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.

A social club for theatre

Introduction from Maddy Costa: I met Danielle Rose at the Lighthouse in Poole, when she brought a group of people to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral, then stayed behind for the Theatre Club afterwards. Danielle works as an independent producer, and I really enjoyed listening to her talk about how the show had ignited her sense of community spirit. But more than that, I was impressed by her passion for creating opportunities for people to see art and theatre – particularly work that they might think isn’t for them. For a while now I’ve been talking, through NTiYN, about wanting to set up a series of social clubs, through which a motley group of people could go and see shows together, as a fun night out. When it turned out that Danielle has already created just such a group, I asked her to write a guest post about how and why she went about it.

By Danielle Rose

My first experience of buying a theatre ticket for myself, with my very own money earned from a Sunday shop job, was at Lighthouse, Poole’s Arts Centre. I think I only earned around £16 a week and a scheme called Access to Leisure (which reduced ticket prices by 75% for people from low-income families) meant that I could go to shows for less than a fiver.

Back then, I was too scared to step into a theatre alone, something I take for granted now, and would pay for one of my younger brothers to come too. Aged 16, I thought that people who went to the theatre were really posh. I was convinced that we’d get caught out somehow, that people would notice us and know that we didn’t really belong there. We’d get to theatre minutes before the show began so that we didn’t have to hang around too long before taking our seats. In and out we went, on as regular a basis as I could afford or convince my brother to come. Feeling the comfort of the house lights going down, we’d made it. In a darkened auditorium, we could be just about anyone. Sometimes in the interval people next to us wouldn’t be able to contain their surprise to see two young people coming to a show on their own and would start talking to us. I’d make small talk politely in my best voice, my brother sat silently next to me reading programme notes over the shoulder of the person in front.

Things are very different now. I’ve worked in the arts for almost 13 years and when I walk into venues I often know some of the people working there, the people on stage and many faces in the audience. Now the houselights going down cut conversations short. I’ll go to the theatre on my own because I know I won’t be alone when I get there.

I moved back to my hometown in 2013 for work, and didn’t anticipate how isolated that relocation would lead me to feel, even as someone now content in their own company. The number of people I still had a let’s-hang-out connection with after 10 years living away in Devon was few, and the people I felt I had any interests in common with were even fewer. I really liked my work colleagues, but I longed for the creative community I had come to feel a part of in Devon. I missed regularly meeting up with peers and friends who were actively engaging with cultural pursuits and being around people making things happen in the place I lived.

After a period of filling my evenings with coasting supermarket aisles, internet dating and attempts to start running, I realised that I needed to fill this gap in my life. And if I couldn’t find where all the creative types and innovators were hanging out, maybe I’d have to do a call-out!

I set up a Meetup group called Creative & Digital Professionals (Bournemouth & Poole). Meetup is a website and app which helps facilitate meeting “people in your local community who share your interests”. I’d hoped to meet just a handful of people to make living back in the area a little bit more bearable. It turned out that lots of other people were also looking for a similar thing – 15 people came to the first get-together and less than a year later there are now 350+ members. Small numbers of us, usually 15-20 new and familiar faces, come together a few times a month to swap mixtapes and go to local arts events. There’s a whole range of people who come, of all ages, from web developers, DJs and visual artists through to teachers, foreign language students and people who work in banking. When we’re out and about we tend to pick up new members too, as I’ll talk to anyone and the whole group is so approachable.

Remembering how intimidated I used to find walking into an arts venue, I try to make sure we gather for every meetup as a group first, sometimes in the venue bar itself, sometimes in a pub nearby. I feel really happy every time someone tells me that it’s the first time they’ve visited a venue or experienced anything like what we’ve gone to see. I love having conversations with people about work that they have only decided to give a go because the group would be there too. And of course it’s great to find other people who actively attend arts events already and who, like me, appreciate the experience of meeting others in the process.

One of our outings was to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral in Poole, produced by Fuel at Lighthouse. I think there was a group of about 15 of us in the end. I set it as a meetup as I hoped that the interdisciplinary nature of the show, fusing puppetry and live animation, would appeal to a wide range of people in the group. The artists had also involved local people in the research and development, and the show was to be set around the town we’re familiar with, which I suspected would make people curious about the end result. I circulated Fuel’s open call for short films to be shown before the main feature too and the film-makers in the group really got involved. Remaining as a unit, most of us stayed for the post-show conversation with Maddy Costa.

During that conversation, I said that one of the things that struck me about Feral was that a small number of the citizens in the parallel Poole presented to us, when faced with the destruction of their neighbourhood, took action. They wrote letters to the council, they protested, they cared. There was something very powerful about seeing the life of a town sped-up, witnessing the decay and potential for some salvation that can feel near invisible when lived out in real time. Having characters reflected back at us, who looked around at what was happening to their fracturing community and felt compelled to act, felt like a reminder that that is something we can all do – a call to arms, if you like, for active citizenship. It felt apt to watch Feral in the company of a hotchpotch group of people who now assemble: a group that’s been a personal reminder that if you feel something is missing, you can always ask if other people feel the same and make something new together.

The price of connection

By Maddy Costa

In the weeks before I saw Feral in Poole, a voice of suspicion grumbled deep inside me that the project was an unjustifiable extravagance. Feral is a show by a Scottish company, Tortoise in a Nutshell, that was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013, winning a Fringe First and a Total Theatre award. It tells the story of a humble seaside town destroyed by ineffectual local politics and voracious capitalism, using puppetry to create a live-action film projected on to a screen at the back of the stage. There are two seaside towns participating in NTiYN, so Fuel wondered: what might Feral look like if it were set somewhere not generic but specific? What if, while keeping within the realms of fiction, it reflected a community back to itself?

This is how a chunk of NTiYN money came to be devoted to remaking Feral for Margate and Poole. Fuel funded two week-long research trips, during which members of the company would meet with local councillors and other public figures, chat to shop-owners, wander the streets and get a feel for each place. The set for the show, and a host of peripheral figures, would then be individually remodelled to suggest real-life places and faces in each town. Which is great, except that Feral in Margate was scheduled for only two performances, Feral in Poole just one. Even Ross MacKay, the company’s artistic director, felt that the work and resources were disproportionate to the number of shows.

Was the expenditure of time and money worth it? I can only judge by what I saw in Poole, where even asking the question made me feel kind of ashamed. The Lighthouse Studio was busy and bustling with anticipation; as soon as the company unveiled the centrepiece of the set, a shabby shopping centre named, in honour of Poole’s Dolphin Centre, the Porpoise, people in the audience became audible in their appreciation. There were giggles at shops whose names were slight variations on local High Street landmarks, and snorts of recognition at the exasperation of townspeople stuck at the level crossing. I had my own moment of delight at the appearance of the local councillor: I’d met one with Ross on a day’s visit to the Poole research week, a formidable and dedicated woman who had fought long, tenacious campaigns on behalf of women who had experienced domestic violence and girls subjected to genital mutilation, who startled Ross and myself when she announced that she was inspired to enter politics by the example of her hero, Margaret Thatcher. Sure enough, the tiny puppet councillor of Poole looked nothing like her real-life counterpart – and instead was a miniature model of the Iron Lady, right down to the handbag.

Afterwards I sat down with some of those audience members for a theatre club and played devil’s advocate: did it really make such a difference, Feral being set in Poole? They couldn’t have been more emphatic in their answer: yes, absolutely yes. It wasn’t just the pleasure of seeing the town’s idiosyncrasies (the obsession with pirates, the lack of a local newspaper) noted and incorporated; there was something deeper and more political than that. They experienced in brief and microcosm the destruction of their locale: a place that frustrates them, but that they care for and want to see thrive. In the show, the town is blighted by the introduction of a casino: there’s been talk of that happening here for years, said one woman, and Feral reminded her how vital it was actively to oppose it. Poole can feel quite placid and ineffectual, suggested another woman; it was inspiring to see the community rally around at the end of the story, to see how we look out for each other. For one of the men, it was a strong argument for how much this community needs art: stories and activities that bring the community together, and get them feeling and thinking.

A question that fascinated me was what it would take for the social inequality shoved under the carpet in Poole to spark riots, like those in the show. What might be the tipping point? Many suggested that it would never happen – but that that was no excuse for complacency. One of the people at the theatre club works locally as a producer of live performance and events; for her, Feral in Poole was a call to arms, not to riot, but to create a more active, more vibrant local arts community, one that is inclusive and addresses those social inequalities, that offers free access to art and makes it integral to everyone’s lives.

Questions about value adhere to theatre so vigorously, they come to seem inevitable, natural even: like limpets clinging to rock. But this night in Poole watching Feral speak directly to its audience, and chatting with that audience afterwards, reminded me that the value questions can also be irrelevant. There is a level at which a show that invigorates its audience with a sense of purpose and community spirit is actually priceless. A level at which, injecting money into a touring show to make it not generic but specific shouldn’t be a one-off extravagance but sustainable, standard practice.

A good night out with Feral

A note from Maddy Costa: this review is by Lucas Murray, a visually impaired kid and keen photographer who first came across Feral in Poole when his family spotted posters for the show in the local shopping centre. Fuel had also arranged for Harry Webb, Poole’s local engagement specialist, to spend some time on the High St speaking to people about the show – which is how Lucas found out about the competition #mypoole, to make a one-minute film about the area. Lucas entered and was a brilliant finalist (you can see his film here). But he also got to have a very particular experience with the show, which is where he picks up the story. A longer version of this piece appears on Lucas’ blog, here.

By Lucas Murray

I emailed Fuel to ask for a touch tour which is when you get to go on stage before the show, and feel the set and meet the cast, because I would get a better idea of the story when I’m watching the show. They liked the idea of doing one because they had never done one before and they replied saying: “Can you come at 7.10?” We decided to dress up smart for the occasion so I wore shirt and tie and man’s perfume.

We were met by Hattie and Harry from Fuel who showed us into the studio to start the touch tour. I liked Jim the sound editor from Tortoise in a Nutshell (the theatre company) talking me through all the different sounds that are used in the show and the way he changed the pitch of his voice made me laugh! I got to feel the puppets which were made from a clay called Sculpey and when I was holding the Dawn puppet, I could move her head and pretend that she was writing something by moving the stick that was attached to her hand. The buildings were made from thick cardboard and the whole set was black and white. Lots of shops had their names changed so Lush was called Loosh, Bennets the ‘Bonnets’ Bakers was called Bonnets, the Dolphin Centre was called the Porpoise Centre. I liked learning how the different video cameras worked and how the guy used them to follow the puppets so that the pictures could be shown on the big screen. It was the first Touch tour they had ever done and I thought they were really good!

Then we went into the cinema where they were screening the finalists in the film competition. Mine was the very first film to be shown, and it felt really exciting to see it on a huge screen. After my film, the other people in the audience clapped and I felt proud. The show had really good sounds. I particularly liked the train crossing, the till, the paper ripping and the sirens. The story was about Poole park closing and a casino being built in its place. All the shops had closed and the people of Poole were very unhappy and then they were rioting. I was a bit upset that everything was destroyed. It was a very happy ending though as the Poole people started to make it look very nice again and worked together and the casino had completely closed down and all the shops had reopened. After the show, we got to come down on to the stage and take photos of the set.

[Here are some of Lucas’:]

fuel feral one fuel feral two fuel feral three

Lost and found in Landscape II

“I told him I was going to see something called Landscape II and he said: what’s it about? I said I didn’t know. So he asked what Landscape I was like.”
“But there isn’t a Landscape I, is there?”
“No. But I guess if you’ve seen Ice Age it tells you what Ice Age 2 will be like.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a demanding piece of theatre, for performer and audience alike. Wilson sets herself a fiendish technical challenge: as well as narrating the text, which interweaves the lives of three women who exist in different geographical and historical time zones, she operates the sound and backdrop images from a computer and mixing desk in front of her, fingers moving busily throughout, again as though working a loom. It’s up to her audiences to see the patterns in this material for themselves. The first time I saw it, I spent as much time concentrating on concentrating as I did watching. Reading the reviews, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Here’s a bit of Andrew Haydon’s:

I found the beginning pretty hard going. … The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better?

Dan Hutton’s review conveys how long it takes to digest:

Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, but just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away and you’re in the dark again. … It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that this has all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wanders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; its scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that.

And Matt Trueman’s tells you how typical this is of Melanie’s work:

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout. You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur.

I saw Landscape II twice, and both times I spoke to people who were frustrated, even furious, with the piece: they found it confusing, impossible to follow, and because of that felt it was pretentious and self-indulgent. I also spoke to people who were enthralled by it, excited by its storytelling and dazzled by its intricate artistry. These conversations happened because of post-show events Fuel had organised at NTiYN venues: the first was a Salon at the Lighthouse in Poole, an informal Q&A session with Melanie followed by a general chat; the second was a Theatre Club at the Lakeside in Colchester, an even more informal discussion at which no one involved in making the show was present. The differences between these two events was fascinating, and taught me a lot about how people talk about theatre, and talk to its makers, and how difficult it is to articulate the questions that might help you get to grips with a complex piece of art.

At least, I found it difficult formulating those questions. In Poole I was leading a post-show discussion with a theatre-maker for the first time, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it – especially in a situation like this one, where I felt neither sure nor secure of what I’d seen. There were moments when the conversation flagged because I was nervous about jumping in and dominating the event; there were things Melanie said that afterwards I wish I’d pushed her on; and although I interview people often, it’s rarely with an audience – that was surprisingly nerve-racking. So although it was a long conversation, and lots of useful things were discussed, it felt dry and awkward to me, perhaps to others, too.

We talked quite a lot about Melanie’s work as a sound artist: that’s where her theatre begins. Every piece she makes is a development of what she can do with sound, so for instance Landscape II introduces film, which she’d never worked with before; next she’s working in opera. A particularly interesting strand of the conversation – and I so wish I’d delved into this more – involved Melanie’s desire to challenge her audience, and her readiness for her work to be divisive. I find that brave, because you can’t take such risks and be complacent, and because it’s desperately uncomfortable trying to perform amid the creaking sounds of disengaged, fidgety people shifting in their seats; but I also feel for the people who pay money to see such work and spend a portion of their evening feeling bewildered. Is this a discussion it’s possible to have straight after a show has finished? I think Melanie would have been up for it – but I shied away.

Someone asked who her inspirations are, and she talked beautifully about Patti Smith’s forthright politics, and her art, poetry, and books combining the two. Melanie admitted that she’s thinking about producing a similar book to accompany Landscape II – which would deal with the complaint, voiced by more than one person, that the programme didn’t tell them enough about the show. One woman, who recognised the landscape in the film (made by Will Duke) from having grown up in Devon, talked in some detail about the kinds of plants that had been photographed and asked about their significance; I felt an undercurrent of general perplexity that the individual natural images seemed to have no specific import, but didn’t quite know how to unpick that. One man asked whether Melanie always makes work alone, so we talked a little about her previous piece, Autobiographer; another asked why this one is called Landscape II. It’s a perfectly valid question, because there are two landscapes in the piece, North Devon and an unidentified war zone in the Middle East, and the title might seem to suggest that the work is about one of them, or a sequel to an earlier work (as attested by the lovely conversation I’ve quoted above, between two audience members in Colchester). But it was also a question that the journalist in me, or the snob in me, recoiled from, as one that Melanie must get asked everywhere, making it boring for her to answer. To her credit, she answered it gracefully, but something still troubled me.

It was this: I spoke to the same man and his wife after Melanie had left the discussion, and confirmed that they’d both had huge issues with Landscape II. They’d found it obscure, opaque, impossible to piece together. I told the woman that it reminded me of reading poetry: I love reading poetry, but frequently feel bewildered by it, so what I get from it isn’t necessarily comprehension but a feeling, an atmosphere, something I absorb. She frowned a little and said: I don’t read poetry. There was something she and others in the room wanted to access in Landscape II, a code almost, which would tell them everything about the humans in the piece whose lives felt beyond their reach. I wish asking the question, “Why is it called Landscape II?” or “Why isn’t there more information in the programme?” could have given these people what they needed, but I don’t think it did. As the person hosting the discussion, and steering it, I had a responsibility to ask better questions – but I didn’t know what they might be, either.

The discussion in Colchester couldn’t have been more different. That was partly to do with the audience: the Lakeside is on a university campus, so there were a lot of students, and a lot of those were drama students. But age, or gender, or relationship with theatre, by no means determined response. The most enthusiastic speaker at the Theatre Club was a man in his 50s, who thought the pace, delivery, delicacy, narrative, politics, sound design, use of film, every single element that made up Landscape II and the balance between them was perfect. The least enthusiastic were two female teenagers who didn’t understand anything about the characters, found the film and music distracting, and argued that this work didn’t belong in a theatre, it should have been in a gallery. Everyone else at the Theatre Club – and at its biggest we might have had 30 people gathered – fell somewhere in the spectrum between those two poles, making this one of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had about a show.

Without Melanie present, the audience became responsible for expanding each other’s interpretation and appreciation of the piece. That’s a wonderful shift in dynamic. Instead of asking Melanie why she wanted to use film in her work, or why she chose North Devon as her setting, we discussed the effect the film had on us. How distracted were we by it? If the close-up images of plants or rocks didn’t signify anything specific, what did we get from them being there? Susan Sontag’s writing on cinema came up, and one woman talked about our conditioning by Hollywood to receive all the imagery in a film as part of a single narrative. Landscape II, we agreed, uses film differently: not as a shorthand to speedy comprehension, but as part of a longer meditation on our place in the world and our connections to each other.

That difference between linear narrative and discursive meditation charged a lot of the conversation. Although the two teenagers were the most bamboozled, they weren’t the only people who had struggled to fit together the relationships between the three women in the piece. It’s not surprising: even trying to explain the story ties sentences up in knots. Wilson “plays” (it feels like the wrong word because she spends the entirety of Landscape II sitting behind a desk, talking in the first person, but mostly narrating from a script) a war photographer called Vivian, staying in an isolated barnhouse in North Devon; a century before, her great-great-grandmother Beatrice stayed in the same house, and Vivian gets to know her through a sheaf of diary-letters Beatrice had written and left behind. The third woman, Mina, lives somewhere in the Middle East; Vivian formed a relationship with her while on a long assignment there, but their friendship ends in violent circumstances, which Vivian is struggling to assimilate.

I was honest with the group: it had taken me two viewings of Landscape II to appreciate the subtlety of the links between the three women, and to register fully that Beatrice and Mina are connected, despite the time and land that separate them, in their understanding of the role of women in life, and in their experience of being constrained by society. And it was really enjoyable to compare notes with everyone else as to the things they had and hadn’t picked up. We asked each other: should a piece of theatre be so complex as to confound people who are probably going to see it only once? Should theatre be more clear in its storytelling, arguments and ideas? That might resolve issues for the people who felt lost, but where would it leave those who had relished the work of finding the feminist and political resonances for themselves? The question of Melanie’s background in sound design came up, setting off a vigorous debate about dynamics: some found the restraint of Melanie’s delivery drew them in, some felt repelled by it, all had an opinion. Would they have expressed those opinions if Melanie had been sitting among us, I wondered? The teenager said yes: if she thinks something, she’ll say it, and not worry what anyone thinks. (As it happens, when Landscape II played at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Melanie was faced with an audience as divisive as that in Colchester, whose negative quotient challenged her vociferously in the post-show discussion. The event was a lot livelier than the Salon I hosted in Poole, but a lot more tense, too.)

Taking part in these two discussions sharpened several questions for me. Are theatre-makers the best people to elucidate their work to audiences – and is a post-show discussion the best time and place for this to happen? How can audiences be invited to elucidate it for each other? Where does this expectation that a piece of theatre stands or falls on what happens in the moment in the room come from? I recently went to the Ashmolean in Oxford to see the (thoughtfully curated, frequently illuminating, heartily recommended) Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition: it begins with large-scale photographs of the two men’s studios, and throughout contains sketches of work in progress, maquettes of sculptures, information about the historical, political and biographical context of many of the works. Why is the making of theatre shrouded in such secrecy – and might better access to the questions and notions that come up in a rehearsal room offer audiences a code to crack complex work? The people who got on badly with Landscape II struggled because it didn’t give characters, story and resolution on a plate, but required its audiences to participate in making the meal together. I remember being very struck by how Melanie begins her performance in the same space as the audience, and smiles at them conspiratorially before saying a word: my role in the room, as interpreter, felt clear. But is this subtle acknowledgement enough preparation for less regular theatregoers? What else could be given to them to draw them into Melanie’s world?

I’ve also been thinking about honesty, the levels of honesty that are possible in talking about theatre. While I’ve been wrestling with this blog post, another critic, Miriam Gillinson, has published a sizzly blog on the Blouin ArtInfo site, on how tricky but useful anger is as a response: “Sometimes it’s the clearest sign that a show is actually working,” she argues. “It shows us that we care, that we want to understand.” And yet, how useful is anger to a post-show discussion, if it fuels defensiveness and incrimination (the declaration “that wasn’t good theatre”), without shaping the questions that might help an audience care about what they’ve seen, or understand it?

The following day, Lyn Gardner published a delightful piece on the Guardian website, advocating the importance of “responding as we really feel – and saying what we really think”. Something Lyn alludes to, and Andrew Haydon develops in his astute comments below the piece, is the difference between responding to work and judging it, be that positively or negatively. This difference isn’t often taken into account when talking about theatre, particularly in a culture where theatre is rated using a star/numbering system. Plus there is a problem in culture general in talking openly about how we feel: it’s considered self-indulgent, unnecessary. There is an intellectual anxiety to overcome when work confuses us. The hierarchies of opinion embedded in our culture – the voices of theatre-makers or critics are those of authority, the audience can’t be trusted – discourage people from trusting their own responses. I fall prey to this too: the first thing I do when I walk out of a play is get on my phone and look up reviews, by Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love. How different would it be if I turned to the people around me and asked: what did you make of that?

I learned more about Landscape II from talking with a confused, angry, transported, politicised, engaged audience in Colchester than I did from asking Melanie Wilson decorous, careful questions about her work in Poole. That isn’t a criticism of Melanie, or her audience in Poole, it’s a recognition that audiences are being done a disservice when they’re not encouraged to respond to work with more than a thumbs-up on Twitter or a comment below a newspaper review, when their subjective interpretation of work isn’t encouraged, and when the only opportunity they’re given for conversation with theatre-makers is the fragile hour after a show has finished. Theatre needs to open up more places in which these complicated dialogues can happen – which is a lot of what the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is about.

Artist mission – Abigail Conway in Poole: Poole Potty

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 Abigail Conway.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at


The Poole tile for me is composed of fragment impressions and stories gained from my visit to the area on 11th July 2013.

There I met with Lorna Rees, Engagement Specialist for Poole. It was bright morning of summer sunshine when we greeted each other outside the museum. Lorna, most definitely the coolest cat to know around these parts, then drove me out of Poole town centre. This amused me. Why is it we always have to get out of a place to fully understand it?

Driving was a great way to get a sense of the wider community. The journey revealed to me varied and contrasting demographics and areas that were both economically deprived and wealthy.

Driving through beautiful heathland we to get to a humongous Tesco and Leisure Park. Crossing to Sandbanks I see grand houses worth millions built upon land where once stood ancient trees. Trees illegally cut down, in the interests of a better view for the wealthy residents.  Coming to the quayside I see elderly residents enjoying their fish and chips lunches as they watch the fancy yachts in the harbour. They, in turn, are watched by large flocks of opportunist seagulls waiting to pounce upon any dropped food. There are tourists getting on ferries to Brownsea Island. I see palm trees growing along the bay and glimpse a golden sandy beach. I see from a distance yet another ferry, a chain ferry, this time to Swanage. Dilapidated shop fronts with boarded up windows are shelters for the homeless; a green tiled pub is busy and in the town itself I see a vibrant local market. Some old cobbled streets remain and dolphins (not real ones) are peppered around the town.

Conversation flows freely in the car. Topics touched upon were education, local authorities, business, invisible borders, the need for transport and community highs and lows. The ‘Poole’ pieces of the puzzle were on display but I wondered what the final picture might be.

On parting company with Lorna I felt inspired by her passion, enthusiasm and curiosity for the town. I went to the museum where I spent some time reading about the history of the town and it’s past and present industry. I saw the Poole pottery exhibition in the museum. Poole had built its industrial identity upon boat making and pottery. The foundation and infrastructure of Poole is built from locally made bricks, clay and tiles.

It was here I took this picture of an interactive mosaic tile.

Looking at the tile I begin to understand that what gives Poole it’s identity and culture is the industry it is built upon, particularly Poole pottery, it’s unique landscape, it’s links to the sea; it’s people- where they work and play and it’s history.

Like a mosaic tile Poole’s identity is composed of many parts such as its environmental and architectural landscape, town planning, people, industry, culture and leisure influences and expectations. All are intertwined into a rich tapestry of history and experience. I cannot fully pick up one aspect- without looking to the other (and then looking back at myself to see how I look at them). This for me – is where it gets exciting! The mosaic tile effect illustrates, and epitomises, this fragmented, multi- layered place that is Poole. It offers an alternative storytelling. A story that can continue to grow, and change shape, depending on who is adding and looking to its design.

The words on my tile mosaic are things that struck me on my visit. Here are a few explained a little more;

*Harry Paye (day)– was pirate smuggler from Poole, Dorset in the late 14th and early 15th century. He became a commander in the Cinque Ports fleet. Lorna had told me of this mythical character, how he stole from over 100 French fleets and buried his treasure all around Poole. One day the French fleet came to Poole to find Harry and kill him.  They looted the town and set fire to houses. Unable to find him they killed his brother. The people revolted and drove the fleet out of the town. Every June the residents of Poole celebrate his life in a charity day. Lorna mentioned that the term ‘payday’ may have derived from this event. A romantic thought. I like the thought of people annually celebrating this ‘Robin Hood’ character centuries after it happened.

*Brownsea island– Running out of time I could not visit the island. It is a curious place though. Owned by the National Trust it is accessed by ferry. The castle on the Island is owned by John Lewis and used exclusively as a holiday place for their employees. I wonder how they see the town from the castle window view? The island was the first camp for the boy scout movement in 1907.  It is a wild life haven for red squirrels, peacocks and woodland plants too.

*Leisure town- Like every other town Poole has one. A big complex filled with all your leisure desires. I am saddened that pleasure seekers who use this facility often overlook all the free natural beauty, such as Canford Heath. Close to the leisure complex is a huge Tesco extra. Here local people come to do their weekly shop and buy into their leisure activities too away from the town and away from the beach. Such places make it hard for people to participate in local community life. They hinder the building of a community that is at one with its environment. These transitory places become familiar and comforting and yet effectively distance Poole residents from their home and town surroundings.

*Gilbert the whale– Gilbert, the whale was washed up on the beach of Alum Chine in 2009. She measured about 21ft (6.4m). The young female, thought at first to be a male, was initially sighted on 13th September between Bournemouth Pier and Branksome. Rescuers were not sure if it was shallow waters, or being caught up in nets, that caused the mammal to die. But it was understood that she had become lost trying to get to the Atlantic. Such a strong image for my mosaic impressions of Poole. I can see Gilbert, back then, on the sandy beach and feel that her death marked a moment. A communal mourning perhaps.

At the end of the day I found myself in the shop/ workshop/café of Poole Pottery. I felt I had come full circle. The clay tiles that I had been interested in at the beginning of the day in the museum were now placed among vases, teapots, teacups, and saucers all of which were exquisitely decorated and coloured.

On the same floor visitors can see the open plan workshop, the kilns and making area as it is being used by the pottery makers and artists who hand paint the pots. I went upstairs to the café and saw ‘a paint a pot’ section where people come and decorate their own pot or cup. Looking at these white cups stacked up I saw them also as a fragmented canvas waiting to be coloured in by a story, a word, or anecdote. I had an image of people making their own cup out of clay and sharing stories over a special tea party. I saw pathways and walls made out of unique mosaic tiles composed of fragments made by individuals that became pathways to places unknown and usually unseen in the town.

My idea to make a project in this town would be to somehow collate and collect all these diverse stories, anecdotes and associations and quite simply piece them together in a participatory way.

By asking what Poole means to the people who live there would create a natural political, anthropological and historical tapestry of perspectives, all equally celebrated. It is in the act of bringing these stories together that I would somehow like to make ‘performative’. Pairing up with an organization like Poole Pottery, using the local tools and industry already in place – to tell the stories of past present and future memories – using pottery or tiles to create a collage of, and for, its community.

Finally there is not one single stronger feeling, smell or image that I can take away. For me Poole is like the tile mosaic because it encompasses all that I don’t know, and all that I want to discover- as I try and piece this place together.

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Artist mission – Matt Steer in Poole

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 Matt Steer.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at

Arriving into Poole on the train promises much, glorious sunshine beats down on a beautiful harbour, water is lapping, birds are flying, boats are boating and windsurfers are showing off. I think about how many times i actually came here in my childhood. (I grew up 15 miles east of here on the Hampshire/Dorset border.) Definitely three.

There wasn’t much appeal I seem to remember apart from Splashdown at Tower Park – that accounts for two visits – or a futile search for the red squirrel (still not convinced it actually exists) on Brownsea Island – that’s the other. Basically everything Poole had was replicated somewhere closer: Bournemouth had its own version of Splashdown (and with a wave machine no less!); Christchurch had a harbour and boats and show-offs; and Hengistbury Head didn’t have red squirrels either.

Only when I started board-treading did the Lighthouse (a shabby Poole Arts Centre back then) arrive on my map. So stopping off at the old gal on tour with Will Adamsdale’s ‘The Victorian In The Wall’ was hardly exciting or like ‘going back home’ but it felt like…something.

Exiting the station brings a slightly different view from that of the harbour: a car park, a flyover, lots of concrete. Hmmm, lets walk along this main road for a bit then. Oh, whats this, a subway that’s very reminiscent of a harrowing scene in a disturbing film I wish I hadn’t seen. Let’s try the other way. Oh, what’s this, a massive and incongruous hunk of a building that must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in Eastern Europe and finally given up its travels on the edge of the George roundabout. Poole is weird. I’ve decided.


Two shows in the studio at the Lighthouse go well and there’s a post show salon event too that goes off better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with. Perhaps it was the 12ft table of nibbles on offer. (I laid down next to it, it was two me’s.) And before you can say ‘what happened to the nibbles?’, it is Sunday morning and our time here is done. Except for one thing. Rain? Check. Headache? Check. Awkward  luggage? Check. LET’S HIT POOLE.

Within moments I conclude that this area of Poole isn’t designed for pedestrians. It’s designed to be driven through on the way to somewhere else. The Lighthouse, the largest arts centre outside London, is situated opposite the bus station and the Dolphin Shopping Centre on the busy  Kingland Road. Hardly ideal for tempting pedestrians in with promises of weird and wonderful tales or a tea cake (in the rather pricey cafe/restaurant). I do worry about the location and physical appeal of arts venues and am often concerned that a venue isn’t helping itself by its location and its looks. Not that it has much say in either. Needless to say I am now worried about the Lighthouse. Even though both our performances sold out in the Studio and they seem to be doing just fine with a varied programme of touring theatre, music, film, dance, comedy and sizeable support from the Arts Council.

I take to the subway from the other day/that film. I take a picture then run. Cool picture actually. I look up and in front of me stands the lost hunk of building. Turns out it’s Barclays House and from this angle looks pretty beautiful. I take a picture. Cool. The rain has cleared, my headache has been paracetamoled and Poole and I, I think, can be friends. Next stop, the Quayside.

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I walk the High Street. It was probably quite quaint and pretty once. Now its home to all the usual suspects, some rather unappealing pubs and of course a cheap bakers. But at least it’s pedestrianised. So I zigzag irresponsibly whilst eating my 90p sausage roll. Now this is living.

I head to the Tourist Information Centre on the Quayside which is wall to wall colourful leaflets promising sea safaris, theme parks, outstanding natural beauty, red squirrels. Poole has a lot going down, I’d never quite realised. A tall pile of flyers for our show sit prominently on the side. They either had an absolute shed load to begin with or no one took one.

I am reminded that Poole is one of the largest natural harbours in the world; that Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust and was where Baden-Powell began the Scout movement; that the RNLI are based here; that Poole Pottery is famous; that Sandbanks is amongst the priciest real estate in the world; that Sunseeker make all their fancy boats here; that the coastline is known as the Jurassic Coast; that the Royal Marines train here; and that the Poole Pirates speedway team have historically been very very good. I feel guilty as I don’t think I’ve given Poole a fair crack of the whip over the years. I also wonder how the arts can compete with all this good stuff?


I think back to the post show discussion. The crowd that stayed behind were all at least late 30’s I would say, mostly in couples, and a good few had travelled in from the surrounding areas (Wimborne, Christchurch, New Milton). They asked probing questions about the process, suggested ideas and provided constructive criticism. Basically they were into it, they dig this kind of thing. I wonder whether anyone from Poole itself comes to theatre at the Lighthouse? Whether they know there is such a great facility right by their bus station? I wonder what the school group of 11 year olds who came made of it all? And where they came from and why? I don’t know any of the answers. So of course, I worry. And I realise my headache has returned as a result of all the thinking so step outside for some good old-fashioned sea air. I duck a seagull who has no respect for personal space. I take a picture of a cool bit of rope and some water. And sit.


I am confused by Poole. It seems to have no centre, it’s all rather dispersed, and yet it apparently offers so much. The Quay and the harbour I guess is where people gravitate to, (it’s certainly busy today on a not particularly pleasant Sunday morning) but this doesn’t help the Lighthouse as it’s in the opposite direction. The many pubs along the front seem to be doing good business though.

If I was to create a piece of work here, I would want it to appeal to the people of Poole, not just those who drive in for their culture fix then drive away again. Perhaps I would explore the history of the place: Poole was as an iron age settlement after all, a bustling 12th Century port, an important trade link to North America and a key player in the D-Day landings. And now it is a main ferry route to the Channel Islands and France, and has a large tourist industry. Everything it has and does is linked to the sea, which is why it came to exist in the first place.

I would talk to those school children and find out what Poole is to them, what they see themselves doing and will they even stay in the area? What relevance is it to them that Sandbanks is one the most exclusive addresses in the land, that the fanciest boats are built here or that the whole area is of ‘outstanding natural beauty’? Do they even like the sea?

I would like to find out what life is like in Poole away from the Quayside and the tourism and the glamour and I would interview a whole host of residents and workers and find the stories one would never otherwise hear. And I would explore further the confusion in my own mind: that away from the water, where Poole seems to have everything, it doesn’t appear to have much at all. I’d want my piece to appeal to the people of Poole itself and to see new faces coming to the Lighthouse.

And if none of that gets me anywhere I’d send Will Adamsdale back in and get 12 feet of nibbles out. That seems to do the trick.