Interview with Liv Hunt – artist, activist, proud freelancer & puppet master!

Liv Hunt – Culture Vulture Artist Interview

Image credit – Equal Arts – Creative workshop with Equal Arts’  – Read more about their work via: www.equalarts.org.uk

One of the biggest blessings of 2020, is that whilst the year hasn’t played out as anticipated (understatement alert!), I’ve had the privilege of working on lots of brilliant and unexpected projects. One such project was #Gateshead10x10 – as someone born and bred in Gateshead, it’s always exciting to work on something in my own community, on home turf and especially a project like this, that really has such brilliant aspirations.

Creative community project 10 x 10 Creative Gateshead launched in August to connect and inspire Gateshead people during the pandemic, through activities devised by Gateshead artists. 10 x 10 Creative Gateshead involved the creation of two booklets, one for adults and one for young people and families; each with 10 creative activities created for the people of Gateshead. The activities include a wide range of art forms from mindful writing, to puppet making, to origami, to Gateshead celebrating creative prompts and can be used indoors or outdoors, alone or as a group.

Gateshead based community organisation Dingy Butterflies has been heading up the project and across August, hundreds of activity booklets were distributed across the Gateshead community. Each booklet features 10 activities created by Gateshead artists, developed in collaboration with 10 Gateshead community and creative organisations. These physical packs are targeted at people who have limited or no access to the internet; Gateshead has a high proportion of residents without internet access and low levels of digital literacy.

In addition to the hundreds of physical packs being distributed across the community, there are digital versions of both 10 x 10 Creative Gateshead booklets available for ANYONE download now from www.dingybutterflies.org/10×10-creative-gateshead/ – follow the link to check out the booklets and have a go at something creative. All materials for the activities are inexpensive and easy to find in shops or you will find them around the home.

10 x 10 Creative Gateshead has also provided paid work for 15 Gateshead artists/freelancers during a challenging time for the cultural sector, in which paid freelance work has been decimated (how lush is that!?) It has been such a beaut project to work on and meeting so many artists (some I knew and others I didn’t) was ace! So al a Culture Vulture – I thought I’d reach out to one of the #Gateshead10x10 artists for a Culture Vulture interview to find out more. So for this interview, I went after a goodie and an artist, I’ve wanted to interview for a LONG TIME!

So step right up – Liv Hunt – artist, theatre maker, puppeteer, lovely human and freelance champion……let’s GO!

Liv Hunt – photo credit : Michelle Bayley

Well helloooooooooo – for my Culture Vultures, can you tell me who you are, what you doyou’re your practice?

Hello, I’m Liv Hunt.

I’m a theatre-maker, facilitator and activist working in participatory arts. My practice is centred around telling, sharing and imagining stories and to do that I use different mediums such as music, puppetry and sensory theatre. I began my career delivering theatre projects in care homes, schools and community centres working with people from varied backgrounds and abilities in partnership with Equal Arts charity for older people. I then began developing my practice with arts organisations, delivering on freelance contracts to produce theatre. 

I am also the community engagement coordinator for Alphabetti Theatre where I designed and coordinated participatory projects Walter (2018) in collaboration with The Discovery Museum and Write Something Junior (2019) in collaboration with 6 primary schools across the North East. My role is to ensure that everyone has access to the theatre and to develop Alphabetti’s networks within the community. My approach is quite hands-on. I get out and talk to people and, in the process, have formed strong relationships with organisations, groups & individuals.

In 2019, I formed Woven Nest Theatre with Poppy Crawshaw. Our aim is to create theatrical experiences with, for and by older and neuro-diverse audiences. Our first company project was to create a piece of multi-sensory theatre for people with advanced dementia who are bed-bound. I am driven by arts for social change and champion for inclusivity and accessibility in theatre.

Tell us about your journey into creative industries?

I wasn’t initially going to be in the creative industries. I liked drama at school but I wasn’t really sure what I would do with it. When you’re at school you’re not taught all the jobs that are in the arts. So, I thought studying drama would make me an actor, a director or a teacher. I had no idea about participatory arts or how the arts work with communities and the possible jobs tied in with that. A friend told me about a drama course at Northumbria University called Applied Theatre – I had no idea what applied theatre was but when I started looking into it, it grabbed my attention. I knew I wanted to learn more about it, so, I enrolled. Towards the end of the course I became interested in working with older people with dementia, which framed the first 3 years of my career in the creative industries.

Image credit – Equal Arts – Creative workshop with Equal Arts’  – Read more about their work via: www.equalarts.org.uk

Tell me more about your experience in theatre and puppetry?

My experience with theatre and puppetry is through a participatory arts perspective, the work is centred around the communities and people I work with. In my early career I was developing theatre in care homes, community centres and schools. In 2017, I was commissioned to work on a project with St Marks Care Home and Battle Hill Primary to develop a piece of theatre, celebrating the Gateshead born Dodd Sisters who founded The Little Theatre, Gateshead. The project was to produce a retelling of The Pitman’s Pay written by Ruth Dodds, to be performed at The Little Theatre.

I have been a drama worker for Live Youth Theatre for the past 4 years where I have directed youth theatre shows with young people aged 13 – 25. In 2019, I started working with Unfolding Theatre to develop a Christmas show with Edberts House over 12-weeks. The Edberts Express was then performed at St Mary’s Church. I am an associate drama worker with Open Clasp Theatre Company where I have delivered drama workshops exploring issues related to women.

I’m currently developing a theatrical film with my company, Woven Nest Theatre. The film is called Mariana’s Song and is about a woman who is in love with the sea. We are just in the pilot phase of this project. It has been created for older people with advanced dementia who are bed-bound and incorporates sensory stimulation, lighting and sound.

Prior to lockdown we were developing a touring puppetry show specific for care homes. We were developing a tea trolley theatre complete with tea-pot puppets, original music and sensory surprises. We were commissioned by Sunderland Culture to develop the piece with a Sunderland care home but sadly due to COVID it was postponed. When we get the chance and it’s safe to do so, we’ll be dusting off our teapots again!

Wow….what an accomplished portfolio! Puppetry is something that absolutely fascinates me….can you tell me a little more about your puppetry experience?

I’ve always really loved watching puppets and puppetry shows. I became interested in using puppetry within my own practice after I did a course at Northern Stage with Tom Walton. He taught us how to make really simple puppets using materials found at home. I loved the way you could make a puppet out of an old newspaper and some masking tape. I was doing a lot of work in care homes with older people at that time and decided to try it out in there. We built a simple newspaper puppet as a group which they really enjoyed (it involves a lot of repetitive actions such as crunching and rolling the newspaper.) I then brought the puppet to life and moved it around in the space.

I was amazed at the reaction that this had. The older people were calling for the puppet to come towards them and when I came over with it they would smile, laugh, stoke and talk to the puppet as if it was a living breathing thing. I don’t think they really saw the puppet as though it was real, but they were able to take it for what it was in that moment and connect with the emotion that the puppet was portraying. So, if I was portraying sadness, they would comfort it and if I was portraying happiness they would laugh and smile with the puppet. That’s what I love about puppetry –they can portray emotions in a really pure form.

What is the puppet scene like in the North East?

The puppetry scene is good and growing in the North East. We are really lucky to have a growing number of puppetry companies in the region and of course Moving Parts – Newcastle Puppetry Festival which was held at Alphabetti Theatre last year. The festival showcases fantastic puppetry from companies all over the world so what you see there is really diverse. I love going and just soaking up all the different kinds of puppets. Moving Parts have also brought lots of training opportunities to the region which has meant that more artists, such as myself, are starting to use puppetry as part of their practice. So, what we’re starting to see is a ripple effect of more freelancers starting to use puppetry in performance and also participatory arts which stems from these training opportunities.

Tell me about a recent project you’ve worked on?

Last year, I co-founded my company, Woven Nest Theatre with Poppy Crawshaw. We are a company that produces theatrical experiences for neuro-diverse audiences, specifically older people with advanced dementia. We were just about to start our first company project, with a care home in Sunderland when Covid-19 started so everything had to be cancelled and put on pause. The project was to develop a theatre show in collaboration with the elderly residents there at their bedsides using elements of puppetry, lighting and sound.

In June, we were funded by Northumbria University to do a research project, looking at ways in which we can provide a theatrical sensory experience, digitally. It has been great – we have had space to collect our thoughts, plan and start filming snippets of our story. The entire experience has been really eye opening. I would never have dreamed of doing a digital project but now I genuinely believe using digital media is better suited to the project than the original idea on pause.

I think this time is really interesting for artists, we’re having to adapt our work in a really interesting way. We are not able to work like we used to, but by having this new barrier, it’s starting to unleash new artistic possibilities which is producing some really exciting work.

Can you tell me about a recent theatre production you’ve contributed to?

I was commissioned by Alphabetti Theatre and Fulfilling Lives charity for people who experience homelessness, substance misuse, ill mental health and offending. I worked with a group of experts by experience and their support workers over a 2-month period to develop a piece which would later be performed at the Fulfilling Lives Annual Forum. The piece was centred around commemorating the lives of the experts by experience who had passed away in the previous year, which had been particularly high and so the group was experiencing a high level of trauma. We developed a series of short pieces, taking inspiration from creative writing, spoken work and contemporary performance, which we then crafted into a script. The piece was performed to a backdrop of an outline of a human which was gradually filled in as the piece unfolded. The aim was to show that people who had died weren’t just numbers on a page but people with complex and rich lives that deserved to be celebrated. The group performed the piece themselves and then we took part in a Q&A with the forum.

Image credit – Equal Arts – Creative workshop with Equal Arts’  – Read more about their work via: www.equalarts.org.uk

Can you tell me about your experience as a freelancer so far?

Generally, I love being a freelancer. I love how versatile and surprising the work is and all the lush people you work with along the way. I like the thrill of starting new projects and don’t get me wrong writing funding applications is a nightmare but when you finally get funding it’s like you’ve won the lottery. That being said, I definitely find it stressful sometimes. It’s a lot, constantly. And the idea of job security sounds dreamy.

What has your lockdown experience been like?

During the lockdown I found it really hard at first. All the jobs I was working on/about to work on got cancelled and you watch everything you’ve built topple down in front of you. As freelancers we’re so use dto keeping the cogs turning, day in day out, so to have everything come to a really sharp stop with no sight of starting again was really jarring. After I got over the initial shock, I decided to use the time to take a well-earned break to recharge, plan, reflect and read. I used the first half of lockdown to basically check back in with myself after years of going full steam ahead. I started doing art just for the sake of it, which I hadn’t actually done in a really long time. Then for the second half of lockdown I started to turn the cogs again, but I definitely felt the benefit of giving myself time to breath. It’s made me think that every freelancer needs a 1 month paid recharge holiday (if only!) I started picking up more freelance work and volunteer positions. One of those was being on the Freelance Task Force.

Image credit – Equal Arts – Creative workshop with Equal Arts’  – Read more about their work via: www.equalarts.org.uk

Ohh tell us more about The Freelance Taskforce?

The Freelance Taskforce was an initiative started by Fuel Theatre. There are over 150 freelancers from across the UK on the taskforce. And I was really lucky to have Karen Traynor and Sian Armstrong on there repping the North East with me. We formed the NE Freelance Taskforce – we have a twitter page where we post regular information out and we going to be announcing some exciting updates soon so check us out!

If you could change one thing about being freelance, what would it be?

I’m a big fan of the initiatives that pay freelancers just to be freelancers. This isn’t centred on a product or a particular project you have to work on. You can use this money however way you want obviously within reason. I think that’s a brilliant idea and would solve a lot of problems. We spend so much time looking and searching and frantically running from job to job we don’t allow ourselves time to stop and think, reflect and check in with ourselves. I think if there were more initiatives that paid freelancers to do that, more people would.

PREACH – love the sound of that! So, tell me about your role/work on #Gateshead10x10?

I was commissioned by Dingy Butterflies to create two activity packs, one for families and one for adults. The idea was that the activity packs were for people who are having to spend time indoors due to self-isolating but were unable to access online activities. The pandemic has really shown the digital divide. For some, the arts have become more accessible. Suddenly, you can watch brilliant theatre for an affordable price and in the comfort of your own home. Fab! But, for those who do not have access to a computer or internet it has been tricky to find stuff to keep the kids and themselves entertained. This project aimed to provide the community in Bensham, Gateshead with activity packs complete with instructions and materials. I was one of 11 brilliant artists who worked on the project. The artists were diverse in art form; creative writers, visual artists, illustrators, bee conservationists and theatre-makers. It was my first time making an activity pack or a booklet and I absolutely loved it!

Each #Gateshead10x10 artist was partnered up with a Best of Bensham Collaborative member organisation – which organisation were you partnered with and how did you work together?

I was partnered up with The Comfrey Project in Gateshead, a charity delivering a programme of activities in gardening, languages and arts for refugees and asylum seekers. As you come in you get a glimpse of the beautiful gardens they have there where they grow their own fruit, vegetables and flowers for the bees. I always feel 100% calmer after a visit to The Comfrey Project.

I started volunteering there around June time, and straight away I felt really at home. Over the summer I have been delivering some socially distanced activities with families visiting the centre. When we met to discuss the Dingy Butterflies project we talked through the needs of the group and ideas around activities. One of the main things that I needed to think about was how to make this accessible for people who have English as a second language. I went away and began developing the ideas and playing around with puppetry techniques that relied on easy-access materials and simple but effective steps. The packs have gone out now and I’ll be keeping up to date with how they get on. Hopefully at the end when they have created some puppetry magic we are going to have a sharing of what everyone has made.

Can you tell us about the #Gateshead10x10 two activities you developed?

For the family pack, I have done a how-to-guide on making a shadow puppet theatre out of an old cardboard box. This is really easy to make, uses materials found round the house and is good entertainment for the entire family! Once you have made and decorated your shadow puppet theatre you can then start developing your story. When I trialled this activity out on my niece we used her favourite story-book for inspiration but you can use your imagination to come up with a story as well. Once you have your story and the characters in your story you can start making your shadow puppets using black card and kebab sticks. Finally, all you need to do is put a lamp in the right position, turn the lights off and begin your theatre show.

The pack designed for adults shows them how to make tin foil puppets. This is a little bit trickier but the result is a defined puppet which looks great and has good movement. Tin foil is a brilliant material to use as you can get really good definition on the faces. One you have sculpted the tin foil into the right shape you then layer on baking paper with glue. The result makes the puppets almost look like there made out of wood. I then encourage them to start exploring with their puppets and record a short story using their puppets as the main character.

Creativity is a huge part of #Gateshead10x10 – Why is creativity important to you? How do you think it can help others?

Creativity is one of the brilliant things that makes us human. I think it plays a huge role in how we process ourselves and the world around us. I rely heavily on creativity to get me through and I think without creativity life would be really really really boring. I see it as something that we all have inside us, some people may use it more than others, but it’s still there.

When I work in communities a lot of people tell me that they are not creative, and that the arts isn’t for them. But with a little unpicking we realise that they lead very creative lives, so somewhere along the line there has been a disconnect between the creativity in people’s everyday lives and creativity as a concept. I think we have got confused in thinking creativity is only for some people and not for others. Labelling some as creative and others academic and so on. I think that’s a huge mistake as it’s robbing people of the opportunity to express their inner creativity.

What are you working on right now?

I have just been commissioned by Helix Arts & Gateshead Arts Team to run a pilot project with unpaid carers. This project has been a long time in the making, so I am absolutely buzzing to finally get it off the ground! I’m going to be working with them over 8 – 10 weeks to develop a piece of forum theatre which will then be showcased to a closed audience. That’s all I can give away at the minute but I’ll be sharing out more info soon.

Do you have any advice for future freelancers AND/OR folks wanting to enter into creative industries?

Ahh there’s tonnes…. Here are just 5

1.            Find your tribe, the people who have your back and are going to support you. We are really lucky in the North East there seems to be a really good ‘ladder-down’ mentality.

2.            Being a freelancer is hard graft, make sure you give yourself time to rest so you don’t burn out.

3.            If you can, continue to find training opportunities. I believe we should never stop learning. Whilst working as a freelancer I have continued to train in performance, puppetry, movement, voice, playwrighting. Some have directly benefited my career and others have been good for me creatively.

4.            It’s ok to ask about pay, please please do, and make sure you know your own value. I did a lot of work for free at the beginning which is fine to some extent. Sometimes I still do bits for free. My general rule is that if I feel like I’m getting experience out of it that I ever wise wouldn’t have then it’s ok. But know what your limits are – these are just mine.

5.            Shy bairns get nowt. This saying has helped me in so many ways. If you want to work with someone, send them an email. People are generally nice and want to help you. 

Great advice….you’re a gem! Anything else you want to tell us about?

I’m setting up a network for participatory artists – #ParticipatoryArtsSocial. It’s a space to come together and share, reflect, listen, learn, rant and support one another. We meet fortnightly and if you want to join the mailing list please email me on oliviahunt11@outlook.com. I put regular updates via my twitter @LivHunt_11

Well thanks Liv! See – I told you it was a goodie of an interview! Very excited about Liv’s upcoming projects and happenings!

If you get a chance – please check out #Gateshead10x10 activity booklets and why not have a go at the activities! I’ve love to see how you get on and see your creativity!

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