Reaching out, further and further

This month marks the end of NTiYN as a research project, and the beginning of this work as a practice for life. Over on the Fuel website is a page of useful stuff that we’re hoping to share with as many people as possible: an evaluation booklet which discusses the ways in which the project was successful and not so much; the essay of historical precedences that I keep banging on about (sorry! It’s full of others’ good thinking and I’d love people to read it); and handbooks related to the two chief discoveries of the project, with suggestions for how to run theatre clubs and how to work with local engagement specialists.

The Theatre Club handbook I’m super proud of (and no, I didn’t write it!): ever since Lily Einhorn invited me to start hosting one as part of the participation project at the Young Vic in London, it’s been a mystery to me why every theatre in the country doesn’t offer one as part of its events programme. All it involves is opening up a space for audiences to talk about theatre shows without the people who made them present: it doesn’t have to replace the Q&A, in fact it’s best when the two are complementary. But it invites people to speak and be heard who often feel excluded from what looks like a theatre clique, through worry that they don’t have the right language or haven’t understood something. At Theatre Club, it’s brilliant when people don’t understand something, because often that’s when individual interpretations based on particular experiences begin to emerge. The best part of being involved in NTiYN for me has been watching people start up theatre clubs of their own, and through that forging social groups that get people going to the theatre more, in buildings they might not have visited before, and to see work they might not have taken a chance on, especially if they were likely to be attending alone. It’s through such groups that theatre can become less an occasional outing and more the fabric of life.

The people who have been instrumental in inspiring those groups to begin are the Local Engagement Specialists: people who live and work in the vicinity of the theatres to which Fuel tour, who form a point of connection between Fuel/the theatre-makers, the venue and the local communities. During the course of the research project those have been paid positions; Fuel have made the decision to use what they’ve learned to shape a volunteers network, but a necessary question was raised at the NTiYN closing event in Preston last month by Charlotte Bennett, producer with RashDash who runs a similar volunteer ambassador scheme, about the ethics of asking people to do that work for free. As an aside, that closing event was fascinating in the way that it brought people from all sections of the theatre industry – from the artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester to independent producers, makers, actors, students, and the enthusiastic audience members who are Fuel’s new volunteers – into a room for a shared conversation in which a genuine attempt was made to scrub away hierarchies so that all opinions were equally valid. As mentioned on the home page, I came to NTiYN via Dialogue, an organisation (although that’s not quite the right word for it – it’s more a philosophy) that aims to inspire new relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. As you can tell from the name, dialogue is at the heart of what we do and think about, and this was a beautiful instance of how a theatre conference could be more egalitarian and creative in its structure. (And, yet another aside, there’s a lovely review of the event here by Olivia Corbin-Phillip, one of the new Colchester volunteers.)

I want to end by talking more about the Local Engagement Specialists, but rather than pull extracts from the handbook, I’d rather let them speak for themselves. Earlier this year I spoke to Jordana Golbourn (Colchester) about her experiences within NTiYN, how it had gone well and what might have been improved. As the only Local Engagement Specialist who stayed with NTiYN for the entire three years, she has a sense of overview that all the others lack. I’d argue that her staying power is in part down to the fact that outreach is the bedrock of everything she does: a freelance theatre-maker who runs projects at the Almeida and Make Believe Arts in London, among other venues, she works particularly with young people, using theatre as a tool to explore the issues relating to their lives. She’s also one of those people who talks so much sense and kindness that she ought to be in charge of everything.

Jordana already had a relationship with the Lakeside in Colchester when she became the Local Engagement Specialist there – and that proved as much a frustration as a benefit. “In the very initial stages of the project, I think they saw the relationship less as a collaborative thing, and more: ‘Jordana’s got this one.’ That was partly to do with how stretched they are as a venue – it’s just three people – so it was a relief to them to be able to have somebody who could work on some projects, and they trusted the model to make things happen.”

What that meant, however, was that: “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything in terms of outreach. I was just another marketing head for the show.” It felt like an opportunity was being squandered: “One of the biggest things [in theatre] is trying to get people out of the rut that they’re already working in. We’re really stretched, so to think of doing things in a different way is a job in itself.” In no way was this a problem unique to the Lakeside, and Jordana says: “It speaks volumes for where we are in theatre at the moment that people have not really grasped NTiYN as an opportunity to learn and reflect on their practice, and be part of something widely, across the country, but instead grasped at it as a bit more money for a bit of extra help.”

Her commitment to the project meant that she was able to trace the shift in approach at the Lakeside, the effect of the realisation that “actually collaborating with it works better”. Partly this happened because she became more assertive about the role she was willing to play: “I was really clear in the later stage that I’m not going to do marketing, I’m not going to take over your twitter handle: that’s your responsibility.” What she saw was that NTiYN “has made a real difference. When we first started, there was a lot of blanket marketing: everything went to everybody. They are now thinking show by show, and about who can we contact for each particular show.”

Communication problems with the venue were exacerbated by communication problems with Fuel. One of those was mechanical: email, it transpires, is a rubbish tool for planning outreach projects across multiple interested parties (to which we chant in chorus: WHO KNEW?). When Jordana says, “I’ve got a lot of love for google docs now,” she laughs at herself but is also sincere. “It lays out all the activity that we wanted to do and all the contacts and it’s really clear who’s doing what. Before using google docs, you’d have an initial meeting and everyone would go off and no one had a clear idea of what anyone was going to be doing.”

But the question of responsibility, and autonomy, isn’t just functional: it’s also emotional, and that proved harder to answer. Even in the final year of NTiYN, Jordana didn’t feel entirely clear what voice she was using as a Local Engagement Specialist. “Who are we speaking on behalf of, when we’re in that role? Am I supposed to be talking on behalf of the venue, or am I employed by Fuel? Do I feel like I have the same ownership over the work as the project managers at Fuel? Do I have enough weight to say: I’m Jordana, I’m a local theatre worker and enthusiast, and these are things I think are really brilliant and I think you should come? Is it OK to change depending on who you’re talking to? Because actually, different people might want different things: when contacting some of the schools I know really well, just being Jordana works, but for other schools that I don’t know so well, to be able to say, ‘I’m from this theatre company and this is what we do’ gives a weight that you need. I still haven’t worked out whether or not that flexibility is useful.”

These are perennial problems faced by freelancers: outsiders who are invited to behave like insiders, but without the privileges that might entail. And yet, in the context of NTiYN, it resulted in moments when barriers were put up between the Local Engagement Specialists and the touring theatre-makers that were not helpful for people attempting to do outreach work on those shows. Jordana recalls a research trip to a dress rehearsal in which the Local Engagement Specialists “didn’t get introduced to the artist or the production team”, creating a sense of distance between themselves and the makers. On another occasion, she didn’t find out that a performer in a show she had been working on grew up near Colchester until his parents came along to the theatre club: “That’s something we should have known and could have tapped into.” Earlier this year I spoke to Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, and she discussed similar issues around communication, sharing of information and access to the artists. This has been one of the biggest learning points for Fuel: the realisation that sometimes they do form an unconscious barrier between artists, venues and communities.

The issue as Jordana sees it is in an industry-wide failure to really consider the question of responsibility when it comes to outreach and engagement. She remembers seeing a tweet by Alan Lane of Slung Low, distributing a photograph of one of the community actors in a show he was directing, Camelot, “going around the local community with posters, posing in the barbershop, having conversations. I thought: why is it only in community and amateur theatre where artists take this massive responsibility for promoting their work? Why is it only in those circumstances that people feel that it’s a proud thing to go out and tell people about it?” If she had her way, outreach wouldn’t be “someone else’s responsibility” but a collective endeavour – and the culture would be so much stronger for it.

Getting to know The Preston Bill

fuel pb image

By Georgette Purdey

I have been working on Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood for 18 months and it feels to me like we have all been building towards The Preston Bill. It’s the moment the project has come together in a perfect storm: great show, great venue, great artist. It’s a marketing gal’s dream team!

Andy Smith has been planning this show for almost two years. A Lancashire lad, he was the perfect artist to write a piece in response to Preston. I had seen an open rehearsal of the show in Camden People’s Theatre in London a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Fast-forward to the final night in Preston and the show has come on leaps and bounds.

The New Continental is far from what you might think of a Prestonian boozer: it’ s swanky and welcoming, nestled on the corner of a beautiful park. It’s the perfect intimate venue for The Preston Bill and Fuel worked hard to make sure the audience had more than just a good night out.

Gathered in the pub about half the audience arrived early for Garry Cooke’s work, a photographic journey of life through the past 80 years. As we sat with our pints we laughed at the juxtaposition of images from people’s own photo albums sandwiched next to world events. It’s important to remember that Uncle Ted washing his new car was just as mission critical in his life as NASA landing a man on the moon!

We then moved into the theatre space, which was bare apart from a chair and a ukulele. Andy held the audience spellbound with his beautifully lyric piece The Preston Bill. The embodiment of an ‘everyman’, the story of a life, an ordinary life. Sometimes that life seemed small and pedestrian but it illuminated much bigger debates and trends in society. I am not from Preston, but that didn’t matter, to me Bill was my Granddad born in South London, living through the Blitz, National Service, the Printers’ strike. His mother’s fond bedtime words were my Dad singing Que Sera to me every night as a child. He had captured the beauty and the pathos in everyday life.

As I looked around I had a bit of a ‘Henry Higgins’ moment – the denouement of the last two years of NTiYN. The audience were engaged, experiencing new writing, with a local artist in a versatile pub theatre. This was it – we had cracked it!

I couldn’t help but think about my childhood theatre experiences sat in church halls watching the work of companies like Eastern Angles – this was great storytelling stripped back to its bare bones.

In ‘the snug’ after, the Theatre Club was a lively debate fuelled by local pride and a sense of loss for the Preston of old. Understandably the dialogue moved to politics and although it’s easy to see The Preston Bill as partisan, I think that misses the point. The Preston Bill experiences life under Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – he is a prism through which we see the past 80 years played out. Things change, gay rights make advancements, some things don’t change so much. Throughout the play women remain benevolent characters but bit-parts, in a reflection on the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

The Preston Bill goes on tour in spring and I am confident that in theatres all around the country it will move audiences with its lyric narrative and leave them pondering on the legacy of their own lives.

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.

The currency of friendliness

Quick introduction by Maddy Costa: This post was written by Emma Geraghty, a writer and singer-songwriter, who attended the Derelict festival in Preston as part of a writing team I led there. It’s not specifically relevant to NTiYN, except that the Conti in Preston is one of the project’s six venues, but it’s such a lovely piece of writing – specifically, in its rejection of commercially-driven narratives that declare one city ‘successful’ and another ‘failed’ – that I wanted to include it here, too.

by Emma Geraghty

Sunshine and high winds. Wherever you are feels like a holiday, but it’s Preston in the early evening, and I have time to kill. So I walk. Down the high street. People are dressed for the summer, an inherently British thing in this weather, and I pass shops and cafes and roadworks. It reminds me of Bolton, of Salford, of every city town in the North, the ones people overlook as they look over the country. Because they’re not Manchester or Birmingham or Newcastle. They are Primark and betting shops and homelessness and dodgy pubs and council estates. All of the things that city-sized cities have, but get brushed under a carpet of commercialisation and extra-wide high streets.

A seagull cries overhead.
“Oh my god love you are BEAUTIFUL.”
“Spare any change, pet?”
“God bless.”

I sit on a bench on a square, I’m not sure which one, partially blinded by the sun, rolling a cigarette. There’s a courthouse, the Dean’s Court House, and a man shutting down some funfair rides. He pulls large waterproof covers over the seats, drags concrete blocks to surround them, leaves, returns with a metal fence, leaves, returns with a metal fence, leaves, returns, repeats, until the rides are surrounded. The muscles stand out on his arms. I think he sees me watching, so I smile, and he smiles.

“Here, sweetheart, got a light?”
“Cheers darlin’, have a good day now.”

The light on the buildings, on the pavement, is wonderful. Photography lighting. A man walks past, singing loudly to himself in a foreign tongue and pointing at something. He’s Asian or Muslim or Middle Eastern or… He’s smiling. The man on the next bench shouts “Allah Allah Allah” at the singing man. He is English or British or white or… The singing man doesn’t notice. The man on the bench lapses into silence.

I stub out my cigarette and walk. Shops are shutting. People are getting ready for their Saturday night. Equator. I buy a coffee and a fruit juice and sit. And write.

Preston was voted into the top ten unhealthiest high streets in Britain, according to a BBC survey. Qualifying features were betting shops, pawnbrokers, and takeaways, among others. It’s all rubbish. It’s a small working-class high street. That’s all. The healthiest high streets were mostly in southern areas of affluence, and there’s the difference. Money. It always is, in one way or another.

One of the things I pride myself on, being from the North, is that we are friendly. We have friendly accents. Even when we swear, it doesn’t sound as bad. We use terms of endearment constantly and naturally. Mate, love, pet, duck, darling, sweetheart. This place is a conversation piece. You can talk to anyone. Just passing the time of day is enough. Just lending a lighter is enough. Just sharing a smile is enough.

I will finish my juice and roll a cigarette and pack up my pen, purse, notebook, phone, and leave. I will turn left, cross the road, go over the carpark, turn right, go into the building, and see something. Derelict. This place is anything but derelict.

The what happens after

by Maddy Costa

This story begins in Newcastle, in the middle of March. As part of my ongoing quest to encourage more people not just to write about theatre but to do so in different and exciting ways, I was running a workshop with the Cuckoo Young Writers, and by chance met Ruth, newly commissioned by the Clod Ensemble to act as a local engagement specialist for their touring production The Red Chair. Ruth was feeling frustrated: she had come up with a fun social media campaign, and made contact with some interesting local groups, but so far it hadn’t translated into many conversations, let alone ticket sales. She felt she wasn’t getting anywhere.

I’m always open about the fact that I have no actual experience in outreach or engagement work, I’ve never worked in a theatre, and have no specific theatre training. However, instinctively I’m pretty certain that to think about outreach or engagement in terms of ticket sales is going about things the wrong way. This isn’t a criticism of Ruth, by the way: it’s a general observation. A fundamental belief that if you’re going to make the effort to talk to people, it’s got to be with a view to more than getting them to part with their cash.

Ruth told me about the groups she’d approached, particularly associations for blind and visually impaired people: The Red Chair, she felt, relies so much more on language, sound and hearing than on sight that she wanted to encourage these groups to come along, and use that as the beginning of a more general conversation about access to theatre. Which all sounded like the right kind of work, if only she could feel less disheartened. Four days later, she sent me an email, telling me about a conversation she’d had with the chair of the Newcastle Disability Forum: although no one was free to see The Red Chair, Ruth was organising an alternative theatre trip for them – and they had a long discussion about the good and bad of audio-description, which Ruth expected to continue. She concluded:

‘The longer-term outcomes seem to be where the heart of this is and I am starting to shift my head about that … I want to get as many people who may enjoy the show to see it … but actually what happens after that is key.’

The middle of this story takes place in Gloucester a few days later. I was there for the Strike a Light festival, which has grown up as part of the Collaborative Touring Network, a strategic touring project funded by Battersea Arts Centre. I hadn’t been to Strike a Light before, but it was instantly obvious how this spring festival was building on the previous autumn one (and on the two festivals before that). There was quantitative data for this – a clear increase in ticket sales – but what interested me were the ways I, as an outsider, noticed it in the atmosphere. In the way people stayed behind after a work-in-progress performance and talked about how it compared with another, earlier version of the same show. In the number of people who came out on a Sunday evening for another work-in-progress performance: students, theatre-makers, locals. Last year, there was an argument at the bar about making work as a person of colour in the region; this year there was a programmed discussion on the subject, more than 20 people debating passionately with each other – people who hadn’t met before, but could go on to work together. It was like seeing a community come into bud.

There are six CTN festivals, all of them in areas where there isn’t much theatre going on, all of them blossoming. Lyn Gardner wrote a Guardian blog about another one, run by Doorstep Arts in Torbay, which she described as: “a terrific celebration of the transformative power of arts engagement”, praising it for “growing a future model of arts engagement that could flourish all over the country”. That model is simple: galvanising and supporting communities to build the infrastructures they need to present touring work and inspire local makers.

This story now has a twist: on a Saturday in mid-April I went to Preston for the last weekend of the Derelict festival, a brilliant week-long programme of performances and fun. It ended with a discussion – my favourite kind of discussion, in which people of all different ages and backgrounds, from students to artistic directors and chief executives via producers, practising artists and academics, gather on equal terms. We began talking about the need for stronger infrastructure in Preston, to make it more possible to present and encourage people to attend theatre/performance/art, and one person suggested that it was important for the people of Preston to make this alone, and not allow others to build it for them. “Others” including Fuel – Preston’s Continental being one of the six NTiYN venues. I found this resistance really interesting: are organisations like Fuel and BAC riding roughshod over locals, who could quite happily build an arts community themselves? I don’t think so – but then, I’m always the Londoner in these situations, the outsider.

It was fascinating to encounter that oppositional perspective, and while not agreeing with it, I want to hold it in my thoughts. What makes me disagree is knowing how much autonomy people like Emma Jane in Gloucester and the Doorstep Arts team in Torbay have in shaping their festivals for their own communities. What begins as a potentially cynical opportunity for BAC to access new and hard-to-reach audiences is transformed by a genuine desire to support, on the one hand, local grassroots activity and, on the other, the entire theatre ecology. Similarly, when I see Fuel organise mentoring for a programmer in Preston (for instance), it’s not just to get more of their own work on: it’s so that programmer can learn new approaches to building a stronger, bolder venue, which could become a hub for locals and touring artists alike.

This story ends in Colchester on the last Friday in April, at an event curated by Jordana Golbourn, the local engagement specialist for the Lakeside. Since starting work with NTiYN a couple of years ago, Golbourn has sought to reach beyond the Lakeside’s campus community and forge links with people across Colchester and in nearby areas like Jaywick and Wyvenhoe. Inspired by Fuel’s Phenomenal People, she organised a social for local women, with me as host, to take place in the Lakeside’s cafe. It was another one of those perfect circles: the university’s head of Humanities and other top academics sitting at the same table with students, artists and theatre-makers, plus the mother and daughter who run an activist event called Colchester Soup. You could hear the electricity crackling across the table as women discovered like-minded souls, people with whom they might collaborate or from whom they could learn. In one short hour, the university feminist society had several new members; we learned about one woman’s art therapy practice, another’s work as a clown doctor and a third’s intention to build retreats for artists in Jaywick; pledged to support the university’s brilliant scheme for scholarships for young women and marvelled at how Colchester Soup directs funds to people with community-benefiting ideas. Somewhere in the mix we invited everyone present to come to the Phenomenal People show: I hope they come, but I hope much more that this was the first of many events, the beginning of a proper network, in which women can find mentors, share experience, build together.

The Colchester social might end this particular blog story, but it’s also a beginning and a continuation. Sometimes, like Ruth, I get disheartened on NTiYN trips, that it’s still so hard getting people to come and see shows. But time and again I remind myself: that’s not what it’s about. It’s about cultural shifts and making connections across communities; not individual shows but the way neighbourhoods function; not theatre as a product but theatre at the beating heart of society.

Facts and fictions

I’ve known my friend Andrew for 22 years, and for most of that time he’s lived in Ingol in Preston, which ought to mean it’s the place I know best of all the NTiYN towns. Sadly, I’m quite a rubbish friend, so have relied on him visiting me in London, and haven’t returned the favour since 1999. So we were both really excited when I started working on this project at the prospect of seeing more of each other – even though he quickly confessed an element of cynicism about the work I would be doing. The New Continental has good music gigs, he told me, but isn’t really a place that attracts a theatre-going audience. And, he argued, the best thing about going to theatre is that it finishes early – no frantic dash for the last bus home – so why would anyone want to stay for a post-show discussion?

It’s taken a surprisingly long time, but on Friday night I finally had my first visit to Preston, and the Conti, for Fiction. It was a chilly night of squally showers, and as we made the 15-minute walk through winding back streets from the bus stop to the venue, Andrew and I feared the worst. Our journey was well over half an hour: who else was going to do that if they didn’t have to? In the dark and rain? And the Conti isn’t on the same side of town as students, making it even less likely that people would come. Let alone stay for the Theatre Club.

Settled into the pub’s lovely snug – with roaring fire! – Andrew and I got our first gratifying surprise: we discovered that the show was sold out. The capacity was 60 people – even if only a tenth stayed, I argued, that would still be enough for an interesting discussion. But at the end, everyone poured out of the theatre – and it seemed Andrew’s dire predictions were coming true. Except they weren’t. Everyone had disappeared to take advantage of the offer of a free drink for the discussion, and within a few minutes, people started coming back in. First two people, then five, then a whole crowd: we’d arranged the chairs into a big circle, but it just wasn’t big enough, and people crowded at the back so they could join in, too. In the end we had about 30 people, half the audience – one of the biggest theatre clubs I’ve ever led.

And it was brilliant. Fiction takes place in an astonishingly complete darkness, and lots of people talked about the insecurity that made them feel; one woman confessed that it induced a state of such panic that she’d had to leave. We talked about whether the makers take enough care over communicating just how dark it’s going to get, and the games that can be played with the imagination because of that darkness. We shared our different experiences of visualising the things described in the show, and how that was affected by the different qualities of the recording. We compared the extent to which the many invitations to fall asleep in the text of the show had affected our alertness; one woman talked fascinatingly of her experience of hypnosis, and how similar this had felt. We asked who had “understood” the show, and whether not understanding was frustrating, and enjoyed the way that the movement and content of the text is as surreal as a dream. One man actually said this was the best instance of surrealism in theatre he’d ever encountered. Apart from a brief moment of splitting into small noisy conversations, for most of the hour we talked as a single, albeit huge, group, listening attentively to each other, enjoying everyone else’s individual perspective.

As we travelled home, Andrew confessed he was amazed – and that his cynicism had been overturned. He’d not only really enjoyed the conversation, but the event had proven him wrong: people in Preston WOULD come to this sort of thing, AND have a brilliant time. This shift in his perspective showed me again what’s properly great about the NTiYN project: it can make people who’ve lived in a town for decades reconsider their relationship with it, and discover that it’s not what they thought it was. And it does this patiently, one person at a time.

Artist Mission – Andy Smith in Preston: Man in Preston or North Western Story

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 Andy Smith.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at






The prologue should talk about the weeks leading up to his trip to Preston.  About how in this time he thinks a lot about what the word ‘neighbourhood’ might mean. He thinks about how it might present ideas of location, place and belonging.  He considers proximity and trust, friendliness and diversity.  He thinks about identity and community, about networks and support.  He thinks about if he lives in a neighbourhood, and about whether the word is in danger of being devalued in its use by politicians, the media, and maybe even initiatives with titles like ‘New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’.

He also sings this a lot.

He thinks about what he is doing or going to do or think about in relation to this day in Preston that he has.  He thinks about how a day is not much.  He thinks about how he wants to spend time on his own getting a feel for the place as well as talking with others.

He also thinks about what ‘New Theatre’ means.  He thinks about what he might expect and what might be expected of him; a writer or theatre maker person who is categorically not from that neighbourhood but is going into that neighbourhood to think about it, (and talk to) the people that he meets that day.




In the car on the way to Preston he thinks about how any document or piece of writing that begins with the sentence ‘In the car on the way to Preston’ will inevitably be a fiction in some sense.  This work will be a report of him in Preston, a re-presentation of him in Preston, an experience that he has attempted to be made comprehensible by turning it into words and pictures.  This is an intimation or imitation of Preston, of a man in Preston.  This is a story.

For some reason he can’t get the car radio to work, so as he drives down the road there is only fragments of music that drift in and out of his thoughts.  He looks through the windscreen and surveys the landscape as it plays.  The music might be from a playlist called ‘North by North West’.  It features desolate hillsides, overcast skies, street corners abandoned too soon, useless MP’s, shoeless children, grey fogs, and inevitably matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs.

He drives and he listens and his mind wanders.  And he thinks about flat caps and ukuleles, cotton mills and clocking off, the steam age and the railways. He imagines the industrial North, the Grim up North, the Northern Echo and the Northern Sky.  He parks the car at the legendary bus station, pays the parking and descends in the lift to the terminus.  The wind whips about.  The sky is overcast.  The plastic of the seats is garish and uninviting.  A sign hangs above pointing downward to the exit.  He enters the subway, where others advise him to keep left.



I am from The North West, or rather The North of North West.  I come from the North of North West.  I was born in Carlisle.  Even further up the west coast mainline than Preston.  At the moment I live in Lancaster.  I think about how these are all different but all pretty small sizes of city.  Further North than what I think a more general perception of The North West is.  They aren’t Liverpool or Manchester, that’s for sure, their identity or importance more of a struggle.  All of this makes me wonder about what it means to be from here.  What the North West is now.  Whether there is a divide between it and The North East, or it and The South.  Age old questions.  How these landscapes define us.  Why?



At the start of act two he goes to the local library and museum.  The gold letters on the portico read “To Literature, Arts and Sciences. To them indeed, he thinks.

He seeks out and finds the local history section.  In it, there are biographies of Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, lots of books on Railways, factories in Manchester, Liverpool and the slave trade and ‘murderous’ Bolton.

–       Excuse me… are these all of the local history books?

–       Yes they are.

–       It’s just that I can’t seem to find any about Preston.

–       No. Those are upstairs.

He looks at books and statues and crests.  He looks at a computer designed to impart local information.  He reads about ‘The Preston Guild’, the oldest festival in England.  It happens every 20 years.  He learns that things that happen rarely are sometimes described as happening “once every Preston Guild”.  He thinks that a guild is to do with a trade right or agreement that people joined, a collective of merchants and traders that worked in the city. Or something.  He’s not sure exactly.

He leaves the terminal and goes upstairs to another gallery and looks at famous faces from Preston.  He looks at old bones and skeletons. At carvings and statues and scrolls.  Conscious of time, he pauses for breath to try and make the artefacts connect, but struggles to do so.  Time for some life, he thinks.  So he leaves the building and heads for the town centre.

–       Excuse me… sorry to bother you… is this the way to the town centre?

–       Yes… but really it’s a city centre.

He walks through the town city centre.  The shops are as he might have expected, the signs and structures familiar.  He thinks about other ways to get information.  He goes into a newsagent.

–       Does Preston have a local paper?

–       Yes.  The Evening Post

–       When does it come out?

–       Every morning.

He has a coffee sitting below an escalator in the middle of a shopping centre.  Looks at the paper and opens his notebook. Looks at his surroundings.  Mostly he could be anywhere.  It’s hard to say what defines this place. Perhaps it is better, or easier, to think about what happened here rather than what is happening now.


–       Visited by Charles Dickens, Franz Liszt and Karl Marx (who proclaimed it “the next St. Petersburg”).

–       First town (it was a town then) in the UK to get a KFC.

–       Made the UK’s 50th city in the 50th year of the present Queens reign.



Where he arrives at his destination (a venue called The Continental) and where a long conversation takes place and takes in the following themes and subjects:

Communty and communities, arts practice, film making, theatre making, arts strategy, where we come from, how we make culture, public spaces, local and universal art, local politicians, children, the long term and the short term, what The Continental is and was, BAE systems, culture and cultures, railways and bus stations and connections and being connected, documentary film and theatre, reality and fiction, real people, parch peas, food and identity, living up to expectations, Preston being ‘third city’ (or always the bronze medal), coming back, getting out, the venue, the expectations of this project.

This is by no means a comprehensive list.



The fate of Preston’s iconic bus station remains in the balance after a Government minister delayed a decision on making it a listed building.  Culture minister Ed Vaizey had been expected to give his verdict last week after examining a submission from English Heritage.  But at the 11th hour Mr Vaizey decided to call it back for another look and could now make a personal visit to view the giant terminus topped by a multi-storey car park.


He walks around.

–       What do people do here?

–       Mostly, they leave.

He walks around some more.



Why might we make theatre in and from here?  Who might a piece of new theatre be for in this instance?  Where might it be for?  What might it be for?  Why?  What purpose would it seek to serve?  Why might it be important for this place?  Could it and should it be important for other places too?  Why?  Is it important that it should know these things before it is made?  How might it be made?  Who should it be made for and who should make it?  Why?

This is by no means a comprehensive list.



In the car on the way home he sits in the traffic and recounts his day.  He thinks about the light and the sky and the smells and what Preston might be made of. He thinks a lot about cliché and archetype, and wonders if there was anything that he saw or heard or thought about that surprised him.  He wonders if he wanted to be surprised.  He thinks about things that might be good or bad about Preston.  About what the culture and ‘culture’ of Preston is or might be.

He thinks about what theatre might and can do about and in all of this.  About the many things that theatre can be. He thinks about responsibility, about story and experience, about being together.  About what we do and what we can do.  What might a work about or from this place say? Why?


That was a story about a man in Preston

Who wondered what it meant to be North Western

And that was what he had to say

About the thoughts he had in the course of his day