by Maddy Costa
In all the years I worked on newspapers (two with the Evening Standard, six at the Guardian, another eight of freelance time), I knew I wasn’t much of a journalist. My impulse wasn’t to sniff out stories, expose the truth, uncover lies; I wanted to draw people’s attention to things, but that meant pop music and theatre: not much in the way of “hard news” there. I still want to draw attention to theatre, but my sense of myself as a story-gatherer has changed. I want to draw attention to people under the radar, to stories unheard, people unseen. It’s why I’m getting so much joy out of working on NTiYN: it takes me to places too easily dismissed.
Stockton-on-Tees is one of those places. We all know this story: a former manufacturing town now slumped without purpose or hope. Its high street blighted with dust from sluggish building sites, discount stores and dereliction. It has an arts centre, sure, but that’s five doors down from the pub where a pint costs only a pound. Addiction, prostitution, unemployment, the lot. Except. Those aren’t the only things I see when I visit Stockton. And there are other ways this story might be told. I’ve written about this on this blog before: a sense that what separates this high street from my own apparently more chi-chi high street in London is snobbery and narrative. Just because the drinks are five, eight, ten times more expensive in my local cocktail bars, doesn’t make their buyers superior to anyone else getting drunk.
I’ve wanted to tell another story about Stockton for a long time now, a story about community, a neighbourhood coming together in shared space. I was there in August last year for the Stockton International Riverside Festival, on an NTiYN job, inviting people to chat after seeing The Roof. When I first reached the High Street I was astounded: I’d never seen it so full. People of all ages, gathered between the buildings sites, spending the whole day watching outdoor performances. There was something that involved huge plastic flowers protruding from the upper windows of a shop building; a march of Mexican puppets banging drums; a silent dance piece by two men dressed as soldiers, one in a wheelchair, and a woman in a floaty silk gown. I couldn’t imagine any of those people choosing to see that dance piece if it had been staged at the ARC.
Watching The Roof in this context was blissful: so much more fun than when I’d seen it in London. The show hadn’t changed but the afternoon sunlight (in London it hadn’t started until 9pm or so), the open space (in London it was overshadowed by imposing concrete buildings), the presence of young children (despite a 12+ age recommendation), changed the atmosphere for the better. A few people walked out – it was free, they weren’t beholden – but others were clearly entertained, and I enjoyed watching two boys in particular, both aged maybe eight or at most 10, grinning, singing along to the soundtrack and copying the computer-game hero’s dance moves. I could picture them going home and re-enacting his leaps across the simulated rooftop, from sofa to rug to armchair; turning to each other in a year, two years, and saying: “Remember that thing we saw with the guy and the rubber ducks and the monsters with broccoli heads? That was COOOOL.”
Theatre makes memories, makes fun, makes new stories. This is what I love about it. It also, given the chance, gives a community impetus. I went to SIRF around the same time as seeing a couple of shows in London that thought about this incisively. Mr Burns at the Almeida was set after some kind of energy apocalypse; survivors, strangers, gathered in makeshift shacks and consoled themselves by retelling the story of a particular episode of the Simpsons. Fast forward a few years and entire communities have formed, fuelled by amateur dramatics: there is an alternative economy in Simpsons scripts and people have found new meaning in their lives through re-enactments. Fast forward again and those re-enactments are full-scale rituals: there is a new energy charge in these lives now. Those communities survived through storytelling, thrived through storytelling. They found meaning and a way of articulating their own predicament through art.
Mr Burns anticipated the enduring value of pop culture; Idomeneus at the Gate breathed with the ancients. A Greek myth retold by German playwright Roland Schmimmelpfennig, Idomeneus is the story of a Cretan king who promises to sacrifice the first living being he encounters to the gods in return for a safe journey home from Troy; but in this version it becomes multiple stories, a chorus of narrator-characters rehearsing several possible versions of events, each one casting Idomeneus and themselves in a different light. The slipperiness of their storytelling becomes revealing, too, of how history is rewritten by successive generations, and how truth is malleable depending on the purpose to which it’s being put. If that makes it sound dry, it wasn’t: directed by Ellen McDougall, it was pacy and funny and made you gasp with its surprises. And because it was impossible to tell what the “real” story was, you in the audience watching had the opportunity to decide for yourself.
It’s in that invitation to “make” the story that theatre does so much basic democratic work. Another thing I was doing at the time of visiting SIRF was reading The View From Here, a vital paper by a group of artists based in New York who call themselves the Brooklyn Commune Project, which talks about the place art and artists have in the world and the relationships they have and might have with audiences. I reread it regularly, simply because it’s so inspiring, and communicates so brilliantly that art matters not because it generates so many millions of pounds for the economy, but because it builds in people the confidence to be socially engaged. One study it quotes emphasises that art is “a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideals, and a promoter of political dialogue”. Elsewhere it describes art, and particularly performing arts like theatre, as a “meeting place, a site for the formation of a shared communal identity as ‘the public’ … a microcosm of democratic society, where individual free expression meets public space”.
Is it far-fetched to read all of that into SIRF? Maybe. But I got a completely different sense of Stockton from going to that festival, joining that community, watching disability arts and theatre-through-headphones and flamboyant noisy street processions with them, sharing that community’s curiosity, feeling invigorated by their stamina. And I wondered: who’s telling this story? Who’s framing Stockton and its public this way?
I went back to Stockton earlier this week, again with NTiYN, to give a writing workshop at the ARC connected to The Spalding Suite. Approaching the High Street, I was surprised again: the building site was gone, replaced with wide pavements, clean shop fronts and a large curved fountain that at night shines with coloured lights, bubbling emerald, ruby and sapphire. I remembered the lovely cafe I’d been to last summer, open late into the evening and bubbling with conversation; I wandered into the shopping centre and found a too-enticing sewing stall, old-fashioned bakers, and a sense of character I’d always assumed wasn’t there. (Nothing to do with Stockton, everything to do with hatred of shopping centres.) With the building machinery packed up, the ARC is visible from the High Street; it doesn’t feel disconnected any more but a window on to the town.
I’m really excited by the possibilities of this. I’m excited by the thought that one day, the teenage boys milling around the fountain at 10pm, shouting intimidation at passers-by, might one day spend an evening sitting in the ARC, and that the show they see might be like The Spalding Suite: vivid, pulsing, full of basketball and beatboxing, fiery with the hopes of young men like them. I’m excited that the people drinking in the pound-a-pint pub might encounter Hannah Nicklin, someone who’ll encourage their stories to be heard. I’m idealistic, I know, but I think back to a blog post by Daniel Bye in which he mentions making Story Hunt in Stockton, encountering “an enormous amount of inspiring history, but … a lack of hope in the present” and dream up a future in which ARC becomes the site of regenerated civic hope. I want to keep telling the story of Stockton, because it feels important. People and places shouldn’t be abandoned or sneered at. Common humanity demands better than that.