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[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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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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Guest Blog from writer Mark Hancock.

Coventry sits at the heart of the country like a heartbeat, feeding the major arteries of the United Kingdom. But there’s a funny thing about heartbeats, you get so used to them being there that you end up ignoring them and forgetting how vital they are to your whole being. But of course, without it, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you won’t last much longer.

For many of its citizens, Coventry is the heartbeat that keeps us going from minute to minute, marking out the distinct patterns of our lives and refreshing our bloodstream. You can become so used to it though, you might have to keep reminding yourself that it’s there and just how vitally important it is.

On the 15th December, as part of the Talking Birds Cart entourage (on this night, a live band – The Upsiders, HMS Cupcake, offering cakes and hot drinks and filmmaker Rachel Bunce), we set up camp underneath the ring road flyover on Gosford Street to capture the cultural heartbeats of Coventry’s citizens.

One woman I spoke to told me how her family had been in Coventry their whole lives and she name checked at least two of the well known clubs from the late 70s and early 80s. She had moved away from Coventry, spending several years abroad and was now back studying for a PhD. We talked of the draw of Coventry and that desire to be a part of the city and make something good here.

That making something good can suggest to some people that Coventry wants to return to a golden era when everything was fantastic and if only it could be like that again. But the city has changed and evolved beyond all recognition. It’s important, as part of Coventry’s bid to be the UK’s City of Culture in 2021 that people don’t over emphasis this illusion of returning to glory. While nobody wants to forget that Delia Derbyshire was born here and went on to be one of the first women electronic music pioneers, let alone the person who created the original Doctor Who theme, we must look at the present.

I chatted (and we filmed) a young skater, who talked about the skate scene in the city. We both had thoughts on how the architects of the city worked to prevent skaters using the public zones of the inner city (there are also of course, good skate parks in the city) and how they overcame those obstacles. It reminded me that a city isn’t only the sanctioned areas of cultural production, but the unofficial ones as well. People will find their own routes to make a rich and engaging cultural life. If by winning the 2021 bid, there’s an opportunity to make that heartbeat loud enough to be noticed by the whole country, then they’ll have done a favour to everyone who makes up the life force of the city.

thecart-21 [originally published on project blog https://thecart.wordpress.com/]

On Thursday, we’re taking The Cart out to the top of Gosford Street. We’ll be inviting passers by to join us for free tea and cake and music. Free in exchange for ideas, that is! We’re hoping for a bit of a chat about great cultural moments – to look at things that HAVE happened here and imagine what COULD happen here (especially if Coventry were to be/is announced as City of Culture in 2021).

As a starter, we did a stream-of-consciousness round up of some of Cov’s ace past moments. And it was such a lovely nostalgia-fest it felt like it should be shared…so here goes. How many of them do you recognise? How many were you at? (Yes, we know it’s selective – it’s merely a stream-of-consciousness handful – apologies for the millions of other brilliant moments not yet included – please remind us of them via the comments).

A man, illuminated by a massive searchlight, walks across a tightrope stretched between the spires of Holy Trinity and the old Cathedral.

A channel drilled in the concrete floor of the gallery in the shape of the river is filled with glass jars of river water and lighted candles.

A small group are guided to walk in a straight line across the car park rooftop and admire the view over the coalfield.

A giantess walks around the square, propelled by steampunk attendants who make her head turn slowly, her eyelids blinking in wonder at the kneehigh people staring up at her.

A child running ahead of its parents realises that it is responsible for changing the coloured lights that line the walkway, and doubles back to do it again.

A pile of televisions, each showing an enormous eye, totters gently as a woman holding a red balloon places another tv on the top.

Ballroom dancers on stilts launch hundreds of gently-glowing chinese lanterns into the air over the crowd filling the empty city centre car park.

A group of young people carrying candlelit lanterns gathers outside an empty shop, the site of a former theatre. They sing a song of hope and remembrance and they lay flowers.

A man and woman argue over a chip supper in a theatre that was once a chip shop. Passers by who remember the chip shop, and know it has closed down, look through the windows, confused.

Huge animal puppets, manipulated by citizens of Coventry and Galway, process joyfully around the cathedral ruins as the ark is built around them.

An aluminium whale sits quietly by the fountain. It’s jaws open every so often and a smiling person emerges, carefully holding a small, folded piece of paper.

The Montagues and Capulets, played by people who live on a street named after the playwright, battle it out in the square. As Mercutio dies, he is borne aloft and cries ‘A plague on both your houses’.

Hundreds of breezeblock dominoes are laid in a long, winding line across the city centre. As they fall, some members of the crowd run shortcuts across the city to try and catch up with them.

Diggers dance, turning intimate circles around each other. As they turn, human dancers hang off their buckets and link hands.

A violinist plays a lament, a hundred years to the hour after another violinist was killed at the Somme.

In the pouring rain, a waterproofed trio are guided by text message to find markers around the city centre and send back thoughts, images and stories to two artists hunched over computers in the dry.

A cage is set up and people gagged with duct tape sit inside the cage to represent asylum seekers, including children, being detained without charge. Passers by are shocked. Some weep.

Russian and English child musicians join together to play a newly written song of friendship between their cities.

An artist gently dismantles things others have discarded. He examines the negative space, makes new things of beauty out of the rubbish and talks to the people who visit him in his studio.

Projected patterns play on a shop window. Outside, passers by realise they can change the patterns: they move closer, then further away. They sweep the shop’s window with their fingertips and squeal with joy as the pattern follows.

In an empty warehouse, a woman performs. She sits naked, cold, at a table covered with a white cloth, under rosy red apples suspended on invisible strings. She peels apples, littering the space with the red of their skins.

Three performers move wheeled staircases through pools of lights from the far end of a very long room, until they are right in front of the audience, demanding that they see the surprise witness.

There is a wishing well filling the stairwell. A woman writes her wish and drops it down the chute. Hearing the satisfying clunk as it hits the bottom, a child rushes up the stairs with their own wish and drops it through the grating.

On Thursday join us, The Upsiders and HMS Cupcake under the lit flyover from 4-6.

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To support Coventry’s bid for the City of Culture in 2021 we’ve come up with the slightly daunting task of collecting two thousand and twenty one Coventry photos featuring the colour blue. So far Coventry’s Tweeters and Instagrammers have taken up the baton admirably – there were over 100 posts on Instagram in the first week! But, y’know, 2021 is a *lot* of photos so we need all the help we can get! If you are on Twitter or Instagram, please join in this new game: get spotting the colour blue out and about in the city and add your photos by tagging them #2021blue and #thisiscoventry – in the words of Captain Barnacle “Coventry, let’s do this!”.

A very special moment happened on Saturday when, 100 years to the hour when he was lost at the Battle of the Somme, Coventry violinist Montague Johnson’s Memorial Plaque (colloquially known as a Dead Man’s Penny) was re-united with his city. The medal had been discovered in 1963 by Kim Kenny, as a 5 year old girl, in a shed in the garden of her then home in Allesley. She looked after it over those intervening years, long since having moved away from Coventry – and it was her who brought it to the premiere of Montague’s Song at St John the Baptist Church (where Montague’s name is recorded on a stained glass window). It was revealed part way through the performance, to the surprise of Ray Hammond, a relative of Montague’s, who was in the audience.

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L-R: Chris O’Connell (writer, narrator); Kim Kenny & Ray Hammond (with the medal); Derek Nisbet (composer, musician). Photo: Alan Van Wijgerden

The medal will go on display later this month at the Visitor’s Centre in War Memorial Park, on a cushion specially created by textile artist Julia O’Connell of Theatre Absolute, (co-producer of Montague’s Song). This completes the circle, as it was the picture of Montague there in the ‘Missing Faces’ exhibition that began the search for his story, nearly 3 years ago.

The church was full on Saturday so by popular demand we’re doing a reprise performance (with a collection in aid of St John’s) this Sunday 11th Sept at 1pm. No booking needed (it’s part of the church  Heritage Open Day events) but early arrival advised!

https://www.facebook.com/events/608944519275493/

 

We sing a story of the soldiers of The Somme

Of whom one from Coventry was named, Montague.

Theatre Absolute and Talking Birds present Montague’s Song, an intimate Requiem for Coventry violinist Montague Johnson, who was lost at the Battle of the Somme exactly 100 years to the hour of this performance.

His story will be told, and the mystery of a discovery made many years later will be uncovered.

Performed by Derek Nisbet, Chris O’Connell and Elinor Coleman.

 

Date: Saturday 3rd September 2016

Time: 6pm (Doors 5.30pm)

Venue: St John’s Church, Fleet Street, Coventry CV1 3AY

Running time: 30 mins approx

(followed by drinks at the Shop Front Theatre, 38 City Arcade, Coventry, CV1 3HW)

Admission: £4 (£3 concessions) via OxBoffice: https://www.oxboffice.com/EventDetails.aspx?eid=18020 Tel 0845 6801926

This performance can be captioned (subtitled) to your mobile device via Talking Birds’ The Difference Engine. To use this service or for any other access enquiries please e-mail: access@talkingbirds.co.uk

Here are the details of our various outings this weekend (you can find timings etc here):

On Friday, Beyond the Water’s Edge, live poetry from around the world, opens at The Belgrade Theatre. Produced by our friends at Midland Creative Projects, the show features visuals and music from the Birds.

On Saturday, the Whale is surfacing at the Darnhill Festival in Heywood, while the Cricketers take their inimitable brand of sporting buffoonery to The Hat Fair in Winchester.

Then on Sunday, the Whale will be at Godiva Festival in Coventry in the #ThisisCoventry tent helping to launch Coventry’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2021.

The Cart will also be in the #ThisisCoventry tent, where artist Julia O’Connell and writer Vanessa Oakes will be working with us collecting cultural moments from visitors to the tent to add to the #ThisisCoventry tablecloth. You can join us for as long or short a conversation as you like, stitching optional. We look forward to seeing you there!

 

Hmm, that’s possibly an unintentionally apt blog title on EURef day, but this post isn’t about that. It’s actually a kind of apology that, when there’s only 3 of you and everyone (not just in the company) seems to be busier than they’ve ever been making great new things, other things fall off your radar and sometimes just fall apart.

For a long time now, Talking Birds has wanted to make ‘The Cart’. Janet, in particular, has been trying to shoehorn it into what feels like every project for the last 10 years. It surfaced as the germ of an idea for a joint (unsuccessful) proposal that we made to Playable Cities with Ludic Rooms; then again as part of a city-wide Pop-Up Cities Conference that didn’t happen with Artspace, Dan Thompson and Theatre Absolute; another unsuccessful evolution of The Cart was entered into the City Arcadia open call…

But it was too good an idea to shelve and also, perhaps, too complex (or vague!) an idea to articulate well?

Talking Birds’ work is about people and places, and over the years we’ve usually gone out and made that work with what we have found in the places where the people are. But The Cart is a little bit different. In a way, perhaps it’s an intersection between our site-specific work and our peripatetic engagement work with, for example, The Oakmobile. Anyway, it wasn’t until Coventry got serious about bidding for UK City of Culture 2021, that we realised there was perhaps a Cart-shaped gap in that process, and that teaming up with the Coventry2021 team could finally make The Cart happen.

We’ve found it hard to describe The Cart in a pithy way, because we want it to be so many things and to be used in lots of different ways, for lots of different things – but perhaps “pop-up workshop space and community engagement environment” might do for now? It’s something that can pop-up across the city (and beyond) offering a friendly, relaxed, comfortable and welcoming space to have a conversation over coffee, over a shared activity such as stitching or a game, or maybe even over a free haircut. An exchange of some kind. Something which allows parents to stop and chat whilst their children play. Something that can go to where people are, and engage them on their terms – visiting neighbourhoods, parks, nurseries; joining existing events or forming the focus of new ones; mapping the cultural engagement in the city on a micro-level, where it’s about people rather than statistics, about communities rather than about wards, about human connections and the things we do together.

The Coventry2021 team and Coventry City Council recognised The Cart’s potential: and so we’re delighted to announce that The Cart is finally happening – with its first outing in the #ThisisCoventry tent at Godiva Festival on July 3rd.

Obviously, this is brilliant and terrifying in almost equal measure – that idea, so long in the gestation is finally being realised and is about to be tested: the first step in finding out what we can do with this new tool. And so, for us, there has been a lot of work in a relatively compressed period of time – and while we’ve been busy sorting it all out, getting everything ready, our website (for one thing) is falling apart! No-one really has time to write a blogpost (I’m on borrowed time for this one), the tool that used to catapult our instagram feed onto the front page has gone out of business (without letting us know) and our What’s On page is missing much of the other stuff we’re also doing.

Maybe that’s inevitable. Maybe sometime we’ll catch up with ourselves. Maybe you’re busy too and you’ll understand. Hopefully you’ll come and see us and The Cart at Godiva and let us know whether it was worth it.

Work in Progress pics of The Cart (Cultural Action Research Tool??)

 

It’s entirely possible that this blogpost might be construed as blowing our own trumpets (or something) but, you know, I’m going to post it anyway. Just because it is not every day that you get such an absolutely lovely email that makes you pleased that you do what you do – and makes you want to keep doing it. So here goes:

“I would like to express my gratitude for your informing me of the captioning with The Difference Engine. I was most impressed with the high quality standard of the captions and how perfectly it fitted into the small scale one woman monologue performance of Joan.

“As a hearing aid user who lip reads, I found this technology allowed me to fully understand the whole performance with ease. I found I could read quickly ahead and be able to watch the whole show in order to capture the emotions and the visual aspect of the character’s performance. I have watched many [shows with]…closed captions which are often at the side of the stage and by the time I read them, I have missed the performance of the character…the large captions can be distracting…I thoroughly enjoyed how the captions portrayed the different voices to present the various characters within the show and the description of the music genre.

“I most definitely would use this technology again as I feel I was in control of my access and it was discreet [with] the option to glance and…the ability to read ahead. I felt integrated, as there was humour, audience participation and emotions which I felt synchronised with the rest of the audience instead of receiving the information second, later on.

“I am now a fan. Thank you Talking Birds for the technology and…Derby Theatre and Milk Production for allowing the show to be accessible.”

**In case you missed it; Here at Talking Birds we are still looking for a Tech Genius* to work with us on the further development of the Difference Engine and our other techy stuff. If you know someone who might be interested, please get them to look at this (some details including deadline dates are about to be altered, and previous applicants need not re-apply etc etc but it’ll give you the gist – if you’re interested, please do get in touch).

* This is definitely an official job title and exactly what it will say on the business cards 😉