Stupid by Sian Armstong: “there is no right way – there’s only your way and you have to trust it.”

So hi, I’m the Culture Vulture – if you know me professionally, then you know me as on it, organised, ambitious and together. You might even wonder how I manage to do so much in so little time, how do I keep so many projects on the go, do I sleep!?

Well I’m going to let you into a little secret….. I do sleep. A lot. I prioritise work over my life. My personal life is a bit of a mess. I adult well professionally…. In my social life, my friends know me as scatty, all over the place, disorganised, hot mess etc etc.

I often read those Buzzfeed “if you’re late and/or messy then you’re clever” – makes me feel better but I know that’s I’m just struggling to be a proper adult. I’m super messy, my bedroom often looks like the room of someone having a breakdown and there are main adult mile stones that I thought I would have achieved – but I haven’t got round to it yet or life, well I just play it proudly by own rules, in my own time.

So I’m 31…. I’m trying to figure out my life and the difference between what I should and could. And at 31, professionally and socially – I’ve realised whilst I don’t have it figured out, I’m ok with being a whirlwind. And that’s what I am – a beautiful whirlwind.

So I was super excited when I found out about an upcoming show called Stupid as part of Sunderland Stages on Thursday 2nd November at Arts Centre Washington – it’s all about figuring things out, it’s about realising that no one knows how to adult, not really and life is one hell of an interesting journey.

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I’ve been working as The Culture Vulture with writer Sian Armstrong and Director Anna Ryder recently whilst the show is in development. It’s been such an interesting process to be a part of – the show has absolutely transformed in terms of storyline and concept. A theatre show is so much more than just the end thing the audience gets to see and it’s been a privilege to gain some insight into how a show goes from conception, to scratch, to stage. And the fact, it pretty much seems to be modelled thematically on my life and the character ‘Stupid’ is my honorary soul sister – is just, well brilliant.

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So I’m really looking forward to seeing Stupid this Thursday at Arts Centre Washington and in the interest of championing my local creative #girlgang –  I thought I’d catch up with Sian Armstrong and Anna Ryder ahead of the show’s debut, find out what it’s all about and why other Culture Vultures NEED to go and see this show!

What is Stupid about?

Sian: Stupid is about one woman’s journey to figure out who she is, where she’s going, questioning whether she really is what she feels she is; stupid. It’s about honesty, and sharing stories that often go left unsaid. It’s about owning up to not having a plan, even when we feel like we should have one. It’s about challenging what we deem intelligent to be in our society. It’s about no longer pretending to have the answer.

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Anna: Stupid is about feeling inadequate; that feeling you are one step behind the world and that those ahead of you are imbued with some kind of super-powered resilience and smarts. It explores how ‘stupid’ is such an isolating and individual-defining feeling, when in fact (as with most negative thoughts we harbour about ourselves) it’s existence is only possible when framed alongside other people and its longevity as a feeling is perpetuated by systems and attitudes that are, by design, riddled with classism and sexism. It is a product of our hyper-competitive and one-size-fits all education system.

What can audiences on Thursday expect?

Sian: Audiences should expect honesty, laughter, and a story that hopefully brings people together in the room, talking about the times we’d maybe rather forget – and seeing the power in those stories and the flaws and vulnerabilities we may associate with them.

Anna: Audiences can expect a funny, relatable and inspiring story. It looks at what seems like small experiences and re-frames them as a collective society experience. ‘Not just me then’ can sound twee, but it is amazing how cathartic the feeling can be!

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One line to sum up the show?

Sian and Anna: Brave, magic, relatable theatre that allows you to shake off the desire to always get it right.

Can you tell me about Stupid’s development process?

Sian: I’ve been developing Stupid for about three years now – in 2014 I was asked if I was to make a piece of theatre what would it be about and my immediate answer was ‘feeling stupid’.

I guess this show really began at my kitchen table, back in 2003, with my Dad by my shoulder trying for the umpteenth time, to teach me maths. The equations looked as jumbled as my head felt. I had always felt bottom of the pile when it came to academia and as I have grown, this feeling of ‘not quite sure’ has grown with me – which left me questioning am I seen as stupid? I feel it quite a lot. I think a lot of us do. But what does it really mean?

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The show has taken so many twists and turns since 2014. In the early stages of development, my idea was more focused on Dyslexia – after my best friend got diagnosed with Severe Learning Difficulty in her third year of university; I was fascinated by how late she was diagnosed with this. It was devastating to see how much this affected my best friend’s self-confidence, she felt lost, and couldn’t quite come to terms with it – leading her to quit her degree.

The show has also been influenced by my experience working as a Teaching Assistant and Supply Teacher for a short period of time, this gave me an insight into the pressures teachers and students are under to meet their own individual aims but more depressingly the struggles they sometimes face to tick the right boxes and fit the system they are all part of; especially those who are older, who have recently left or are about to leave higher education, and facing decisions on what’s next.

Throughout the development of Stupid I have done various audience engagement projects, running workshops with potential audiences, from youth and theatre groups, students in schools and online surveys – throughout this experience I have met people who have helped the shows development in various ways, in terms of content but also understanding our audiences and the stories that relate to them.

What was your inspiration for the show?

Sian: My inspiration was the feeling of stupidity itself, and how it exists in us all. We all feel it but what does it really mean?

All the people I have met throughout my development have inspired me in some way – if its answers they gave online or stories they told me about an embarrassing moment; they have all inspired the story I want to tell through Stupid.

I’m also constantly inspired by things I watch on telly or online, I’m obsessed with TED talks and people such as vulnerability expert; Brene Brown and Ken Robinson. I’m also inspired by sitcoms, and films, most recent examples are Fleabag, Girls and The Incredible Jessica James. I’ve found when you’re creating something you get inspired by all your experiences and the conversations you have.

What’s your writing process?

Sian: Pffft. I don’t think I have a process really.

I’m currently working with Caroline Horton who has been amazing to work with. That’s one thing I would recommend for anyone who’s starting to write – find a writer/theatre-maker/performer you admire and ask them to be your mentor. I don’t think I could have done this without the support and advice Caroline has given me so far. I told Caroline recently that I’ve been slightly pressured by trying to find a process that works for me and she said in one of our recent sessions together “The things you read about how to do it right, sometimes you just have to say screw them!…” I found this extremely reassuring and empowering! I’m constantly trying to do things ‘right’ and it’s so nice to have someone tell you – sometimes there is no right way – there’s only your way and you have to trust it.

I do know one thing about my process though – I need to talk to people about it – I do not do well on my own writing at a desk, I’m definitely an extrovert!..Writing can be so lonely – I’ve found talking to people about my writing has helped shut those negative ‘this is shit’ voices out of my head and has opened up exciting conversations that inspired me to go away and write stuff … But I’m definitely still finding my way through it, my process seems to change all the time, especially within a devising process. I like to imagine devising as this big, scary, creative beast and writing as it’s treat!

You got funding for the show’s development – can you tell me a bit about that?

Sian: I have received Arts Council England funding for my development process for Stupid and have been supported by local theatre venues and companies across the region such as Sunderland Stages, Arts Centre Washington, Mortal Fools, Northern Stage and Sunday for Sammy.

All I have to say about funding is there are people that can help you, you just have to ask for it. The ACE application isn’t an easy process, I asked a lot of my friends who had applied before to read my applications, and asked for any top tips they had.

But the best thing to do is meet ACE and get their advice and support. I was terrified when I first had a meeting with Arts Council England, because ‘NEED TO PROVE MYSELF’ was all I could think of – but I found talking to someone at such an early stage isn’t about proving yourself, it’s just about being sensible – and helps you understand the best way to approach your application. I didn’t feel judged in any way, if anything I felt more empowered to actually go for it! … Also when looking for funding try and find ways that YOU might help the people who have money – it works both ways.

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Anna: It sometimes feels hard to vocalise that ‘yes, I am a professional artist’ without feeling silly or wanting to qualify the statement with a self-deprecating remark. Fear of being proved otherwise or fear of the gauche way that this declaration can sound, is fuelled by a lack of tangible ways in which to distinguish the difference in output from a creative ‘hobby’ to that of professional work. Despite all my best intentions and my politics, funding definitely helped towards feeling that my work was legitimate. It was like receiving a felt stamped elephant on your worksheet with the words ‘GOOD JOB’ heralded above. However not long after this initial validation, I began to realise what a ridiculous concept this vindication was built on. The show and intention remained exactly as it had been before a big green arts council tick. The only difference was that it could be realised in a shorter space of time with fewer concerns about paying my rent. While this freedom is not to be played down- the work I wanted to make and my creative ability to do so remained as was before the theatre gods took pity on me and granted me a small sum of money.

Funding is vital, scarce and a life source for those of us trying to get by on zero-hour contracts and the rewards of self-employed artistic projects. However, it is of great importance that we learn to see our creative work as valid, whether we are recipients of a grant or not. We must continue to fight for the legitimacy of what we do and that small voice of doubt in the back of my head was the first barrier I needed to demolish

One thing you want audiences to take away on Thursday after watching Stupid at Arts Centre Washington?

Sian: To be empowered by their own uncertainties, vulnerabilities and potential discoveries.

But what’s next?

Sian: We plan on touring Stupid Nationally in Autumn 2018. So watch this space!

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Well thanks Sian and Anna!

So come join me on Thursday to see Stupid and see the finale moment of this development process. I will be front row – cheering Sian and Anna on – like a proud parent. Excited to feel empowered! Oh and it’s my birthday this week – I’ll be 32 – and will be accepting gin and tonics as gifts (just in case you were wondering) so I’m excited to celebrate my unconventional and chaotic life whilst watching Stupid.

If Stupid was real, we’d defs be mates and she’d be in my girl gang.

Ticket for Stupid are available from here!

 

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Amy Lord; live art, brain-feeding & 90s at Our Time.

Amazingly talented people walk among us often hidden and unheard….I’ve really learnt that a lot recently. Not all creatively talented people call themselves artists – they are ordinary people, in everyday jobs and yet, they have talents so unbelievably amazing at their fingertips.

And often no matter, how engaged you are in the cultural sector and how “aware” you think you are – I’m always surprised when there is someone, doing something so amazing and fantastic and I didn’t know about it!? Sounds ridiculous – but I prize myself in being in the know and the now – so when I stumble across someone new and exciting, I’m both blown away but a little bit cross at myself – how did I miss this!?

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I first heard of Amy Lord, when a friend of a friend told me about this “project” in Newcastle taking over a townhouse and how they were exploring happiness and we had a mega long conversation about what exactly happiness is and how society has this version of happiness and zen……and I’m just over here, being ridiculous, not getting up at 5am and doing yoga and even when I’m happy, my world is chaotic.

So, this townhouse take over culmination was over Late Shows weekend – which is my busiest weekend – I never get to experience the Late Shows as an attendee – I work it and usually on the Gateshead side. So obviously, I missed Amy’s ‘Experiments in Happiness’ take over.

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Fast forward a few months and I’m sat listening all about the progression of this year’s Juice Festival and Our Time – Helen who is programme director said the ultimate which immediately secured my project buy in…..

“Rachel – so there is Amy Lord, she’s this mint visual live artist….she’s doing this Art House piece and you’re going to love it, it’s all about the 90s”.

Boom!

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So being the creep, I am – ultimate stalker mode started and what I discovered was an artist that is creating and doing very interesting work in collaboration with some of my favourite people at the moment in the North East Cultural Sector.

I really like visual live art – it combines some of the elements I love most about sculpture but encourages an evolving engagement. Amy describes it as a “multi-textured and layered encounters and experiences” and I think it sums it perfectly. So many elements and things brought together – with a strong focus on visual……

As someone with a passion for events – I really like Amy’s work from an space curation and the facilitation and provocation of audience experience…… that really excites me and I’d love to work with her in the future.

So now over to Amy…….

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Who are you?

Hello! My name’s Amy, I’m 31 and I’m from Northumberland! (In the style of Blind Date).

I’m an artist but I also run an events company on the side called Lemonade and Laughing Gas. I’m currently living in between London and Newcastle. I spend a lot of time on the Virgin Trains East Coast train route at the moment…

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Tell me about your arts practice?

I make live art. For me, this means creating anything from an interactive installation, a game, a video, a crafting activity and a performance. I always want my work to be personal, political and to not shy away from difficult or challenging subjects. Sometimes my work can be more about the process than the end result. I love working with different groups of different ages to capture the full spectrum of human experience.

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Tell me about a recent project?

My latest big project in the North East before my Our Time commission was Experiments in Happiness. I took over an empty townhouse on Grey street and filled it with installations and experiences exploring ideas around happiness and mood. 600 people turned up over 2 days – the interest in the project totally blew me away and has just made me want to do more stuff here.

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Everyone has a super interesting story about becoming an artist – tell me about your journey into Arts?

I’ve always got a buzz out of making things from a young age, but I think my first step into the arts was Uni. I was lucky to get into LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and studied Theatre and Performance Design. Although I loved the course, I knew I didn’t want to be a theatre designer at the end of it. A tutor there introduced me to live art and more experimental theatre in my final year, and I was hooked. My first solo project was a work in a derelict restaurant about the media and pressure on body image for women (2007).

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Piece of advice for someone thinking about a career in the arts?

Try and build in time for ‘brain feeding’. It may feel indulgent but if you don’t keep seeing stuff, reading things and learning new skills, sometimes the inspiration well can start to dwindle!

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Why did you apply to be a part of Our Time?

I liked the structure of the ‘mini commission’ – creating something quickly for one night only appealed to me, as well as the positive feelings about the area and the past Team Juice were wanting to emphasise.

Tell me about your commission?

Research is often at the core of the work I make, this commission is no exception! I spent 3 days rummaging around news archives and microfilm to find good news stories from the 90’s – specifically in Newcastle and the North East.

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Then, we had a workshop with Team Juice to whittle these down and find out what was most interesting. We did some creative thinking and finally, shot some video on smartphones to make into a film that will be projected on a loop throughout the evening.

We’ve chosen to show the film in this bonkers tunnel in the museum, which we’ll be filling with 90’s music to help transport people back to that time!

What was the inspiration?

DIY culture/the contrast between technology in the 90’s and now.

The idea could have happened for any decade really, but I chose the 90’s because not only is it having another moment in the sun but it’s also the first decade I’ve felt properly nostalgic about, as I was 15 when the millennium arrived!

I used to think people obsessing about the 70’s and 80’s were just living in the past, but now I totally get it! Nostalgia and remembering those super important formative years can be totally delicious! As long as you balance it with living in the present too…I also can’t pretend I wasn’t influenced by watching Sing Street.

What do you want attendees to take away from your installation?

Fun. And maybe realising how many amazing things happened in the 90’s for our region.

Top 5 90s songs?

Wow, there are so many. Here’s some of the top of my head (that may have found their way onto the soundtrack!)

Dreams – Gabrielle

What’s Up – 4 Non Blondes

Another Night – Real McCoy

Sunshine After the Rain – Berri

The Whole of The Moon – The Waterboys

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Favourite 90s moment?

When everyone thought the world was going to end once we got past midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999.

Have you seen the rest of the Our Time line up? What bits are you most excited for?

I’ve worked with Zoe Murtagh on my last project so obviously I’m a fan of her, and am looking forward to seeing what she’s created with ‘It Was Once A Dream Interactive Trail’. I also create a lot of multi-sensory work so I’m looking forward to getting in the Von Tuur Salon.

Also generally, we’ll be in a museum, at night, with a bar…absolutely winning!

Well, I’m just such a fan of so many things Amy said….. I’m all about trying to make time for “brain feeding” and the 90s is absolutely my jam……

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Thank you Amy….. I’m super excited to see and experience your piece.

I will be at Our Time at Great North Museum on 21st October – you’ll probably find me lurking and obsessing over Amy’s 90s piece and involuntarily breaking out into song and dance when ‘SunShine After The Rain’ comes on…..

Culture Vultures – this is the ultimate Culture Vulture event….. don’t miss it or Amy’s lush installation.

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MiddleChild love by an only child

Well Culture Vultures, it’s that time of year when I sit with all my cultural programs, The Crack Mags and decide what, who and where I’m going to go this season – usually over a Gin and tonic. The process reminds me of when I used to sit with a highlighter when I was little and circle all the TV I was going to watch and things Mark Owen from Take That was appearing in….

So here I am highlighter in hand and now over Take That and I’m eagerly looking for exciting and different things to do. Autumn/Winter is my FAVE cultural season – and because it’s getting colder and darker, I love venue specific good times. I want to be in one place, be a part of something cool for a few hours before heading home. None of this bar hopping or outdoorsy things for me…….unless it’s Enchanted Parks or I’ve got my Gin jacket on – then all good and happy to face the elements.

So things that I’m looking forward to so far that I’m going to – Pink Sari Revolution at Northern Stage – based on a fantastic book about empowered and revolutionary women in Indian, Our Time at Great North Museum – party and culture crawl in a museum after hours, Get Lucky at Wylam Brewery –   a fully synthesized electronic soul orchestra performing Daft Punk live and I Hate Alone at The Peacock in Sunderland on 26th October at  7.30pm (tickets avail www.SunderlandStages.co.uk) – a full blown theatre gig, think Thelma and Louise turned up to 11.

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I Hate Alone is what I’m most excited about and it’s from MiddleChild – a theatre company that have absolutely thrived in Hull’s City of Culture this year….and it’s exciting to see a the theatre company thrive so much and is a testament to what the award of City of Culture can do not just to the region, but to the cultural organizations within.

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So who are MiddleChild!?…well they feel like hot property at the moment and are certainly doing amazing things…and the most important thing, culture vultures – they provide a bliddy good night out!

So Culture Vultures, I caught up with Paul Smith from MiddleChild and director of I Hate Alone to find out more and get in the know and the now….

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Hi Paul, Tell me about your show I Hate Alone?

I Hate Alone follows two women – Danielle and Chloe – who believe the world has wronged them. They decide to create a list of the people who have contributed to their dissatisfaction and get their own back one-by-one. It’s a story of injustice, revenge and above all, friendship. Danielle and Chloe are modern day anti-heroes.

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We re-watched Thelma and Louise just for the show – love the vibe of taking revenge against the world – who was your favourite Thelma or Louise?

An impossible question! You can’t have Thelma without Louise or Louise without Thelma. It’s like having Ant or Dec on their own – it’s just not the same. The great thing about that film is the relationship between the pair, the fact that they can simultaneously be good and bad for each other. It’s exactly that feeling that our writer Ellen Brammar has managed to capture with I Hate Alone. It’s impossible to say if the friendship is a good or a bad thing because there are elements of both, and it’s impossible to say who you prefer – be it Thelma/Louise or Danielle/Chloe, because they are yin and yang. One can’t exist in the same way without their partner in crime.

What is a theatre gig?

We like to use the term ‘a gig with a story’. It’s essentially a night out with big ideas in it. The feeling of coming to one of our shows is no different to going to see a stand-up comedian or your favourite band live but with one key difference – there’s a complex, compelling story at the heart of it.

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What can audiences expect?

A dark and funny tale of two women who sing, shout and kick ass.

What music can people expect?

Danielle and Chloe have chosen to tell their story as part of a gig where they showcase music from their band Disabled Barbie. Throughout the night they play their own brand of gothic-electronica influenced by a broad range of artists such as Let’s Eat Grandma, Kate Bush and Daughter. Expect dirty beats, hard-hitting drums and even a recorder solo!

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You guys really wanted your show in the Peacock – why was that? (they do amazing Sunday Lunch roast potatoes – just saying!)

We believe that theatre needs to break out of existing purely in traditional theatre spaces and want to set fire to expectations of what a night watching theatre can be. Taking I Hate Alone to social spaces like The Peacock allows us to do just that. Oh, and the amazing roast potatoes of course.

You guys have released a new EP and video – tell me a bit more about that?

We’re keen to find ways that the music in our shows can be enjoyed beyond the live experience. We think theatre can learn a lot from the idea of fandom in art forms like music and comedy and want to enable people to continue their engagement with gig theatre on their own terms. Being on Spotify, Band camp and places like that are key to ensuring our work reaches beyond the usual theatre crowd.

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Where did Middlechild start? Who/What is MiddleChild?

Middle Child started in Hull 6 years ago, almost to the day! We all met at Hull University and, after going off to various drama schools / jobs, decided that we wanted to make our own work in a city we loved. Since then Hull was awarded the honour of becoming the UK City of Culture, allowing us to grow in both ambition and capacity. The name actually comes from Fight Club, as the characters talk about being the ‘middle children of history’. That term really resonated with us at a time when the Coalition government was just coming into power. We had no great war, no obvious battle, but knew things weren’t right, needed changing and to do so we had to be loud and outspoken. That feeling remains today and runs right through the work we make.

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Favourite Fringe moment/experience?

This entire year up in Edinburgh was incredible. We were at our favourite venue – Paines Plough’s amazing Roundabout – and were selling out shows and receiving great reviews. The Fringe can either feel like the best or the worst place to be and this year we were extremely fortunate. The one moment that stands out is when one of our actors, Marc Graham, was surprised after the show with a Stage Award for Acting Excellence. It was the first time I’d seen him speechless, which was very enjoyable.

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Explain your involvement in City of Culture in Hull?

We were one of 2017’s major theatre commissions with our show All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Luke Barnes. We also benefited hugely from organisational and creative development from the team who have supported what we do from the day they arrived. We’ve been massively fortunate and our impending NPO status is massively due to the permission for thinking big given to us by the Culture Company. The transformative power of culture has been so apparent all year, and Hull is absolutely buzzing. It’s been an amazing time for the city and our job now is to work with the other local organisations to ensure it is the start of something special, rather than the end of it.

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Advice to other cultural organisations in Sunderland and how they could benefit if Sunderland secures the bid?

Keep doing what you’re doing, believe in yourselves, work hard and – when the time comes – the right people will notice that and do what they can to help you achieve as much as you can. Don’t expect the City of Culture label to wave a magic wand – it’s commitment to what you’re making and doing that will make the real difference, City of Culture would simply reinforce and build upon that.

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Holy moly – I’m bliddy excited to meet MiddleChild and BEYOND excited to see them at The Peacock on 26th October at 7.30pm….  see you there!