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.

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The lion, the wytch and the wardrobe

by Sylvia Mercuriali

Lost in the Darkness 

I arrive at Malvern at 9pm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave ..off to bed.

The great wall of Malvern. 

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

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

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

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

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

I do love the hills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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