Oh yes it is!

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Jeanie Finlay’s Pantomime

The atmosphere at the Première of Jeanie Finlay’s lastest documentary, Pantomime, lived up to the film’s title. The main auditorium at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema was packed with excited members of The People’s Theatre company, taking a precious night off from rehearsing this year’s panto to see how Jeanie had told their story. Audience interaction began before Steven Shiel, who introduced the film, had reached the stage and continued joyously throughout the evening. The screening itself was accompanied by groans and giggles as people saw themselves and, more importantly, saw how Jeanie had captured the spirit of amateur theatre. Pantomime has been a risk for everyone involved. Filmed on a shoestring in the gaps between other projects, Jeanie made the documentary because she fell in love with the theatre and its people. That shows in the resulting film, and accounts for why the BBC not only picked up the film but are screening the full length version in the run-up to Christmas. You can watch Pantomime on BBC4 at 9.25pm on Monday evening, and on the BBC iPlayer afterwards. Don’t miss it!

Deep, dark truthful mirror

26-590x331 The special challenge of all documentary art (which is the essence of Regular Marvels) is to represent a truthful portrait of the people you are working with to them. Of course, the work will go off and be seen or read by audiences who know only what you tell them of your subject. Then, as with any similar work, documentary art must sink or swim in the estimation of those who encounter it. But before then, it must be seen by those who are its subject. The invitation you make to them, when asking them to be involved, is to look at themselves straight in a mirror, to see themselves as others see them. It’s a brave thing to do – like getting up on stage but without the costume and make up. It takes trust on both sides, because unless it’s truthful it is a waste of time, and unless it’s done with care (in every sense of the word) it isn’t worth doing at all. There are so many traps for the artist here: sentimentality, compromise, flattery, deception. So it was moving to hear so many of those who feature in the film speak after that first screening about how well Jeanie had told their story and how happy they were that they had invited her in.

A people’s theatre

24-590x331 The People’s Theatre have been putting on plays at Nottingham Arts Theatre since they converted it from a discussed chapel in 1948. They are a vital – if not always sufficiently appreciated – part of the city’s cultural and social life. Just like the thousands of amateur theatre companies across the country. The care and commitment everyone puts in – so well portrayed in Jeanie’s film – is very special: for many of them, it is what life is all about. Their experience deserves more credit: they know what they are talking about. As Jeanie told The Stage:

“It offered me an incredibly rich environment, full of funny, endearing and heartbreaking stories and characters at a precarious moment in time. If this theatre closes, it’s not just the bricks and mortar that we’ll lose, it’s history, community and importantly the vital bonds of shared creativity and camaraderie,”

PS To read Where We Dream, the Regular Marvels book about West Bromwich Operatic Society, click here for a free download.

Making sense

Nightwalking 1I got an email from a Dutch friend, partly in response to my post about waiting for feedback. Margreet wrote about Winter Fires and how reading it had made her feel happy and optimistic about the future, but also about her reflections on what matters in life. Her partner works with people who have sensory disabilities—people who cannot hear or see and therefore whose experience of the world is shaped by other senses: touch, taste, balance, proprioception and others we may as yet not recognize or understand.

One of their friends who lives this experience recently spent the day with them at home, while she was reading Winter Fires, and she wrote about the thoughts and feelings she had about it.

But the reason for writing about that here is that Margreet sent me a link to this film, in which their friend also appears, and which I think deserves to be seen much, much more widely than the 340 views it has on You Tube. It’s called Nightwalking and I won’t say anything about it except to invite you to watch it: it will take less than 15 minutes.

This is what art does, at its best: open us to experiences, feelings and ideas we could not otherwise have and so help us develop our understanding of our own existence, within the limits of our capacities. Art does not teach: it enables us to learn. We all need to make sense, every one of us.

So many questions come out of this film—about the nature of humanity, about dignity and consent, about what we understand is happening, about value, meaning and purpose, about art. Watching people making sense, I think about how I myself make sense. No answers here, but as good a way to spend 15 minutes as I know.

Where We Dream: The Film

My friend Eugène van Erven been documenting community arts for many years, both in his native Netherlands and in other parts of the world. Having provided valuable feedback on the draft text of ‘Where we Dream‘, he’s now written this short piece about Benjamin Wigley’s film, that is an integral part of the work.

Scroll to the end of the post to watch the film: it’s about 15 minutes long.

I have long believed in the combined power of moving images and written words when it comes to documenting cultural phenomena, particularly when they happen in out of the way places. The beautifully produced book and film package ‘Where We Dream’ proves my point.

The film gives a visible face and an audible voice to the many people who inhabit the text and hence makes the story of the West Bromwich Operatic Society even more powerful. It is so much more than an illustrative bonus track.

Continue reading “Where We Dream: The Film”

‘Where We Dream’ on BBC local radio

Presentation to Marjorie Smith, founder member of WBOS,
at the launch of Where We Dream, 30 April 2012 (Photo by Reis Hill)

‘Where We Dream’ has just featured on Adrian Goldberg’s BBC WM Radio morning show. He interviewed Sarah Moors, one of the company’s younger generation, and Marjorie Smith, the last founder member, both of whom appear in the book. I was also asked to contribute by phone. Adrian had obviously read the book and he had interesting things to say about WBOS and the place of amateur theatre in people’s lives. He was full of admiration for the company’s work and delighted to meet someone who’d been involved from the very start.

‘Where We Dream’ published

Everybody’s a dreamer…

Almost a year ago, I began a series of conversations with people in West Bromwich about their cultural interests. I met painters, musicians and writers, people who sing in choirs and make model railways, people involved in knitting, dressmaking and flower arranging.

According to government statistics, the people of Sandwell (including West Bromwich) are among those ‘least engaged’ in the arts. It’s an idea I’ve always found odd because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t enjoy some kind of cultural or creative life. Those initial conversations showed that to be as true of the Black Country as anywhere. The question is what is recognised as ‘the arts’ and by whom.

West Bromwich Operatic Society was one of the groups I met in June 2011. David Hill, who’s been with them since the 1960s, had so many stories about this amateur theatre company, established before the Second World War and stronger today than ever. When I heard that the next show was going to ‘The Producers’, Mel Brooks’ affectionate satire of Broadway musicals, it felt perfect. What could be better to tell the story of a theatre group putting on a play than a show about putting on a play?

Where We Dream

Over the autumn, working with filmmaker Ben Wigley and photographer Kate Jackson, I met company members, watched their rehearsals, trawled the archives and finally saw the show from both sides of the curtain.Where We Dream is the culmination of that work, a 100-page book, with about 25 photos and a 15 minute film inserted into as a DVD. The whole project has been enabled by West Bromwich arts company, Multistory, as part of its ‘Black Country Stories’ programme.

Black Country Stories

Black Country Stories is an innovative portrait of life in the post-industrial West Midlands. It revives the spirit of creative documentation of working class Britain by artists from Humphrey Jennings to Stanley Spencer, George Orwell to Bill Brandt. It does so through the unique connections between Black Country people and international artists enabled by Multistory, through a globalizing, diverse perspective and through its use of new technology to make and distribute the work.

Through Black Country Stories, Multistory commissions outstanding artists to document and record life in the area. Work is currently being undertaken by Martin Parr, Mark Power, David Goldblatt and Margaret Drabble, among others, using photography and writing to tell stories that celebrate everyday life in the Black Country.

Getting a copy

Where We Dream is available as a book and DVD package from Multistory for £7.00 including postage (UK) or £10 including postage (outside UK).

Multistory, The Public,
 New Street,
 West Bromwich
 B70 7PG   

Tel: +44 (0)121 533 7190 Email: caronwright@multistory.org.uk

The book is also available as a free download here: Where We Dream Book (7.6MB)

Overture and beginners

Birmingham, late November 2011, early evening. Along New Street and around the Town Hall, the Christmas Market offers glühwein and frankfurters, cake, strudel and chocolate to the last office workers and the night’s first revellers. Bars and restaurants spruce up for the evening trade. There’s a chill in the air but the party season is just starting.

A few hundred yards away, past streaming traffic on Suffolk Street Queensway, an audience is gathering at the New Alexandra Theatre. The foyer windows shine in the orange sodium night. Above each one is the rubric: world class theatre.

The glassy eye of a pigeon stares from the poster for tonight’s show. It’s wearing a German helmet, complete with swastika. Above, in block letters: THE PRODUCERS, and then ‘A New Mel Brooks Musical’. And at the top, freehand in a scatter of stars: WBOS Musical Theatre.

Inside, the preparatory rituals are being observed: sweets chosen, interval drinks ordered and programmes bought. People swap news and titbits about the production. Committee members in evening dress welcome loyal supporters. On gowns and lapels, NODA (the National Operatic and Dramatic Association) long service medals glint in the lights: sky blue for 25 years, maroon for 50.

The bubble of anticipation grows as the 5-minute warning sounds. People make their way to the auditorium.

There have been so many nights like this in the past 110 years, since a man named William Coutts invested £10,000 to build this palace of dreams. So many fantasies have been played under this arch: melodramas and pantomime, musicals and variety. All lies, every one, but good ones – the best, good enough to be true. So many audiences, settling down in their tip-up seats, wanting to be transported away from work, ordinariness and private troubles.

‘I was always nervous before I went on stage. I’ve often thought about this. Why do we put ourselves through it? I mean, I was a nervous wreck. Driving to the theatre you’d be going through all your words, all your music; you’d get there and then – suddenly you hear the overture and the adrenaline starts. Two or three minutes on stage: you’re there. You’re there.’

The dimming lights act like a mother’s hush. You could touch the silence. Boinnng! A spongy thump on a bass drum, and the horns pipe up that catchy, irrepressible, tasteless tune and already you’re singing along under your breath, ‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany…’.

The orchestra is out of sight in the pit. There’s just the velvet curtain to watch as your fingers tap along. What’s waiting behind? Then it starts to move.

‘Opening night – It’s opening night!’

This is an extract from ‘Where we Dream: West Bromwich Operatic Society and the Fine Art of Musical Theatre‘, which will be published by Multistory on 1 May 2012. The book and accompanying film will be available from Multistory after that date or in digital form from this site. 

Why write about people’s life in the arts?

Where we Dream is now with the designer. Before it went, I asked a few friends who work in the arts and academia to read the text. Although drafts had been discussed with members of WBOS – that’s implicit in co-production – I wanted to see how someone with a professional interest but no previous knowledge might respond to the book.

Happily, the feedback has been good, but one person asked some questions that made me aware of how normative are the arts world’s current ways of thinking, and by extension of writing, about itself. In particular, she asked who had ‘commissioned the research and for what purpose?’. It is a perfectly reasonable question, given the research I’ve published over the years. At the same time, it implies that research, bought by an external body for purposes of its own, is the normal reason for writing about cultural life.
‘The power of science is to transform the world in ways that not even scientists can predict. The power of the humanities – of the one and only culture – is to interpret the world in ways that anybody can appreciate.’
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 2007, p.117

As evaluation has become important for the public arts sector, and publication has diminished in difficulty and cost, there has been an explosion of reports about the arts. Public bodies, charitable foundations and arts organisations publish most of it themselves. Because it is not peer-reviewed (a concept whose value does not preclude questions about its legitimacy) academia defines it as ‘grey literature’, which makes it sound like it is written by ringwraiths.

All that presents problems of its own but my immediate concern is that arts professionals may now believe that the research model is the only valid way to think or write about arts practice. Continue reading “Why write about people’s life in the arts?”

Filming ‘The Production’

The second rough cut of Ben Wigley‘s film for Where we dream  is done. It follows some of the company members through rehearsals to the performance at the Alex in Birmingham last November. It really catches the enthusiasm and warmth of the Operatic Society at work – or is it play?

We’re still working on the final shape of the film to make its story both clear and rich, so I’ve shown it to a few people who don’t know the project or the company. Reactions have been good and helped us see places where we need to rethink. Meanwhile, work on the book continues with the text and film subtly influencing one another.

Oh, and the launch date has been chosen – coming soon.

Producing ‘The Producers’

The Producers is a musical about people making a musical. When I heard this was West Bromwich Operatic Society’s next production, it felt like serendipity. What better time to look at one of the Black Country’s oldest and proudest amateur arts organisations in action?

We’re going to tell the story of a musical theatre group putting on a musical about putting on a musical. It’s like Russian dolls.

As a writer, I’m interested in people’s artistic lives – their loves and delights, the stories that make them dream, the music that soundtracks their days, the films that flicker in their heads, the plays, the dance steps, the books – in fact, everything that gives flavour to our lives.

The first conversation I had with a WBOS member was a revelation. I heard two hours of stories spanning 70 years: friendships, marriages and costume changes, chorus lines and curtain calls, auditions, committee meetings and long service medals. I leafed through decades of programmes that are a unique social history of the Black Country. The adverts for engineering firms and shops that have long closed. The cast lists with names over three or four generations. The Vice-Presidents. The frocks.

WBOS members say wryly that they’ve closed seven theatres. The truth is they’ve outlived them: the Plaza and the Kings, the Alex and the Grand, the Hippodrome. The company was there when closure was announced. It was waiting at the stage door, when the theatre reopened under new management. Over the years, they’ve become nomadic, but always taking the pride of West Bromwich with them. Continue reading “Producing ‘The Producers’”