The focus of the City Play Empty Gallery Project is to uncover a shared heritage of the multi cultural residents on the eastern borders of the city to foster a better sense of identity and to promote visibility, knowledge and greater respect among their adjoining communities. The project especially aims to engage and bring attention to the residents of Mansell Street and Middlesex Street, two poor social housing estates in the Portsoken ward. We believe that the mutual factors to bring people together can be found in the historic parallels, where the past resonantes with the present.
Four Great Chroniclers of London who all lived in the east side of the City
The History of the Community
Portsoken sits just outside the city wall, adjacent to Aldgate and on a busy traffic route. In Roman times a busy route from the Roman capital of Colchester. Chaucer observed the comings and goings of travellers, itinerant traders, the young and the hopeful migrants seeking a better life in the city. The walls were built as a defence and the gates as a control point that protected the trade inside the city. Portsoken was the home of squatters, who lived in poor ramshackled dwellings where they could serve the city, live of it’s crumbs and wait for an opportunity to improve themselves. Houndsditch, that runs through Portsoken, was the main city dump, invisible to the city workers. Portsoken became the home of immigrants fleeing persecution, the Jews and Hugenots, at first only tolerated if they stayed outside, but later they and other immigrants and migrants came to be the influential definers of todays city. Portsoken remains a place of hope and sanctuary.
The residents of the city of London are the remaining vestige of humanity’s first world city, a once seething and constantly growing metropolis. Migrants and immigrants filled its neighbourhoods and gave to each one a distinctive character, which in turn changed decade by decade as new waves of both the desperate and the hopeful from Britain and across the world came to occupy the bright streets and the dingy courts of the capital. In 1674 when the city was just starting to spill beyond the confines of its square mile, the population was around half a million, today it’s little under 7,500.
Connecting the Community to its Heritage
Contemporary Portsoken residents of all cultures have recognised and related to the historic images we showed them when we consulted them about the project. But the great majority of them have little knowledge of the heritage that connects them. We want to connect people through research, preparatory workshops and facilitating individuals, families, or groups to make personal exhibitions, recordings, film, writings or ‘presentations’ relating specifically to those who create it. These exhibitions will then be shown across the wider community and adjacent neighbourhoods. These personal small projects, will finally be brought together in a collective exhibition to show that contemporary residents of all cultures have a shared heritage. The process and the final products will help people to better understand their contemporary community, learn something of their heritage, not least that everyone’s history has been and remains a vital influence on the development and future life of the city.
This project allows the residents of all cultures to discover how their roots penetrate the very foundations of the city. Virtual shoes is about people connecting, identifying and ultimately empathising with others through time and across cultures. From ‘public soundings’, which are workshops that identify and debate potent contemporary issues, we will look back in time to find events that resonate and have significance for us today. There is an organic continuity about the community and this area of London, which gives us a rich seam of connectivity to excavate.
The process will also better connect residents to the heritage sites, museums, art galleries, libraries in the city, not only to visit but use as a resourse. For the majority of residents of the two portsoken states this will be ‘first contact’.
Migration: Stories past and present of British people who migrated to the city, why they came and how they were received. Historic examples: It has been estimated that one sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the late 16th century.
Following the Great Fire of London hundreds fled to areas unscathed by the flames such as Aldgate and Portsoken.
Immigration: Possibly the most contentious issue of our times. Historic examples: 16th century immigration of bookbinders from the Low Countries tailors and embroiders from France, gun makers and dyers from Italy.
The Huguenots in the 16th century seeking refuge from Catholic persecution provoked a general alarm so ‘the great watch’ in the city of London was established for fear of insurrection against the ‘strangers’.
The positive contribution of Immigrants: The food, music skills, trades, talents entrepreneurial spirit on which the development of the city is now defined and on which it has always depended.
The Chroniclers of London: Whilst this project will focus on the lives of ‘ordinary people’ it will draw inspiration from 4 of the major London chroniclers each of whom, coincidentally lived in the four wards. Geoffrey Chaucer 1343-1400 (Aldgate); John Stowe 1525-1605 (Lime Street); Samuel Pepys1633- 1703 (Tower) John Strype 1643- 1737 (Portsoken). These chroniclers also demonstrate different styles: John Stowe was fanatical about accuracy and his chronicles are deemed to be reliable. Pepys writes in diary form so his writing are as a witness to events so will be sometimes dubious, apocryphal witness, and bias, nevertheless a rich and valuable testament. Chaucer was observant and interpretive, he writes of the universal, of men and women and their reactions to human situations, inspired by movement of people entering and leaving the city below his rooms in the actual Aldgate. To reflect this we would like to create a community chroniology that includes a contemporary community diary as a blog. And publish a written history of the research that went into informing the exhibitions and a play script as an interpretation of that research which has parallels and significance for a present-day audience.
What we will do
We want to explore and present these themes in four ways
Portsoken in Camera: A Street Tour of historic photographs displayed at external sites as close as possible to the point of view of the photographer.
Portsoken Voices: Recorded interviews and conversations between people who know each other.
Exhibitions in a Suitcase: A series of personally made exhibitions in a suitcase that reflect the history and lives of the individuals who make it. Starting with exhibitions in small spaces the number of suitcases will grow over the year and culminate in a major exhibition that brings all the elements from the ‘smaller projects together.
Chronicles: On line access to the exhibitions, local history and it’s relation to contemporary life, and a play script that interprets the history to give it significance for a contemporary audience.
The focus this year with the community play projects has been planning a Community Play for the City of London. The invitation came from the City of London Corporation's Assistant Director of Neighbourhood and Children's services, Jacquie Cambell. She had seen a community play years ago that we did in MInehead and, knowing the town, was impressed by the legacy the play left, even twenty years after the event. The performances on a Community Play project are just the tip of a very large iceberg, the process is long and as far reaching as we can make it. We'd anticipate a cast of around 100-130 but involvement in the lead up projects 600 - 1,000. Planning a lead in project, as we are now doing, comes out of a response to a consultation and feasibility study which we undertook earlier this year and concluded with a public meeting in April where the community voted in favour of doing the play.
The City is a challenge, it now has barely over 1,000 residents. Images of old London heaving with traders, street venders, Dickensian characters is long gone. On a week end it' feels almost deserted, all the shops are closed and the pedestrian traffic is tiny. Week days is another matter, 300,000 city workers descend on the relatively small square mile The division between the resident area and one of the world's major financial capital is palpable.
The parallel project will run from January or February 2016 through the whole year. I am, at this stage, pretty certain it will be some form of Empty Gallery. The Gallery concept was conceived as a vehicle to bring communities together through developing an exhibition of art, heritage and performance that explores and expresses a community's past, present and future. It is also a means by which the community's ideas can further contribute towards informing a play script. By October we will have a programme planned to submit to the Heritage Lottery.
Finding Alice has taken a couple of months to devise an rehearse with the Claquer Impro Group. We meet every Monday evening for a couple of hours at the Junction Inn in Groombridge. The group were invited by Westerham Town Partnership to present something at their Summer Fair, now becoming an annual event, a legacy of the Community Play that sadly didn't happen because of funding. It ha, however clearly left an enthusiasm for community involvement. This years fair is called Talk of the Town and aims to raise money for a permanent heritage walk. Talk of the Town involved community members in costume playing characters from Westerham's past, and the town has a rich resident ancestry including Winston Churchill, General Wolfe,Gladys Aylward a missionary in China whose story is told in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Finding Alice was inspired by Alice Liddle the muse for Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland.
Some years ago I devised and produced a 'Mystery House' for a writers festival in Canada. This was a one minute theatre experience for one audience member at a time and was meant to inspire the visitors to create a story of their own. Finding Alice had the same intent and has something in common with the Problem Pictures the group have been developing for the Empty Galleries. This is a kind of Problem Play. The plot therefor needed to be somewhat ambiguous to provoke the audience into making sense of it through their own imagination and the skills most people have inherited through hearing, seeing and telling stories.
The audience purchased a ticket to Wonderland at a discount price on condition they deliver a letter to 'Whom it may concern" . They were given no further clues but were told they would simply know, but to very caucus about not giving it to the wrong person. They were conducted into a railway carriage by the Guard. The carriage was constructed inside a tent with suitcases suspended from the ceiling. Sitting in the carriage was the Man in paper suit from Alice through the Looking glass, other characters came and went through the brief five minute journey. Audience members were looking for clues as to who to give the letter to. Then... well to avoid spoilers, I won't go on. Maybe we will resurrect it some day soon.
It's been an amazing summer, the kind of summer you always imaged summers were always like when you were young. This July culminated in Westerham's Summer 1914 on the Green to mark the last weekend of peace for those that lived in the town a hundred years ago. It's the start of a vast array of events up and down the country and around the globe marking the start of the first world war. On 12th we had a family day at St Barnabas school. Families dropped in throughout the day to help with making or contributing to exhibits for the up coming gallery, which will itself be part exhibition and workshop. Each gallery exhibit will be designed for the visitor to interact with. The workshop had people designing and making shadow puppets, camera obscures, strips for zoetrope, shadow puppets, and illustrated envelopes. The next day we ran a performance workshop in creating live, interactive problem pictures. Problem pictures we very popular in Edwardian Times and up to and through the first world war, not only in art galleries but magazines and newspapers. The problem picture invites the gallery visitors or readers to interpret what the pictures are about: who are protagonists in the picture, what's happening to them, what is their relationships, and what they are thinking, feeling or saying ? Our inactive live pictures use real actors so the audience can ask them to speak, move into the next frame of the story and so forth; it's an exciting way of building stories. Over O19th On 19th and 20th Alison and Ken McKenzie hosted a choir weekend in their house and garden. Tom Caradine was MD and ran a sequence of singing session covering popular Songs/Hymns, soldier's parodies and Edwardian part-songs. Tom is an inspiring teacher, and instils his enthusiasm in others. There was a barbecue on the Saturday night and a Nose in a Book Night with people reading poems, prose and diary's reflecting the Edwardian age and the war. Following a Sunday Morning brunch singing sessions continued with Music Hall and Community Songs. The whole weekend was a fabulous social event and gave the choir the opportunity to get to know each other a bit more socially. They're such a great group of people.
The final weekend of July saw Westerham Summer 1914 with events on the Green and around the Town. Claque set up a tent making war horse hats and the Westerham Play committee ran a tombola, both of which raised funds and importantly further interest and support for the play. The weather was everything you would wish for. On the Sunday a parade included Shire horses, a Kent re-enactment regiment, suffragettes, VAD Nurses, the Churchill school and Claque's life sized metal war horse dressed in flags. Alison McKenzie gave a stirring votes for women speech and it was great to see the Create choir in their Edwardian costumes for the first time. for more and a link to some great pictures go to the Westerham Town Website.
Three Days of Impro
From 14th-16th June we held workshops and a performance in improvisation. On the Saturday at St Barnabas School I led an impro in performance workshop for members of Claquer Impro Group and others that went back to the basic principles and rules of creating spontaneous narrative theatre. It's my contention that you can teach just about everyone to be funny, you can certainly make people more creative and develop their imagination. The Sunday's Workshop was for anyone interested in finding and developing a character for The Empty Gallery events. Over the next few years the Empty Gallery will be running and contributing to local events commemorating community life in the decade on The First World War (1910-1919). Characters of the period will be singing in a period choir, attending Empty Gallery exhibitions as visitors and curators or performing in 'mystery houses' or street theatre. Whatever level of 'performance' anyone feels comfortable with, there is something for everyone. In Role you don't have to 'perform' in any theatrical style, you can simply be yourself in costume with a little knowledge of the person from the past you represent. At this workshop we started by creating imagined characters in order to learn some of the techniques and games that are available to help build a person's life history. Alison McKenzie then presented us with a list of 'real people she had researched, as well as other's whose stories had been told in part through the 'Vanishing Elephant'; Camden Road's community play. We gave out short biographies of real people from Tunbridge Wells and everyone chose 'someone' to adopt. We will be running further sessions as more people come forward. so watch this space and keep visiting the upcoming events page.
On Monday night the Claquer Impro Group presented their end of term performance 'What's my Life' . A hour long show of new games including a 'Harold'; an improvisation structure that helps the performers build a 20minute play around a single suggestion from the audience. They also performed 'What's my Life', a chat show where the improvisers who are to play the guest with a character, profession or experience. determined by the audience. The challenge is that only the interviewer is told who the guests are, the guests enter unaware of who they but have to appear as if they know. The chat show host slowly releases clues. The impro group are now more than 'getting away with it' and gave a really entertaining evening, leaving the audience wanting more. The group will be taking a little break over August and restarting Monday 1st September at the Beacon. Think about joining them. Contact us here, email: email@example.com or Telephone 01892 537034
Is It Only About War?
Someone said to me the other day that they hoped the Empty Gallery's exhibition In the Shadows of War and Peace nor the 1910's Choir was just going to be about war, because it would be too depressing. I sympathise with the sentiment but I'm not sure how, if we are to reflect on the contrast between 1914 and 2014, or the 100 years between, in which Britain has permanently been at war somewhere in the world, that you can escape its shadow. Does this mean therefor it all has to be depressing? I think not. Contrast gives a greater sense of value; loss reminds us of what we have, war the value of peace.
Those of us who were on the the anti Iraq War march in February 2003, will remember, despite the feelings of anger or dismay, that brought us there, that there was a carnival atmosphere. It was the largest protest event in human history. According to BBC News between six and ten million people took part in up to sixty countries. Being among a million people in London, approaching Green Park you could hear a roar start down on the Embankment, make its way, like a Mexican wave, along Northumberland Avenue and Charing Cross, over our heads, when we roared and listened again as it headed along Piccadilly and on to the front of the march now entering Hyde Park. A million people united by their feeling of disunity with their government. There are huge paradoxes. Insane as it may be, it seems that the greatest lessons we've learned about how to live with peace is through war. In the aftermath of the First World War women got the vote, in the immediate aftermath of World War Two we were finally inspired as a nation to create a National Health Service. The late, great Tony Benn eloquently explains some interesting points about war and peace in a short interview with the American film director and activist Michael Moore.