Interview with The Biscuit Factory’s 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner – artist Millie Suu-Kyi

It absolutely seems like a lifetime ago, but one of my last nights out culture vulturing pre-lockdown, was to The Biscuit Factory’s Spring season show opening – Contemporary Young Artist Award headline show; it is always a total treat and a really broad diverse mix of art.

The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest independent contemporary art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter. It is also one of my favourite galleries to visit in the region. This year’s Contemporary Young Artist Award exhibition featured 36 artists shortlisted from over 1200 submissions by The Biscuit Factory Curators (I recently interviewed them HERE). This exhibition and the award, now in its fourth year, provides a platform for new and emerging talent and invites the public to vote for their favourite piece to win People’s Choice. The exhibition unfortunately, (and obviously) shut down pretty sharpish after opening to the public due to lock down measures – it was a wonderful exhibition and you can view the exhibition online HERE.

On the Spring show opening night, I had the pleasure of meeting the 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner, Millie Suu-Kyi and viewing her series of sculptures ‘If the shoe fits’ including Selfish Sean, Immature Isaac and Obsessive Olivia. Millie is a multi-discipline artist whose work incorporates ceramics, illustration and textiles and she was a delight to meet and chat to. She reminded me exactly how an artist should be, when they’ve just won a brilliant award – bliddy giddy, a tiny bit overwhelmed and very excited! It was just lush – I love with genuinely brilliant humans are recognised for their talent.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi on exhibition opening night

Millie’s winning piece, ‘If the shoe fits’,  is a commentary on materialism, over-indulgence and the influence of brands on society – it’s quite playful whilst provoking serious questions on where on what we place value on in our society (and individually). These questions were huge pre-pandemic, but in the midst of COVID-19, they’ve taken on a new life and hinting as superficial societal foolishness. I know, I certainly feel that way.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

I recently caught up with Millie via Insta – we’d chatted about a Culture Vulture interview in March, but with everything hitting the way it did, now felt like a more appropriate time to do it and I’m so eager that people know about and discover Millie’s work and her winning piece – irrespective of not being able to view it right now.

So here we go, an interview with The Biscuit Factory’s 2020 Contemporary Young Artist Award winner, artist Millie Suu-Kyi….

Hiyer, lush to chat again…. Can you introduce yourself for my fellow Culture Vultures….? 

My name is Millie, my artist name is Millie Suu-Kyi and I’m a North London-based artist.

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 Millie Suu-Kyi

I love your artist name…where did it come from?

My middle name is Suu-Kyi; I’m named after Aung San Suu-Kyi the Burmese/Myanmar leader, which these days is more controversial (!), but either way it’s a good conversation starter and definitely a more interesting name than Millie Holland!

Can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries? Did you step out into the world thinking I want to be an artist? 

Well, I’ve always been creative and knew I wanted to be in the industry, but for many years I wanted to be a dancer and I even did the auditions to go to dance school instead of art school. I’m pleased I chose art and I particularly love being a multidisciplinary artist because it means you can use all the different things you’ve learnt over the years; even my dance practice comes in handy!

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You graduated in 2019, so are relatively at the beginning of your artistic journey which is so exciting! Do you feel on the cusp of something wonderful? It sure feels that way as someone looking in! 

Ah that’s so lovely to say. In truth, it feels a little unknown and a lot like guess work, but I’m loving developing new projects and trying things out – I feel like a newbie and am aware I have so much more to learn, but for now I’m enjoying the ride and seeing what I can make next.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You work across many mediums sculpture, ceramics, illustration and textiles! A quadruple creative threat! Can you tell you me a bit about those mediumshow do they interact or play out together? Is there a medium that you think youll specialise in?

I am first and foremost someone that draws and that is where all my projects begin, but from there I love being able to see which material lends itself to a project. However, I end up spending the largest chunk of my time on ceramics because it requires so much time.

I don’t think I want to specialise in just one material as I think the different media, I use complement one another so well and each add so much.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You bliddy won Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 (well done) can you tell me about your submission piece? 

The piece, ‘If The Shoe Fits’, was my graduate work, which I also took to New Designers. The piece looked at visual stereotypes and the reasons people mass migrate towards certain trends and brands. I formed my three characters on less desirable traits and the way we use brands and consumerism to conceal our imperfections. This in turn conceals our vulnerability.

As Brits are collectively known for their discomfort around nudity, I wanted to play with humour by making them naked. While amusing, the focus on nudity here also symbolises the guilt linked between being our true selves, as people literally use familiar brands to cover themselves, and concealing the unwanted aspects of their identity.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

Can you tell us a little bit about the process making the piece?

The figures are made from stoneware clay and each took a day or 2 to make. I created limbs and body parts first and then constructed them all. They were then bisque fired at 1000° degrees, then glazed using a spray gun and transparent glaze and then re-fired at 1200°.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

What made you submit in general to the award? 

In truth, a few people had wanted to buy the pieces and I’d decided against it, so I wanted to make sure I did something with them so that I wouldn’t regret not selling them! I also felt it was a project that could start conversation and gain some interest, as the figures definitely turned heads at the degree show. Now I can definitely say I’m pleased I didn’t sell them.

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‘If the shoe fits’ – Millie Suu-Kyi

How did you find out youd won and what did that moment feel like? 

I was working at Thrown Contemporary (Ceramics Gallery) preparing the gallery for a private view, when I received an email saying I’d won. I’m not always the best at reading so I read it out loud to my boss to make sure I was reading it right! I then went to the toilet to quickly message the family WhatsApp to let them know and then went back to work, pretending I was as cool as a cucumber (which I definitely wasn’t!)

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Such a lush story – What are you going to spend the prize money on? 

Before the lockdown, the plan was to buy a ceramics kiln which would’ve used nearly all of the money, so that’s still the plan for post lockdown. But if not, I’d love to go on a puppetry making course.

As a young artist, why are awards and opportunities like Contemporary Young Artist Award important to you and your peers? Are they important? 

When you graduate it’s hard to know where to begin and applying for things like this award are a great way to cast your net and see what you catch. They are potentially a platform to publicise oneself, but if not, they’re at the very least a confidence boost and a good experience.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You came up to Newcastle for the preview event it was a blast to hang out with you! What did it feel like having people look at your work and attending as the winner?

Ah thank you, it was a lovely evening! Well, if I’m honest, I’m not sure many people knew I was the winner! – But that was fine with me, it was just a delight to get to know the gallery staff and be at an event where my work was displayed and I wasn’t there to support a friend or hand out the drinks!

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Lurking at your own event – is the perfect way to enjoy an event! You mentioned that you had a friend in Newcastle did you manage to explore Newcastle?

I have one close friend in Newcastle doing a Masters but I actually only managed to visit her when I came for the Private View, so I haven’t seen much of Newcastle. However, what I’ve seen I’ve liked very much. – It has elements of London and Edinburgh which are my favourite places, so that’s high praise.

When its just you and you want to make/createfor fun, what do you tend to do? 

My absolute favourite things to create are characters. I draw them with their clothes, accessories and usually gangly limbs with big hands, and like to include details like their age, name and hobbies – almost like my own Top Trumps.

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Marcus – Millie Suu-Kyi

I was a big fan of Marcus on your Insta! Where do you seek artistic inspiration? Are there any artists that inspire you whether by their work or by their boldness etc? 

There are so many artists that I completely adore but I’ll choose:

Paula Rego for her surrealist paintings, which have incredible character and story development, understanding of colour and a beautiful use of perspective and foreground/background.

Peter Lubach with his limitless ability to recreate the human/animal forms in clay, using pleasing and deceptively simple shapes, as well as an undertone of humour.

Pierre Le-Tan is my latest discovery. His delicate use of ink and water colour create immaculate, quiet interior scenes. They are a joy to behold!

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Peter Lubach

I get a sense of you being a bit protesty (LOVE) and a risk taker (LOVE) both in your creative practice and as a person can you talk a little bit about that? 

I am pretty outspoken and very interested in current affairs, often drawing on political stances, stereotypes, class divides and social structures for my work. But, I’m also aware that there’s always so much more to learn and I certainly don’t claim to know it all. I can only make art that shows what my slice of the world is like, so I intend to keep on educating myself to ensure I stay involved and keep being that little bit protesty.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

You have an AMAZING sense fashion and bold style where do you seek fashion inspo from? What inspires your looks? Where do you shop/fave indie outlets? 

As someone who’s environmentally conscious and loves buying on a budget, I now only buy secondhand clothing, almost entirely from charity shops. I absolutely love having to hunt and rummage through strange rails and racks. In terms of inspiration, I adore 60s prints and silhouettes and I’m a great believer in more is more, so I always like to dress up and wear as much colour as possible.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

So of course, your Young Contemporary Artist Award win came a few weeks before lock down what have you been up to/working on? (Beside surviving a Pandemic if you havent done anything creative at all, join the club!) How has lockdown effected your practice? 

Well, as I never managed to get a kiln in time, I am currently making new ceramics work and leaving it unfired for a very long time, which isn’t ideal! But for now, I am drawing new characters and scenes and making clay samples for a new project which I hope will be my solo exhibition at the Biscuit Factory next year. Also, I’m not making a huge amount because I’ve been working in a local care home. So, in my free time, I’m pleased I’m managing to keep the creative wheels turning.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Youre submersed in the creative world further South how are the creative community responding to the Pandemic? In the North, there is a real sense of wanting to change the creative gameand power structure I really hope self-employed artists come out the other side, more self-determining but I am hugely fearful for the creative industries.  

I am absolutely surrounded by creative talent where I live, with musicians, designers, artists and generally amazing people everywhere I look, which can be a little intimidating! I haven’t allowed myself to process the damage that the industry will take – people say the arts and artists are resilient but this is going to be so tough for so many people. I think we’ll just have to wait and see, but for now the arts is being as charitable as ever with free online lessons, discounted work and all the rest of it – so as usual people are just making do and being highly impressive.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Any advice to artists just starting out? 

Sadly, I’d feel too much like a phony to answer that! I’m really just starting out myself so, I suppose, all I could say to my peers in the same boat is, try and find your USP and revolve your practice around that.

What is next for Millie? Anything in the pipeline?

I recently choreographed and filmed a dance project using a music piece written by a friend. I really enjoyed the process and it reminded me that I want to try some more performance-based work, tying my sculptural work with movement. I’ve also been drawing some new ideas to work towards potentially writing and illustrating a short book, but none of the logistics have even been researched yet, so for now it’s just a dream.

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Millie Suu-Kyi

So you’ve been busy being brilliant! Where can we find more about you and your work?

My website can be visited HERE and my instagram handle is @milliesuukyi

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Millie Suu-Kyi

Well then thanky Millie – I’m super excited for your solo exhibition at The Biscuit Factory – I need more things in my life to look forward to and that is certainly a cultural cherry! Check out Millie’s insta and her work – she’s bliddy talented and a gem! And remember, you can check out you can view the Contemporary Young Artist Award exhibition online HERE

 

What is a curator? What do they do? I interviewed The Biscuit Factory’s curators to find out!

Curators are defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “the keepers or custodians of a museum or other collection”…. But what does that actually mean? Who are they, what do they do, why are they important to important to museums, galleries, heritage centres and the creative and cultural sector…..? I honestly believe the majority of folks out there have no idea what curators do and as a profession, as it’s not front facing to the public and a lot of what they do is behind closed doors – even in the cultural sector, their role can be perceived quite mysterious, there is a lot of misunderstanding and (in my opinion) there is often a bit of a disconnect between artists and curators.

Over recent years, the words “curate”, “curation” and “curator” have all be absorbed into popular culture and are so overused to the point of diluting their meaning. Folks now “curate” displays, a sandwich, a playlist…. The overuse of the word is a weeee bit of a trigger for me to go on a rant (understatement of the century – but we all have our burdens to bear)……you did not “curate” a sandwich, you simply made.a.decision.

So as part of my mission to shine a light on curators in general and what they do, I thought I’d reach out to The Biscuit Factory curators and see if they would be up for a Culture Vulture interview. The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest independent commercial art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter of Ouseburn and one of my favourite galleries – I love the variety of work displayed – it’s full of colour and very different types of art and interiors. If you haven’t visited yet or haven’t for a while, it’s a must visit – it’s obviously closed right now due to COVID-19 but will be open once more in the future. You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

I was delighted that the curators accepted, it can be quite scary Mary to have a stranger come in and question your work and processes – so I was prepared for the “no”.  But I got a big fat yes and I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with them (they were so lovely and lush!) asking all my questions…..and believe me, I had a lot thanks to my question call out on my social channels from my fellow Culture Vultures. Consequently, it was less of an interview and more of a creatively curious interrogation (my Line Of Duty obsession, has made me an EXCELLENT interrogator….”Mother of God..!”). But we did have a lush chat and strayed away from curator talk into debating creative careers and opportunities…..

So here we go, an interview The Biscuit Factory curators; Sam Waters, the 3D curator, Sam Knowles – 2D curator and Mika Browning – jewellery curator; this is a long LUSH interview, so buckle up and it’s perfect for your lock down reading.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Right, let’s start with some intros for my readers and followers…  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: My name is Sam Waters; I’m the 3D curator at The Biscuit Factory and I have responsibility for sourcing, managing and displaying the items which fall within the 3D product group here. Things like sculpture, ceramic, glass and furniture; basically stuff which is not wall based, although occasionally wall based too. I also look after the cards for the gallery and a few other sort of ancillary things. I’ve been here since 2010 so coming up to ten years.

Before this I was very briefly at another local gallery which doesn’t exist anymore called the Artworks Galleries where I did a mixture of things and event space things predominantly. Before that I was a self-employed copywriter and photographer. And that’s about it.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: My name’s Sam Knowles, I’m the 2D curator which means I’m in charge of paintings, prints and photography; the bigger part of that by far is the paintings and prints. I spend my time sourcing and inviting people to the gallery, managing their artwork, suggesting what comes here and what might sell the best, cataloguing it when it arrives, displaying it, looking after work in the store rooms that’s not currently on show, making sure all the stock is as it needs to be, putting on displays, making sure the gallery is constantly sort of replenished, should anything sell or be moved or sent back to artists and being the person to get that work ready should anyone want to collect stuff either having been sold or being returned to them for other exhibitions elsewhere.

I’ve been here since 2007; I originally started as a gallery assistant, then took on photography which used to be a bigger part here with a lot of graduate exhibitions. Now I spend most of my time in charge of paintings and prints and beyond that I’ve got some responsibility for how the gallery physically looks in terms of wall colouring and floor layout.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I’m Mika Browning, the jewellery curator and I’m quite new; I’ve been here for a year now. I look after all the jewellery that comes in and the display; it’s quite interesting for me because before this I’d been self employed as a jeweller myself for quite a long time, so I’ve kind of stepped to the other side.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: With you looking after three different departments within one gallery space, how do you all work together and collaborate as curators?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: It can be ad hoc coming together and collaborating. Often we won’t be totally aware of what each other’s booked in but when we’re putting a show together, we’ll make sure that things complement each other.

When we have an open call out like the recent Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020; we will go through the submissions together to pick out submissions to be a part of the exhibition – we had about 1200 submissions from all over the world and we worked together to display the work and shared the load.

But a lot of the time, we’re just in our own departments, getting in our own work; but once the work is here, we realise there’s common ground and if it will work together. There can be any number of reasons why one piece of art can go with another; its subject or colour or style or just the sort of person we think it might appeal to, even if the work itself is nothing like each other. That process tends to be something that happens once we are all actually out on the gallery floor, putting work together, working with what we have and often feeling our way through things.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: You mentioned the Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, how do you decide which pieces of art are included in an exhibition shortlist or “make the cut”?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Well, ultimately it comes down do our knowledge, experience and what we like, which I appreciate is very hard to unpick and very subjective. We display work because we think it is interesting and to attract people to visit the gallery.

But a key decider is if we think it’s got artistic merit in how it was made and as we are a commercial gallery, we have to think whether or not it might appeal to someone to purchase or be of interest to someone commercially.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We use the same principles in choosing successful submissions from this Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, as we do for the main exhibitions. But we probably have a little bit more leeway with this, to take a few more chances and to add a few things which are on the margins of what the main, day-to-day gallery exhibitions are. That’s kind the idea of doing this type of exhibition; we try to stretch the Biscuit Factory’s comfort zone a little bit and bring in newer and more progressive work.

We get submissions to the gallery from people wanting to exhibit on a daily basis. The basic cornerstones of the criteria we use to select pieces for all exhibitions, includes 1. the quality of the craft, regardless of what the subject is or what the medium is, 2. the standard of professionalism AND 3. the quality of presentation and the artistic vision. The Biscuit Factory is a very diverse space in terms of artwork displayed but everything that we have here, regardless of its aesthetic or its taste or its style, is of a high quality. The pursuit of quality helps us make choices when selecting work that might not be our own personal taste but we able to appreciate the quality and recognise that someone else might love it.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a commercial gallery, how do you tread the fine line, between selecting exciting, new, experimental and groundbreaking pieces and knowing your audience and knowing what they actually want to buy?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We are aware of what sells and we have a sales system, allowing us to see various different product groups and how they are performing – e.g. How many pieces of sculpture have sold in any given period or how many paintings have sold by a particular artist.

So we’re aware of that and we have to be guided by that to some extent. But there’s always a balancing act between being sales driven and the ethos of trying to show a range of works, some of which you accept may not be so commercially viable and we can’t just keep selling and displaying the same things; our visitors wouldn’t want that.  In a way, progression and sales have to go hand in hand because we can’t just keep selling the same type of work or the same artist’s work because eventually the sales would dry up.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I think the scale of The Biscuit Factory is so big, that actually there’s room for a very wide range of work here and we can afford to take some chances and have some really different things. I think a lot of people who haven’t visited us before would be surprised how big the range of work is here – there’s some very contemporary things, some very quirky things and some very traditional things; they all sit side by side quite well, quite comfortably because they are of a certain standard.

We sometimes think we know what is going to appeal to a particular type of Biscuit Factory visitor, but we are often wrong; you know someone who you’d assume would buy a traditional landscape actually goes for the really quirky portrait, or really minimalist etching.  Or they might be interested in all three!

We take pride in the fact that there’s something here for potentially everyone; behind our doors is a whole range of work waiting to be discovered all tucked in here.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think in terms of the jewellery, it’s a different sort of position because most of the jewellers that I work with are more commercial and used to that side of galleries. The jewellery is made to wear and own, rather than being looked at in a gallery, so that makes it a little bit easier for me when choosing between more ‘out there’ stuff.

Jewellers can send in more of their work as it doesn’t take up as much space; they might send a piece that’s kind of really high price and out there in design but then it can be paired with quite a lot of other pieces from a range which are really wearable, so that’s quite a fortunate position to be in as a curator that I can kind of manage to get in both.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: How would you describe the role of a contemporary curator and how do you feel about the overuse of the word “curate?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Personally, I’m not precious about the word curator and I’ve always been aware that it’s a word that has many different applications or nuances and, people think of it in different ways.

I think it depends where you are as well because there are different kinds of curator and curation so it’s hard to be precious over; if you’re in a municipal gallery or the BALTIC or whatever it might be, even within one city there’s varying different sorts of curators, that aren’t really very comparable.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I guess “curate” is a word that a few years ago was quite niche and not used in the mainstream with connotations as quite highbrow. Now it’s become quite an everyday word and quite trendy, which is perhaps a bit odd.

I’ve been here a long time and what I understand of the word “curate”… or how I understand my job is not necessarily through the prism of being a curator; my job is what it is and when I read about other curators, they’re not necessarily particularly relatable positions to this one.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: For me, I think it’s more… I speak to early stage career artists and creatives in the industry that would like to get into curation and I feel that misuse of the word is removing the respect of the profession and understanding of it as a legitimate career path….  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s diluted it a little bit but you can see that happening anyway through the democratisation of things through the internet and DIY elements across all creative activities. You don’t have to go to a web developer anymore to set up a website for example, you can do it yourself. I guess, the old gatekeepers who defined what a curator is and controlled the role, are dispersed a little.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Everyone’s artistic taste is subjective…. How do you feel if someone doesn’t like an exhibition you’ve curated or a piece of work you’ve put pride of place in the exhibition? Do you take it to heart?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: We’re slightly sheltered from people’s comments about an exhibition on a day to day basis because we’re tucked away in our office getting on with the next exhibition. We do feel it more when you’ve spent 18 months talking to an artist and they’ve then made the work and it doesn’t sell as well as hoped when it gets here.

You can look back and think “maybe I didn’t quite get it right” or “maybe it was a bit too far out for here” but the fact is that sometimes, you can get someone in who you think is perfect for the people who, largely come here and it still won’t sell; that can be very frustrating and disappointing for you and for the artist.

There may be a reason you can identify but sometimes there’s no reasoning for it, it can just be a matter of bad luck or bad timing; you’ve got to get a lot of things right to sell a piece of artwork –  the right person has got to walk through the door, it’s got to be at the right time for them in their lives and head and it might be that there were hundreds of people that loved the work  but they just didn’t or couldn’t buy it. Sometimes when you send work back that hasn’t sold, days later someone will come in saying “have you still got it because I’d like to buy it?”….. A lot’s got to come together all at the right time, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think you can still take heart in that, even if you get something in that you love and then it doesn’t sell, it still kind of feels good that you put it out there; people might not be buying it but at least they’ve seen it. Maybe they love it but they can’t buy it for whatever reason, but it still feels nice to be able to be putting stuff like that out there.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: And you never know what it might do for an artist’s career longer term, the fact they’ve been seen. It’s another exhibition on the artist’s CV, another opportunity to display their work and that feels rewarding.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Sometimes there’s a bit of tension between artists/creatives and curators in regards to how work is displayed and some curatorial decisions of exhibitions…..

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I don’t feel I’ve had that very often; I guess you can’t please everyone 100% all the time. I think largely the artists, certainly in my department, are very happy to be here and we all work hard to make sure their work looks good, is well presented, nicely lit, hung straight and hung in an interesting way; I think more often than not the experience is pretty positive.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’ve occasionally had artists sort of grumble about where their work is, that it’s not their first choice location in the gallery or how it’s displayed; but in most cases that is because they have not quite appreciated the scale of the place, how things are laid out and that it’s necessary to display work alongside other artists’ work – you can’t always get the degree of separation that some artists would like because we have so much work to display.  Our role is to make the best decisions overall and to bring together cohesive exhibitions on a bigger scale. Occasionally that might mean that a particular artist’s work is not 100% how they’d want it to be displayed or they might personally not like another artist’s work that is visible somewhere beyond their work in the sight line.

But, most people are appreciative that you’ve made such an effort to display their work in a sympathetic and considerate way, and are aware there’s a lot of work to juggle and that you’ve made decisions for the best presentation of the gallery as a whole.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a curator do you go to other exhibitions and reflect on the curation?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I recently went to the new gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it was really inspiring!  Also, their shop space was really inspiring to me because that was where their jewellery and some ceramics were; I thought that it was beautifully curated and displayed.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I get out far, far less than I should; I go to the degree shows, just out of curiosity but I feel further and further away from that now with age. I’ve got young children which means my free time is at soft play and not galleries. But I do love going to art fairs, I quite like going to places where there’s a big mix of stuff rather than just going to see one person’s exhibition, but yes I’d like to go out more.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I don’t get out as much as I’d like for all sorts of reasons. I’m always very aware of retail art things and maybe that’s what I’m kind of more influenced by, more aware of and absorb. I’m interested in the psychology of retail and people’s subconscious decision making, so in art retail situations I am aware of trying to read how things are set up, colour temperature, sightlines, positioning of things and the way they arrange the spaces.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: When you work here it is hard to kind of turn off working here and to just enjoy an exhibition or art fair; you’re always thinking, that person could be good in the Biscuit Factory, taking a card or photographing the work or name of artist – so it’s hard to full immerse.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What is the process of seeking out artists to exhibit at The Biscuit Factory and how far in advance do you go planning?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We do get submissions, some aren’t appropriate or quite right for us. The process is mostly us finding things, going out into the world and seeing it in person or online. Using Instagram as a platform is becoming increasingly prominent as a way of finding things for us.

For the big shows, we often book over a year in advance. Sometimes, if we have space available, we might find things and come across things that if the artist has stuff available, we might get work from them in very quickly. As our space is so big and we have such a variety of different ways of displaying things with a flexible display space, we can often shuffle things round and create some space.

The exhibition timeline can be anything from working with someone that we’ve worked with for ten years and booking them in two years in advance for a big show or coming across someone new and having their work here two weeks after you first saw it and everything in between. We have a big quarterly changeover but within that we have an ongoing evolution of displays and bring in new work in quite often; it always keeps the job fresh for us and hopefully fresh for our regular visitors.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What would your advice be to artists and folks who want to get their work into The Biscuit Factory? How should they approach the gallery?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A lot of people want to show you the complete range of what they’re doing, so you might get a charcoal drawing of an animal, followed by a portrait, followed by a landscape and unfortunately that’s not much help to us. What we really need to see is a coherent collection from somebody, whether or not that’s the animals or landscapes. We’d prefer them to limit themselves to presenting one collection at a time. Some artists try and show you everything they’ve ever done and can do which is too much, instead of honing with focus. And we only take submissions by email.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It just has to be really good; what I’m looking for are pieces that are really impeccably made and that is something that takes a long time to learn and produce.  The submissions that come through, that are a goer, you know straight away; they come in with confidence, they know what they’re doing, even if they haven’t worked with galleries yet and they’re new graduates, they still have total confidence and a passion about their work. They send in good images because they know that it is worth taking a good image because it’s a good piece.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Often with paintings we’ll get terrible images of the piece – it will be pixelated or they’ll be photographed next to a heavily patterned carpet in someone’s living room….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It seems an old-fashioned thing to say but when there are typos and spelling mistakes, it sets you on the back foot. When you’re approaching someone for the first time in a gallery, I think it’s very important to be very precise, deliberate and hit the mark in the quality of your photographs and presentation of the work. We don’t have the time when receiving hundreds of submissions to de-pixelate photos or read through paragraphs of art speak. For the best chance, it’s about focusing on editing your work down to the best stuff, investing into quality images, reflecting on the way you’re presenting yourself and your tone of voice.  Top tip: you’re much better sending 3 really strong images than those three being hidden in amongst 15 things – edit, edit, edit, be tight, be professional and get good photographs.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: If someone comes in or sends a good email and is really nice to work with straight away, we think, “yeah I can see us working with you for 6 months and that’ll be pleasurable, easy and we know that we can rely on you”.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: When you depend on people to fill a gallery, you’ve got to be able to communicate with artists and them communicate effectively with you, build a rapport, have confidence in them that they can deliver, be reliable and you can get along with them. That’s what we are trying to gauge from their submission.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Some pieces and collections seem to stay displayed for a while at The Biscuit Factory – how do you decide which pieces stay and form part of the next exhibition and which ones come down?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s intuition. Curator’s intuition. As much as we have stats and are led by those things, a lot of it is also instinct. We also talk to artists and get a feel for how their work has been received elsewhere and how they feel it’s performing here. For some pieces and types of work like sculpture and furniture, it really responds to having longer in the gallery and it can take customers quite a while, to finally commit to buying.

This contrasts quite vividly with paintings which generally sell best at the start and then gradually the sales will reduce. For sculptures and bigger 3D things, it’s quite a long lead-in time and there can be a period where you don’t make any sales at all. So, you just commit to it and have faith that more exposure will ultimately lead to the sale.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: There’s different reasons why paintings or prints might stay up; sometimes it’s because they’ve done well and you think there’s no point taking it down because hopefully it will continue to do well. Other times, like Sam says, sales might not have happened but you think “I just know there’s sales to be had from these” and it’s just a matter of time or the right person coming through the door so they deserve to be up.

It can also depend on where the work has come from, especially if they’ve delivered them from a long way away or the deal with the particular artist. Also, I feel if a particular artists work is on display too long, people become a bit blind to it so we might take down so when it goes back up again it’s fresh and people are pleased to see it back up.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What’s the weirdest or the most unusual submission to the gallery you’ve had?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A sculpted portrait in a jam-jar full of their collected toenail clippings; certainly a curious way of doing self-portrait with their own DNA.

The Culture Vulture: With the state of play of the world, have you seen a move towards protesty or political artist submissions?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Not so much, our submissions tend to be very much about self and people.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, subjects like identity, gender, feminism; I see more work addressing those issues. There’s always been a lot of that with younger people, but I think there is a little more of that now.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Thinking about another contemporary issue – the environment! Have you changed any of your practices in terms of wrapping up work and things to do with environmental concerns; has that changed how you work?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We’ve all been a bit more aware of it recently, in fact we tried just recently getting some cardboard bubble wrap, like a sort of textured, cardboard wrapping.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: Not in terms of the way the gallery works but I’m really focusing hard on trying to get ethical jewellers in, because the jewellery industry is a total nightmare; precious metals aren’t always produced ethically. We’ve had an ethical showcase, shining a light on jewellers working with recycled or Fairtrade metal and it’s my big target to get as many jewellers as possible working with that. I’ve been contacting jewellers who don’t currently work with ethical metals and telling them about suppliers, trying to get that moving here as a wider movement.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: When you’re working on an exhibition install – what’s it like? What tasks are involved?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Well a lot happens on email before the work is here, it can be quite involved, suggesting and selecting what work, covering a range of price points and sizes. Then the work arrives; we have to check it off and catalogue it.

Using experience and intuition, I decide which prints and paintings work well next to each other without competing too much with each other – I spread out colours. styles and sizes so that there’s some balance to what is displayed. You want to be able to see the work as opposed to some heavily laboured curating; an exhibition is about the work, so you don’t want an arrangement that looks very heavily arranged. But you do want people to see particular pieces first, especially if there’s a large piece which you think is going to be a show grabber….The exhibition install is the really fun part of our jobs, we come out of our offices and get hands on.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: The install is a surprisingly small portion of the job though; from the outside, people might imagine that it is predominantly the job. Probably about 20% of our time is spent on actual installation of work, doing displays, thinking about the layout of the gallery, the lighting and the juxtaposition of various things. That’s the fun stuff, that’s what people see and that’s what people might imagine constitutes the job of a curator –  but the job is a lot broader than that and it’s about building relationships, a lot of administration, paperwork, analysis, managing stock, working out VAT codes…..

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think that’s why we work hard to get good gallery submissions because you do so much work in the background and then it’s such a pleasure when you get really beautiful work in and you can take loads of pleasure in putting it on display.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: It can sometimes feel exciting when something’s arrived, you can forget for a while that it’s not just for you personally. For a short while, it’s like Christmas, unwrapping the “presents” and that is a nice feeling.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: And when putting the work up, you start to get a sense of the possibilities and the gallery that you’re putting the work into is kind of ever changing. A lot of the displays aren’t really planned per se in advance so it’s about thinking on your feet; that’s quite energising sort of thrilling.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I imagine it being like…..remember the 90s programme Itsa Bitsa, where they had loads of art materials and then they’d go as a collective, pick all the stuff out and then it would all be like chaotic and then they’d create something collectively mint out of the chaos…

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We have two weeks of full-time install for each quarterly show and we’re just on the gallery floor. There can be trollies of paintings going up and down, things propped against walls, boxes of jewellery, boxes of ceramic, whatever it might be and we try to keep it all clean because we don’t close; we’re open to the public. There is a moment where everything is in some state of flux and change and then somehow, normally with five minutes to go before everyone turns up for the preview, it suddenly all looks rather nice and it’s weird.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It is weird how often really interesting displays come out of thin air and I would love to say that it was all very planned; may be at some level it is!  But also, twenty new painting deliveries might arrive at once, I might get twenty to thirty ceramic and sculptures and that’s all got to be arranged into the gallery in a coherent way that does the best for all those artists, you don’t necessarily have the fine details of that worked out but you’ve got a few days to curate it and out of that “something” happens! It just comes together in a way which is beautifully surprising and quite satisfying,

We are always too exhausted to really appreciate the exhibition at the end of the install.  The hour before the quarterly preview, we’re always generally still running around, polishing things and doing labels but there is always suddenly a moment of calm when I go “oh that’s come together and it looks pretty… pretty good and I really like how that sits with that.”

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Pre-lock down – were there any current art trends or futures trends that are impacting and influencing how you select work?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I guess, social media is changing how you select work because you don’t necessarily need to go… I can get a jeweller in from the other side of the country but I don’t need to go see it. Some people are getting really good at promoting their work online I think that’s something that’ll happen more.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Trends can be very subtle; like the colours of frames people choose or the fact that people change from making rectangular work to square work and all those things are subtly moving around all the time.

The Culture Vulture: I’m all about championing that there are so many routes into creative industries. Can you tell me what you studied and any advice you have for future creatives who would like to embark on a creative career path?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I studied jewellery and silversmithing in Edinburgh, so I do have a relevant degree. Then I was self-employed as a jeweller for a long time and then I had a small gallery space on the west coast of Scotland, where I got into the curating side of things!

I did really love doing my degree but if you’re interested in jewellery making, I would totally recommend going and doing an apprenticeship. Art college is great for concept and community but going to work with a traditional jeweller and getting that basis of skills will just set you up.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I have a degree in contemporary photographic practice from Northumbria and then I have an MA in Fine Arts Practice from Northumbria.

Advice for breaking into professional creative industries…… go out and make as many connections as possible, be open to things, attend things and broaden your horizons in any way possible. Advice from an art practice side, I’d say the same really and I think, just get good, in terms of making art!  I think a lot of people aren’t resolute or rigorous enough in getting good and people want… I guess people want to be famous, they want to be in galleries, they want to make money and obviously there’s pressures to be all of those things socially and economically but that can get in the way of building your own voice, which ultimately could be the foundation to your success. Some people want to shortcut that.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: I did a degree at Kent Institute in Canterbury for a year and then I did by BA at Newcastle University. Then I was a bit clueless really, I kind of floundered around for a very long time, reading the Evening Chronicle once a week hoping to find a very high paid arts job with my name on it and not knowing where else to look!

I don’t think my degree particularly did anything much to train me up to know where to find opportunities or to successfully apply for them when I found them; I did apply for various sculpture commissions and things without really knowing how on earth to put together a professional application. I spent some time working various retail jobs and then worked for about 18 months as an art technician in a sixth form college. I moved back here and became a postman, then I got a job here as a gallery assistant. I worked hard and tried to prove myself and when other opportunities came up, I applied and progressed.

In terms of advice, I suppose advice for artists would be slightly different to advice for future curators.  As much as I like my job I didn’t really set out to be a curator so it’s very hard to give advice to set yourself up to be one; I’m sure there are more tailored qualifications that would give you more chance of becoming a curator now.

Advice in terms of being a fine artist; that it’s important to hone in on one aspect of your work, even if you do lots of other kind of work for your own enjoyment. You’ve got to have something which is identifiably you, your signature, something that can be repeated to some degree to apply to galleries and connect to a specific customer base.

I guess, as Mika says, go and get some actual, specific experience, especially if you’ve done a fine art degree as it’s just so broad ranging, wide and potentially a bit wooly. I advise you to go down one route where you can start learning the skills that make you really good at something, rather than just having some ideas and tinkering. It took me a long time to do it; I was doing various part time jobs to free up studio time to make – I’d paint a portrait one week, then get frustrated and think that the new future of me was going to be landscapes and then decide it was printing and then something else… I spent years floundering around like that with nothing much to show for it. It’s only in the last four or five years, especially through working here, that I’ve narrowed everything to one or two things and tried becoming more professional on those. My advice would be to get to that stage, quicker than I did!

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’d tell them to expect to have to flounder around for a bit. Perhaps now in the age of the internet. 15 years ago, when we graduated, it was a different world or it looked like a different world; it looked less easy to penetrate. Whereas now, I think people have social media and they have their own websites much more quickly;  I think that can lead to people wanting to shortcut it; but the floundering bit is character making, humbling, exposing you to failure and doubt, working out how to fit yourself into the world rather than just steadfastly standing there saying “I’ve graduated, I’ve got a website, world come at me/world fit around me”.

You’ve got to find your way into the world a little and I think it’s that, that is the source of a lot of discontent as some graduates are unprepared for the reality and competitiveness of the world.  You’ve got to expect it and understand that the world is indifferent to you at first, even if you’ve got a website and a first-class degree in Fine Art. The reality is you’re still going to have to work at it really hard; if you’re not prepared and hungry for it, it’s going to be even harder. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced difficulties in trying to find a route into the arts, with our own personal practice or professionally; but I think more than ever people are unprepared for the difficulty and it’s more competitive than ever! So you’ve got to go into an artist career with your eyes open or it can be quite damaging – the world can be quite hostile.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I do a lot of work with young people and I’m starting to see less young people choosing to go into creative industries because they are viewed as a whole mass together and that there aren’t the opportunities….if you’re looking to go into a visual arts career, then yes it’s very competitive. But if you want to go into graphic design, app development, animation, outdoor event producing, tech  – well there are LOADS of opportunities….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I feel like it’s irresponsible to send so many kids off to vague creative degrees and fine art degrees; many are left at the end high and dry when they finish. I had this experience in my final year of my BA, literally a couple of weeks before the end of it, we had a seminar about the outside world and how to write a letter to a gallery and it was like a one hour thing…..

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: After a four year degree, I did not know how to apply for a commission or how to write an Arts Council grant. It’s unforgivable that you can get through that amount of degree and not know those things.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Some artists have no awareness of the landscape in which they’re meant to be a professional in or they are meant to be qualified and don’t know materials, don’t know the processes, don’t know what opportunities there might be or how you apply for them. It happens all the time.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: It’s the same with outdoor light installation work – many aspiring outdoor sculptors/light installation makers out of University have brilliant conceptual ideas but no knowledge of the technical aspects of what it takes to make a sculpture durable outdoors and the technical aspects to deliver on a light installation….

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  It happens. Soon after graduating, I had this bronze commission for a school in Jarrow, a big bronze snail, I had no idea how to secure it to the ground and in about half an hour, having welded a couple of bowls, I just filled it with as much cement as I could and tried to wedge some holes into the ground. If that hadn’t worked and it actually needed to be on a stone base or welded, then I’d have been stuck. I had just had no idea at all!

The Culture Vulture: And just a final thing, I am really interesting in this “positivity” ethos at the moment on social, manifesting success and an extreme push towards “only do what makes you happy” across our whole lives – on one hand that’s brilliant but I think we’re gradually conditioning some people to forget that life is hard, that to get to where you want to be it is tough and sometimes you have to wade through a whole lot of difficult and challenging stuff…..and that’s normal and ok.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It’s really unrealistic.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, and also you might not even get there, no matter how hard you work; there’s this idea, this myth, that if you work really hard, you’ll get what you deserve.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  Well we’ve all said this but our generation feels like we were told by our parents’ generation that you can naturally – unlike them, who just got a job and had to work hard at it for fifty years, that you can be anything you want to be as long as you set your mind to it but actually to become a very successful commercial artist is not attainable for most people and even if you’re trying, you’re not necessarily geared up for how much work there is involved. I’m sure there’s a lot of people of our generation, that are very frustrated that the false promise didn’t come off.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I think people take it on as a personal failing; whereas it is really a structural failing in a broader societal sense and also there aren’t enough opportunities for all the graduates coming out of Art School. And you know, like Sam said about his experience, you don’t really know what path it is that you’re taking and then you look back and you’ve arrived somewhere.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  You just find yourself in unusual places in your life, take what comes your way and carve out your own opportunity.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: In retrospect, it looks like there was a plan because it led you somewhere that turns out to be decent but actually it’s just a series of coincidences, circumstances, situations and chances; you find your way through it and I think people are perhaps less aware that is the reality of how it is, now more than ever. More people have bigger expectations and are fed this idea of the clear route to something; it’s pretty dubious to set people up like that.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

Wow – what interesting curator chat! You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books. The Biscuit Factory underpins the livelihood of over 50 staff, supports the careers of thousands of artists and attracts over 100k visitors a year into the local economy. They do not receive public funding, arts council financial support or rely on any grants to carry out work, so for the first time in their 17 year history, they are asking for support and donations. You make a donation or purchase something like a card, or lunch from their café HERE.

That’s all for now Culture Vultures. xx

(#AD) Does Culture Matter? – a mass participation research project from Crystallised.

I’ve found myself really missing cultural experiences whilst on lock down. Even as The Culture Vulture, I didn’t realise how much “culture” mattered to me on a day to day personal level and how intrinsically linked going to the theatre, cinema, wandering around a gallery, is to my sense of self and well-being. I miss it and I miss feeling a part of a creative community in person. Attending things and supporting cultural venues gives me a real sense of positive purpose and now their doors are closed, I’ve spent a little while feeling lost. I am going to go on the BIGGEST cultural binge when this is all over – I want to attend, see, visit, experience e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. all the time.

I’ve been trying to replace this sense of loss in my life with cultural streaming – watching theatre, live performance poetry, launching a Silent Book Club (and about to launch a Culture Vulture film club) alongside heading down a rabbit hole on Insta discovering new artists and creative lushness. It’s helping ease that loss….but it’s not the same!

A project that is helping me tackle some of the above and making me feel useful to the cultural sector – is Crystallised’s project Does Culture Matter?  You might have seen me plugging it on my social…. Does Culture matter? explores that question thematically by collating the opinions and insights of the Nation, during COVID-19 and beyond. Through a series of weekly questions sent direct to your inbox on a Sunday, you get to explore and reflect on what culturally matters to you, what you’re missing and what you’d normally be out and about doing.

Lead DCM

Crystallised are collecting all this data, to make it available to arts and cultural venues and sector when locked down measures are lifted. Your insights and data will directly help organisations recover, pivot, be more resilient, stronger through the power of knowledge and shape their activities by enabling them to identify what is actually important culturally to you!

So do I think my fellow Culture Vultures should get involved…..

  • It’s something a little lush to do, to get you thinking and reflecting. The questions asked are interesting and in the moment – I mean there was a question about Tiger King last week!
  • It’s something to look forward to each week; I really look forward to the questions dropping in my inbox, grabbing a cup of tea/Sunday gin and sitting answering them. Only takes a few minutes but it’s a little lush brain exercise.
  • You are a part of a cultural community who are united in sharing their insights – it’s lush to feel useful and to be a part of something happening across the UK. #peoplepower
  • It’s helping the creative and cultural sector at a time of need – the organisations that will have free access to this data need a helping hand to recover post-COVID – this is that helping hand. Knowledge is power. At a time when you can’t attend these venues, support their cancelled projects or donate to every single cultural organisation and venue – this is something you can do to help that they will all have access to.
  • The data produced could form part of regional and National government lobbying – fingers crossed – it could form the foundation to justify increased spending in culture and creative projects by evidencing what is important to the Nation; what they want, need, love.

To get involved and to sign up – follow this link to take part – takes seconds and you can do it HERE

I had the pleasure of catching up with Laura Rothwell, Managing Director of Crystallised to find out more about why they launched this ‘Does Culture Matter’ project, why it is important and what they hope to achieve through it!

Hiyer you – right first things first, tell my fellow Culture Vultures about Crystallised?  

Crystallised is a marketing, PR and events agency for ethically, socially or culturally motivated organisations.

That’s the spiel.

What that means is we work with a range of organisations. All of them with a cause or purpose at their heart. We help them promote themselves, or their initiatives, we help them reach new audiences, market their work or make some kind of change. Invariably that means we work with a lot of arts and culture organisations, but we also work with charities, NGOs, ethically minded brands and foundations.

We’ve been doing this for seven years; we’ve helped organisations reach audiences of over 30 million people from all over the world.

thumbnail_Team Laura, Jennifer, Lauren, Lucy, Nov 2019 (1)

Team Crystallised

Impressive stuff – has has your organisation been personally impacted by COVID-19?

Yes, big time. A lot of our work is about getting people to a place. Arts, culture or destination marketing. So, jobs have been cancelled, or indefinitely postponed. We’re seeing many of our clients putting their plans on hold until at least October.

In January, I started looking at pitching for work which was less event-focussed, because of COVID-19. I have anxiety, and actually that has come in handy here, because I was worrying about this very early on.

Snap and snap! It’s been full of devastation and an opportunity to re-imagine in equal measure. What was is about the cultural and creative sector that drew you in?

It took a while to be honest. As a kid, things like ‘culture’ (museums, galleries) weren’t ‘for us’. Sometimes we went to castles which I loved, other times we went to National Trust properties which I hated, my main motivator for tolerating those was the Kendal Mint Cake at the gift shops.

It’s marketing that got me here, it’s where I started at 17, as a Marketing Administrator. And it’s what I’ve done for the past 19 years. The first eight years or so was retail and destination marketing, very commercial environments which are incredible places to learn and to train as a marketer.

I eventually took a role which connected me to ‘art’ for the first time, albeit in a commercial art organisation. There I ended up working on projects in the museum sector, at Great North Museum; Hancock, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Magna Science Centre (Sheffield).

That’s what drew me in. I saw – for the first time really – what art meant, what culture could do for people when/if it wasn’t about commercial gain, how essential it was. I very quickly felt as though I had to use my marketing experience to allow more people (everyone, ideally) to a) know what was out there b) feel like it was ‘for them’ and c) contribute to it, own it, be part of it and d) benefit from it.

I started Crystallised, and seven years on I still feel those things acutely.

We are crazily similar #kendalmintcake Let’s move on to Does Culture Matter? What was the inspiration behind Does Culture Matter? – why did you start the project?

The idea came from an Instagram group convo with a collection of excellent women I know who work in the creative sectors. We were talking about what this all (COVID-19) meant for us, for our jobs, for the sector.

I was in the middle of what I suspect was coronavirus, I felt truly awful in the mind and the body. We’d had a recent, sudden family bereavement, and my brain was just not up for anything at all.

Anyway, as is the way, during this chit-chat back and forth, inspiration struck. I just thought, now is the perfect time to listen to audiences, to learn, without an agenda. No-one is paying us to do this, we aren’t trying to meet a brief, we are simply listening.

You almost never get an opportunity like this.

Can you describe what it is and how people can get involved?

Does Culture Matter? is a mass participation research project. We want to understand how our relationship with culture is changing because of COVID-19, what it was like before, perhaps if our own definitions of what culture means are changing and what we might want it to look like after COVID-19.

We want EVERYONE to give their opinions, even if – no, especially if, like me back in the day, you don’t think ‘culture’ is for you.

All you need to do is follow and input your email address.

You’ll receive an intro questionnaire via email and then one every Sunday for the rest of the year.

Why is it important that people share their insights with you?

It’s important because culture belongs to us all. There should not be someone ‘in charge’ of culture, there should not be someone gatekeeping, or deciding what is or isn’t culture. It belongs to us all. We own it.

I believe every single human being should be able to be involved with and relate to the cultural offer of their cities or communities.

The sector talks about ‘hard to reach’ audiences, that is infuriating bullshit. Audiences aren’t hard to reach, it’s the organisation that is hard to reach, because for whatever reason, intentional or not, they have made themselves inaccessible.

So, it’s important for you all to join up and share, because when your voice gets heard, change can be made.

We have an opportunity to come out of this and shape the next chapter. I felt as though the best way Crystallised could contribute to that change, was to use our skills and expertise.

Listen to people, advise organisations. It’s what we do every day.

Have there been any interesting insights you wish to share?

Our North East participants told us their favourite places to visit in the city, at the moment, the list looks like this – the data changes the more people who join, so that’s another reason why everyone should get involved.

Tyneside Cinema

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Sage Gateshead

Northern Stage

Laing Art Gallery

But, if you look at our North East respondents under the age of 25, the list changes:

Cineworld, Newcastle

Tyneside Cinema

Riverside Newcastle

O2 Newcastle

Utilita Arena

Three music venues, two cinemas. I find this fascinating, there’s much that can be explored from this data alone.

2 April Stat North East

What do you hope to get out of it after the research period?

I’d like the data to have organisations start asking their own questions. I’d like this to be the starting point for organisations to look at how they can better serve their communities.

I’d love to work with the braver organisations who want to do something bold and radical as a result of seeing the data, perhaps homing in on something specific, collaborating with audiences, flipping the narrative and to some extent taking a back seat, so that others can shine.

In your opinion, do you think Culture Matters more during this period?

Yes.

This is a horrible, terrifying time, we’re all going to lose someone or something. There are many many people, organisations, institutions that desperately need support. I’m not suggesting that an “art gallery is more important than the NHS” – which I’ve been accused of on social media of late.

No argument is that black and white.

I think culture has the power to uplift, to teach, to heal, to connect, nourish and to be fun. I think it’s essential for us to support and protect the sector if we don’t want to see a desolate, cultural wasteland post COVID-19. Our lives and societies will be much poorer if we don’t act.

Has the lock down changed your cultural consumption personally? Have you been watching any streams/online happenings?

Yes, I’ve been watching National Theatre, stand-up comedy, a film discussion and some DJ sets all online.

A theatre performance feels special even when it’s on the small screen, you can still sense the atmosphere between the audience and the cast.

How do you feel about the movement to digital culture and events through streaming platforms and social media?

I think it’s amazing and fantastic that so much has suddenly become available, the speed at which organisations have been able to adapt to the changing circumstances I think is impressive.

However, I can’t help but find it problematic that it’s taken a global pandemic for organisations to make their content accessible. It has long been the case that parts of the arts sector are inaccessible to disabled people. To now see all this readily available content filling our timelines because their able-bodied audience members are no longer allowed to attend a venue, is shameful.

The future must be radically different. We cannot live through this, witness all the change that has been enacted and then revert. That would be a tragedy.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do post lockdown?

Oh Christ! I’d like to go to Riley’s Fish Shack, sit on the beach and listen to my pals chatter, feel the sunshine on my face and be able to lie down on the sand, let my dog make friends with a Bichon Frisse, and just take my sweet sweet time outside.

What would be success for you as Crystallised for 2020?

Crystallised still existing would be success. I’m fearful of how much harder the year is going to get for business. This is going to be a slog. If we still have our full team and are on the way to some semblance of stability at the end of this year, I’ll be thrilled and relieved.

Anything other projects or happenings you think my fellow Culture Vultures should know about?

Right now, we’re working with one of our long-term clients Family Arts Campaign, who exist to make the arts accessible for families. Our focus is supporting their ambition to be the go-to national database of all arts and culture events happening online for families to join. We’ll be working on PR and influencer campaigns to get as many families as possible trying something new. Find that here: fantasticforfamilies.com

We’re also deep into New Creatives, a two-year project with BBC Arts and Arts Council England which looks to find undiscovered talent to make work for the BBC – could be a film, or something for radio. No prior experience is necessary, we’re trying to find northern creative folk under-30 who have something to say. Find that here: newcreatives.com

Other than that, we’ll be staying at home.

DCM. Share your thoughts.

Thank you Laura….so does culture matter? Well it does to me, it does to Crystallised and I think it matters to my fellow culture vultures, followers and readers. I’d love you to support Crystallised on their mission by signing up to participate in ‘Does Culture Matter?”

Remember – signing up is LUSH and is contributing to a project that could support your favourite arts and culture organisations to learn, pivot, recover, restart and fingers crossed – GROW.

Signing up takes seconds and participating in the project takes approx. 5mins a week.

You can sign up by HERE and feel free to share the project with your friends and networks – spread the word! #ganon

An interview with Mad Alice Theatre – biochemistry, drama school & making theatre that means something.

Theatre with its immersive storytelling and escapism, can really say something and provoke reflection on real life stuff. Even with family theatre – in fact the best types of family theatre are the ones with core REAL modern messages. That’s the type of theatre I love, especially when it’s made by LUSH creative folks.

I’m working with Mad Alice Theatre, based in Consett Co. Durham, at the moment on their show Rose & Robin – it’s a show for multi-generational audiences (literally 7yrs old – 107years old…) and explores love and loss, a reality of life that we often don’t want to think about. We’re often happy getting lost in a love story – but this family show also looks at “the end”, the growing old, what happens when someone (a grandparent) close to you dies, the sadness (that is ok to feel!), the bittersweet memories, the fact that life goes on but that person still exists in objects around you.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

This lovely, playful & serious, sad & happy show follows Rose and Robin’s wonderful life together as they celebrate it – From sports and stargazing, dances and dreams, music and memories. This show is the perfect play for children to enjoy with their grandparents and parents (also big kids!)!

Rose & Robin is twirling its way across the North East (I’m heading to the show at Darlington Library)-

  • Darlington Libraries Central – 15th Feb, 2pm
  • Greenfield Arts – 18th Feb, 10.30am
  • Queen’s Hall Arts, Hexham – 19th Feb, 2pm
  • Gala Theatre & Cinema – 20th Feb, 2pm
  • Arts Centre Washington – 21st Feb, 11am & 2pm
  • Maltings Berwick- 22nd Feb, 2pm
  • Gateshead Libraries Central, 28th Feb, 1.30pm

For tickets, booking info and prices visit the website

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

So of course, because I’m most interested in sharing the people behind the theatre and theatre making – I caught up with Mad Alice Theatre’s Shelley (Rose in the show) for a Culture Vulture interview…..

For my Culture Vulture followers, Who are you?

I am Shelley O’Brien, (although that is only my stage name, my real name is MICHELLE PARKER!) Actress, and Artistic Director of Mad Alice Theatre Company.

Many fellow actors at drama school pending graduation were changing their names at the time but I was steadfast in keeping my real name until I discovered there already was an actress with my name!! Shelley was given to me whilst at university so that didn’t seem too remote so was happy to use that but to then only discover there too was an Equity member actress Shelley Parker so after much deliberation and many combinations and permutations I chose my surname to be a one close to my heart, named after my brother BRIAN and also with a link to my, albeit, distant Irish Heritage! A Michelle O’Brien had already beaten me so Shelley O’Brien I became.

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Shelley O’Brien

Ohh – I might start telling people “Horts” is my stage name- even though I RARELY get on the stage; it adds an element of intrigue! So what is Mad Alice Theatre Company?  

MATC is a professional theatre company based in Consett Co. Durham (my home-town) producing theatre shows and linked drama and arts workshops touring to theatres, schools, community and outdoor venues in Co. Durham and The North East as well as nationally. We also deliver regular outside of school drama and arts projects for children and young people during term time and school holidays, predominantly the Co. Durham region. We have been established for 15 years and all our theatre productions are funded by Arts Council England.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

Why did you set Mad Alice Theatre up?

Having graduated from drama school and performed with many touring companies nationally, I then found myself working with many local regional companies back home in The North East and became known by Arts Council and knew and worked with many local talented and lovely actors and theatre makers. It was lovely working back home where many of my school friends had returned after university and my family were still based so I decided then this is where I wanted to be based and it was time to grow up as it were so I bought a house back in my home town.

My house was literally at the bottom of Consett and Blackhill Heritage Park where my mum and dad had noticed it had been newly revamped with the addition of an open-air stage (well, a few paving stones!!) It was their suggestion that I put on a play. I was successful in a bid to Arts Council to fund a one-off show, delivering a week of open air promenade performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where I could draw on the skills of theatre makers I knew; also an opportunity too for me to give them work as they have given me over the years which made me very happy!

The overall project was a huge success, had big audiences and the show was welcomed with great reviews! Other venues wanted the show in their park the following year and so before I knew it I was heading up a theatre company which 15 years down the line has seen me produce and act in further tours and retours of 3 new outdoor Shakespeare plays as well as tours and retours of 7 new shows! So much for just a one-off play!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

Tell me about your journey into the creative arts and performing been?

Very sudden best describes it! I never did any drama or dance or anything theatrical at all as a child (apart from Irish dancing which I loved).  I was really into running and loved academia; I never had any desire or interest or thoughts whatsoever about being an actress. I was approached as a teenager to take up running professionally (800m, 1500m and long distance) but really loved studying so decided not to but instead to focus on going to university which I did to study Biochemistry at UCL London University.

However, during my ‘A’ levels I was really inspired by Rik Mayall and The Young Ones and found myself writing scripts, really just for fun and escapism; my favourite quote at the time being “Reality is for those people who lack imagination” inscribed on a badge I wore fervently on my denim jacket / school blazer. I just really enjoyed the wonderful worlds, ideas and where the imagination could take you too and in retrospect I understand this now to have been my escapism, a safe way to “think yourself out of current reality”. I was too sensible, too ambitious and too much of the mind -set that my body was a temple to over drink or go to wild parties to blot out some of the scary sad and overwhelming thoughts in my mind that presented themselves around that time, understandably due to my brothers dying. So instead taking myself into imaginary worlds seemed the most joyous and sensible coping strategy.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

This is probably where my desire to act started, although I was unaware at the time as I was determined to be a Biochemist and find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. But whilst studying at university I realised although I had the skills for Biochemistry, I just didn’t have the passion like others. I became more involved in writing and improvisation and literally work up one morning, looked out of the window and the beautiful sun shining on the tree branches and decided I was going to be an actress and that it was what I was supposed to do with my life. Sudden indeed!

I went to the careers office at London University and asked how I should be an actress, they gave me a few drama school brochures; RADA was next door to my Biochemistry LAB (I’d never heard of RADA) but I thought it was handy as I could still meet up with my friends. I popped in en route to a lecture but I wasn’t impressed as the receptionist was so snobby so I thought “I don’t want to go here!” (as if they would just say oh yes come in and start!!) but the ALRA LONDON brochure talked about imagination and reality so I knew it was for me!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

I hand delivered my application in person as there was a postal strike; I’d missed the first round of auditions but my passionate talk about how this school was my calling convinced the principal to invite me to join students selected for a recall, which I did in jeans and danced to Michael Jackson (everyone else had the correct gear!) and then I did an improvisation about “abortion and the confessional box” (luckily I missed having to do a speech as that was in initial audition rounds as I’d never read a play!!) and finally after ringing them about 7 days in a row they offered me a place!! I had the best 3 years ever and certainly the right drama school for me; it was meant to be.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

So tell my fellow Culture Vultures your current show, Rose & Robin? Where did the inspiration come from?

The inspiration for ROSE AND ROBIN came primarily from some wonderful, inspiring, brave, emotionally honest and open and good-humoured people who we were blessed to come to know through drama workshops we delivered (myself and Pete Baynes who plays Robin). The workshops were all with participants of the bereavement service provided by Tynedale Hospice at Home. Geof Keys, Artistic Director of Queen’s Hall Arts Hexham at the time, had asked if Mad Alice would be interested in delivering drama workshops as a means to bringing participants together, raising confidence and providing an alternative creative way to share and talk about feelings around grief and also to have fun.

We invited the workshop participants to come on a journey with us to explore through improvisations and exercises ideas for a show and to see if any material generated might inspire us to create and form the basis of a new play about loss. The people we met had a wonderful time and found the workshops really beneficial; we were so moved and touched by all the experiences and grief shared and were drawn to stories of older people who had lost a life time partner.

Dancing was a strong theme as was nature; also the over arcing sense from all participants of life moving on and how it is so important to talk about feelings of grief as a means to heal. Thus, Rose and Robin emerged; a story of a couple who share a wonderful life together, from childhood to old age, full of dancing and star gazing but with bumps in the road and now one of them can’t remember where they keep the clothes pegs……We hope in our play we have captured the sense of joy, fun, and positivity of all of the participants young and old who inspired this story as well as acknowledging the pain of grief and honouring the love felt for those held dear and whom are no longer with us.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

You can tell from the way you speak, you are such a vivid story teller – I could listen all day! We met before your funding decision from Arts Council, which enabled you to make the show – how did it feel when you found out you got the funding to make the show happen?

I was dumb struck and taken aback as I heard a week earlier than expected!! I had just got off the train at Newcastle, I’d spent the day at the Edinburgh Festival and picked up a voicemail from a colleague saying we’d received the funding!!!! I could hardly catch my breath!!! Speechless initially but then so joyous and also relieved and grateful to all who had helped make it happen, excited too and then overwhelmed thinking crumbs now we have to deliver!!! I spent the evening ringing and emailing everyone to say thank you for helping to make it happen then had a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate, I was so ecstatic!!!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

I hear that a lot with creatives I work with, the excitement of the funding, and then the terrifying “oh bliddy heck…. I have to do it now” moment!  Who is Rose & Robin for and why should audiences come and see it?

We have created the show on one hand for children in KS2 (ages 7-12yrs) as we always planned to tour to schools so this was the age range we chose (Rose & Robin toured schools in Autumn 2019). We really wanted to create a show about love AND loss; after seeking advice from theatre and bereavement specialists as well as our own knowledge and experience, we thought children would be old enough at 7yrs to understand and take an interest in the concepts we were portraying, particularly about relationships of a couple growing up and growing old together.

Having said that we have found that due to the mime element, the beautiful musical underscore and the physical theatre aspects of the style in which we deliver the show, younger children are actually equally hooked and enjoy it even though they may not fully understand the deeper meanings they are entertained visually! This was our aim too, as with a family show, inevitably younger siblings come along as part of the family.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

But, the show is also for older people and grandparents too mainly because it is about the life of an older couple from childhood to old age so particularly relevant to this age group. Rose and Robin meet in the 50’s and court in the 60’s so there is rock and roll and waltzing and even the twist so music and costumes and dances will particularly appeal to this older age groups and bring back many fun memories!

So why should folks come…..well because they will truly enjoy it; they will be captivated by the story – Rose and Robin are such likeable fun characters which all ages will warm to, the story will resonate with them, they will laugh, they will find the music beautiful, happy and poignant and the set and props and costumes they will love as they are colourful and imaginative and quirky. There is dancing and an opportunity to dance with Rose and Robin during and after the show which is a joyful moment for all ages. There are sad moments too which many people will be able to relate to, thus a cathartic show and an opportunity for people to share and talk about their feelings but ultimately, it’s a gentle show and very heart-warming and a lovely show to bring old and young together. The overall message is one of love, reassurance and joy so a safe place for any feelings to surface.

Many of us have loved and lost, that could be a most recent loss, a loss from long ago or indeed a pending loss…this show is for all of you.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Richard Ayres

You’re taking the show to some “non-traditional” theatre venues and community venues – alongside some lush regional theatres – why was this important to Rose & Robin tour?

One of my reasons for setting up Mad Alice was to bring theatre to and make it affordable and accessible to those people from all backgrounds. Theatre is for EVERYONE. Community venues like libraries attract more audiences, that wouldn’t go to a traditional theatre as they are less daunting and a lovely safe space. Also, it feels that you are bringing theatre to them on their territory and that’s a wonderful experience for a company too! I grew up in Consett a working-class town and when I was a child in the 70’s no one dreamt really of being an actor and going to the theatre wasn’t really what we did…times have changed a lot now …but there remains an urgent need for affordable and accessible theatre bring brought to and offered to communities.

Equally we love performing in theatres as it’s a different experience as an actor and a rewarding one but also encouraging everyone to go to the theatre is a must … plus we can also engage more people too and develop our audiences by touring to theatres and raise our profile so more people get to see our shows which is also what making theatre is about.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

We have toured to schools and have raised funds to offer the show free to many schools e.g. schools in Spennymoor have been funded by our successful application for funding from local councillors and again this helps us ensure children from ALL backgrounds get to see high quality theatre. Plus we invited Grandparents of pupils into the school shows too!

Non-traditional theatre spaces appeal to us as they are different and quirky and this appeals to our style and outlook. It also helps them to generate audiences too and make a museum, community centre or library a successful arts venue too…..

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

From seeing the rehearsal and behind the scenes footage – I’ve had the sense you’ve all had a blast creating and making the show and it’s full of comedy and touching, bittersweet moments!

We certainly have had a right giggle!! We’ve had many laughs touring the show particularly to children in schools, as they have been so vocal and very much so when we are actually performing! One memorable moment which had us in fits of laughter was when ROBIN in the play mimes bringing a dog on stage and he says “Come on boy! Ah! You can see he’s a good dog” At which point one 8 yr. old boy shouts out “You can’t even see him!!!!”

Almost topped by a young girl who was given front of house duties in a community venue to count how many were in the audience and make them feel welcome, a ploy to keep her occupied as she’d turned up early!!! But who took her responsibilities even further when some older people were a bit tearful at a sad moment and she proceeded to go and get them cups of water during the show!

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

It has also been a challenge too which devising always is, as actors both myself and PETE BAYNES (Robin) have learnt a lot of new skills to realise the work, dancing for one but the lovely Nadia Iftkhar – Company of Others was splendid and patient but we did giggle lots too!! Peta Lily was truly inspirational teaching us a lot of new physical theatre techniques and that brought so much joy to us and consequently, joy and fun to the play itself.

But yes, it is bittersweet and touching in many parts too and the fun and humour necessary in a show about loss in its many forms has been inter-weaved through a strong emotional truthful story line which Paul Harman our lead devisor helped us develop and Geof Keys as director kept an eye on in terms of shape and balance.

Donald Marshall’s design has really brought fun, elegance and beauty to the play too and Patrick Dineen’s music absolutely supports and adds to the emotional range of the show.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

What do you want audiences to take away from Rose & Robin?

For older people; warm loving memories of loved ones, joyful memories of their youth, an opportunity to share their feelings and talk about their feelings. A message of hope that after sadness there will be joy.

For children; an even stronger awareness that grandparents were young once and a realisation that they too were naughty, played, had fun, loved, lost and that they have a history! We want them to share and talk about their feelings around loss and to take away the message that it’s ok to be sad, that those we love who have died will always be with us in our heart and that we will feel happy again.

For both generations, a desire to talk to each other, for parents and grandparents to talk to children about their memories and for children and families to talk together about their feelings around loss.


Rose and Robin-38Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

Sum the show up in three words?

Fun, emotional, heart-warming!

What else have you been up to in 2019 – tell me about another project/show you’ve done this year?

2019 saw me doing a further tour of my one woman show ‘She Wins All The Races-A Tragicomedy with Biscuits’ to secondary schools and colleges in Darlington as well as some community venues. I previously toured it 2017/18 to regional and national theatres.

It’s A show I’m very proud of, based on my true-life story, about a little girl growing up her two brothers who were born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – it celebrates the courage and resilience of the human spirit, poignant, powerful, heart-breaking and uplifting, with quirky, physical storytelling and a little bit of Abba!

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She Wins All The Races

What’s next for Mad Alice Theatre Company beyond Rose & Robin?

When you produce as well as act in a new play (which is the case for me on all Mad Alice productions), it’s always very intense and quite exhausting even though exhilarating but I always say “never again”! But as always once the show is up and running you forget all the initial hard slog and do start thinking “oooh, what next?”

I certainly would like to retour ROSE and ROBIN hopefully in autumn 2020 to further schools and theatre venues but hopefully on the rural touring circuit where I can see it playing very well and appealing strongly to village hall audiences…

I’m also, very keen too to get my one woman show to London which has been on my list since its first tour in 2016….

But my mind is certainly starting to mull over a new show possibly for 2021/2022 and I’m thinking of returning to Mad Alice’s roots of open air shows but with a PASSION PLAY, something I’ve always wanted to do. My faith has always been very important to me and it got me through very difficult times, growing up with both of my brothers who died in their teens. I’ve always wanted to do something faith linked however I have a very whacky imaginative side to my nature so I’m currently thinking of how we can make a passion play spiritual as well as presenting it in my own way.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

Well thank you Shelley – I loved your journey into the creative arts and it reminds me, very much the experience for some young people,  feeling obligated and pressured to follow a specific education and career path, whilst wanting to go into the creative industries. It’s like the mind says one thing and the heart drives another – they are TORN…..whilst I’m an advocate for following your passion, I too in my younger years took the “logical” route of chasing a “proper” job by going to study law….. YIKES! Thankfully we came our senses and listened to our hearts….

Maybe we could write a show together about our alternative reality lives as a biochemist and a lawyer.

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Rose & Robin – photography: Jamie Sproates

So Culture Vultures, I hope you see Rose & Robin and bring your mini Culture Vultures….. I’m heading to the Darlington Library performance and can’t wait.

Rose & Robin is twirling its way across the North East-

  • Darlington Libraries Central – 15th Feb, 2pm
  • Greenfield Arts – 18th Feb, 10.30am
  • Queen’s Hall Arts, Hexham – 19th Feb, 2pm
  • Gala Theatre & Cinema – 20th Feb, 2pm
  • Arts Centre Washington – 21st Feb, 11am & 2pm
  • Maltings Berwick- 22nd Feb, 2pm
  • Gateshead Libraries Central, 28th Feb, 1.30pm

For tickets, booking info and prices visit the website

That’s all for now Culture Vultures, until next time!

Interview with street artist & graphic designer Mul – “if people hate what you do, do it more”

If I have one piece of advice for you Culture Vultures for 2020, it’s put down your phone, get outside more and be a tourist in your own city. Northern cities are FULL of beautiful street art – work by amazing regional, National and International street artists are waiting for you to discover. Actually the North East is well known for its street art and I discovered recently, big name street artists actually visit here, seek out mural spaces and create their own mark on a NE city or town.
And if like me, you spend way too much time with your head down in your social media feed, you’re actually missing out on this lush art to discover, different styles AND the urban landscape is ever changing with new murals.
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Alex Mulholland mural in Ouseburn (near Tyne Bar)
Over the summer, I worked on a project exploring Ouseburn Valley and all the street art there – I visit the Ouseburn all the time, but largely in a passive auto pilot manner, as I’m looking at my phone and scrolling my feed. Over the Summer, I decided to put down my phone and suddenly, paths that I’d walked MANY times before sprung to life with pieces of work and street art, suddenly popping out; they’d been there YEARS but i’d never seen them before. I discovered SO many new artists.
One of those Ouseburn street artists is local artist Alex Mulholland a.k.a. ‘ Mul’! I’ve been a fan of Alex over the last few years – his bright murals brighten up my day when I’m walking around Ouseburn and Heaton and his Insta is just lush – he regularly posts new work. He’s got such a beaut style; Alex is graphic designer, street artist and he makes prints of his work too. He also takes commissions.
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Alex Mulholland – Mul
I first properly discovered Mul when i found out he was going to be spraying a design on the side of Thought Foundation caravan in their yarden! I wish children’s play areas were as cool as that when I was a mini….no rusty nails with a broken swing and instead street art, colour and lush space to play.
Recently, reached out to Mul for an interview to find out about his practice, what inspires him and to connect with him as an artist massively on the rise, getting commissions Nationally.
So over to you Mul….
Hi Mul, for my fellow Culture Vultures, tell me who are you and what’s your practice?
I’m Alex Mulholland or ‘Mul’ and I’m an artist and freelance  graphic designer from Newcastle.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell me your journey into the creative arts?
I probably started my journey when I was about 12 years old, that was when I discovered graffiti. Since then I have completed my degree in graphic design at Northumbria University and I started working for myself.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Your pieces are so lush and bold – where do you get the inspiration from for your pieces?
I guess inspiration comes from everywhere; I never seem to find it when I’m looking though. It always suddenly pops up out of nowhere; like a van driving past with something on the side of it. Apart from those random occurrences, music can also be very influential for me alongside travelling to new places and seeing art on the streets.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
You designed and sprayed Thought Foundation in Gateshead caravan, how did that commission come about?  I know what is used to look like before, you’ve done an amazing job!  
Thought Foundation was an interesting one. I’d never painted a caravan before but always wanted too after seeing ones Sickboy had done. I wanted to make the piece as colourful and crazy as possible and it was actually just made up there and then.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell us a bit about your big piece in the Ouseburn (near Tyne Bar in Newcastle)? What was the inspiration? 
That wall as really fun; I prefer painting bigger as there’s more space for creativity. I didn’t go into painting that wall with a sketch, I wanted to freestyle it and make it up as I went along.
I always have the most fun when I do that, as I’m not beating myself up if something doesn’t look how it does on the sketch.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
You have a very distinctive style, I think you can always tell your work from a mile off – how did it develop?
The current  ‘style’ has only been developing since January 2019. I hit a bit of a turning point with the art I produce and stopped what I had been doing for the previous four years. I think that if I hadn’t done that and made that decision, I’d still be stuck in the rut of doing the same thing over and over again.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
And where is the fun in that!? Do you like the mystic surrounding street artists? Often the pieces and style is recognised – but the person remains unknown….
I do understand it yes; I do think it’s more of a legal thing rather than the artist necessarily wanting to remain unknown (but not in all cases). The art I produce now I happily put my name to because it’s me and not an alias if that makes sense.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
As someone who champions and celebrates the North and loves street art – I’m thrilled people are seeing it as the exciting art form it is. There is a real buzz around street art and murals at the moment in the region – do you feel that too?
I’m glad this is becoming more accepted and celebrated up North. Places like Bristol and areas of London have been like this for a long time and I always love going to paint in places like that as it’s almost received with open arms.
Also having travelled and painted all through Europe you get a sense of how accepted it is in other places. Most cities now have designated areas for it and people travel from all over to paint and see the pieces.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
One thing I’ve always wondered is that outdoor art pieces have to survive the elements, but I do love it when it ages with it’s environment – do you enjoy the creative challenge making outdoor art?
Yeah! I mean my generation is lucky where that is concerned; we get the best paint for the cheapest price, delivered to your door and most of it will stand the test of time.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Do you take commissions? How would people get in touch if they wanted you to create a piece for them?
I do take commissions; the last ten months have really been great for that, lots of people are seeing my work and getting in touch for a whole range of fun projects.
You can contact me through my website http://www.mul-draws.com  or drop me and email at: alexmulholland@mul-draws.com
Alternatively I’m also on Instagram and Facebook @Mul_draws
Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Tell us about other street artists that inspire you?
I guess my biggest inspiration would be Keith Haring; he really pioneered street art in New York back in the 70’s and 80’s. His style is fun and bouncy which I guess is how I strive my work to be.
From the UK, artists like Stik, and D-face. I couldn’t leave Shepard Fairey out either, as he was probably my first exposure to street art way back in 2006 when he and other artists did the ‘Spank the Monkey’ exhibition at the Baltic.
Some of my favourite street pieces in Newcastle are still standing from that exhibition- The Obey paste-up mural on Falmouth road in Heaton and numerous Space invaders dotted around Newcastle and Gateshead. I think that they were the first pieces I saw and have definitely stuck in my mind ever since.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Do you have a fave piece that you’ve created? If i had a gun to your head and you had to pick one?
Yeah one springs to mind but it was under another alias so I can’t reveal.
Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Why do you think street artists are typically male identifying? There are some fantastic female identifying street artists too – but they seem in the minority.
Street art stems from graffiti, which is well known for being egotistical. I would love to see more females doing it especially up North. I can only name maybe one or two that do it up here which is a shame really.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Any advice for future creatives and street artists?
If people hate what you do, do it more.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Highlight of 2019 so far?
I had a great client that I’ve designed some hockey sticks for and a clothing line that will hopefully be going to the Olympics in Tokyo next year. I also got to produce a mural for them in Shoreditch, which was amazing.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Final question….what’s next for Mul in 2020 – anything you can share?
I am working on a few projects for 2020 at the moment that I can’t talk about at the moment but you can expect lots of big walls and collaborations. So make sure you follow @mul_draws on Instagram to stay up to date with that.

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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Thank you Mul; that is ace and I’ve got some amazing street artists to check out from your recommendations and if you’d like to discover more street artists, put your phone away and get exploring your city, you’ll discover loads of street art. A good place to start is the Ouseburn; you’ll see Mul’s piece there too – tell me what you think of it!? AND why not, swing by Thought Foundation and check out their Mul designed caravan; they also have a lush cafe, shop, exhibition on and events programme too.
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Alex Mulholland/Mul’s work
Until next time Culture Vultures……

Dan Cimmermann – artist interview; colour, rebellion, street art and re-imaging British historical figures…

You may have noticed over on my social media accounts that I’ve been selected to be one of two bloggers in residence over at The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. Basically, I have the glorious opportunity of creating content on Culture Vulture (and on their platforms) championing their artists, commissions, exhibitions, art of sale, residencies etc. As a passionate advocate for independent and original art – it’s a match made in heaven!

The Biscuit Factory holds a special place in my heart and lots of happy memories – it’s an independent gallery space (the largest indie commercial art, craft and design gallery in the UK); it is enabling and doing great things for the artistic community in the region, alongside bringing people like me National and International artists and their work into their gallery. Housed in a former Victorian warehouse, they showcase and sell the work of over 200 artists and makers in seasonally changing exhibitions. They champion independent, original and handmade. It’s a space that I’ve discovered so many new artists and art forms……each exhibition is an eclectic mix of art, prints, sculpture, interiors, craft and jewellery.

One of the artists currently on display at The Biscuit Factory, Winter Exhibition is Dan Cimmermann. He also happens to be one of my all-time top favourite artists, who I stumbled upon when visiting The Biscuit Factory a few years ago…. As soon as I was awarded The Biscuit Factory residency, I was determined to make sure Dan Cimmerman, would be my first artist interview.

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Dan’s work and The Biscuit Factory has long been intertwined in my head and I remember visiting the gallery space at the beginning of my Culture Vulture journey and falling in love with one of his big pieces. I didn’t know who Dan was, why I liked it so much – but the combination of colours, brush strokes and a historical female figure, made me fall in love. It was bold, it was empowering and it was exactly, the type of art I wanted to see more of and champion. Dan’s work and style is me in my visual arts comfort zone – it’s the type of art that I feel at home looking at.

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The first piece of Dan’s work I fell in love with

Then began the Cimmermann rabbit hole – I mentioned the piece to my pal Bobzilla (another extremely talented artist) and I fell into this world of Dan’s work. Those who follow my social channels, know I’ve long been an advocate for street art and street artists to be a respected genre in their own right and I’m head over heels for street art. I’m a street art addict! If you’re a street artist on Insta, I probably prolifically lurk your channel, I go on street art city walking tours, buy books on it, go to talks on it….sometimes it’s the only reason I visit a city, the street art! And I am so excited and happy that street artists are getting their rightful place in gallery spaces and commissions. It warms my heart – it really does. Dan is one of those artists; he has managed to make the bridge between street art and a gallery space……

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Dan Cimmermann in Tokyo

The Biscuit Factory, has exhibited and featured Dan’s work for a few years (he’s been making work since 2001 though) and the eagle eyed of you, if you recognise Dan’s style, will have noticed a beautiful mural outside Ernest Newcastle, which was an outdoor installation commission by Great Exhibition of the North. Folks were invited to walk him do some live mural painting…And inside Artisan event space connected to the Biscuit Factory, another mural is waiting to be discovered. It’s an absolute BEAUT.

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Mural inside The Biscuit Factory

Cimmermann’s colourful paintings and murals are a blend of ‘street’ and ‘studio’; through a process of reworking layers of paint and pen, he adapts classical works of 18th century portraiture. His work is often a reflection upon British identity and a rebellion against societal rules of old, he’s also not shy about using politics and themes like Brexit in his work. So I wasn’t surprised to stumble across more of his work in the Art of Protest gallery in York this Summer.

Dan is currently exhibiting a small selection of pieces at The Biscuit Factory as part of their Winter show – they are open to view every day between 10am-5pm. However, check out their website for their Christmas opening times as they are different. Those who know Dan’s work – will know some pieces cost well over £1000….. and some much more than that, but with this exhibition there are a mixture of price points – I’ve got my eye one…. It’s a beaut! However, if like me, a larger Cimmermann piece is the ultimate dream; The Biscuit Factory run their Own Art Scheme – a programme run in partnership with Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Creative Scotland. Own Art makes buying art easy and more affordable by letting you spread the cost of your purchase over 10 months with an interest free loan. So it could be more within reach than you think!

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On display in The Biscuit Factory Winter Show 19

So enough of me and my fangirl moment for Cimmermann and his work – and let’s hear from the man himself. I reached out to Dan a few weeks back, explaining my residency at The Biscuit Factory and was delighted he responded and agreed to an interview. A testament to despite being an Internationally successful artist which a busy schedule, that he still has time for a lass from Gateshead who loves his work! (If you follow his social, you’ll see that often his family champion his successes too – they even comments on my Insta posts when I’ve champion Dan’s work – literally so LUSH!)

So over to Dan Cimmerman….

Let’s start with the textbook Culture Vulture question, tell me about your journey into the arts?

Cleveland college of art and design, Middlesbrough and then Leeds met Fine art.

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So quite a “traditional route”….Did you always want to be a visual artist?

Yeah. I did want to be a graphic designer at first but I found working to a brief too restricting. I was more suited to fine art, doing what I wanted and with the element of chance I can pursue in painting.

You have a very distinguishable style…. how did that develop over the years?

I’ve always been interested in portraiture. It started at sixth form college, where I would imitate Freud, Bacon and Shani Rhys Jones. Also, Alison Watt, Peter Howson and Hockney too. I travelled a lot after university and found it fascinating how the world imagined Great Britain and the Brits. The stereotypes of the English gent for example or the threat of the hooligan or drunk Brit abroad.

So I started to bring this into my work via figures from British history, defacing them and disfiguring them like a beautiful old pub would be defaced and scarred over time by new generations.

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Tell us about your creative process? How do you go about painting a piece?

I work with quintessential British characters. I’ve painted Captain Cook, George Stephenson, portraits from Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Figures from high art and the upper echelons of society, something that felt a million miles away from my background in Middlesbrough. I never plan a painting or sketch first. All of the experimentation occurs on the canvas or wall. I react to what’s good and bad and build a composition from there.

Chance is the most important thing; it’s finished when it feels balanced.

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How do you select your characters to represent in your portraiture?

Something that strikes me as powerful or interesting to reproduce. It might be the pose, the history behind a portrait or the scale. Changing the scale can be really exciting – creating a large head based on a small portrait gives a new meaning and potency to the original.

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Since starting The Culture Vulture, I’ve discovered so many artists, like yourself – but I used to when I first started out a few years ago, make a tradition of visiting a big piece you had in there and used to always say “when i’ve made it big – i’m going to buy that piece”… I’m still working on it!

Let’s talk – I can give you a discount!

Now let’s chat about you and the Biscuit Factory….How did your relationship with Biscuit Factory start?

I started exhibiting there a few years ago; it was great that they wanted so many pieces for a group show. The space is so vast that their seasonal shows are like a series of solo shows in one. I showed 15 pieces the first time and then had a solo in the main space in 2017 entitled, ‘Northern Soul’. They are a great gallery to work with and they have championed my mural work too – I have produced two large pieces on site there.

I’ve visited The Biscuit Factory many times – I like that they help to make art accessible to the public and champion the work of young artists with their student prizes.

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Mural commission by Great Exhibition of the North outside Ernest, Newcastle

They are one of my fave galleries on a National scale, not just regional….Why do you think it’s important indie galleries like this exist?

The arts are suffering in state education so galleries like this are the future for creatives to meet, buy and show their work.

You’ve got a small pop up exhibition in their Winter Exhibition – tell me more about the pieces in it?

All the pieces were either produced or inspired by a recent residency I did in Tokyo, Japan. They focus on the Brit abroad, a kind of contemporary grand tour for normal folk. The smaller pieces are based on a procession of figures through the streets of Tokyo. There’s a lot of movement on the streets there, thousands of people moving in one direction in an incredibly orderly fashion.

The larger pieces try to simulate my feelings of being alone there – strange language, food, honour rituals, behaviour. Brit abroad. And the compensation for many blunders I made because I was British.

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On display in The Biscuit Factory Winter Show 19

I’m gradually growing my collection of art – in fact moving into a new place in 2020 and I’ve probably thought more about the art I’m purchasing than functional things like “buying a bed”…..Why do you think is a good thing for people to have/own art in their home?

Everyone needs something to stimulate their minds. Whether that be art, design, film, tv. Some kind of visual stimulation. I couldn’t imagine not having art on my walls at home.

You’ve got a large mural piece in Artisan space on the wall in The Biscuit Factory with Henry VIII vibes- can you tell me more about that piece?

Again this is based on my time in Japan, it was completed very soon after my return. I used figures from the Tudor period to represent the stoic, regimented approach of the Japanese. I merged these with geometry and shapes that I saw on the streets of Tokyo.

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Mural inside Biscuit Factory

What other street artists/visual artists inspire you?

Loads. Favourites at the moment are Justin Mortimer, mr Ayrz, Micheal Reeder, Tom Wood, Nicola Samori, Howard Hodgkin, John Wentz, Emilia Vilalba, Neo Rauch, Erik Jones, Ben Slow. I could go on and on.

Do you have a preference painting on canvas or on walls? Is there a process difference?

I prefer canvas in the studio as I can keep dipping in and out, reassessing and refining. But the excitement of a wall piece is hard to beat. I want the work to be immediate. I don’t want to spend too long refining a street piece, I want it to be quick and filled with the energy of that session.

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Well you certainly capture your energy in your pieces – You’ve had such a long career – do you have a highlight you’d like to share?

Portrait of my dad in the BP Portrait Award in 2001. Or getting my work in an exhibition in New York. That’s always been a dream since day one.

Any advice to any aspiring visual artists?

Work hard. Develop a style. No matter how good you are, you need to keep producing work and invest the time to develop. There’s no magic bullet.

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Any advice to artists wanting to approach The Biscuit Factory to display their work?

Get a solid series of work together and send them across to the folks there. Be honest and open about what you want to achieve.

Do you have anything planned for 2020?

Potentially a solo in London and Sheffield. Group show in New York at Booth Gallery. More work with the Biscuit Factory, Sidney and Matilda, Sheffield and Rise Gallery, Croydon.

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Well, that sounds like a busy 2020! Thank you Dan…. It’s so brilliant to see a Northern artist make it regionally, Nationally and Internationally and such a great message for the next generation of creative artists.

Also love the “work hard” message….. a career in the creative industries is not impossible – but it’s about giving 100%, working hard, being authentic…

You can check out some of Dan’s work on his website and you can also visit The Biscuit Factory to view his currently, exhibited pieces. Head on over to their website for info on their opening times this festive season!

Over and out Culture Vultures

 

 

 

Women’s House exhibition: a transformed Tyneside flat exploring feminism from diverse perspectives.

A few months ago, I was contacted out of the blue, by artist Padma Rao about her upcoming exhibition ‘Women’s House’ with fellow artist Miki Z. The exhibition (and wider project) inspired by Judy Chicago sees a flat in South Shields transformed into a gallery space, exploring feminism in social, political, cultural and historical contexts and the notion of “otherness”  through various art forms. This exhibition is a culmination of research, individual and collaborative interrogations, conversations, workshops with diverse women, and discussions with artists through a symposium.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

I get contacted all the time with exhibition information but this really triggered my interest for several reasons….

Firstly, in case you’ve been living under a rock, Judy Chicago, pioneering feminist artist, author and educator is having her work exhibited at The Baltic (until April 2020). The AMAZING exhibition at The Baltic spans Chicago’s fifty-year career, from her early actions in the desert in the 1970s, to her most recent series, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2013–16), which has not been previously shown outside of the US. As a feminist, I’ve admired and been away of Chicago for some time, so any project that is inspired by her work is something I want to see and be involved in.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Secondly, it’s a genuine community engagement project. So many exhibitions and art projects have “tokenistic” engagement! This is not the case for Women’s House – they worked tirelessly over the last year engaging with community groups, organisations, artists, peers, researchers etc – having meaningful interactions with the wider community and creating opportunities for people to collaborate with the project. I really believe “co-creation” (artists working with the community) enables higher quality art work and more interesting outputs.

Thirdly, it’s a gallery in a South Shields flat; I love that concept on its own. It’s so interesting when you watch people in traditional gallery spaces, “gallery behaviour” exhibited and the audience barriers erected once art is put in a traditional gallery space. Instead with Women’s House – you’re greeted by either Padma or Miki, offered a cup of tea and then free to explore the ‘living room’, ‘ kitchen’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘bathroom’. It’s lush, it’s relaxed and it feels very special.

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Finally, at its core is the exploration of feminism and different experiences of feminism via different art forms and cultural expression. I’m a passionate and proud feminist – I’m so interested at the fact the word “feminist” can have such triggered and polarised response. In the past, when I’ve supported a feminist art project, I’ve received some pretty horrible messages from people who really dislike feminists. And in championing this exhibition so far – whilst the responses have been really lovely and positive, there have been a few “stop with your feminist agenda pushing” or “I hate feminists”. Being a feminist is just about being a good human….

I went to view Women’s House a few weeks ago and it was so beautiful. Different art forms and styles in each room; there was a feeling of questioning, exploring, challenging the representations of women in various cultures and storytelling. The bathroom featured the work of members from Sunderland Women’s Art Group; over six weeks, members worked with Miki Z and Denise Lovell to explore domesticity, cross-cultural identities and gendered roles in the context of feminism. Some of this work is presented on sanitary wear including pads and tampons – which I just loved and extended debate around, why sanitary pads are STILL classes as luxury products and period poverty.

Women’s House is available to view until 20th December – they welcome individuals, community groups – anyone and everyone to get in touch to view by appointment via projectsangini@gmail.com . It’s a must see for feminists and art lovers alike.

I was lucky enough to interview Padma and Miki just before the exhibition opened to find out more! This interview was one my favourites as Culture Vulture and is peppered with such honesty from two fantastic creative humans!

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Well hello both, so if we could start at the beginning…tell my readers who you are and what your arts’ practice is?

Padma: My name is Padma Rao and I am a contemporary visual artist, practicing abstract painting and contemporary drawing.

I am passionate about women’s issues and equality, and through my work I investigate the role and status of women in our current society, especially within the South Asian cultures. I use of traditional materials, such as vermillion and turmeric. Though my work is largely experimental and abstract, I include figurative elements as part of the narrative.

I have worked extensively in the arts and the wider cultural, voluntary arts sector in a variety of roles, including arts manager, poet as well as Diversity officer at the Arts Council of England and as an advisor on the panel for Sunderland City of Culture Bid 2021. Having left my job at the Arts Council of England, I have since set up a social enterprise ArtsConnect that runs an art studio/ gallery ‘Makaan’ in South Shields and works as part-time manager at Sangini, a BME led women’s charity in Tyneside.

Miki: I am Miki Z, a visual artist and natural builder. My creative practice is based on experimentation where process is as important as finished product. A significant element of my work centers on materialiality as well as collaboration. Play and accidents are an integral part of my creativity, working in a tactile way across materials. Alongside theoretical research, my practice is a point of research which deepens and informs my thinking process. This fluid approach draws in elements of installation, performance and community participation.

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The Storytellers – Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

So tell me about your journey into the Arts?

Padma: I have always been interested in writing and painting. I  have loved drawing since my childhood and studied literature in India.  I grew up in an artistic environment where music and literature was part of our daily lives as my mother was a classical musician and my father played guitar.  I wrote stories which were printed in local literary magazines and a collection of my poems was published while I was at college.

As a first-generation immigrant in the 80s, I found that the arts sector for the diverse artists wasn’t that developed and it was quite isolating. Much later, I entered the arts sector as a volunteer, helping out to put dance events on in Newcastle for Kala Sangam, Bradford. I also volunteered for a writing group in South Shields. Whilst developing knowledge and skills, organising workshops, I continued to practice my own work around painting, drawing and literature. It was during this, I learnt about the wider arts sector and the disconnect that existed for Black minority ethnic artists, arts organisations both at personal as well as wider level.  This marginalisation of Black artists concerned me and I began asking how can I instil pride in my daughter who was growing up as part of this society but had not experienced the richness of different cultural expressions around her. The history she was told in her school as part of her curriculum was not the history I grew up with about the British Raj and India.

I realised that the picture wasn’t right and in order to correct the picture, it was important that I was part of that narrative.  It was during this time, the Arts Council of England rolled out its ACE Fellowship programme, a fast track senior management training programme for Black, Asian and Chinese arts professionals who, despite working in the industry for a long time, found it hard to gain an entry point into the arts. It was the first-time Arts Council had recognised the lack of representation of BME artists and arts professional within the arts and it became a turning point for me. I was placed at ARC, Stockton where I learnt about all aspects of arts management, programming, marketing, events co-ordination, funding and finance.  Finally, I progressed to work as Diversity officer at the Arts Council of England, North East where worked till 2011.

At 50, I decided to leave my job to become a full-time artist, but that road has not been easy and it took me further 8 years to finally arrive at this point to show my work publicly with the Women’s House project.  All this time, I kept working in the arts with Sangini, creating projects involving women, highlighting women’s issues, took on governance roles with various organisations which contributed to the depth of experience that I am able to bring to my art today.

Miki: I studied 3D Design at Northumbria University 20 years ago. I left feeling completely disengaged with art and design, creativity had been educated out of me.  Some years later I started an abstract painting class with Linda Kent. I found I could connect with this way of seeing the world and letting the materials inform expression.  Alongside this, I attended various community arts workshops as a participant; this encouraged me to find a way back into my own creativity and the value of the arts.

What made you turn your house into a gallery space?

Padma: The gallery space is called Makaan, in Hindi/Urdu it means a house (that inhabits art and artists)

I feel passionately about the transformative power of the arts and know how ‘spaces’ can play an important role in giving access to rich, life changing arts experience.  Not everyone is able to, or likes to or comfortable to go to galleries, thus the buildings can become barriers in engaging public in the arts.  So, by converting this terraced flat into an art space I plan to bring the arts to the people. It exists quietly as part of a residential neighbourhood and has welcomed artists, women and people from diverse communities.

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Padma – Tracing The Evanescent

Tell me how the project came about and developed over time?

Miki: Woman’s House came about after many conversations Padma and I had shared over the years about our shared interest in feminist issues, working with women’s groups and our own creative practices. One question kept coming up in these discussions- Why could we not make our art and developing as artists be the most important thing in our lives?  We both felt passionately about pursuing this as a priority.  It became clear that there where many reasons why this didn’t happen. Everything else in life was given more importance -caring for people, doing other work just to survive, putting other projects and people first before ourselves.  Alongside these practical concerns, the underlying narrative is equally important. We have not valued ourselves as artists, the immense feelings of guilt spending time developing our creativity and under confidence in expressing our identity in the world.

In 2015 I visited New York where I went to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. It was a fantastic and inspiring opportunity to see this iconic piece of work. What I was most struck with was the time spent working with hundreds of participants to create this striking art work. The highly skilled use of craft techniques, often seen as women’s work to depict each element is incredible.  It is an impressive collaboration between people, technical skills and ideas.

Padma: In 2018 while visiting a major women’s art exhibition in Paris, I saw some of the other work from the original project Womanhouse, 1972 the iconic project about women and domesticity by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro.

The Womanhouse, 1972 presented a variety of feminist art by various women including sculptures, performances, installations in a mansion, making this into a large scale site-specific installation, challenging the status quo around women’s issues and patriarchy.

The experience of seeing the original work by Judy Chicago was transformational; however, the exhibition presented a White, heterosexual, middle-class female perspective leaving a particular gap around Black and LGBTQ perspectives.

I got back from Paris and spoke to Miki at length about the exhibition I had seen and how these issues were still relevant, especially in the light of the Centenary of the Suffragette movement and the #MeToo campaign.  That’s when we decided to revisit the original exhibition Womanhouse. We both felt that there were still conversations to be had using Judy Chicago’s project as a departure point.  We wanted to understand how feminism is understood and defined by women from the BME and LGBTQ communities.

Four decades on, Women’s House considers BME and LGBTQ women’s narratives around some of the issues they are facing in current times in the light of the wider political, social and demographical changes.

What is it about Judy Chicago that you find so inspiring?

Both: The work of Judy Chicago opens a way to start dialogues about feminist issues.  Her iconic work Womanhouse seemed to fit well in the realms of what we had been talking about over the years, we both identified with parts of this particular work. The house being a main element of significance.  Padma had already converted a Tyneside flat into a studio/ gallery and my recent additional career direction in working in sustainable construction.

Having seen her work before, we both have a particular connection to Judy Chicago’s work. The tenacity, the boldness and expansiveness in her work has deeply inspired us to explore a lot of issues through our own lenses.  Her work has been pioneering in putting women’s work in a main stream context; highlighting women artists in their own right giving voice to feminist  ideas. It provided a radical language of expression for artists and viewer at a time when second wave feminism was active. Her work has influenced our own practice giving us courage in our own expression and aided more direction in enquiry within our creativity.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Tell me about some of the events and groups that you’ve engaged with so far as part of the project?

Both: The framework for this project included workshops with community groups, a networking lunch for artists and a symposium.

We held six workshops with 30 BME and LGBTQ  women across Tyne and Wear with the aims of the workshops were to engage women in a discussion around the themes explored in Women’s House using creative approaches help elicit visual narratives.

We also worked with Sunderland women’s art group and facilitated the process of developing an idea into a visual piece, enabling them to make site-specific art pieces for this exhibition.

We hosted a networking lunch for artists; eight BME and LGBTQ women artists were be invited to take a critical view on the issues of feminism and the impact on their personal lives and the artistic practice. What transpired was prioritising space for more in-depth conversations in the future about these discussions.

Finally, a symposium – Working in partnership with National Glass Centre; Sangini organised the symposium whereby a panel of women artists and art professionals were invited to present their views and experiences of Women centric work in the context off feminism in current times.

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Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

What do you want the audience experience to be when they visit the exhibition?

Miki: I want the audience to be challenged by the work created both collectively and individually.  Part of the exhibition is an immersive space to be viewed by minimal light enabling a space for individual imagination and narratives to be added into their own perception of the work. Their part of the story is an important aspect of this work; the boundaries are in no way solid, providing fluid interpretation.  I would like the audience to experience an emotional response to the work.

Padma: The work is largely visceral, personal and emerges out of deep introspection, unravelling small incidents with great care and honesty.  We are telling stories and I hope the audience is able to pick up on these threads and explore personal stories long after they have seen the exhibition.

Why do you think this exhibition and project is important?

Miki: This project is really just a starting point of opening the discussions around intersectionality. The uncomfortable, unsaid things are of interest to me, many of these topics have only been touched upon within this project. The tensions we see around our communities are real, but how do we address them? This project has started to make a space for dialogues between different women from diverse background. There is so much fear involved in talking about the real issues, the way we see ourselves in our own context and then how we may be able to see ourselves in a wider context.  Creating a safe space to have, what might, for many be unsafe conversations is challenging.  Using the creative process and facilitated sessions is a tool opening cross sectional dialogue.

Padma: This project is an important point of transition for me as an artist as it has helped me to affirm my identity, develop an understanding of the collaborative practice as well as my own individual practice.  Many of the issues explored in this project more in-depth conversations both internal as well as externally at wider levels.  Aside from the issues of race and sexuality, there are plethora of other issues that prevent women from leading a decent day to day life which goes to show that more is needed to achieve a level playing field.

The exhibition is personal yet it’s also reflective of the wider narratives we have encountered while working on this project.  It’s a conversation piece between Miki and I, a portrayal of the female world, as we saw it and experienced it.

This project helped us to link up with Baltic and the Women’s House exhibition coincides with Judy Chicago’s exhibition at Baltic. This is a major co-incidence which we are not taking it lightly. We are delighted with the opportunity to work with Baltic on this and we will be hosting an event to mark Judy Chicago’s exhibition.

Can you tell me about some of the pieces and the processes behind the making?

The Storytellers

Padma: A collaborative, immersive, site specific piece that draws on intersections of our identities in terms of race and sexuality.

This piece uses the techniques of Warli tribal art from India, where the outside walls of the house are painted in red natural pigment and using rice flour and water, women depict their daily lives on the painted surface.  We have used this traditional art form to portray our stories in the contemporary British context.  Using white line drawings, both Miki and I have attempted to bring together our experiences over the past year.

The piece creates an immersive environment, presented in a darkened room where viewers are invited to see the work using small hand-held lights, restricting their view of the artwork as a whole.  The viewers will only see parts of the work, forcing them to develop their own narrative/s based on the limited view of the installation.

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Tracing The Evanescent

Padma: “Can’t remember the last time a south Asian female figure was portrayed in a mainstream art gallery.’

This became the starting point as I began investigating into the notion of feminism among South Asian women who are often seen as ‘passive’. This concern was further widened with questions such as, ‘Where are the stories of South Asian female activism?’  ‘Why there are very few or little South Asian female stories represented in the galleries or museums?’ ‘Where is the South Asian feminist art in the UK?’ After much research, there is a distinct lack of narratives to assert British South Asian feminist voices, especially through creative expressions.

This piece is a series of process based drawings involving the act of mark-making and erasure as the main method to ‘trace’ the lost or hidden faces of women of South Asian descent. What began as a quest for stories of feminist art expression among South Asian women artists, soon became a concern. There has been a distinct lack of narratives of the British South Asian feminist voices, especially through creative expressions.

Angry and upset, I began rendering by drawing and erasing the faces in a repeated fashion, as if to experience the notion of invisibility that happens to the women on daily basis. In some of the drawings, by slowly making the circular gestural marks over the face, thus partially covering the faded face, I was able to connect deeply and emotionally with these women.

Who are these women?  Despite the concern about the lack of presence of feminist expressions, what I found exciting was the ordinary and the everyday acts of feminism which pervade these women’s lives.  Hence, the largely lost or hidden faces of ordinary women who are brave, courageous and strong become the heroines and their narratives are explored through their gaze and emotional state. They are portrayed in oversized scale using charcoal, graphite and kumkum (vermillion).

Exploring Other

Miki Z: A process led investigation into gendered space both physical and emotional. Using abstract lines, mixed media and water colours, it explores the queer space in-between, capturing the non-binary state of depiction of a person. It’s open to challenging those boundaries, disrupting the binary position. Using intuitive way of working, there is the accidental or the unseen. What happens on the paper informs the next.  There is fluidity and sense of movement in the pieces that allow the viewers to gain a sense of flow that is largely internal, feeling like they are floating in a space of their own occupying a liminal space.

Sum the exhibition up in 3 words?

Both: Immersive, poetic, bold

What do you think about the current North East creative scene?

Both: The North East creative scene is a unique place to showcase as well as experience fabulous arts and culture.  Just take Sunderland and you can see how a city is transforming its cultural landscape through great music, dance, festivals and visual arts from across the world.  Despite the squeeze on funding, there are great advocates for the arts in the North East who keep fighting for the region and that gives us hope for the future. We do need more diverse artists from the region and their voices to come through and more diversity of audience participation, especially inclusive of minority ethnic, disability and LGBTQ communities.

Tell me about an artist that you find in the present, super inspiring?

Padma: There are several artists that I often refer to, depending on the subject I’m working on, for inspiration and to learn from; Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Chitra Ganesh and Zarina Hashmi to name a few. But the one artist whose work I find particularly inspiring and deeply interesting, in terms of drawing, is Julie Mehretu.  Mehretu’s work is multi-layered with marks, architectural shapes, designs to create complex large scale abstract paintings.  I have not seen her work, but I am sure it will be just as transformational as it has been with Judy Chicago’s work when I saw it for the first time in Paris.

Miki: Throughout this project I decided not to do research on other queer or BME female artists. I was more interested in theoretical research which in turn influenced my creative practice becoming research, ideas and thoughts. The main area of importance for me goes hand in hand with my other work as a builder in various ways. Looking at gendered space as a concept, how we interact with spaces around us and how space is conveyed on a two dimensional plain.

Tell me about another project you’ve worked on?

Padma: Last year, I produced a retrospective for a national Rangoli artist Ranbir Kaur at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Miki: As well as being an artist I am a natural builder.  During my recent postgraduate degree in Belgium I was involved in the design and build of a women’s centre in a village in Morocco. Through this experience I have become motivated in researching practical design principles for best practice in working with marginalised  communities.

What’s next for you in 2020?

Both: We plan to carry on developing our collaborative work, expanding narratives working with communities to make larger scale artworks taking over public spaces.

Miki: In the next year I have many projects I aim to undertake, part research, part practice where one will influence the other.  I will attempt to undertake a research project which focuses on gendered space, crossing between physical built environment, body, emotional and the place in-between.  Alongside this I want to produce a body of work that crosses between my abstract art work and technical skills working with lime and clay in construction. Melding the two disciplines together.

Padma:  ‘The Female’ – as in consciousness, a metaphysical body, remains a primary concern of my work.  I would like to continue exploring some of the issues I uncovered during my research on this project, such as the notion of visibility, migration and identity from a feminist perspective. I have been deeply moved by the recent forced mass migration of Rohyingyas in Myanmar, but this is not in isolation. Mass movement of people is symptomatic of where humanity is at right now and I plan to develop a body of work on this topic.

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Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Wow…..I’ve loved this interview. I could talk about all of this all day – I really love when personal passions become the inspiration for projects. It’s all about people power!

Women’s House is available to view until 20th December – they welcome individuals, community groups – anyone and everyone to get in touch to view by appointment via projectsangini@gmail.com. It’s a must see for feminists and art lovers alike.

(#AD) A Haunted Existence – part review, part interview, 100% brilliant & important theatre…

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So picture the scene; it’s 2013 and I’m on a train. I’m younger, i’m confused and i’m looking out the window heading towards an adventure for the weekend. I meet this lush lass and even though i’m an introvert, we get chatting away – there’s something so special about a train journey meet. It’s sacred, it’s secret, you can be totally honest and real as it’s quite likely, you’ll never meet that person again. We chat about so many things but sexuality is a common theme (something which i’d never discuss with my nearest and dearest); we discuss our journey with self acceptance, exploring the binary and experimentation – all whilst there is a flirting energy and growing common bond.
The person opposite us, is eagle eyed through-out the whole conversation and has a constant disapproving stare with various tuts. One too many train wines later, there is a kiss, mostly to rebel against Mrs Disapproving; then the train journey ends, we swap numbers with no real intention of staying in touch but happy that in that moment, I was able to be my true self and open. It was a perfect train journey.
Now let’s compare this is to the story and subject of talented theatre maker Tom Marshman’s BRILLIANT play “A Haunted Existence” on a week long run this week at Alphabetti; we learn about Geoffrey Patrick Williamson in 1953, a lad of 17 on a train who meets a man at a time when being gay was not just considered “morally wrong” but a proportion of society, but it was also illegal and regularly punished with jail time and aversion therapy/torture. Geoffery chats to this man…I imagine him at 17, exploring his identity and sexuality (like most young people at that age), that spills over into an interaction on the train – one perceived as “safe” with a stranger. The person who he is chatting to, he feels a connection with and ends up having a moment……that moment changes his life forever. He is arrested by an undercover police offer for homosexual “improper advances”, interrogated and later (after pressure) gives the men of 15 other men, who are arrested.
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The parallels between the two train journeys are clear but the outcome so different – how many of us have had these “moments” of totally honesty with strangers without consequences!? The sanctity of connections with strangers for many of us is SO important and a total life line. To have a “secret” moment of being “real” violated like Geoffery’s makes me so sad….. this is a theme that is often brought out in a Haunted Existence – men like Geoffrey “love seeking” and “in it together and in it alone”. These fleeting moments with strangers provided solace and a sense of hidden “collectiveness” in a world that chased their true selves to hide, to be silenced and often alone with it. Everyone needs to have those moments in their lives – especially a young person like Geoffery at 17.
A Haunted Existence has been on a run at Alphabetti this week (you can see it tonight or tomorrow still – Tickets are £6-8 and available HERE) and I’ve not stopped thinking about it since, a sign of a great piece of theatre. A Haunted Existence weaves together history and hearsay to highlight turmoil, stigma and heartbreak and tell the story of Britain’s very recent, shameful past.I had the pleasure of being invited to the opening night on Tuesday and it was just fantastic and SO moving- if you see one piece of theatre this year, you NEED to see this. There are still some tickets left for tonight and tomorrow.
The forgotten/untold stories of Jeffery and the 15 arrested men are told beautifully exploring their “haunted existences” as gay men unable to live as their true selves, some stripped of their freedom, some faced aversion therapy and all lives changed forever. Tom combines music, rhyme, movement, projection to tell these stories and whilst it is a one man show- through the innovation of the projections, many characters are present on stage.
I had the pleasure of catching up with talented Tom Marshman before his opening night at Alphabetti, over the phone for a quick interview about his journey so far as a theatre maker, making the show and what’s next…..
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Tom Marshman
Tom Marshman has been making theatre since 1997 and has a catalogue of interesting, innovative, evocative projects that blend movement, dance, performance, contemporary theatre, installation, film, project and artistic residencies – this boundary blurring is something that I find utterly aspirational. You can certainly see it in a Haunted Existence; the storytelling is brilliant, Marshman’s flair for strong visual characterisation is evidenced at a time when new technology is more available than ever to theatre makers, so this type of storytelling has gone from impossible to the core part of the likes of Marshman’s theatre making. I asked Tom about this and he talked about the collaborations, artistic input from other theatre makers and creative professionals, that had enabled him to put his vision on stage. Another reason why I love the creative sector, the sentence “i have this idea but i’m not sure how to make it happen”, is like a battle cry to the sector and usually results in the ability to assemble a team of hot talent to make it a reality. And the team behind A Haunted Existence, are just that, TALENTED!
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Tom revealed in our interview that his journey into theatre making was purposeful but over time, including taking a degree, working in a call centre before gradually becoming a full team theatre maker. Researching Tom, I found he was MUCH more than a theatre maker; an avid art activist, live tea party host, film maker, passionate about queering the space in Bristol – celebrating queer icons, an agent provocateur within the Live Art sector developing an artistic network full of opportunities and within another collective using archival materials and research as a means of “re-enacting” moments a new. Tom is one of those creatives who already has had such a positive impact and from my perception has helped pave the way for the next generation of boundary defying projects that my peers are able to work with such freedom. He seems to put so much of his playfulness, personality, experience and his personal journey of self discovery into his work – I admire his ability to do so and the authenticity when he’s on stage is captivating.
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I suggest if you want to find out more about Tom, you check out his website for his past projects – he’s made such interesting work body of work. He’s arguably got the most interesting back catalogue of projects that i’ve seen from a theatre maker – all very Culture Vulture. One of my favourites, which i highlighted to Tom during our chat was “Passion of the Pole” – Tom revealed he thought it was interesting I’d selected that one, as it was a relatively small project that he didn’t perform that much at the time. To give you a flavour of why fell in love with the sound of it – he mixes visual representations of Christ on the cross with live pole dancing – which he took up and mastered especially for the show. I like things that push boundaries, bold, daring, shocking and certainly, stuff that other people aren’t doing – no-one likes a beige buffet and I’m such that show was a visual feast that I would have LOVED!
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Tom’s love of research and hidden history is evident in previous projects,also was (and continues to be) an important part of A Haunted Existence and it’s development – he confesses that he has a “fascination for uncovering extraordinary stories” and that’s exactly what he does, with such precision, detail, seamless narration…..
The best theatre I’ve seen this year, has been about REAL people and their experience, but there is always (in my mind) a fear of doing these real life stories justice, especially when the people’s stories being told were the subject of such oppression, silencing and injustice. However, Tom gives such a beautiful and respectful platform in A Haunted Existence, to these men, including Geoffery and manages to do it in a way, that in parts, you feel like the men are on stage sharing that collective moment with the audience and having a dialogue. I type this whilst literally tearing up thinking back to moments of the show – it really is so moving to learn about the trauma these men experienced for the rest of their lives after their arrest. Tom also shared this pressure to do these “forgotten” men an element of justice in making the show and also shared, that family members had reached out to him, very positively responding to the show.
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Another interesting element, of Tom’s theatre making process for A Haunted Existence, which he both shared with me during our interview AND in the show itself, is that he engaged with a medium to connect with these men. He held a seance with Sarah, a medium and a group of like minded friends. The seance revealed themes, imagery, men, shadows which were fed into the show’s creation. Whilst, I have never experienced a seance myself – I am a believer in the afterlife and paranormal (had my own experience – but that’s for another time) so I really bought into (and fascinated by) using this as a process to connect with the subjects of the developing piece. I also considered it an interesting process of centering yourself into that moment with Geoffery on the train whilst symbolically thinking about some of these men, at that time living as ghost versions of themselves – elements of their true selves forced into hiding or to live an invisible, discreet lifestyle.
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During the interview, we discussed that A Haunted Existence holds a mirror up to society in the past, present and (potentially) the future – the mirror symbol I would later discover would be thematically featured in the show. Our conversation further highlighted how “curated” our learnt history actually is – we are taught and presented a white hetero normative version of the historic world, almost like LGBTQ+ and queer people didn’t exist. These sections of society only seem to be presented and representative in history as trouble makers, extreme activists or societal deviants – the deviancy portrayal is clear in the show. A Haunted Existence reminds us, that these people existed in 1953 (and for hundreds and hundreds of years before that/forever)…. but our society (we) punished them, silenced them, made them feel ashamed, hide, pretend and then we have erased them from history or failed to represent them.
In history, we are taught of the moment that homosexuality was legalised and at school my history teacher told our class, being gay was “frowned” upon – so I was presented with the view as a child, that being gay was a lifestyle that wasn’t embraced by society….A Haunted Existence reminds us, it was SO much more than that. We locked people up for it, we tortured them, we made many feel so ashamed of something so natural that they took their own life to escape….. Tom Marshman does a brilliant job here of presenting this shameful truth in a way, that doesn’t lecture, disengage but reminds us of an inescapable historic period of fact, that may make some feel uncomfortable but so important to acknowledge – especially, during a time in the present where liberties all over the world due to the political climate are potentially at stake for many again and how we need as many allies as possible.
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I asked Tom, to sum up in his words why he thought people should come and see the show at Alphabetti – his first response was “Because I’ve worked really hard on it!”, which I guess all theatre makers say – however, after experiencing the show, you really see exactly how hard Tom and has team have worked- It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful and it’s important theatre that really says something important. Tom’s second response was that the show was “moving and uplifting” – now from what I’ve written above, you’ll get a sense of the moving element – but it is very uplifting too. Firstly, it has a happy ending…. (I also cried at that as it was SO perfect) and secondly, there are elements of humour, Tom’s disarming charm, a soundtrack that made me smile on multiple occasions and comedic moments were crafted into the show, meaning I cried and laughed a few times (sometimes at the same time – thank god for the darkness of the audience).
Another uplifting element, was that whilst, the world and experience was a tragedy for the featured men from 1953, Tom then charts some of the positive changes that happened in the legal system; the judges and advocates who enabled change (allys – they might not have self-identified like that at the time) and how we begin to move to 2001 where being gay was officially 100% legalised. Of course, change was PAINFULLY slow, but I felt a sense of “thank fuck” for these people speaking out – at a time, when clearly opinions like that wouldn’t have been welcomed.
As with many creatives, Tom has lots of plates spinning so of course, one of my closing questions during our chat was about “what is next for Tom Marshman!?”. He revealed that he plans to tour A Haunted Existence in 2020 “a little more” which makes my heart swell, as I want as many people to see this show as possible….. he also share that a project/show he is starting to develop now is about Kenneth Williams. Knowing Tom’s work now – this sounds like a match made in heaven project – I love Kenneth’s slap stick persona, the Carry On Films were such a big part of the comedy scene at a particular time and I have always found it interesting that a gay man like Kenneth, his “camp characters” were accepted in the mainstream at a time, when his private life wasn’t as readily – something which is so weirdly ironic. I’m extremely excited to see how that project develops and plays out……
But for now, you’ve still got two nights to see A Haunted Existence; it’s on tonight and tomorrow (Saturday 30th Nov). Still some tickets available but they are flying as the world is out about how important and unmissable this show is.
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If you get tickets or already have them – make sure you get down to Alphabetti early, so you have chance to take in the pop up exhibition which charts LGBTQ+, cultural and political events. It’s a small but perfectly formed exhibition – I loved it. Also stick around post show to meet Tom in the bar area and to purchase a commemorative Pewter Tankards made by Wentworth Pewter, to mark 50 years since the partial legalisation of homosexuality, inspired by the stories told in A Haunted Existence.
A Haunted Existence by Tom Marshman is on tonight and tomorrow at Alphabetti Theatre, tickets are £6/£8 and doors are 7.30pm. It lasts 1hr 10mins – if you go to see it or have been – tell me what you thought?
Disclosure : I was gifted tickets to the opening night of the show – however, everything above is my own words and an authentic, honest review of my EXPERIENCE.

#AD – TakeOff Festival 2019 – a LUSH family theatre festival across Durham 21st Oct- 26th Oct. #readytotakeoff

I’m ready to TakeOff….. always.

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TakeOff Festival is England’s leading festival of theatre for children and young people and it returns 21-26 October 2019 across County Durham.  It’s a beautiful, jam packed week of lush theatre shows for minis and families across multiple venues.

It’s become a passage of life….my early 20s were all about music festivals and that type of shenanigans….my early 30s (clinging to the early bit as nearly 34) is all about taking my friend’s minis to theatre festivals. And to be honest, I’m really not sure who enjoys it more…. For them, they have a magical experience full of high quality family theatre and storytelling escapism…and I…..well I have the same experience really and hang out with lush mini humans – I can’t wait.

If you haven’t heard of, or been to TakeOff before…well it’s LUSH and a North East family fest gem! The beauty is that you can book for loads of theatre shows (sorting out your half term in an instant – like the pro parent/grandparent/carer that you are!) as they is something different every day or you can dip in and out picking something you fancy.

TakeOff Festival is produced by Theatre Hullabaloo and supported by Durham County Council. I really love Theatre Hullabaloo; they were an organisation that I was aware of from day dot Culture Vulture, as pioneering theatre makers that make, tour & promote theatre for young audiences that inspire the imagination and challenge the mind.

They believe that theatre should and could be part of everyone’s childhood – an ethos that I am super passionate about AND they prioritise young people  in their work linking with specialist creative and education teams at every stage of the theatre making process. All their theatre making has passion and purpose – a theatre organisation, that champions audiences as the priority is certainly an organisation that is VERY Culture Vulture.

So I totally suggest you make theatre and TakeOff Festival part of your Autumn 2019 half term experience across 21-26 October!?…..There are LOADS of performances for various ages to choose from and there is the TakeOff Festival family day on 26 October in Durham city centre; a fun-filled family day of world-class children’s theatre, storytelling, installations, arts and crafts and much more!

Whilst the whole programme looks MEGA, I thought I’d take a moment to share with you my Culture Vulture festival picks to hopefully inspire you to go and see some lush theatre at TakeOff Festival. There are also some specialist SEND shows including Playful Tiger.

Hide & Seek (By Theatre de la Guimbarde, France)

Pelton Community Centre

22 Oct, 1.30pm

Two siblings have been put to bed for the night, but these children have more exciting plans in mind!

Become part of their simple game as they reinvent new ways to play hide-and-seek. In a rediscovery of the pleasure of hiding oneself in order to discover oneself, Hide-and-Seek invites audiences to experience the acrobatic adventures that ensue past these children’s bedtime.

Suitable for ages 2-5 years.

Tickets available HERE.

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Sky (By Teater Minsk, Denmark)

Gala Theatre, Durham

23 Oct 11am & 12,30pm, 24 Oct 11am & 12.30pm, 25 Oct 9.30am & 1pm, 26 Oct 10am, 1pm & 2.30pm.

Jump onto a soft cloud and feel the wind whirling and whispering as two dancers make the space around you twist and turn.

Lie down and look at the sky through your toes!

Can you see the world from upside down?

Can you hear the stars?

Everything is in motion in this beautiful dance theatre for minis and their families.

Suitable for ages 2-4yrs.

Tickets available HERE.

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Sky

There Is A Noise (By Hestnes / Popovic, Copenhagen)

The Hullabaloo, Co Durham

23 October, 6pm

From the diary of a 16-year-old grandmother in 1945 to the narrative of escaping war as a child, this piece investigates memory. The audience is invited to sit around a table while stories unfold around them in the midst of frying waffle ooze. We look at the blurry line between facts, memories and emotions of experiencing war as a child and question how to retell. The piece dives in to the confusion and unease of carrying such a story with you and the difficulty of sharing it.

What can we share with others and how can we relate to something that we do not understand?

Suitable for ages 13yrs+

Tickets available HERE.

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There Is A Noise

Jabberbabble (By Theatergroep Kwatta, The Netherlands)

The Mark Hillery Arts Centre, Collingwood College Durham

25 Oct 9.30am, 11.30am & 1.30pm and 26 Oct 10am & 12noon

A show about four birds and one nest. Nobody understands their jibber jabber lingo. What if we don’t speak the same language but still manage to understand each other?

A delightful show that is entirely sung, as it should be with birds – by the end of the show, no one will be strangers. #fourbirdsonenest

Suitable for ages 4-7yrs.

Tickets available HERE.

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Jabberbabble

Tiger Tale (By Barrowland Ballet, England)

Gala Theatre, Durham

26 October, 11.30am & 4pm

Something wild is prowling. She can hear it through her bedroom walls, but her mum and dad seem stuck in the dull routines of their everyday lives. Until one day the wild breaks in and everything changes.

A troubled family’s world turns upside down when a tiger invades. It’s chaotic, it’s dangerous but brilliantly funny as the tiger reignites the family’s love for one another. With captivating dancers, enjoy the thrill of sitting right up close to the action and the chance to explore the set at the end.

Suitable for ages 7yrs+

Tickets available HERE.

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Tiger Tale

So those are my suggestions – but there are loads of other shows – you can download the full programme from HERE!

If you go to watch the above shows or any others – let me know what you thought!

Also, this year this is The TakeOff Festival family day on 26 October in Durham city centre with a fun-filled family day of world-class children’s theatre, storytelling, installations, arts and crafts and much more! There’s a great mix of free and paid for events so something for all the family to enjoy!

You can check out what there is to at Family Day HERE.

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Until next time Culture Vultures….get plotting your half term shenanigans with your minis!

(#AD) An Interview with Workie Ticket Theatre – giving a voice to communities & human stories through theatre making….. #womenwarriors

One of my favourite things about being the Culture Vulture, is that I get to meet people who are truly living and breathing their passion – independent folks making real changes and a big difference to people in the North. Passion and purpose is what gets me out of bed in a morning, and I love to connect with others who connect with theirs.

Workie Ticket Theatre Company is a company of brilliant humans doing just that – they first came to my attached due to the name. As a bit of a “workie ticket” myself – I appreciated their branding……. For that don’t know – a “workie ticket” is a Geordie term for someone who is a bit mischievous, a tinker, someone who pushes the boundaries, pushes their luck……..but in a likeable way. I’m all about pushing boundaries so I really embrace the term and the Workie Ticket ethos.

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Workie Ticket are doing amazing things in the North East– their first project came to my attention on social media. Hear Her Roar, celebrated and gave a platform to brave, bold new writing by some of the North East’s most exciting playwrights. Giving a platform to new talent is something I’m really passionate about and part of my purpose as Culture Vulture so it’s lush to see others championing equitable opportunities. Their current project ‘Women Warriors’ is extremely important and gives voices to the stories of female veterans on stage- stories that haven’t been told, silenced and disempowered – so I was thrilled to be invited over to The Exchange in North Shields to meet JoJo Kirtley founder and co-Artistic director of WT and Lindsay Nicholson, co-Artistic Director of WT. We had some amazing chat about things we’d like to change in the theatre industry in the North East and it was an ace opportunity for a Culture Vulture interview and to find out more about Women Warriors on 9th October at The Exchange at 7pm – tickets are available to purchase HERE.

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Hi JoJo & Lindsay, right so for my reader and fellow Culture Vultures….Who are you?

JoJo Kirtley, founder of WT and co-Artistic director. I write, produce and facilitate. I am originally from Newcastle but I’ve spent a lot of my career in Manchester.

Lindsay Nicholson, Co-Artistic Director of WT. I’m a performer, facilitator and producer.

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Tell me about your journey into theatre?

JoJo– I went to Longbenton High School where I was introduced to drama because of my drama teacher, Ian Williams. He believed in me at a time when I was struggling. I fell in love with Brecht instead of Shakespeare, but I wanted to learn more about how to run a theatre. So, I worked in theatres as an usher, back-stage hand, in the box office and marketing whilst I was at Uni. I studied for my Masters degree in Theatre Studies at Manchester Uni and I then went into youth work and teaching drama to young people excluded from school.

I never saw myself as a writer. Never had that belief in myself. I didn’t write my first play until I was 26, when I was on maternity leave with my son, Tom. I had entered a Royal Exchange competition and later wrote ‘Loaded’ which was produced at 24:7 Theatre Festival. I fell into producing when I was pregnant again with Ry and my pals, Rob and Martin needed a producer to help produce their play, “Away From Home” which I did taking a baby every where with me!

Lindsay – My background is performance. I was in my first musical at the age of 9 – ‘Brigadoon’ – I’ve never been able to stand the sound of Bag Pipes since… After my degree in Performing Arts, I fell out of love with the theatre industry and ended moving into event management and art curation, I enjoyed running a Multi-Purpose Art Space in 2010, moving on to coordinate events at a queer-led art space – both non-profit Pop Ups that aren’t here today but I am immensely thankful for those opportunities that taught me how to deal with floods, minor electrocution and how to zip up a 6-foot-odd, bearded drag queen into a Care Bear dress.

I’ve had the privilege of working and living in some amazing places, teaching Drama one Summer in New York, working on the events team at Melbourne Arts Centre for two years in Australia and a year spent in-between Tokyo and Bali for an events and hospitality company. I realised however I was being pulled back to my original communities and the art of story-telling… I decided to return home and “dip my toe in” the acting world again. JoJo punished me with an 18 minute monologue and since then we have become sound friends and now business partners.

Tell me about Workie Ticket? What is it? How did it start? Inspiration behind it?

JoJo – I had a story I wanted to tell; my story and I wanted to be my own boss, when it came to writing (I am not good with people telling me what to do). I feel like the North East has a very male-dominated theatre industry and there isn’t many opportunities for women.

So, I set my own company up to create those opportunities-first it was just a group of us who primarily to wanted to raise money for Newcastle Women’s Aid and raise awareness about domestic abuse. Then, I realised that I could develop it further but I couldn’t do it on my own so I asked Lindsay to Workie Ticket too. Best thing I ever did!

We’re now a female-led theatre company who want to push boundaries and empower the people we work with through theatre. Essentially, I just want to tell stories that make audiences sit up and listen.

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I got goose bumps hearing that…Tell me about Women Warriors?  

JoJo – I was at a women’s mental health conference and I saw a post it note that read, “What about female veterans?” and I thought…..GOOD question, what about them? It haunted me…how come I had never thought about women who fight for this country?  Eventually, after some research I met up with Paulie from ‘Salute Her’ and we talked about me writing a play but I started to think that these women needed more…so Women Warriors was born…

Women Warriors has been devised by engaging female veterans through forum theatre and discussion-based workshops. We also spoke to a lot of women veterans at groups and meetings. Some rang us up and told us their stories.

Our main aim with WW is to contribute to their empowerment whilst creating a dialogue about how to support veteran rehabilitation through creative methods. We wanted to centre the lived experiences of female veterans, women who are often socially isolated, overlooked and suffering from lack of support in a theatre production but make it real. We also wanted to raise awareness of the challenges female veterans face in society such as prejudice, discrimination, abuse and PTSD but also celebrate these women. We were lucky to be funded by the Newcastle University Social Fund and work with Dr Alice Cree who is writing about our methodology. Other funders for this stage were Hospital of God, Sir James Knott, Greggs Foundation, Rothley Trust and the Joicey Trust.

Within a safe space, we have facilitated issue-based and forum theatre workshops to develop a series of short plays with five writers. We presented a rehearsed reading of our piece in July as part of our R&D in the build up to producing the first full production of ‘Women Warriors’ It was very well received and the veterans loved it; which was the main thing. Two days before the reading, the Arts Council confirmed funding the full productions and I remember thinking, if the veterans don’t like it then I will send the money back! And I would have.

But luckily, they loved it….and one said to me this week that they felt like they could open up more now and talk about their experiences.

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What can audience members going to see Women Warriors on 9th October at The Exchange expect?

JoJo – I don’t think you can really define this production. Expect to be shocked. Expect to cry and laugh. Bring tissues. There are some real moments of heartache which are pretty-hard hitting.

What do you want audiences to take away?

Lindsay – Really quite simply that they will think about female veterans from now. The audience may be more informed in why people sign up to serve. It is not the same for everybody…

JoJo – When we first started working with the veterans, I thought we would struggle to connect but they are an amazing group of women. I hope audiences see that.

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Sum the show up in 3 words?

Lindsay – Bike, dyke, frigid?

Talk me through the process of developing the show up to this point? Who have you worked with?

Lindsay – We made a connection with Charity – Forward Assist to engage with female veterans based around the North and developed a core group of veterans that attended our workshops and…

We knew right away that we would employ practitioner Rosa Stourac McCreery to deliver Forum Theatre Workshops. We see Forum Theatre as a tool for change, it’s an active empowering process – we knew this was the kind of theatre these strong, brave women would be interested in learning about and using. Rosa, also an experienced Director is directing the piece, considering the essence of the female veterans participation at all times.

Dr Alice Cree is an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in critical military studies and political geography at Newcastle University. Alice contacted us to see if she could follow our process for our research originally, but has become a vital part of our team on this project, advising us, drawing academic attention to our work facilitating collaborations and even helping us win funding bids. She is a real Workie Ticket.

Bridgelight Media – We absolutely love these guys!  A young, female led, media company who create sublime work, and have been great supporters of Workie Ticket.  They created our short documentary which perfectly captures our process and the veteran’s voices.

Great North Museum granted us free rehearsal space when they learned of our project and were a great host for our Rehearsed Reading event. It’s interesting to be able to playact in such a beautiful space with so much weight. It’s pretty rad to know that on the other side of your workshop space there are dinosaurs!

JoJo – Even my sister was involved, Dr Jenna Kirtley as she is a psychologist who specialises in working with veterans. She was there to offer support and advice.

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Tell me about the creative team behind it Women Warriors?

Lindsay – We have employed 4 incredible local playwrights to capture the stories and deliver them into short plays that explore issues the veterans raised in our workshops.

JoJo – Olivia Hannah has written an incredible play about being a mother after years of training as a soldier and the impact that has.  When we first read the play, we both cried.  Juliana Mensah writes about mental health within the military and when I watched it for the first time, I had goose bumps; such a clever piece of writing. Rebecca Glendenning-Laycock- whose piece explores homophobia in the Army has written a play that gives us hope. She worked with one particularly amazing female veteran who rang me out of the blue and said….please tell my story.

Our play is about a group of women who meet in a women’s veteran group and ask the question-what about female veterans? They also like to eat a lot of cake! I have also written all of the interlinking scenes which were the veterans’ real responses to particular questions we asked them questions like what it means to be a “woman warrior”?

Why did you chose The Exchange in North Shields as your venue?

JoJo – When I first started Workie Ticket, nobody knew me and I was finding a lot of closed doors from all the main theatre houses in Newcastle, which is standard. The Exchange was not one of them. Karen and Mike who run the Exchange were lovely and have always made me feel welcome. My sons come with me to a lot of meetings and now, they hang out there and go to their drama club. I genuinely feel like The Exchange is a lush place and I wish they were supported more.

Lindsay – We have a great relationship with The Exchange – they are very supportive. The venue is gorgeous and interesting and great theatre does happen outside the city centre believe it or not…;)

What does it feel like to give voices and opportunities to unheard and often overlooked folks? Why is it so important to you?

JoJo– It’s important because we’re living in a World where we need to speak up and speak out. It’s 2019 and I am still having the same argument about women’s rights as I did twenty years ago. I guess I don’t want to grow old (older…) and wonder why I let so many things happen without saying something.

Lindsay – It is really humbling when people share their stories with you – a great deal of responsibility goes into listening with sensitivity and then holding those stories with great care. It becomes your duty to bring awareness to these people’s experiences or struggles and it can be quite the challenge to make sure you are presenting it with the right respect, clarity and compassion. It’s important to us because it’s our way of fighting, our activism, to make these voices heard and to engage people into listening to them. By hosting and engaging people in these conversations we are on the first step of looking at affecting social change.  Theatre is a great tool for empathy.

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Tell me a bit about the previous project “Hear her Roar”?

JoJo – The HEAR HER ROAR project highlighted Tyneside women’s real stories and raised awareness of women’s issues such as domestic violence, working mothers, abortion, sexual assault and sexuality.

HEAR HER ROAR was our first major project, which celebrated the talents of North East women, collaborated with community groups and charities such as Newcastle Women’s Aid and promoted equality within the theatre industry. HEAR HER ROAR was successfully launched above the Bridge Hotel Pub in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, on 10th November 2017 as a night of script-in-hand performance of new short plays to give a flavour of our work and to highlight the specific themes.

We sold out.

We developed a network of creatives and we were even featured in The Guardian’s Readers’ Favourite theatre of 2017. I couldn’t believe it! In January 2018, we received funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Catherine Cookson Trust, respectfully to deliver our February to September educational programme which included a full-scale theatre performance of our plays for International Women’s Day at The Exchange in North Shields, on 10th March 2018 and was part of celebrating 100 years of Women’s suffrage.

Again, completely sold out!

We also collaborated with the Red Box Project to collect sanitary products for local schools and collected for Newcastle Women’s Aid. In total, we have raised over £1300 for Newcastle Women’s Aid.

Are you a real life Workie Tickets?

JoJo – Without a doubt. My Grandad Joe used to call me a workie ticket when I argued back with him and that’s where the name came from too. He was a bold man who I adored and a workie ticket himself. I am a trouble maker but for all the right reasons. People need to be challenged.

What does being a feminist in 2019 mean to you?

Lindsay – NECESSARY.

In 2019 I think now the responsibility is educating people about Feminism because there’s too much toxic language and attitudes towards it. Educating people that feminism doesn’t mean the reversal of power, “women taking over” – It’s equal rights, it’s women being safe, being heard.

There’s not any ‘one way’ to be a feminist or define feminism.  You have agency – I think people forget that, when they hear language of feminism, many people and communities do it their way, everyone can be a feminist in their own way. I may not conform to some women’s idea of Feminism but I take responsibility to empower women and I am making that my work. For Workie Ticket it has always been about giving women a voice, levelling out the playing field, pointing out injustices and inequality and advising or indeed leading conversations and actions on how to make a fairer society for everyone.

Sometimes feminism is nurturing my male friends when they have been victims of toxic masculinity and reminding them that they don’t have to be oppressed by or conform to harmful male stereotypes.  Feminism is the pursuit of freedom – for everyone.

JoJo – I have been a feminist since I was 10 years old. Things have only slightly changed and I am now 38. I read recently that Apple originally made Siri to deflect questions about feminism and the #metoo movement. That says it all for me. It’s like the modern day way that women are being silenced and written out of history! So, the fight for equality must go on. Only feminism in 2019 must be intersectional, otherwise, what’s the point?

What’s next for Workie Ticket after this?

Lindsay – We are currently in chats about taking Women Warriors to NATO annual conference in Brussels next year…which is scary and huge but also really necessary for us to speak truth to power. To have the opportunity to be starting to believe your practice could have the power to become Legislative Theatre is just incredible!  We are looking at touring the production and we will be crafting our drama for wellbeing programme so we will get to continue working with loads of other lovely communities.

JoJo – I would like a decent nights’ sleep and a spa break…with some rum.

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Thank you Lindsay and JoJo! YES……it’s so important that independents like Workie Ticket exist. It’s important to the women in the North, the talent in the region, community minded folks and proof that yes indeed, exciting new theatre exist in venues outside of the city centres – in fact some of the best theatre I’ve seen recently, is at venues like The Exchange.

So fellow Culture Vultures, two bits of advice:

  1. Join me, on 9th October at The Exchange for Women Warriors – there are still tickets available to purchase.
  2. Embrace your inner Workie Ticket….we all need to be workie tickets in today’s society to make the changes we want to see.

Over and Out.