F13 – where it came from…

Armed with a massive pile of homemade pizza and a collection of Ikea’s kids’ cups and plates, Talking Birds convened the first meeting of what was to become the Friday 13th (or F13) network in December 2013 (Friday 13th December 2013 to be exact!). At that point, as the notes reveal*, Coventry City Council had a new leader and there was the first mention of City of Culture in the air – presumably because Hull’s win must have just been announced.

It’s funny looking back at this photo (below) taken at that meeting – not just at how much younger we all look – but to remember what the city was like then, and why we decided to get people together. It was around the time of an Arts Council NPO round and we were keen to talk with others who might be applying – in a grown up, joined up, citywide ‘what direction do we want Cov to take?’ kind of way.

The City Council’s Arts Development was, at that time, sub-contracted out to Artspace – and, though born of lack of funding, it had proved a really bold and successful move, making the city’s artists feel much more connected to the Council and to arts policy than we had for a while (although it was demanding and exhausting for Laura at Artspace).

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Friday 13th December 2013

The other thing that was in the air was a general optimism, a spirit of possibility that had emerged out of the collaboration on the city’s (unsuccessful) bid to the Portas Pilot scheme. As I remember it, this was the result of a few connected things: a Void Spaces Strategy for the Council that Dan Thompson had been commissioned to write via Artspace; the work the wonderful Theatre Absolute had started in the Shop Front Theatre; and a conversation between void-space/meanwhile space users Artspace, Theatre Absolute and Talking Birds about creating a ‘Pop Up City’ Festival (which didn’t happen, but it’s descendant is surely the inaugural Shop Front Festival which happened here in March 2018?!). The City Council generally seemed more in touch and in tune with the arts community – particularly through David Nuttall and Martin Reeves and their involvement in the Portas Pilot bid. We felt, perhaps, like culture was being taken more seriously – both in the city, having been moved into the City Development Directorate, and perhaps more widely (it wasn’t really on my radar at the time, but perhaps Derry’s stint as City of Culture also had something to do with this…).

We talked at that first meeting about Coventry perpetually being poised on the edge of greatness (yet never quite making it); a place where the people at the grassroots are really active, making all kinds of things happen; that it is the grassroots-up initiatives that are most successful; that it is the grassroots that actually lead…

This loose network (or flow, as it’s been described) of artists has continued to meet and to grow and when, a couple of years after that first meeting, the City got serious about throwing its hat into the ring for 2021, F13 (as we had decided to call the group) found itself perfectly placed to be a kind of one-stop-shop for anyone who might want to talk to the city’s independent artists and organisations, and so F13 represented the voice of the independents throughout the bidding process. In practice, as the galvanising process of bidding developed, this meant that independent artists sat on the Steering Group and Programme Reference Group for the City of Culture bid (guided by, and reporting back to the network), we were heavily consulted during the writing of the City’s Cultural Strategy and, later, sat on the selection panel for the 2021 Creative Director.

F13 has established an interesting cross-artform conversational dynamic across the independent arts sector in the city – which is important, inspiring and a little bit of a haven, in these stretched-capacity times. What happens next is yet to be written, but if we keep talking to each other, we have found that it will always, always be better than what happens if we don’t.

F13, or Friday 13th (named after the date in 2013 that we first met, because we had to call it something) is a loose network of independent artists and organisations in Coventry & Warwickshire, which, amongst other things, is proudly amplifying the voices of the city’s independent organisations and artists in the run up to Coventry’s term as City of Culture in 2021. If you are an independent artist or arts organisation in the city and you’d like to become involved in F13, add a comment below and we’ll get back in touch.

* writing that, this post suddenly felt like one of those press reports when government papers are released after 20 years, which isn’t really what I was expecting when I started writing it!

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Friday 8th December 2018, the day after the City of Culture announcement!
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Open Cast – Call for Performers

o-c-imageApplications are invited for an open workshop for performers with Talking Birds Theatre Company in Coventry. This is an opportunity to meet and work with the company in a relaxed and sociable group setting over the course of a day (11am-4pm), at the Shopfront Theatre in Coventry. The workshop will be led by Richard Hayhow, friend of Talking Birds and Director of Open Theatre Company.

The aim of the workshop is to identify talented and versatile performers the company can draw on for future projects (see www.talkingbirds.co.uk for examples of our previous work), particularly in the run up to Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2021. We will also be inviting Artistic Directors from other regional companies to join us in the afternoon.

Travel expenses and lunch will be provided, along with any additional support you need to participate fully in the workshop.

Open Cast is aimed at expanding the casting pool for Midlands-based companies and priority will be given to D/deaf, disabled and learning disabled artists, artists from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and those based in the region.

Application is by submitting a video that lasts between 90 and 120 seconds (phone camera is fine) giving us an introduction to you, your work and why you want to come and do the workshop.

In addition to this, we encourage you to include any information that will help us consider your application. You can also attach a resumé/CV if you wish.

Please e-mail birdmail@talkingbirds.co.uk (Subject: Open Cast) with the link to the video or the video attached.

Applicants of any age over 18 welcome. The workshop is aimed at both emerging
and established artists. Full-time students are not eligible to apply.

Please note revised dates:

Date of Workshop: Friday 4th May (Coventry)

Deadline for applications: Sunday 22nd April

We will inform successful applicants by: Wednesday 25th April

Telephone number for any queries: 024 7615 8330 (please leave your name and number clearly) or e-mail access@talkingbirds.co.uk

 

We won?? WE WON!!

IMG_7218_crMaybe in a week or two it’ll have sunk in, but at the moment the announcement that Coventry will be the next City of Culture still has the dream-like status of something slightly unbelievable that you have been told several times, but somehow need to verify for yourself…

It’s odd that it should seem so hard to believe – as artists in the city and having been involved in the bid right from the start, we know it is blummin’ good! We know it has something of, and for, every single person in this city. Like many Cov things, it has been shaped by many hands working together; by new connections, excited discussions and throwing off the fear of thinking big.

The independent arts sector and the business sector don’t often overlap but, in the shaping of this bid, they have – each offering their own perspectives and both growing through conversation and understanding. So too the young and old have come together, shared their thoughts, hopes, memories, fears, ambitions – and the bid has grown. In understanding what this bid is, what it represents, what it could be, we have achieved something greater than any of us working alone could have done. And the city has grown.

In Talking Birds’ work with The Cart during the bid-shaping process, we asked people to tell us about what they thought a city of culture(s) could or should be and, for many, that turned out to be a surprising question to be asked. It opened up a huge, unexpected vista of possibility just to *think* about things like ‘hope’ and ‘future’: things that, for a lot of people, are not often at the top of the ‘things to think about’ list. Right now, for too many, the future is just what happens next – opportunities or the wherewithal to shape or affect it are sorely lacking.

Throughout the two years of the process so far, this is what has driven all of us forwards: What is this city’s future? How can we make this work for every single person in the city? What do we hope for, for ourselves and for our children? If all of our futures are bound up with this city’s future, what do we want it to be like? These are empowering questions for all of us, but especially for the young. Growing up in a declining city, with decreasing resources available, against a political backdrop of uncertainty and chaos, with a complete lack of confidence in national and international leaders – and the too-big-to-get-your-head-around worry of climate change, hope is a scarce commodity.

And yet hope is such a powerful force for good.

As artists, we’ve become increasingly interested in the role that the imaginations of writers, artists, theatre and film-makers might have unwittingly played in the direction the world has taken – in how much the uncaring behaviour, corrupt leaders and dystopian futures we witness daily in TV dramas or on cinema screens might have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Visioning is often recommended as a step to goal fulfilment and, given the current state of the world, we’ve begun to wonder whether this also works in the broader consciousness? Just in case, we choose to peddle hope, social integration, conversation and understanding…

…and these values also form the narrative of Coventry’s bid. It speaks of a people-powered antidote to Brexit by placing trust in its young people, by making spaces for all the city’s people to come together, to discover and celebrate what they have in common, find an understanding: it speaks of a city that is truly the sum of its parts. And it updates the levelling effect of the famed ‘blitz spirit’, its social cohesion and the utopianism of the post-war rebuild by recognising that it is culture that holds society together, and when you mix culture and hope (as you perhaps have to when bidding for something 4 years ahead) there are no possibilities closed off to you.

When the chair of the judging panel, Phil Redmond, visited yesterday to congratulate Coventry, he said ‘It was a very close competition, but we think Coventry can deliver something that will make the biggest impact for the whole of the UK…Make it as big as your ambitions…try things, experiment…push it and see where you can get to.”

In putting youth and diversity at the heart of it, Coventry’s bid is built on, and spreads, hope. Truly, *this* is Coventry, the city we are proud to call our home.

 

ICYMI: A roundup of our tweets, pics & links in support of @Coventry2021’s bid to be #UKCityOfCulture2021 @DCMS

[THREAD #1] Apologies in advance to non-Coventrian followers, but today is going to involve a large volume of tweeting in support of @coventry2021 #ukcityofculture2021 #thisiscoventry #2021blue /1

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So, if you’re wondering what #ukcityofculture is (where have you been for the last year?), it’s a nationwide competition & the winner will be announced in the next couple of weeks, so this twitter frenzy is part of the final push in support of #Coventry’s bid. #2021blue #thisiscoventry /2

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If you think #ukcityofculture is about just putting on lots of performances “& anyway #Coventry *has* no culture”, then we hope our tweets today will help make you think a little differently about that… *cough* also make sure you follow @coventry2021 *cough* #2021blue /3

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We’ve been supporting #Coventry’s bid for #ukcityofculture2021 from the word go because we think culture is about more than trips to galleries & opera. We think it is about *all* the creativity people have (even when they don’t think they have it)… #2021blue /4

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…and about all the creative things we enjoy. The things that we do (mostly) outside of work – the gardening, baking, conversations and activities we share…essentially we think culture is about being human. #2021blue #thisiscoventry /5

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The City of Culture competition isn’t only about the arts and culture though. Whoever wins #ukcityofculture2021 will see a massive increase in people talking about, visiting and investing in their city. #2021blue #thisiscoventry /6

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There will be many more things to see, places to go, things to be learned, people to meet, places to eat, places to stay, jobs to be filled… & wouldn’t that just be *so good* for #Coventry? Just what it needs. What *we* need! #2021blue #thisiscoventry /7

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We know the people in #Coventry like to moan about the place. We all do it from time to time. And we know what it feels like to hear the Blitz, Lady Godiva and Sent to Coventry jokes AGAIN…but we also know the fierce pride that everyone who lives & works here holds in their souls… #2021blue /8

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…& we have a hunch that winning #ukcityofculture2021 would be the perfect opportunity to show the world, the UK (and even Birmingham) why we are so right to feel that fierce pride here in #Coventry! #thisiscoventry #2021blue /9

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If winning #ukcityofculture2021 means increased investment, jobs and tourism – that’s great – because #Coventry really needs that, right? And, happily, it happens through culture! Culture is the content. The glue. #2021blue /10

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This city already has a wealth of creative people making amazing things happen – & winning #ukcityofculture2021 will multiply that exponentially! #thisiscoventry /END

Blogpost > https://birdmail.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/we-belong-to-the-city-and-it-belongs-to-us/

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[THREAD #2]

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💙 👉 To show our support for @coventry2021 and our city’s awesome bid for #ukcityofculture2021… #2021blue #thisiscoventry

💙 …we’ve come up with 21** reasons why #Coventry should win, showcasing some of the inventive independent art, culture & creativity from the city we call home! #thisiscoventry

💙 **21 because there are not enough hours in the day to tweet 2021 reasons, although we’re pretty sure we could find that many, given long enough 😉 #thisiscoventry

 

💙 1/21 #Coventry boasts the UK’s first professional Shop Front Theatre, the wonderfully welcoming @shopfrontcov, home to intimate & experimental performance. #thisiscoventry https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di7K5i8Uf2IIMG_5998

💙 2/21 #Coventry is a hotbed of inventive and surprising street theatre which is in demand from festivals across the UK, like @highlysprung’s Urban Astronaut #thisiscoventry https://www.highlysprungperformance.co.uk/urban-astronaut IMG_6768

💙 3/21 #Coventry’s national award winning mental health service The Pod, cultivates social change through culture with the fabulous vegan @the_pod_cafe,  @STSfestivalCov @timeunion & Food Union  #thisiscoventry https://vimeo.com/168582361

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💙 4/21 #Coventry is diverse, yes, but importantly it is also inclusive. Everyone can find their cultural home, see a show or bank a meal for the homeless in the fab vegan cafe @egoperformance http://covculture.com/blog/big-ego/

💙 5/21 #Coventry values its young people and emerging talent (and there’s a lot of that) and they are constantly inventing cool stuff, like the amazing @positiveyouth96’s #PYFProms, @belgradeyouth’s #Rise and the brilliant @shootfestival https://youtu.be/jdZacuSH9to

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💙 6/21 In #Coventry, any empty building is an opportunity. And at the moment, an empty newspaper office and print room is a massive shared opportunity for pop up art and culture in the city https://www.visitcoventry.net/cet IMG_0629

💙 7/21 #Coventry’s home for local, national & international eclectic, experimental and surprising live music is  the awesome @thetin venue & its sister record label @tinangelrecords https://soundcloud.com/thetinmusicandarts

💙 8/21 #Coventry’s @birdmail creates opportunities for unexpected encounters: in unused or unloved buildings, in a big metal whale, over a cuppa, or by starting a game of cricket on the high street; & have also invented the #DifferenceEngine to make performances more accessible. IMG_7094

💙 9/21 #Coventry’s @WarwickArts is our venue for all the best touring theatre, music, dance, comedy, fine art and arthouse cinema the world has to offer; The @belgradetheatre invented TIE in the 1960s & continues to make work with children and yp that allows them to explore the world & their place within it https://youtu.be/g8d8ZBC4HLo

💙 10/21 Making #Coventry more playable, @LudicRooms’ fantastic #OpenCitizens project gave up giggling bins & added us all to a never-ending can-can dance projected onto the ring road http://cancan.ludicrooms.com/IMG_6220

💙 11/21 As well as being a stunning, art-filled building, #Coventry’s @CovCathedral is also a fabulous & atmospheric venue. This year alone it’s hosted musical bees, an electronic tribute to Delia Derbyshire, the Museum of the Moon & #Masterji projections with @photominers #thisiscoventry IMG_5750

💙 12/21 #Coventry Music Museum @CovMusicM proudly tells the story of the city’s musical heritage from the Roman occupation to the present day with a healthy dose of Two Tone thrown in #thisiscoventry https://youtu.be/GBhpCByCTQo

💙 13/21 #Coventry has a vibrant network of independent artists and small companies (known collectively as #F13) who make all sorts of interesting stuff happen, like festivals inc. #RandomString, #FestivalOfImagineers, #ShootFestival, #ShopFrontFestival & @sponspun Festival https://vimeo.com/talkingbirds/backstageatthealbany

💙 14/21 #Coventry has 2 brilliant independent galleries @classroomcov and @cityarcadia. For artists’ support and affordable studio spaces, there’s @CovArtspace or https://www.facebook.com/holyheadstudios/ & for buying from creative businesses & the general vibe, there’s @fargovillage #thisiscoventry IMG_6172

💙 15/21 #Coventry’s @MercurialD makes dance with and for all sorts of people, including this piece made with a neuroscientist exploring where ideas and movements come from in the brain and body https://player.vimeo.com/video/80383258

💙 16/21 #Coventry’s annual Embracing Africa festival grew out of @HighLife001’s exhibition of African art put together to encourage cross-cultural dialogue in the city. https://vimeo.com/159586551

💙 17/21 #Coventry is a city that enables people to make their ideas happen & offers them the support to pull off a massively successful inaugural Biennial with aplomb! @Cov_Biennial @miracalix https://vimeo.com/miracalix/bb2at1IMG_5883

💙 18/21 From the first purpose-built car factory in the UK @imagineerUK meld creativity & engineering to bring us the #FestivalOfImagineers and they can also often be seen around giants… http://www.imagineer-productions.co.uk/IMG_6914

💙 19/21 As well as being a brilliant museum and art gallery, #Coventry’s The Herbert hosts #HerbertLates – including this Hallowe’en a new collaboration with space transformers @VortexCreates https://vimeo.com/243305417

💙 20/21 @covcampus’ Edible Campus garden in #Coventry demonstrates how sustainability, food security & environmental quality can be achieved in creative, functional corners of the community. http://www.coventry.ac.uk/primary-news/universitys-edible-campus-gets-special-recognition-from-national-scheme/

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💙 21/21 @Open_Theatre_Co challenges all of us to think differently about our arts provision for young people with learning disabilities & makes fab, fun & thought-provoking work with ypwld in #Coventry & beyond. https://youtu.be/XmXk1Laj5Ac

💙 And finally, apologies to all the other 2000 reasons we couldn’t mention today. You’ll just have to wait 4 years until #Coventry is #ukcityofculture2021 to hear about all of them 😉 #thisiscoventry

More of our thoughts about Cov here [blog] >> http://www.talkingbirds.co.uk/pages/Coventry.asp

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Engaging the Future Changemakers

IMG_6095In April this year, I gave a talk about Talking Birds’ socially engaged mobile project space, The Cart, at the University of Warwick. The Cart is essentially a project about conversation, about making a temporary space for people to get together and have a conversation they would not otherwise have had. As a result of the talk I gave, I subsequently had quite a few conversations I would not otherwise have had! One of these was with Alastair Smith, who convenes the Local Sustainable Development module, which is part of the new B.A.Sc. degree in Global Sustainable Development course at the university and, to cut a long story short, we agreed that I would conduct a walking tour around Coventry for his students, to give them a flavour of the city’s rich social/economic and cultural history.

For me, the drive to do this comes from living on a street full of students and seeing how little they are equipped to engage with this city, because less of the things that make a particular place unique are obvious nowadays. I need to unpack this, as I know it’s a little woolly so here goes…

The way most of us live now is less locally focused and, while global connection brings many benefits, there are also significant downsides. I think one’s sense of place, and consequently of self, is developed by making meaningful connections. Physically, through connecting with the geography, nature and weather of a place, and socially, through connecting with different groups of people – neighbours, work/study fellows, people who partake of the same leisure pursuits as you (in other words, the various communities you are a part of, which are generally geographically or interest based – in my case the arts scene, the school gates etc).

When we can live and work literally anywhere: when the same chain stores, restaurants and takeaways are on every high street and we can get our shopping delivered to our door, maybe we lose the drive to develop a sense of place: insofar as we understand the world, everywhere is basically the same, give or take a few minor variations. In some ways perhaps this doesn’t matter, but I think that actually it does. It *really* does.

I know that I am someone who understands the place where I am by walking it, by looking, by finding out, by listening to its stories – and I’ve observed that, when others perform these actions, they also gain a deeper understanding of the place and of themselves in relation to it. And I think this understanding is a key influencer of behaviour and belonging. When we feel that we belong somewhere (geographically and/or socially), we feel an obligation to take a part in the things that go on there, and to make behavioural choices that support these: on a local level this may mean that we don’t want our street to look a mess and so we make sure we put our bins out on the correct day; or on a global level, we may want to minimise our personal contribution to climate change and cycle instead of using a car.

For students moving to a new city, all these relationships are to be negotiated – and often a particular relationship with the place (I mean the city here, rather than the institution) is not cultivated. I don’t think there is any one reason for this, but I suspect that a perfect storm of factors (social, geographic, economic, emotional) conspire and if there is no stand-out reason to understand the distinctive character of the place, the city, where you study – then the sense of place, the sense of belonging to somewhere wider than the institution, doesn’t develop and there is no real reason why you would want to make that (time, economic, emotional) investment and commit to that place, that city, after graduation. I know that Universities across the UK are waking up to this and examining the civic responsibility of the institution now, but what about the civic responsibility of the arts? And of artists? And of artists who are also residents? What part do we have to play in helping students to develop and understand their connection to the place and where they belong in the wider society?

As many have pointed out before, Coventry – arguably more than anywhere else – doesn’t offer itself up on a plate. You need a little persistence. You need to dig around a bit and find things out. And the city has a graduate retention problem. These two things are probably not unrelated.

It’s this line of thought that led me to offer the walking tour to the students, as something small, but potentially impactful that I could do. A way to impart some of my 25 years worth of interesting gobbets of information – the stuff that got me hooked on this city – to a cohort of young and enthusiastic people coming to study Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick. Give them a sense of place and get them hooked on Coventry. My reasoning is that, in choosing that course, they are surely people who want to make a difference, who see themselves as changemakers, who have an interest in social justice – and these are the people Coventry needs to impress and beguile. These are the people we want to remain in the city, to make their lives here.

I wanted to inspire these young people with the stories that inspire me – stories of Coventry’s proud tradition of social justice and innovation, its commitment to youth, its progressive attitude, its innovation, its creativity, its quiet and dogged pursuit of what’s right, its modesty, its possibility…

So I showed them the place the river peeks from beneath the concrete, and the backs of the medieval houses; I told them about the paths of bones across the marsh to support those making the city wall; I told them about Gibson and Tennant’s dash to Cumbria for Westmorland slate and about the phoenix sketched on the back of a envelope; I told them about the city model ultimatum to government; about the City Architects Department being the place all the bright young things wanted to be post-war; about how the ideas inspired by Europe and developed in Coventry spread across the country as people moved on; I told them about pedestrianisation in the city of the car; about a freed slave managing a theatre; about double-doored powder rooms in the ballroom proving handy for losing an unwanted date; about the democracy of classless restaurants in theatres and above swimming pools; about how bankruptcy and commercial pressures can devastate well-designed public spaces and about how important it is to understand why something is as it is before you change it; I told them about a city founded on the belief that everyone deserves beauty, modernity and cleanliness; about a daring and spectacular tightrope walk; about electronic music pioneers; about measures to tackle health and food injustices; about an edible campus, a Marmot city, vegan cafes, arts, culture, mental health, wellbeing; about an Olympic Pool with sunbathing decks and sand-filtered water so clean you can see from one end to the other; about a courtyard of experimental brickwork; a guildhall with a tapestry that inspired a certain Warwickshire playwright; about a tiled mural map with dinosaurs; about twin cities and gifts of timber; about the first civic post-war theatre, and about inventing a way for young people to ask philosophical questions and come to understand the world through acting it for themselves; about a mini stately home on the top of a newspaper building; about criminals buried vertically headfirst; about the hopes for a City of Culture; and I told them lots about the amazing energy and creativity of this city’s people – particularly its independent artists and producers who continually explore this city, and question it, challenging audiences to interrogate, understand and, ultimately perhaps, love it.

I know I opened some eyes and altered some opinions with this walking tour, but only time will tell whether it truly had its desired effect.


  • If you want to get a flavour of the sorts of places I was recommending, try this article.
  • There is also an engagement page for the Local Sustainable Development module, with a bibliography of sources about the city and student work will be posted there.

Volunteer Singers Needed!

image1We’re looking for volunteer singers to join our Backstage Choir, to perform on Sunday 10th September in ‘Backstage at the Albany Theatre’ as part of Spon Spun Festival and Heritage Open Days in Coventry.

Rehearsal schedule is as follows:
Tues 29th Aug 6-7.30pm (initial get-together/find out about the project)
Sun 3rd Sept 2-4pm
Tues 5th 6-7.30pm
Sat 9th 12.30-2.30pm [*note time change*]
Sun 10th Performance day 9.30 – 5pm

(Singers must be aged 18+ and be able to attend at least 2 rehearsals before the day of the performance).

If you are interested in joining the choir please contact Jodie Dickson on 07342 882 665 or jodie.dickson@albanytheatre.co.uk

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What can performance bring to the table?

[This post was originally published on histprisonhealth.com]

image.jpegYesterday afternoon, alone in the Shop Front Theatre varnishing parts of the set for Disorder Contained, I listened to the podcast of Hilary Mantel’s second Reith Lecture, ‘The Iron Maiden’. She was navigating a complicated verbal path between the work of Historians and Authors of Historical Fiction, exploring the validity (and comparative value) of two very different approaches to, and renderings of, the past – and exploring more generally how the human mind can view one set of opinions as solid fact and another as slippery, less valid, conjecture.

Hilary Mantel asked “What can historical fiction bring to the table?….It doesn’t say ‘Believe this.’, it says ‘Consider this.’. It can sit alongside the work of Historians, not offering an alternative truth, or even a supplementary truth, but offering insight.”

In this simple answer, she captured the essence of a successful collaboration with the past, characterising the strength of the arts (whether fiction, as in her own work, or theatre, as with Talking Birds) when partnered with the methodical – perhaps forensic is the right word – work of Historians and those engaged in historical research.

There are all kinds of interesting questions that any research project throws out, not least in consideration of the interpretational biases within the source materials, and the layer of interpretation brought to bear on those by the researcher. My understanding is that the Historian must ask the right questions of their sources, use their imagination to draw their material together, find a narrative thread through the complex paper trail and put down the truths uncovered, so that we might better understand the past.

Whether or not it actually says ‘Believe this’, we generally do.

The artist’s process is actually pretty similar: sifting the research materials for the threads and connections that weave a story. The facts that jump out and spark the imagination; that provoke a double take; that demand some thinking about.

It absolutely says ‘Consider this’.

Talking Birds’ work explores the profound and complex relationships between people and place. In the case of Disorder Contained, this latest collaboration with Centres for the History of Medicine in England and Ireland, the people in question are convicts, and their place a whitewashed cell, no bigger than 13ft x 7ft x 9ft. Our sifted version of the research pulls together various disparate events into an unnamed mid-19th century prison, which could be in Britain or Ireland. Though the characters depicted are fictional, the incidents and arguments presented are based on reports and accounts from the time, taken directly from the research done by the teams at UCD and Warwick.

As artists working with this material, we have tried to imagine ourselves in the cells (or felt slippers, or polished boots) of the people confined in (or staffing, or making decisions about) these prisons; and to weave together many of the stories the research has unearthed. No-one can really know how they might cope with being confined alone; where their mind might take them; and if they would meet this horror with fortitude, or as torture. But, as we have made this piece, we have ‘considered this’, and hope to offer glimpses and insights into this flawed reform system: to ask our audiences to also ‘Consider this.’ The combination of fictional context and live performance allows us to go one step further: as our audiences see the characters before them, and listen to the words of the prisoners and commissioners who lived (and suffered) through the Separate System, they cannot help but also consider how these stories might speak to our contemporary attitudes to mental health and prisons.

The table leg I was varnishing as I listened to Hilary Mantel seemed somehow a fitting metaphor for this process of making art that asks us to consider history.

With the appearance of a shapely, turned, Victorian table leg supporting a sturdy Victorian table, the proportions are right, but the materials are ‘wrong’. For this shapely table leg is not a piece of solid wood that has been turned in a lathe, it is a stack of machined circles of plywood that impersonates, and stands in for, a Victorian table leg.

The reconstruction of the material may not be completely ‘Believe this’ accurate (nor is it an alternative or supplementary truth), but its very existence helps us to visualise the historical table, offering us an opportunity to examine the table from different angles and in four dimensions, provoking fresh or unexpected views or insights, giving us something to think about.

It asks us to ‘Consider this.’ – to momentarily exist in both the past and the present – and then allows us to return and see, and to understand, our modern tables through slightly changed eyes.

Janet Vaughan, Talking Birds – 23.6.17