops, charity shops; others point to the demolition wastegrounds a couple of minutes from the centre; and some to the slow, rickety trains, like metal sheds on wheels. That said, there’s plenty of people who’ll defend the place. Pessimism is just one option in response to the place, and there are people working hard to do what they can for the area. One guy I met told me that he “feels so much negativity from people, I have to be militantly, relentlessly optimistic as a result.” That the town has its share of problems is undeniable, but so do many places. It’s easy for a town to get stigmatised, and for that impression of it to stick, and so perpetuate the sense of it as a depressed area.

The audience for new theatre in the town remains small. Theatre in Stockton is centred largely around the ARC, a venue that programs a range of new work, and they’re constantly trying new ways to engage and develop their audience, though it’s always going to be a slow process – you can’t build an audience from scratch over night. In a town with such a strong perception of being a depressed area, you can’t really separate the question of audience development away from that. The town and its audience are innately linked.

One thing that sets Stockton apart is that its issues are often more visible: plenty of towns and cities shift their problems over to the outskirts, whereas in Stockton the wealthier, more mobile communities have moved to live outside the town centre, in the leafier suburbs. The result is that much of the town centre feels abandoned, uncared for, derelict. Out of town and internet shopping has thinned out a lot of the high street. Without a central focal point, a place loses its sense of identity. The council have been making some movements towards renovations recently, but attitudes are always going to take time to catch up. Many people talk of there being a strong community, and I’m sure there is in places, but one response really stuck with me: I asked one woman about how much of a sense of community she feels there to be in the town, and whether she knew many people around where she lived with her family, on an estate near the town centre:
“I do know people. But I don’t talk to them. I keep to myself. There’s that many people getting stabbed, run over, or they’re drunk, or getting high. So I don’t bother with anyone. When the kids are back from their youth groups, we lock the door, and that’s it, watch the telly and shut the curtains. Keep to ourselves.”
“Yeah, best advice ever,” chipped in her daughter. “Keep to yourself, and you don’t get any trouble.”

Most discussions of theatre audience development involve trying to grow an audience for a particular strand of work, say for live art or more experimental work. But here the question is much wider: it becomes a question of building an audience for any theatre at all – perhaps, even, a question of building an audience for the town itself. If the perceptions of threatening behaviour and fear can be so high in some areas, how can you compete with the desire to lock the doors, pull the curtains, and switch on the telly? And yet, that challenge also highlights so strongly the importance of what theatre can offer, in actually bringing a group of people together in a room, to share an experience at one time and in one place.

With that aim in mind, where is that potential audience in Stockton? One sign of hope can be seen in the great little Greek restaurant called Kaminaki, just off the high st surrounded by a row of abandoned pubs, boarded-up shops and a carpet wholesaler: despite its neighbours, it seems to be thriving, booking out on a Saturday night, and bringing people into town. People will travel for quality, and perhaps the somewhat better off communities nearby could potentially be reeled in. But theatre needs to mix a range of audiences, and the more central communities equally deserve attention. The Stockton International Riverside Festival is a great outdoor street arts festival that brings large scale performance into the centre of town, and brings an audience in from across the North East. If you want to build an audience, taking work out into the street is an obvious step forwards, but an annual four day event can only make so much difference each year, and it seems that audiences here rarely travel into a theatre to see the same acts they’ve enjoyed outside. Comedy and music acts seems to bring decent audiences at ARC, and find ready crowds in the Georgian Theatre, a great rough and ready venue like an old blackened barn, with a whiff of cider and raw band energy. Acts might get a smaller audience there than in Newcastle, but they do get decent crowds in.

I heard an interesting story from Ree Collins, facilitator of Creative Factory at ARC. When she took over the group, several teenagers complained that they’d been doing endless workshops around teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, youth violence. The girls explained that what they really wanted was to do a SHOW, to sing and to dance. They wanted something fun. They already knew there were a lot of issues around them, they could see them for themselves every day. Obviously there’s room for a whole range of work, and applied educational work can do great things, but there is sometimes a too easy temptation to think that, in a more depressed area, the work should necessarily address those issues directly. These teenagers have since been making a new devised piece, creating their own work, and hopefully beginning to develop into an audience for the future.

Talk to audiences here, and a few key elements keep coming up. They often describe themselves as liking craft, things made with skill and care. Several people spoke about wanting to see something special, something that nobody else could do. Among the people I spoke to, there seemed to be a real desire for an innovative escapism, for work that is enlivening and vital. Two people I spoke to gave great examples of the importance and need for unique, imaginative work:
– I asked one man for his most memorable experience of the arts, and he described travelling to an art gallery and seeing an original self-portrait by Van Gogh, ear bandaged, eyes blazing out of the canvas. He’d seen it printed in books many times, but now he was seeing the real and extraordinary object, right there, in front of him, with his own eyes. To find a direct connection with something so honest and entirely unique, was a very powerful experience for him.
– Another time, I asked a fourteen year-old girl for her three wishes for Stockton, and she said that she wanted the following:
1) more money to look after little kids, to entertain them, especially the toddlers,
2) more police on the streets to fight crime and make people safe,
3) elephants. Lots of elephants. A whole column of elephants to parade through the town.

ABOUT ME – Oliver Lamford
I’ve been an associate artist at ARC with Switchback Productions for the last couple of years, most recently directing The Easterly, a Place commission for the Festival of the North East to develop a show with a community choir on Saltburn pier.

Thanks to the various people I spoke to for their contributions, particularly including Andrew Berriman, Ree Collins, Julie Dove, Mark Tindle, Sarah Dobson, among others.

Stockton 1

Stockton 2

Stockton 3

Stockton 4

Stockton 5

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