No Place Like Home

Originally written for Exeunt.

In the immortal, celluloid-enshrined words of a ruby-slipper-tapping Dorothy, there’s no place like home. Or at least, even if our birthplace is somewhere from which we run kicking and screaming at the first opportunity, the place we come from inevitably shapes and defines us in some way, as do all the other places we subsequently call home.

So what does our local theatre say about us or about the community it is born from? Growing up in something of a cultural grey zone whose sole theatrical offerings seemed to be incessant tours of Grease and the obligatory ABBA sing-along, my loyalties as a theatregoer were aligned to London almost by default. It is a city I have yet to actually live in, but to which I feel inextricably bound by my connection with its culture. My personal experience, which I suspect is partly down to my hometown’s relative proximity to the huge variety of theatre available in the capital, is thankfully not indicative of the state of regional theatre on the whole. But even in areas with a thriving theatre scene, how much of the work is really wedded to its surroundings?

There is, of course, an immediate flipside to this argument. Just as the dearth of roles for women is not necessarily addressed by female writers, who are often wary of confining themselves to female experience for fear of being shoved in the box labelled “feminist playwright” and never allowed back out, regionality can be shunned by artists operating outside the capital. “Regional” is a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral. As Daniel Bye’s column about Northern Stage at St Stephen’s suggested, it is easy for a national theatre culture still largely centred on London to pinpoint regionality as a basis for criticism.

What Bye also proposed, however, is that we should ultimately be proud of where our theatre comes from. In his words, the programme at St Stephen’s was “marinated in its distance from the cultural centre”; whether consciously “regional” or not, work made away from London is inevitably coloured by the site of its origin, as much as London-based theatre is arguably lent a certain quality by its position in the capital. So why are we reluctant to celebrate these regional differences?

As with anything, there are startling exceptions to the picture of regional theatre that I have – admittedly very roughly – begun to sketch above. Chris Goode’s 9, for instance, programmed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Transform Festival earlier this year, worked with local people to create a series of solo performances, crafting a piece of theatre fused to its place of origin through tangible human links. Remaining in Yorkshire, Invisible Flock’s Bring the Happy chose to investigate the concept of happiness through the very specific focus of Leeds, while their current project Sand Pilotexplores an equally specific relationship with the natural environment in Morcambe Bay. In a slightly different approach to regionality, Joel Horwood’s  Peterborough was commissioned by Eastern Angles with the brief of responding to the city of its title, a place referred to by the Arts Council as a “cultural cold spot”.

Many other examples could doubtless be cited, but what British theatres often lack is a truly regional aspect to their overall programming. Compared with the system in Germany, for example, where the dramaturgy departments of individual institutions set themes for each season based on a mix of wider social issues and subjects of particular local resonance, the UK model makes a striking contrast. Thanks to the touring structure, London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location. When people complain that the theatre on offer in their local area has no relevance to them, it is easy to appreciate this perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, Lyn Gardner bravely lit the touchpaper in the ever fiery arts funding debate by suggesting that subsidy should be channelled away from major institutions and instead invested into “the bottom of the pyramid”. While this takes us into complex and thorny territory, one vital point that Gardner makes is about the participatory nature of the arts. As she stresses, for those who end up working in this industry, nearly all have found their initial point of entry through involvement of some kind, often no doubt through their local institution.

If such institutions were more attuned to their surrounding area, maybe more of those “ghost” artists that Gardner writes about would recognise the relevance of theatre to them and be able to realise their potential. A more local focus might also enable the feeding of funds into the grassroots, supporting emerging artists in the immediate region in a way that could allow major organisations and smaller companies to happily and productively co-exist.

To distil a piece of theatre down to any one element is of course reductive, ignoring the myriad influences that help to shape it. But to pursue the opposite extreme and discount location entirely is to also ignore something, something beautiful and idiosyncratic and married with a sense of community that is all too often missing from our theatres. As new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s spearheading of Birmingham REP’s centenary season recognises, theatres and artists have a vital role in serving their communities, be that through responsive programming or local engagement. And through this engagement maybe, just maybe, they can secure themselves an integral place for the future.

Bring the Happy, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

As Oscar Levant famously said, “happiness is not something you experience, it’s something you remember”. This way of viewing happiness is particularly pertinent to Invisible Flock’s latest project, an undertaking to map the happiness of an entire city. Setting up a hub at the centre of Leeds, for a period of two months this group of artists collected happy memories from local people, recording them and plotting them onto a 3D map. What emerges is as much sadness as happiness.

The performance that Invisible Flock and accompanying band Hope and Social have created from this vast compendium of memories, however, is about as joyous as theatre gets. Memories, from the mundane to the sublime to the ridiculous, are recited by the performers and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, backed by alternately raucous and contemplative music. There are odes to the hundreds of babies born in local hospitals and to the chemically enhanced euphoria of going out and getting wasted. We wave glowsticks and sparklers and are invited to waltz with strangers.

Despite this encouraged silliness and unapologetic delight, more serious threads are plucked through the fabric of contemporary happiness. There is something inherently poignant about happy memories; the very fact that they are memories indicates that those moments must be in the past and in some sense lost. For this reason, the happiest of recollections on the map are often born from the most moving of circumstances. There is also an intensely personal quality to Invisible Flock’s creation. While being specific to the city of Leeds – a city I have never visited – the piece has the gentle power to summon memories of the places that hold happy memories for you wherever you might come from, providing a delicate diversion via reminiscence.

Unsurprisingly, however, not everyone embraced the idea in the same way as the audience at St Stephen’s. The question that Invisible Flock were most frequently asked by irritated passersby was simply “why?” Why spend time doing something so twee, so ridiculous and so seemingly without a purpose? Why sugar-coat a city rather than address its problems? Why – the most aggressive complaint – is this being funded? In the time since Invisible Flock began this project, their reasons have been vindicated, though possibly not in the way they would have hoped for, by the government’s concern with happiness in modern Britain. Unlike David Cameron’s falsely smiling initiative, however, there is something profoundly heartfelt about what Invisible Flock are doing.

It is also easier than it might initially seem to conjure valuable reasons for this project. As much as it is, on the surface, about happiness, asking questions about what makes people happy also seems to inevitably reveal what makes them unhappy, uncovering more truths about modern society than might be imagined. The project presents a way of understanding how we live today and how we lived yesterday – a living document of a city.

And, of course, there is the simple but not to be underestimated joy that Invisible Flock’s resulting creation is capable of engendering. Leaving with a smile like a stain that can’t be scrubbed off my face, it’s difficult to demand any better reason than that.