September 29, 2014

All Roads Lead to Coventry – continuing the journey

This is a reposting of Chris Bilton's blog on the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies blog, 'Culture Matters'


Start of the walk

All Roads Lead to Coventry was a joint venture organised by Warwick Creative Exchange, Coventry Artspace and Warwick Arts Centre – the aim was to invite universities, arts organisations and council officers to share ideas about the longer term future for the city and the role that arts and culture could play in reimagining that future. Rather than spending day in meetings, we decided to invite participants to spend a morning walking and talking through Coventry, discovering and rediscovering some of the ‘hidden gems’ which are tucked away across the city (museums, theatres, statues and historic buildings) as well as encountering the everyday experience of a richly varied (but still compact) contemporary city. And so, on a sunny September morning in Coventry, our journey began.

Our walks started from ten locations across the city, converging in the city centre. My own journey took in the village atmosphere of Earlsdon, the statue of Frank Whittle (inventor of the jet engine and a reminder of the city’s heritage as a centre of engineering, innovation and manufacturing) and the Albany Theatre, a beautiful 600-seat theatre run entirely by volunteers with big plans to relaunch itself as a centre for community arts. Like many of the places we visited, the Albany is hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an impressive former college which it shares, rather bizarrely, with a Premier Inn.


Albany Theatre - what next?

Other groups walked along the canal, visited Coventry’s music museum (home of The Specials and a back catalogue of ska and reggae), looked at the new Fargo development or took in the Hillfields neighbourhood.

Coventry is often identified with its history of motor manufacturing and today it is still dominated by the ringroad – an impressive feat of engineering and a vital artery for people who live and work in the area – but also a symbolic barrier which seems to cut off the city centre from the diverse neighbourhoods beyond. So it was refreshing to be able to walk the city, meandering through its many histories, guided by people who knew its hidden corners and byways.

All walks led to EGO performance space – here we were served a wholesome lunch, shared stories from the day and tried to connect our experiences of the city into a bigger picture.

It became clear in the conversations during and after the walks that people who know Coventry well enjoy sharing its secret histories and hidden pockets of culture and community. But for outsiders, like many of the academics and students at the city’s two universities (including myself), the city is hard to ‘read’ (and hard to navigate!). One of the challenges we confronted was how to connect the city’s diverse histories and communities into a coherent narrative – how can we sell this complicated, fragmented, reticent city in a world dominated by brash city ‘brands’ and honeypot tourist destinations? Coventry is a city which wears its history lightly – ancient cottages house kebab shops, the old city walls skirt brutal modernist buildings. How can we connect the city’s many pasts and presents into a new future? What part can the arts and culture play in drawing the city together and opening it out to visitors? What are the barriers in the way of what we want the city to become?


These questions will be part of a series of ongoing conversations between artists, academics and council officers and members over the coming months. Following the walk, the organisers are compiling a list of ideas and questions which we hope might lead to further discussions, actions and collaborations. Please feel free to add comments and questions of your own!



September 23, 2014

All Roads Lead to Coventry

All Roads Lead to Coventry

Marie-Jeanne Merillet, a Masters student in the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, University of Warwick, writes about 'All Roads Lead to Coventry': an event initiated by Warwick Creative Exchange, and co-organised with Warwick Arts Centre and Coventry Artspace, to explore how arts and culture can help to re-shape the city for its citizens and visitors. It took place on 16th September.

The day started out with a series of walks through the City, the goal of which was to generate discussion around art and culture and how this aspect could be used strategically in the future to make the city a more engaging environment. Essentially each of the walks aimed to bring together academics, creatives, and council staff. I joined one such group in a walk which began at Daimler road, winded down the canal way, and from there to the EGO performance space where the afternoon discussions took place. It was a surprising walk in the sense of discovery. Having spent an entire year living in Coventry, while studying a Masters at the Centre for Cultural Policy studies, I realized as the day progressed how little I really know about the city and how rich it is in terms of history and culture. In the course of our morning’s walk we wandered through the Cash buildings,

coventry_building.jpg

up Foleshill, to Tower Court, once home to a thriving car industry. Next we descended an obscure flight of stairs to explore Coventry’s waterway heading in the direction of the canal basin, yet another dimension of the city I am completely unfamiliar with.

coventry_canal_brisge.jpg

(In the mist the barges would suddenly appear like a monster)

At the end point, we were met by Alan Dyer, artist and Director of the Canal Basin Trust, who took us on a tour of the artists’ studios. Alan explained that the building was carefully restored in the 1970s, to look like the original, and that initially they invited their third year students to come and work there, filling it up with graduates. It has since remained a creative hub of artistic industry. We climbed down tiny staircases and through low doorways. Apparently the warehouse has its own ghost, believed to be a canal worker who plummeted to his death from the top of the staircase. The warehouse at present boasts some free studios and work spaces for creatives. There is some question about efficiently latching on and using spaces already in existence in the city instead of trying to carve out new ones elsewhere. As intended, the results of the walk left us with many ideas and perceptions about Coventry, which left us well prepared for the afternoon’s activity.

Grouped around tables of ten at the EGO performance center, the second part of the day revolved around discussing Coventry. Themes discussed included nostalgia for the past, a sense of pride in history, and also the role of universities in the shaping of the city. One of the issues that arose was that students do not often engage with the city, many do not even realize that the University of Warwick is in fact in Coventry. Having met many students during my studies at Warwick, I know that the majority I spoke with had a very negative impression about Coventry, an impression that could be remedied if they were encouraged to get to know the city better, and have some sense of its cultural richness. Some of the conclusions reached highlighted the universities as being instrumental in shaping students’ perception of the city. This year for example I took part in the Dominos project as part of the Coventry Mysteries Festival, which was a wonderful experience to engage both with the city and its culture. Perhaps raising students’ awareness and interest in the cultural history of the city could have a long-term positive effect on their involvement in the community and could be seen as a strategy in itself.


March 17, 2014

Collaborative Working in Practice

RICHARD HAYHOW, Theatre Director, Open Theatre and JO TROWSDALE, Centre for Education Studies, Warwick talk about how their work together led to learning for both partners and significant developments in Richard's theatre work with young people and school teachers, and in turn has led to a symposium, journal articles and a research funding bid.

JO: I was a regular attender of Arts Alive – a festival largely of Coventry based independent theatre companies - and there saw the work of The Shysters. Richard was their founder and director. Their work was so joyful, playful and challenged perceptions about what actors with learning disabilities could achieve. A few years later I was approached to report on a three-year partnership experiment (called ‘Something Wicked’) between the Belgrade theatre and seven independent theatre companies – the Shysters was one of them. As I witnessed work and interviewed artists, I got insights into the practice and especially into how Richard was enabling these young people to develop as actors and as people, as well as to engage and entertain others.

RICHARD: The ‘Something Wicked’ work gave me the opportunity to reflect on the development of the Shyster practice and in many ways to legitimise it as a valid theatre practice that could sit alongside that of the other theatre companies involved. The approach to creating theatre with the Shysters had always been driven by the desire to make high quality productions: over a period of five years leading up to Something Wicked many ways of working were tried and tested, with some rejected, in order to achieve this. The basic principles of non-verbal physical work created in response to pre-recorded music (acting in effect as the ‘script’) were developed and explored in this period. The young people were able to lead much of the creative process through their intimate engagement with this way of working. An aesthetic for the work began to grow and the actors themselves became highly skilled within this. Perhaps the most significant statement made about the company at the time was: ‘ The Shysters are great actors – but they are also great people’. A process that had been developed to create high quality theatre had inadvertently had a transformatory effect on the actors themselves.

JO: In 2004 I was appointed Creative Director for Creative Partnerships Coventry and as I met with Deedmore MLD Special Primary school’s head teacher and heard her explain her ambition for her children, I was reminded of Richard. I bumped into Richard at another Coventry Arts event and he was talking about the desire to develop a longer term relationship with schools where he might see if the Shyster practice introduced with younger children might affect similar changes and give them a better chance in society. I arranged for the two of them to meet -a six year year long relationship was born between Richard and Deedmore, now joined with an SLD school and renamed Castlewood.

RICHARD: I remember that conversation well. I had learnt two important things from the Shyster process – firstly the work needed time to achieve its effect – on both the quality of the acting and the theatre created, and on the impact on the people involved. Secondly the younger the person involved the more significant the impact you could have. I had also worked in special schools at various times before this but only on one-off projects – but perhaps the best comment from one of these schools had been that the project we had developed had not been a ‘dumbed-down version of a mainstream project’ but had been ideally suited to the particular students involved. I was therefore keen to work in a primary special school to explore these ideas further – and as such made it clear from the outset that I would only become involved in Creative Partnerships Coventry if I could work in one school for a significant period of time – at least a year, if not two –and not be forced to compromise the work to fit in with preconceived notions of what an arts project should look like. The work in Deedmore began after a key meeting set up by Creative Partnerships Coventry at the school in which I made it clear that I was only interested in working in special schools because I valued the creativity of people with learning disabilities above all else!

JO: Richard had a healthy disrespect for the bureaucracy of Creative Partnerships, suggesting that he began working very openly, learning through the practice where to take the work. But he was also keen to engage with the reflective process and welcomed questions. His approach challenged me to re-think the possible frames and prompts we offered teachers and artists in scoping, planning and reflecting on the work in order to deepen value.

RICHARD: I think I had gained that healthy disrespect because of working with people with learning disabilities. After trying many conventional theatre-making processes I’d had to discover and invent new ways of working that got to a deep level of truth in terms of the contribution that the actors could make to a creative process. So within the education system and the bureaucracy of Creative Partnerships I continued that search for truth in terms of both adapting the practice and in gaining a sense of its impact on pupils. The challenge of imposing existing systems on the work forced me to come up with better systems and better articulation of what was really going on. It was great that Jo was open to the challenge and also that the lead teacher at Deedmore was equally keen to understand and change ways of thinking and doing things when she witnessed the impact of the Shyster practice on her pupils.

JO: Richard built a strong relationship with the lead teacher and both welcomed engagement with the practice. I was regularly invited to witness and get involved with the work. Visits, discussions, evaluation meetings and written reports were littered with evidence and accounts of children whose behaviour had altered positively; who had achieved something new and previously unimaginable: a catalogue of moments of children communicating: eye contact, smiling, talking; instances of caring for each other, playing imaginatively together at playtime, listening and learning. Performance events were emotional affairs with parents (and staff) moved by the transformations they saw. Richard was increasingly committed to this work with young people. During this time I also attended a number of Shyster events and was always aware of how joyful and full of laughter they were. Richard brought out the best in everyone and the dynamic he generated with young people was life affirming.

RICHARD: I was genuinely quite puzzled by the impact on the children involved of what I was doing – although it was very welcome and satisfying to know that it was happening I wanted to know why. Was it just because I was mostly a joyful and life affirming kind of person and was good at passing that on in sessions and to some extent it didn’t matter what I did as long as I did in that way? Or was it the uniqueness of the practice itself (which included the way it was delivered by a practitioner) that was key to the impact. If it was the second, then the potential for its use could become huge – others could be trained in the practice and many more young people in special schools and elsewhere could benefit from it. So it became even more important to find ways of understanding and sharing the work. At the heart of this was a central conundrum though - how could we explain in words a process that in its essence is beyond words?

JO: Witnessing the children working with Richard and each other was evidently the best way to communicate the impact of the practice, so a film was made and used to share the work at a Drama education conference in Exeter. Preparing for the conference was our first attempt at understanding what was happening and marked my closer involvement with the project: in debating with the team about how to develop understanding and practice across the newly formed school. We focussed upon visual techniques and critical incident analyses…

RICHARD: …which we called ‘significant moments’. We felt that we could share those moments when a particular child made a significant achievement – a quantum leap -within the work and which was witnessed by the adults in the room. By talking through what led up to this moment it could be possible to understand what combination of current circumstances and previous experiences could have contributed to the significant moment taking place, which in turn could help with our understanding of what were the key elements of the practice. One of the most memorable of these significant moments was when one particular child, after two years of him resisting the use of his imagination, gave in to his growing understanding of ‘pretending’ by suddenly juggling with imaginary balls and really enjoying the experience.

JO: By the time Creative Partnerships and the Shysters funding was cut, the demand for Richard’s practice by schools in Coventry and Birmingham was established, supported also by Liz Leck at the Birmingham Hippodrome with whom we planned and delivered a symposium about the practice and its particular relevance to adolescents with learning disabilities transitioning from school. We also began writing about the work: for a research bid to Leverhulme and for journals – one has been published in the BJSE.

RICHARD: All of these activities – the symposium, the articles and the funding bids were in effect further (welcome) challenges to articulate the work more effectively and to communicate a better understanding of it both to ourselves and to others. They were also partly about a move to articulate the work in a context that was about common human development as opposed to being solely about learning disability and therefore implying a specialised and insular practice of limited use. As we looked at the work through a theatre lens, the term ‘mimetics’ seemed quite an accurate way to describe this embodied practice - and a more useful way of explaining it than 'shystering', which we had been using so far.

JO: We are now looking to develop our understanding of what happens to people through mimetics - how they develop. We have both read a bit about mirror-neuron theory – although there is no consensus about this from neuroscientists. Human development markers – as proposed by psychology seems most useful, but we really need to find some interested experts in other fields to help us take it further...


February 05, 2014

Creative industries generate £8 million an hour. So states Creative Industries Statistical Report

From Jonnie Turpie, Founder & Director of Maverick TV

Creative Industries Economic Estimates Report

The report came off the press on the 13th January 2014. The Office for National Statistics report is a detailed analysis of the Creative Industries' growing contribution to UKPLC. This is not a new phenomenon! It has been well known for the last 40 or so years, since the emergence of popular culture, that the UK punches above its weight in this sector. The report is accompanied by a supportive statement by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller: “These incredible statistics are confirmation that the creative industries consistently punch well above their weight, outperforming all the other main industry sectors, and are a powerhouse within the UK economy.”

The report is based on analysis of the extensive data, and additional consultation, supported by a cross-industry collaboration overseen by the Creative Industries Council, Creative Skillset, Creative and Cultural Skills, Nesta, DCMS and a range of industry bodies.

The headline findings are that:

The UK’s creative industries are worth £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy. The creative industries, which include film, television and music, generate a staggering £8 million an hour.

Growth of almost 10 per cent also meant that the creative sector outperformed all other sectors of UK industry, accounting for 1.68 million jobs (5.6 per cent of the UK total) in 2012.

The UK creative industries are renowned across the globe; driving growth, investment and tourism.

Creative Industries Council Chair Nicola Mendelsohn said: “These figures amply demonstrate the huge contribution our sector makes to the economy and it’s vital that the right framework is in place to nurture and support the industry. We are working with Government on developing a growth strategy for the sector which will identify how all involved can ensure the creative industries continue to go from strength to strength.”

The report is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/creative-industries-economic-estimates-january-2014


December 05, 2013

A message from one of the founders of Warwick Creative Exchange

What do the arts, especially the performing arts, and education have in common? In my experience creative imagination, collaborative working, fluency and conviction in communication, attention to detail, ability to meet deadlines.

The recognition of this commonality of experience between the theatre and the academy has been a significant feature of Warwick’s teaching and research since its foundation in the 1960s with the Department of English and the Institute of Education in its Drama and Education courses at the forefront of work in this area, joined by colleagues in the exploration of creativity and performance in its application across the disciplines. So the establishment of the Warwick Creative Exchange in 2011 was the next step on a journey for the University (and for me), following on from the work of the CAPITAL Centre (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/capital) and more recently WBS Create at Warwick Business School http://www.wbs.ac.uk/research/specialisms/teaching-groups/wbs-create/, with which I have been involved as administrator since 2005.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s call for proposals for Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy in April 2011, made us look with fresh eyes at the work going on at Warwick and encouraged us to take the opportunity to formalise the partnerships and projects that had been so fruitfully developed in the region with, for example, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sante Theatre, Talking Birds, China Plate, the RSC. Although we weren’t selected as an AHRC hub we didn’t want to lose the momentum we had gathered from the enthusiastic support of arts practitioners and organisations. The most practical way forward to facilitate partnerships and projects to the mutual advantage of all in terms of knowledge exchange was to create a more formal network. So the Warwick Creative Exchange (WCE) was established in autumn 2011, with the aim of bringing together Warwick academics and West Midlands cultural organisations to identify and encourage interdisciplinary research and knowledge exchanges between the University and the regional cultural community.

What essentially drives all WCE partners, whether academic or cultural, after our core activities and commitments, is funding to support our ideas, dreams, and practical needs. How do we get the support we need to do what we want to do? How do we persuade funders that we are worthy of that support? How do we evaluate what we do so we know – and our funders know - that we have made a difference to the audiences we serve whether in the theatre, the classroom or the academy. Talking to each other helps to develop ideas and strategies but I think practical actions help more. Warwick’s expertise in cultural policy, digital innovation, education and training is there to be tapped by our cultural partners and their expertise in audience development, community engagement, creative interpretation can inform and inspire the University. Having recently retired, I am outside WCE looking in, but I continue to believe that WCE’s success will come from making real work that capitalises on those strengths. I look forward to seeing the results!

Susan Brock

Formerly Administrator, the CAPITAL Centre; Academic Project Manager, WBS Create.


The curiosity of academia together with the creativity of the arts

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s mission statement is to be one of the world’s leading large-scale international dance companies Achieved through… 1. Promoting outstanding creativity and artistic excellence 2. Being a model of good management practice 3. Serving a global range of constituencies and communities 4. Maximising arts development opportunities 5. Increasing understanding of the cultural and social importance of the arts To achieve this we are constantly reflecting on our work and developing the learning to strive for excellence in all that we do. Being involved in activities and discussions with Warwick Creative Exchange enables us to bring the rigour of academic interrogation into our work. The curiosity of academia together with the creativity of the arts will enable new and exciting developments to emerge with circles of influence spreading far and wide. Birmingham Royal Ballet is delighted to be involved in this exciting venture.

Pearl Chesterman

Director for Learning, Birmingham Royal Ballet


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