Summer’s lease

Traveling Treasury - a storytelling performance that inspired the cover of A Wider Horizon
Traveling Treasury – a storytelling performance that inspired the cover of A Wider Horizon

With the publication of A Wider Horizon ten days ago, this phase of the Regular Marvels idea draws to a close. I say ‘this phase’ but I don’t know whether or when there may be a second one. Five years ago, I set out to explore different ways of writing about the place of the arts in people’s lives. I was dissatisfied with some aspects of my own previous work, and even more with the language and assumptions of current arts discourse. Two questions concerned me in particular:

  • If art is important, why is it not accepted as a valid way to understand arts experience?
  • If people are important, why not write about their experience in ways that they might read?

Regular Marvels was a response to both problems. My intention with each book was to:

  • Work with a writer’s, not a researcher’s, methods and sensibility;
  • Work with a visual artist as an equal partner in the process;
  • Choose the subject and focus of each book myself;
  • Write about things the art world undervalued or just didn’t see; and
  • Write in ways that were approachable and interesting to those involved.

Those ideas shaped both the process and the final books, in particular the commitment to publishing them under a Creative Commons licence and making them free through this site. It also influenced their appearance and content: richly illustrated, legible design, accessible language, no footnotes. I wanted each one to be readable at a sitting – a long train journey perhaps.

A couple of recent but unconnected conversations have been encouraging. Joli Vyann, an exciting young performance company, told me that they’d been inspired by Bread & Salt when they were researching their piece about migration, Stateless. And Lyn Gardner, theatre critic with the Guardian (who has just written generously about A Wider Horizon) mentioned she’d read and quoted from Winter Fires. Writing can seem like a mad obsession, like constantly dropping messages in bottles off an ocean pier. It’s great when you get a reply.

With a bit more distance, I might give a better account of Regular Marvels. For now, I want to thank all those who’ve come on the journey – the people who’ve contributed to the books in countless ways and those who’ve read the results. It’s a big busy world and your attention is appreciated. In September, I’ll post news of a new project. In the meantime, I wish you a good summer (or winter if you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere…).

If you’d like a digital copy of A Wider Horizon, click on this link: A Wider Horizon (PDF 5MB). Printed books are available now from Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU, Tel: 01953 713390 Email:  enquiries@creativeartseast.co.uk

 

A Wider Horizon – now available

A Wider Horizon, books - 1

A Wider Horizon is available from today. To download a digital copy, please click on the link below:

For a copy of the printed book, please contact:

Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU

Tel:            01953 713390        Email:       enquiries@creativeartseast.co.uk

A Wider Horizon: First words

A Wider Horizon 17

The regular marvels of rural touring

Rural touring schemes are a quiet triumph of the British arts world. For 35 years, these small, independent organisations have brought theatre, music and other performing arts to villages across the country and found enthusiastic local audiences. They have offered life enhancing experiences to people who, because they live far from cities, have limited access to the arts. They have provided rewarding and often challenging work for thousands of artists, from seasoned performers to young people at the start of a career. And, in doing all this, rural touring schemes have allowed more of us to enjoy the arts we pay for as tax payers and national lottery players.

Night after night, gifted artists perform at the invitation of the local community in halls, schools and churches from Cornwall to Cumbria. There might be 40, 70 or a hundred people; few venues can accommodate more anyway. But numbers aren’t the point. This is an art of closeness—chamber music, not the Last Night of the Proms.

‘People like the intimacy of the performance, the fact that you are feet away. You’re not watching at a distance on a screen—you’re involved, you’re part of the action.’

The performers are close: you can see the whites of their eyes. The atmosphere is electric because there’s nowhere to hide if the show isn’t working—and that can be as uncomfortable for the audience as for the artists. But such occasions are rare, partly because touring schemes are skilled at finding good shows, and partly because local promoters decide which ones to put on in their community. It is a joint enterprise with shared risks. And when it works, which is very often, audience and artists share a joyous experience, life enhancing and even, sometimes, life changing: regular marvels, indeed.

A Wider Horizon will be presented at the National Rural Touring Forum conference on 14th July 2015 at Wymondham College in Norfolk. The book will then be available from Creative Arts East and as a download from this site. A Wider Horizon, which is a collaboration with Rosie Redzia, will be the fifth regular marvel, and marks the end of the series, for the present at least. More news about that, and the new work that will follow, will come in the summer.

A dialogue of stories

AWH Rosie Redzia 28

Designing the regular marvel books is always enjoyable. Visual judgements involve a different part of the mind to writing, and when something works you can see it at once (literally).   There’s a way to go, but as far as integration of words and images A Wider Horizon might be the happiest yet. Each book has explored the dialogue between ways of knowing differently. If none has been completely successful, to my mind, I feel they’re getting better.

That’s partly thanks to the work of Dave Everitt, old friend and multi-disciplinary artist, with whom I do the layout. His command of the software has saved me having to learn it but working with a sympathetic spirit is the key. The combination of being painstaking but not opinionated is precious and makes the working process a pleasure.

But if A Wider Horizon does work out, it will be because Rosie Redzia’s drawings of landscapes, people and performers tell their story so well. It’s not my story – that’s the point of her contribution – but we often saw the same things, together or separately, and have talked about them over the years of the project. The result is not just two versions of the experience of rural touring but three, with another emerging from the dialogue between the two. At least that’s the idea: you’ll be able to decide for yourself when the books are available on 16 July.

AWH Rosie Redzia 43

The difference between enjoying and participating

 

Opera DudesThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted very fast, between 1946 and 1948, by nations reacting to the horrors of the Second World War. It is somewhat neglected nowadays, both in spirit and in fact, but it remains a benchmark of what human beings aspire to be and, since it was ratified by the United Kingdom, it is a standard to which we must hold ourselves. Among its articles is the 27th, which begins by stating that:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

We have made good progress towards meeting this promise since 1948, through the work of local government, the Arts Council and, perhaps more than any other single body, the BBC. It has probably never been easier to enjoy the arts. Their quality, diversity and accessibility in Britain is extraordinary and a cause for celebration.

But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes an important distinction between enjoying the arts and participating in the cultural life of the community. Both rights are fundamental—and different. One can enjoy the arts alone, intimately, without anyone knowing about it. Millions of commuters do so every day, cocooned with their iPods, Kindles and tablets as the train rushes them from work to home.

In contrast to these private experiences, participating in the cultural life of the community is a public and shared act. And it is central to how individuals find and create the common ground that makes a community or a society. It is why Classical Athens developed the civic ritual of theatre and the civic process of democracy simultaneously. Totalitarian regimes do not bother much with private artistic tastes as long as they control the cultural life of the community. It is the difference between passive consumption and active participation, and each has very different results for individuals, communities and democracy.

There are endless ways of participating in the cultural life of the community. Rural touring is certainly one. In gathering in the village hall for an event that they or their neighbours are responsible for organising, people affirm not just their cultural tastes and values but also their willingness to be a community in the first place. In all my conversations with people about rural touring, over more than ten years now, the most consistent reason they give for being involved is that it brings the community together. Whether they are promoters, neighbours or incomers, the people who turn up on a cold February nights to see an unknown play by an equally unfamiliar theatre group, do so to support the community. And, of course, the best way to promote our values is to enact them. It’s not what we say but what we do that makes a difference.

This is a short extract from the draft of A Wider Horizon. The draft goes out today to the people who’ve been involved in the project for correction and further thought. The design process begins next month and it will be more fun than usual thanks to Rosie Redzia’s fantastic drawings, which will be on every page if I can manage it. The book will be published on 15 July 2015 and available as a free download here.

Welcome to the house of fun

Homemade Orchestra (2004) 3

JOE: …small town. I suppose. You have to make your own fun.


ANN: Everybody makes their own fun. F’you don’t make it yourself, it ain’t fun, it’s entertainment.

David Mamet, State and Main, (2000)

It’s night when we arrive, and the darkness is barely relieved by a few scattered street lamps and porch lights. Luckily, the village hall is signposted from the main road; there’s no-one about to ask. It isn’t raining, but it has been, and everything’s damp. The air is March cold; we’re not many miles from the North Sea. The hall lights are ablaze, and the ubiquitous white van stands near the fire door; the musicians are here. The tiny car park is full, and cars line the muddy verges, though there’s a good half hour before the show.

The hall is square and low, dark, with a pitched roof. Inside, there’s a long corridor, then a turn into the main space. The box office is a card table, and one of the promoter’s helpers is there to welcome us. It’s the first show, but all the tickets are gone, so they’re understandably thrilled, if a little anxious about how things will go. The hall itself feels like a social club, not the usual chilly 1950s space, though it’s probably been here as long. There are pictures and wall-lights, and a curtained-off bar area at the far end, with benches and tables. A hundred plastic chairs are ranked in front of a shallow stage littered with mikes and music stands; keyboard, vibraphone and drum kit stand out against a startlingly white backdrop.

The room is already half-full. It’s a local audience – everyone chatting and exchanging news, on first name terms, new layers being added to some very long conversations. Some people have already taken their seats, keen for a good view; they talk amongst themselves, holding pints or balancing coffee cups on their knees. There are lots of children and teenagers. Not allowed in the bar, they’ve colonised the first three rows, deep in discussion; a group has been put in charge of selling raffle tickets. The promoter is on the move, talking, thanking people for coming, answering questions.

Then the lights dim and a handful of spotlight beams bounce off silver stands and cymbals. A saxophonist comes centre stage, and begins a slow looping melody; the audience settles like a dog on a hearthrug. The melody builds, and then there’s a pianist, adding texture to the breathy line; one or two at a time, other musicians take their places from the wings, or through the centre aisle. Soon there’s barely room to move. As well as the jazz instrumentalists, there’s a singer, a violinist and a cellist, and, in front, a conductor: this is the Homemade Orchestra, bringing jazz and contemporary classical music together in unexpected ways. Just how unexpected becomes clear as the saxophonist’s melody, now part of a complex arrangement, mutates into the old Beatles song, ‘Paperback Writer’. From that stunning opening, the Orchestra takes the audience on an unimagined interpretative journey through a 20th century songbook, refreshing the familiar, and introducing the new. Gershwin and Ellington rub along with Peter Gabriel and the Human League, and new work by Tim Whitehead and Colin Riley.

Whatever their age or expectations, taste or experience, people respond to the music, and the virtuosity of individual players, with warmth and enthusiasm. And the musicians, unsure what to expect on the first night of the tour, respond in turn: this is a dialogue, a felt conversation with few words. The mystery of live performance is at play, drawing people in through the unmediated sound, the energy and the infectious enjoyment of the musicians – the present-ness of art experienced.

There’s a palpable buzz in the hall at the interval, as people refill their glasses, exchange impressions and buy the Homemade Orchestra’s CDs; the teenagers are making sure no-one has escaped the raffle tickets. There’s no hurry, and the interval stretches as people stretch their legs: this is a social occasion. Then it’s the second half, even stronger than the first, rousing applause, an encore that seems genuinely to please the musicians, and it’s done. The music hums in the memory, reverberating inside as the raffle is drawn, people get last drinks, or talk to the performers. Slowly, the packing up starts: it’s midweek, and everyone has things to do.

In a matter of hours, the Homemade Orchestra and the audience have encountered each other, shared an unrepeatable moment, and gone their ways. It’s been a brief, but resonant, connection. The evening feels like a triumph on all sides: there will be more shows in this hall, and more halls for the Orchestra to connect with new audiences. The ripples will run far and long, linking people and art. This is rural touring: professional and homemade.

Homemade Orchestra (2004) 1

This is the opening of Only Connect, a study of rural touring based on case studies in England, Wales and France, and published in 2004. That work always seemed to me a conscious attempt to prove I could enact the academy’s idea of research, yet it begins with a piece of writing that belongs naturally to what Regular Marvels has become. The tension between this impressionistic account of a village hall performance and the thorough statistical analyses that follow, reflect my changing interests in what can be known, what need be known and what matters to the people involved.

It took me several years to find a way forward, mainly because of trying to free myself from those powerful academic expectations of conformity, and some of the work I did in looking for it seemed to me transitional even at the time. Where We Dream was the first time I was able to do something different and feel that the result was more successful than not. Each subsequent Regular Marvel has built on that experience.

January skies, wide horizons

A Wider Horizon 3 (Rosie Redzia)

The Light Ships voyage is completed and, with the turn of the year, A Wider Horizon comes into view. It’s the slowest Regular Marvel yet, and it has given me some difficulty. Partly, it’s been about managing my time over several years. It’s also that the idea started as a request, so it has to meet other demands. But mostly, it’s because I’ve written about arts touring in rural areas before. The result was published by the National Rural Touring Forum: 60,000 words based on dozens of interviews, shows and visits and a huge audience survey. What have I new to say?

As I sit down to draw all this together – starting by reading what I wrote 10 years ago – I’m struck by what has changed since then, not least because of the 2008 financial crisis. The landscape looks far more uncertain today than it once did, especially for artists and those who value and support their work. Unbidden, a line from an old Lindisfarne tune, January Song, comes to my mind as I write: ‘I need you to help me carry on / You need me need you need him need everyone’.

Now, I’m thinking, how rural touring happens, and the bonds it creates between artist, funder and community, might have a wider application than was apparent in 2004. And today, by email, comes the gift of a new drawing from Rosie Redzia, who has been with me on this long journey, its fiery red a cheering winter fire… And so, the process begins, thinking, reading and writing… above all, thinking. News on progress will be posted, as and when. In the meantime, if you’ve not downloaded a copy of The Light Ships, please do so – it’s free and it’s here, and it too echoes those words of Alan Hull, ‘You need me need you need him need everyone’.

A Wider Horison 2 (Rosie Redzia)

Rosie Redzia

Words last time: pictures today. Rosie Redzia, the wonderful artist with whom I’m working on ‘A Wider Horizon’, has been drawing rural theatre performances, among other things. Here are some images from Stuff of Dreams theatre company’s current production, The Bricks of Burston, before and during a performance at Swaffham Assembly Hall. They catch the unique intimacy of small scale touring in a way that no photographs I’ve seen have done. This is work that really is done for the love of it, on both sides of the invisible line dividing performer and audience. No one goes to a not specially comfortable village hall on a windy Wednesday night to make or watch theatre for glory.

Over the rest of the summer Rosie and I will be seeing shows and meeting the people involved as we draw together the strands of our book about rural touring. We might see you there, but if you live in Norfolk or Suffolk, support rural touring and would like to be involved, do get in touch – either through this site or via Karen Kidman at Creative Arts East.  In the meantime, more words and pictures will be shared here.

Back to rural touring

Yesterday afternoon, I met three people who promote the arts at Hindolveston Village Hall, in Norfolk. They mentioned, in passing, that 65 people had come to watch a satellite broadcast of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake on Easter Sunday. They would, I sensed, have liked a few more in the audience, but I was so impressed that over 10% of the residents had chosen to spend their bank holiday afternoon watching classical ballet.

Rural touring is full of surprises. What doesn’t surprise me, ten years after I first researched the schemes that bring professional live art to rural communities across the UK, is that the promoters so often underestimate their achievement. They worry about those they don’t reach—typically teenagers and young families — and sometimes don’t see just how much they do achieve, not just in bringing first-rate arts experiences to rural residents but also, in doing so, strengthening the social bonds that make a community of a village.

CAE Westacre Theatre2We met at the lovely volunteer-run Westacre Theatre, which combines great art with great hospitality in a way professional venues don’t always achieve. The occasion was Creative Arts East’s annual showcase at which village hall promoters get to see extracts from some of the shows on offer over the coming months. This time, the artists were Scary Little Girls, Norwich Puppet Theatre, the Keeper’s Daughter, Something Happened, Badapple Theatre, Gavin Robertson, Stuff of Dreams and the Gramophones – as rich and varied a range of small scale touring work as might be imagined. The only disappointment was being caught up in a story that ended after 10 minutes to make way for the next performers. But that’s theatre: keep ‘em wanting more…

Rosie and I had gone to begin the next phase of A Wider Horizon. Over the summer, I’ll be spending more time in Norfolk and Suffolk, meeting promoters, audience members and other local people to explore the place of the arts today and in the past. At the same time, Rosie will be looking to catch some of that in her drawing; she’ll be going to sketch Stuff of Dreams’s play about the Burston Strike School shortly. There is a wonderfully rich story to be told here, about continuity, change and how the artistic life of a place reflects its concerns over time. If you’re involved with Creative Arts East’s rural touring programme and we’ve not yet spoken, so get in touch with Karen Kidman to see how we can include your experience in the project.

Oh, and if you’re anywhere near Hindolveston (or Thornham or Tittleshall) on Thursday 1 May, you can enjoy the National Theatre’s King Lear live, by satellite, for £12. Thank goodness for rural promoters.

Local accents

The tension between city and countryside, capital and regions, centre and periphery is ancient and probably inevitable, because of the uneven distribution of everything in human affairs. Its current pressure points include the possible independence of Scotland, resources for flood defences and—in the arts—the allocation of public funds between London and the rest of the country.

I spent yesterday in the Fens, visiting churches to test out an idea for a new regular marvel, and at a fine concert in a  Norfolk village hall. The experience added to my sense that this binary opposition, easily reduced to a fight over resources, is just another dead end.

It was always unhelpful, because it caricatured society’s complex interdependency. But when movement and communication is easy (even in Fenland), it simply doesn’t reflect reality.

Village Hall

Last night’s concert was by an Irish singer, performing jazz arrangements of songs by Leonard Cohen. It was part of a tour that goes from Wick to St Austell, via Berlin and Ronnie Scott’s.  The audience was mostly local, but some had come from Norwich and Ipswich – a good hour’s drive. Many of the villagers have moved there from other places, including London. Others are temporary residents, notably American military personnel working at the nearby airfields that contribute much to the area’s employment.

Between them, they organise professional and amateur arts events, while the local pubs and club are on Norfolk’s vibrant music scene.  Village residents go to Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge,  London and elsewhere to gigs, exhibitions and other cultural events. And I expect that some of them will be sitting down with Barack Obama and millions of others to watch the second series of House of Cards when it goes live on Netflix.

None of this fits easily into a simple opposition of central vs. regional life. That’s not to say that change isn’t needed or that the existing distribution of resources is right. But, in terms of its identities, cultures and interactions, Britain today must be one of the most diverse and complex yet known to history. It is really not well served by the kind of simplistic thinking so brilliantly satirised nearly 25 years ago in On The Hour:

WARPCD134_packshot_480

It’s your region – you know where it is and how to spell its name. It’s a region with a character all of its own.

Reporter:  Hello.

Man:  Hello sir.

Reporter:  My now, you have got a funny local accent. You don’t work with your hands for a living, by any chance, do you?

Man:  No sir.

Reporter:  I can tell actually, because even though you sound like a straw-sucking yokel, you do know who to call sir.

Man: Oh yes that’s right.

Reporter:  Can you talk us through your choice of clothes when you get up on the morning?

Man: Just get dressed.

Reporter:  Just get dressed like that.

Man: Oh yes that’s right.

Reporter:  Well, you do seem jolly unsophisticated. What about music—how do you listen to music?

Man: Just listen to it. Relax with it on, sit back and hum them or whistle.

Reporter:  D’you mean you don’t actually sit there and write it all down?

Man:  Oh no.

Reporter:  What a good old-fashioned serf you are. Thanks very much for taking the time to show us how backward everybody is around here. It really has been awfully funny.

Man: Thank you very much indeed.

On The Hour,  1/ 4 (first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, August 1991)