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.

 

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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

We belong to the city, and it belongs to us.

[This post was originally written for the blogs page of the Coventry City of Culture Trust website, supporting Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021]

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes an individual put down roots in a place. I’ve tried to analyse what it was that made me settle here in Coventry – to understand why I am still here, and I’ve asked others what it was that made them decide to call somewhere home. Maybe it is hard to pin down one reason – often you’re in the middle of a perfect storm of reasons, none in itself would make you settle, but taken together they are good enough for now. And, unless things go really pear-shaped, ‘good enough for now’ develops over time with familiarity – as you begin to understand the place – into something much better. The one thing that seems crucial to all this is people: personal connections with people – a group of friends, a partner, family. It is unlikely that a ‘place’ by itself will be enough: a combination of ‘people’ and ‘place’ – and the buzz of activity and possibility that this combination presents – is what binds us somewhere.

As part of Talking Birds, I’ve spent just over twenty years collaboratively exploring, and seeking to illuminate, the profound and complex relationships between people and place, a lot of this in or around Coventry. It’s an endlessly fascinating task which has allowed the company privileged access, not only to many buildings in the city (some of which have since been reinvented, given a new lease of life, others which now only exist in memories and old photos), but also to the insightful and sometimes highly personal stories and memories of the people with whom we have worked. And these explorations, these conversations, the stories in and of these places, have changed us – and changed our relationship with Coventry. We have shared history here, we are bound to the city and its people – we belong to the city, and it belongs to us. There are traces of the work we have made, and the stories we have heard and told in the stones of the place, and in the memories of people all over this city – maybe even some of you that are reading this now?

I’m glad I’m not a judge in the City of Culture competition, because I know that in every competing city there are people that feel like this about the place they live. People that are tightly (and proudly) bound to their city by circumstance, culture and community. These are the people that feel their city should win, and will work their socks off to try and make that happen. I’m one of those kinds of people in Coventry – there are a lot of us about. But here, as in every competing city, every city even, there are people who don’t feel those bonds of connection to the place where they are. People who are just passing through. People who, for any number of reasons, live every day without real human connection, without speaking to their neighbours, without feeling a part of the culture and community of the city. Not necessarily lonely, but not realising what more there is (almost) right under their noses, how much better their life here could perhaps be.

Maybe these are the people for whom City of Culture is most important. The people who don’t know what amazing stuff happens in their city every day because they don’t know where to look, or they don’t want to look, or they never thought to look, or they just can’t look. Actually – they are the people for whom the build up to the competition might be even more important than the competition itself – what we do in the next 6 months, the things we share, the eyes we open in that time are absolutely key. If we can open eyes all over the city, if we can make connections, if we can speak to our neighbours, if we can smile hello at strangers in the street and get hi-fived in return (yes, this really happened to me!), if we truly care about our city: then we can change our city one person at a time – we can make our city buzz. With or without a label, we can build a city that values everyone, that includes everyone, that builds communities woven together with culture. A city with energy. A city where we belong. A city where people want to be. A city where people want to stay. A City of Culture.

I know what you’re thinking: If you can do this much without a label, why bother with the label? I think the last two years answers that. The very fact that Coventry is going for this competition, this label, has made a difference all over the city (and would have been unthinkable five years ago). It has gathered people, it has inspired and galvanised people. It has given us something in common to talk about, a shared goal: just talking about ‘what if…?’ is developing the actual culture of the city, the buzz, the sense that Cov is a city on the up. The very process of bidding is a virtuous circle, strengthening the sense of shared culture and community. People ask “But what if we don’t win?” – but even in getting this far, we already have some kind of win for the city. When people do something, others see that it’s worth doing and they do something too – and so it grows. So we grow.

I’ve often described Coventry to outsiders as a ‘city poised on the edge of greatness’. Teetering on the edge of recognising itself as the blummin’ brilliant place it is, and of losing its modesty about that. (I won’t shoehorn in a Lady Godiva modesty joke here, you can make up your own). I love the fact that, as I walk across the city centre, the ghosts of a millennium tightrope walk or a breeze-block domino run or a community Romeo & Juliet are kicked up in the dust. Our city doesn’t shout about its achievements, its little moments of accidental beauty: it just kind of accepts them and gets on with it…which is endearing and infuriating in equal measure.

I think Coventry is a place where you can experiment, try things out. It welcomes strangers, it trusts youth and gives it a chance to shine. You can make something of yourself here: build a life. From Ira Aldridge to Donald Gibson to Pauline Black to Shoot Festival… perhaps there’s something here about being given a chance – and how that develops both your self-belief and your skill? If Coventry has been poised on the edge of greatness for much of the 25 years I have been here – what has stopped our city toppling either into (or out of) that greatness? Could the recognition, validation and self-confidence given by the City of Culture label be the thing that finally tips it into greatness (and keeps it there)?

In the 1940s and 50s, Donald Gibson led the City Architects Department – where all the staff were given their chance to practice, to learn, to shine. Coventry had a moment of greatness as it became the place where everyone wanted to be – to study, to practice, to live and work. The city was on the up, it had an energy which people wanted to be a part of, and as those people came to the city and became part of that energy, it grew and attracted more to it: a critical mass. The young architects working with Gibson took the ideas developed in Coventry, the styles designed here (that had been modelled on the best, most cutting edge in the world) and embedded them in the places they graduated to: there are little bits of Coventry all over the country. That’s how it should be – an energetic flow of ideas and people that enriches each place, and is active across generations. The energy of the young blended with the experience of the old making something better than either of them could come up with alone. I think that’s what aiming high and talking about culture can do – it can move ideas around and create the buzz, the milieu in which anything can happen. Enthuse the people. Make the city a space of possibilities. Just imagine….

That’s what I want for Coventry in this year of build up, and beyond. That’s why I want Coventry to be UK City of Culture 2021.

By Janet Vaughan

Co-Artistic Director, Talking Birds

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If you want to get a measure of a city, look at how it treats its young people…

IMG_9999I googled the title of this post as a quote, because I thought someone clever had previously coined it (or something similar). Google reckons Nelson Mandela and Michelle Obama have both said something along these lines and, I realise now, it also paraphrases Dumbledore on House Elves but, anyway, that’s a fairly major digression from what I actually wanted to write in this post, which was:

If you want to get a measure of a city, look at how it treats its emerging artists…

When Talking Birds was a young, emerging company (over 20 years ago – eek!), we always found it completely brilliant, if continually mystifying, when people gave us a bit of money towards devising a show, or offered us some space in a theatre (or tent or museum or geodesic dome) to put it in front of a paying audience. And then if people (especially people we didn’t know) came to see it, that was absolutely the icing on the cake*. There’s something about being offered a bit of money to make something, and a space to show what you’ve made, that gives you confidence in what you are doing (as well as, obviously, allowing you to get better at doing it). If you aren’t someone who makes things, you might find that hard to believe, but I think it holds true that most of us who make things are ever so slightly surprised and grateful when other people believe in us – because it’s often that belief that allows us to believe in ourselves, which allows us to keep working at it, and to get better.

Talking Birds, Theatre Absolute and others are living proof that Coventry has a noble history of treating its young people – its emerging artists – well. There are two really good examples of this coming up next week – and the real purpose of this post is to encourage you to give the young, emerging artists the boost of turning up and watching them perform. If that makes it sound like we’re saying you should patronise and indulge them, then you are either wilfully misunderstanding this post, or (more likely) we’ve just written it really badly. This is absolutely not meant to be about patronising anybody – a friendly, supportive audience will give the performers belief in themselves, yes, but in return for your attendance you’ll get to see some surprising, thought-provoking, committed, skilled, energetic (and energising) young people perform – and perhaps most importantly you’ll experience a fresh perspective on all kinds of things they put before you as you explore their ideas and see the world through their eyes.

Rise by the Belgrade Young Company – a kind of all-girl road movie (see pic above) – is on 13th-18th in B2 at the Belgrade Theatre and Shoot Festival showcases the best of Cov & Warwickshire’s emerging talent with a triple bill on the Friday evening in B2, and an ecelectic day of theatre and music at the Shop Front Theatre and in Shelton Square on Saturday 18th.

We highly recommend them all – treat yourself, and get in at the start of something.

*In the early 90s, Talking Birds was one of a number of young Coventry companies to benefit from the opportunity of a small annual commission from the Arts Alive Festival. These supported commissions encouraged us to learn through doing, forging deep bonds with the city – meaning that we are still making work in Coventry 25 years later and constantly looking for meaningful ways to pay that early investment forward.

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