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).

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!

Friday 8th December 2018, the day after the City of Culture announcement!

The Mapping of Moments

Guest post: Vanessa Oakes reflects on her stint on The Cart in the #ThisisCoventry tent (which was curated to launch Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture 2021) at Godiva Festival last Sunday.


a space… a cart… a place to sit and think… to listen… focus on our past, present and imagined futures… rest, recharge our phones, shut out the festival NOISE and… meditate on a life made up of memorable moments.

heads down.

needles in… stitch by stitch… cultural moments cross the ring road… pale blue, blue, white threads, births, love affairs and friendships thread through cloth, as conversations flow an observation surfaces sideways:

how artists and arts organisations talk about interacting with the community rather than thinking about themselves as part of the community.*

testing our powers of concentration… conversation… commitment… action stitching our way along roads, across precincts, towards homes… we lament: it’s only two thirty…

heads down.

children play, climb and hide… nest and then… disappear/lost… and finally, thankfully, found… we return again to the cloth… thread a needle… pin a note, add a thought, learn a stitch… listen… and… hesitate… a place to rest a pint? is he serious? no… thought not… a hasty retreat.

a cart… a place to… sit… perhaps just sit… rest our feet… process our words… and think, then… once again…

heads down.

we listen… and imagining a future landscape of our stories told on these streets… we stitch.


*quote: Justine Themen

Listen Again : Armchair Ant&Cleo

You can now Listen Again to Ant&Cleo – the Musical! performed by Talking Birds with Orchestra of the Swan and the massed Elysian choirs of Bridgetown Primary, Bray’s and Welcombe Hills schools. The live audio stream of the Saturday performance is archived here. We’d love to know what you think of the ‘livestream’ and – if you saw it in the flesh – what you thought of the show, you can send us your review by clicking here.

Talking Birds, Ant & Cleo The Musical, dress rehearsal at Stratford ArtsHouse
Ant&Cleo pic by Andy Moore/Pixeltrix

The Making of Ant & Cleo : Composer’s blog

IMG_5123Workshop 1, 28th Feb 2014

Today is the start of a journey that will culminate on the 7th & 8th of November at Stratford Civic Hall – show time for our new, musical take on the epic tale of Antony & Cleopatra (or Ant & Cleo as we prefer to call them). This episodic blog will keep you posted on our progress – because, as it was you that voted for Antony & Cleopatra – The Musical in The People’s Millions, we’d like you to come with us!

Peter Cann (Director), Nick Walker (writer/librettist) and me (Composer) are at Welcombe Hills School in Stratford, where we observe the school’s daily ritual – an energetic Shake Up ‘n’ Wake Up routine. This freeform bop to a funky soundtrack should surely be adopted around the globe as a caffeine substitute (or at least in lieu of that extra shot). It’s characteristic of this school – and many Special Educational Needs settings – that the approach to just about every aspect of school life is imaginative, playful and progressive.

The first 3 sessions are about getting to know our team – at Welcombe Hills, that’s about 30 pupils aged 9-11 with a variety of special needs – or rather, what’s more important to us, an astonishing amount of imaginative power and creative talent – and working out with them how we are going to tell the story. We have the bare bones of the narrative courtesy of Plutarch (source for Shakespeare’s version), but at this stage everything else is up for grabs.

Peter uses signing/actions to introduce the characters – what’s a good sign for Antony, the Roman Soldier? What’s a good sign for Egypt? Next: where might A & C arrange to meet? ‘Costa Coffee! A big music place ! A lighthouse!’ Then divide into Romans & Egyptians and find different ways of moving for each side. I provide some musical accompaniment – at this stage it’s all about improvising, unlocking and capturing ideas and me and Nick keep notes which will later be sifted and shaped into the script and score.

Every child will have their own way of contributing, some will readily be involved, for others it will be a more a gradual process – we rely on the close involvement of teachers and teaching assistants to help us overcome any communication barriers and start to find connections. One pupil really responds to what I’m playing on the piano and violin and together we come up with a little theme tune based on his name. I record this so I can use it next time.

In the afternoon we head to Bray’s School in Birmingham where we’re again given a warm welcome and see familiar faces of staff and students who were involved in our last opera epic Troy Story. [http://www.talkingbirds.co.uk/pages/troystory.asp]

We have a team of about 30 here too – again with a wide variety of special needs, but more importantly a full spectrum of wicked senses of humour. Here ‘Asda!’ is proposed as a good rendez-vous spot for the heroes. Everyone’s keen to do some singing – we unleash range of musical instruments and melodic and rhythmic ideas come from the floor for the words ‘Cle-o-pa-tra’ and ‘An-to-ny’. Composing can be exciting in solitude, but seldom as exciting as it is in a room of 40 people. Here it’s a team sport, and anyone can take the ball.

From the name-patterns emerge two longer musical phrases, to which Nick puts some words; then we string them together into an embryonic song. What we sing as the culmination of the session is work-in-progress and will evolve further, but the imprint of everyone in this room on the finished piece will be unmistakable. We’re off!

Derek Nisbet, Talking Birds

Be a friend of Ant & Cleo…

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You can pre-order a CD of Troy Story via the Talking Birds website

This thursday: Goose is served!

Nick (playing the Goose), Sam (playing the little match girl), Craig (playing Hans) and Derek (playing piano – bdumtish!) have been squirreled away this week in rehearsals for our hilarious-and-depressing-in-equal-measure festive extravaganza TREVOR GOOSE AND HIS DARK NIGHT OF LIGHTS! The rest of the band arrive soon, and then all we need (Thursday to Saturday) is you and your friends sat around the cabaret tables in EGO’s atmospheric New York garage style indie venue, supping cocktails and having snacks delivered to your table whilst enjoying a bit of “farcical yet strangely thought-provoking” (CET) festive entertainment – with a Danish-themed raffle thrown in for good measure. If you fancy going the whole hog, you’re welcome to come dressed to fit the monochrome Dr Caligari meets 60’s jazz club theme – click here for some inspiration


Goose rehearsals