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Story collecting – meeting people and groups

The show we are making with the museum, we want it to reach out to the people of Mansfield, we want them to fee involved, to feel like it’s their show. To do this I realised quite early on that we probably needed to actually physically do this, to actually go out and literally speak to people, to collect their stories, see what they think about Mansfield and what is important to them. I start by sending out a load of emails to a load of people and wait to see if anyone bites! Luckily people do.

My first visit is to the corner house care home for adults with learning disabilities and complex needs. I am welcomed in, I sit on a sofa, in a comfy living room and hear about all the fantastic things they get up to, about how they love seeing the football- apparently they are always winning-loosing, winning-loosing they tell me. They get excited telling me how they love watching the Redfern busses- that one of their dads was a conductor on the busses. They like to visit Nottingham and last time they dressed up at the castle as Friar tuck and Maid Marion. They love the museum and used to go and do art classes there. They are an incredibly active group and never seem to have a ‘doing nothing’ day, they are inspiring group. They have a performance coming up with 40’s music singing and dancing. They tell me they’d like the performance to be funny, with costumes and props and make-up and slapstick-people hitting each other over the head with saucepans!

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I also receive an email inviting me to visit Karen’s house. She is a volunteer at the museum and invites me for a cuppa and a chat with her and her 80-year-old neighbor, Shirley. I quickly agree. They welcome me in like an old friend and immediately start telling me about their childhood memories. Shirley tells me how when she was in the guides, she’d give one of the girls tuppence to go to Pleasley and she’d go to the Rufford Arms and they’d phone each other as part of a test! Back then nobody had phones in the house, so this was quite a novelty. I can imagine the joy of this discovery, that thing of being a child and using a telephone and hearing someone the other side of the town must have felt so new and exciting, it’s a shame we don’t have that now, everyone has a phone in their pockets. Karen’s says how her family was one of the only families to have a phone so people used to come round and use it so you had to be friendly with people. They go on to say how great it is that everyone in Mansfield knows each other, how she and Shirley used to go out and play pool, thrashing the men who normally dominated the tables. Shirley’s eyes light up when she starts telling me about the Palais de-danse, about the strict dress code and about a beautiful green velvet hat her friend wore and was made to take off as it wasn’t suitable for tea dances! Their friendship is lovely to observe they are so warm and comfortable together.

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I attended the art group run by Johanathan Annabelle on a Saturday, who meet together and create art. where I meet Margaret who tells me her husband worked at he shoe factory. I am subsequently invited to meet Dennis at their house. I am struck by how open and friendly people have been already and I’ve only just started. Dennis talks to me for a long time, he is a man that doesn’t need any prompts, doesn’t need me to ask questions he is a great talker and knows his facts about the shoe factory. He was an accountant there but had as he says had a great relationship with the girls on the shop floor. They used to come to him with their problems, like if someone had bad body odor, they’d come to him. He’d pass them onto the personnel officer and let them deal with it! He also told me how someone was taking catalogues to girls in the other factories and asking them what shoes they wanted then nicking pairs in the right size and selling them on the side. The skullduggery! The shoe factory sounded like an incredible place to work, with bosses that knew their workers, it was like a family he says. He also used to work at the Mansfield brewery and I quickly get an invite to their monthly meet up. I am advised not to drive so I can have a pint!

Speaking of the brewery I also spent an hour with Elaine at Hops in a Bottle, hearing about her ales, it’s such a wonderful ale shop with loads of local beers. She tells me she moved to Mansfield for love but got married in New Zealand- in fact she was supposed to get married in a hot air balloon but bad weather conditions prevented it. Her favourite place in Mansfield is the Brown Cow pub, which she says is a family pub with lots of people she knows, her customers. You can take dogs, cats and she tested this by actually taking her cat- they took him to the vet initially and apparently he likes to walk on a lead! They stopped for a pint on the way home and he had a walk round the pub and loved it. She says I should speak to her husband as his father was head of the fire service. So she puts me in touch. I’m amazed at how my web is growing, I meet someone and they put me in touch with someone else. I realise it could be never ending, and I could speak to most of Mansfield this way. Everyone seems connected. Six degrees of separation; its probably more like three degrees in Mansfield.

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The Growing Bolder group are wonderful, they are in the middle of yarn bombing the museum, everything is covered in wool, including the taxidermied badgers, who now wear shawls and head scarves. The phone box has been completely yarn bombed, crocheted decorations hang off the antlers of animal heads that peer from the walls, a mannequin wears a crocheted dress and holds a knitted umbrella. It is wonderful; so colorful and fun and playful, it transforms the museum. There is even a knitted woman, wearing a knitted bikini, I see a woman mending her outfit, saying people keep interfering with her and everyone wants a selfie next to her. They allow me to join them on the condition that I have a go at crocheting. At first I am all fingers and thumbs and just can’t see how they are wrapping the thread, but luckily Andrea is very patient and eventually I get there. Andrea’s mum had a very interesting life, she was a swimmer and rowed for Germany. During the war Hitler had the idea that all females had to be servants to get basic housekeeping skills. Her mother got a place with a friend of her mother’s. They didn’t ask her to do anything because they knew she wouldn’t do it. A man came to the house and asked if she would clean his boots. She said well you can leave them out but she won’t do it. She also was a telephone operator for the circus, worked with a famous German inventor and when she came to Mansfield worked at the hosiery mills and last at the metal box. The other ladies go on to tell me their love stories, and I keep crocheting away. By the end I have a very long strand that I am rather proud of. It will be made into a flower that will be added to the yarn-bombed museum!

IMG_3479                                Me, Jo from First Art, Jodie and Yarnia from the museum

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Mansfield Museum Day one

It’s with trepidation, uncertainty and excitement that we begin our residency at Mansfield Museum. There is so much to explore. We begin by giving each other little challenges to inspire us as we look around the museum.

Challenges

Ria goes off at a pace, exploring the museum as a child would, with wonder- ‘look at this Hannah!’ getting her head as close to the speaker as she can to hear some oral history about Mansfield’s shoe factory. I am meticulous. I don’t want to miss anything, and as a result it takes me two hours just to look at the Mansfield at work section. I am rather amused by the Mansfield Brewery information, there is an advert playing with Jeremy Clarkson starring ‘The perfect head on the perfect body’. I raise an eyebrow. I find out that the workers were given a daily beer allowance at work until 2002. I am rather taken by the odd campaign starring Ronald Reagan ‘He may be the president of the most powerful nation on earth…but he’s never had a pint of Mansfield’. I imagine that there are some good stories associated with the brewery, especially with beer on offer at work.

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I find the shoe factory inspiring too, I wonder how many shoes the museum has, about stepping into someone else’s shoes, could we ask the audience to do this literally? The Royce brothers who ran the shoe factory knew all the names of the workers and their families until they were overloaded and passed this responsibility onto their sister. She knew every single one and had great relationships with them, so much so that they called the workers Miss Royce’s Angels. The shoe company also won the inter factory swimming challenge in both 1920 and 21. I start imagining a character in swimming costume, cap and high heels telling the story of the great win.

One of my challenges is to find something that makes me want to sing and dance and I’m drawn to the space seeds that local children have planted. I write this.

‘The way they stretch upwards, the way their arms and legs will reach out and grow tall, bending towards the light. A kind of dance, perhaps a dance they learnt up there in space- star troopers dancing their budding shoots till dawn. Dancing through the night while no-ones here. I’d like to dance with them, I’d like to grow large and spread my funky limbs to the sky. Green and new. A outer space boogie’.

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Another of Ria’s challenges is for me to find someone who is Mansfield Born and bred. I find out about William Edward Bailey who gifted his natural history collection to the council, some of which is still in the museum today, again I write as if I was William.

‘I love science, nature, just getting out in it. Last night I went to Edwinstowe, I waited till it got dark, took my lantern and searched for moths. I want to see them flapping through the air, making their way through the sky. I’m gathering, glimpsing, collecting. My collection will be the best, it won’t be hidden away in a drawer but displayed to the world, perhaps a museum, a moth museum’.

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So much of the museum starts to come to life for me, the animals whisper, the tins beg to be opened, and the irons tell me their woe. It’s like a light bulb has gone on and the objects no longer sit there inert for me to stare at but they speak out, they tell stories. I must remember this when I visit museums in future. Jodie, the museums development officer tell me that new stuff comes into the museum every day, they have started to be strict about what they take. They get all sorts from stuffed animals to things people have dug up in their garden. Apparently a man called up who was painting his flat he said he could see Jesus on his wall, he wanted Jodie to come around and have a look. She declined. They have a room full of photos upstairs that were rescued when the Chad (local paper) was throwing them in a skip! The museum got a call about this travesty and drove round and rescued them in the boot of a car. Now the chad comes to them when they want old photographs. There are thousands and I have no idea how to go about looking at them.

I asked Ria to find an object that she could imagine coming to life. She imagines the tea set to be children and the smoking pipes head teachers trying to keep them in check, stern and strict. She sees the mayor’s hat box full of self-importance and the pretty box next to it, posh. The mayor hat box keeps trying to talk to the posh one but she’s not interested, and she writes this about the hoover;

‘I’m so tired, I don’t remember how I’m supposed to work, my pipes all disintegrated. Oh my I can’t even suck up a cup of tea anymore. As soon as the lights go down I collapse down and rest my weary tin head. I used to shine and sparkle, now I’m tatty and I don’t mind really, I’ve done my time, cleaning all the factories making the floor smooth and shiny for the workers to start again, tapping the tins and painting them all pretty. We all worked together, cogs in the machine as it were’

Now we are allowed upstairs, into the stores, as much again, shelves upon shelves of items, some wrapped carefully in paper to keep them safe, to keep them in one moment in time, to stop them aging further. It’s cold, the items like it colder and the rocks like it freezing. We can’t help but imagine ghosts roaming these shelves at night, maybe trying on the outfits and putting them back carefully, softly, gently so no-one will know.  Can we take our audience up here?

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The Gramophones day at Museums Reimagined

What luck (or maybe fate) that there was a theatre and museums conference just before we were about to begin our residency in Mansfield Museum. Judging by the sign up this is a trend that may just be taking off. With representatives from a huge range of museums and theatre companies from the Imperial War Museum to Punch Drunk, this was certainly a room full of interesting people. I would have liked to of spent an afternoon wandering around the conference picking the brains of each delegate as if it were my own museum and they my exhibits. But this might have seemed a bit odd so instead I stuck to the schedule.

I was struck with what Tanya Nelson, head of museums at UCL said…

“Museums are consumed with the past and theatre is about the present”

I realised that what I look for when I go to a museum is a story, I look for an object or person or fact that speaks to me now, in this moment. My interest in history is very much rooted in what it tells us about today. It seems to me that theatre is the perfect way for museums/history to literally come alive and reach out and grab people.

 

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Impropera, an improvised opera company were hosting the event, and took on this attitude to the conference as well. We’ve all been to the dry conference where however much we are interested in the subject matter, it still feels like an uphill struggle. But not with Impropera: they begin with an improvised song (which they get us singing much to my joy) about our preconceptions of museums and theatre and the two working together. How do you feel about artist coming into your museum, perhaps you envisage them smashing vases left, right and centre?

“We prefer the artists dead!” shouts someone with witty brilliance. So the museums begin their day singing this while we reply with ‘Trust us trust us tru u u ust us”. And the room is alive. I can see how Impropera are fantastic at bringing potentially quiet, studious museums to life with a zing. Now normally I’m not a fan of of networking, but the way we did it at the conference really worked. We were each asked to fill in a label with an offer and a request and stick it about our person. That way we could easily see what people were looking for and offering without being mind readers (although when I played a fortuneteller in a durational show I did start to believe I could actually read minds).  Then in smaller groups we had a really good discussion about what works and what could be better in terms of theatres working in museums. It was really useful to get responses from people who have attempted this and made it work. As we are at the very start we could only feed back on how open Mansfield museum have been to us doing whatever feels right. They want our residency to be ‘organic’ although we all hate that word, we want it to respond to the needs of the people of Mansfield, to respond to the museum exhibits and to grow naturally- like the space plants that the museum is currently growing.  We all came to the conclusion that this is an ideal way to work, for a performance to be developed alongside a museum, to be nurtured.

A recurring theme of this discussion and the day in general was about respect and the museums needing to feel that the theatre companies respect their collections and exhibits and as long as they feel that, they may let almost anything happen. Thinking about it now I suppose it works the other way around too. The artists need to feel their work is being respected and that the museums trust them to do their thing. We talked about the importance of being allowed to experiment, how as this is a new venture it might not always work straight away and the chance to try things means you find out what does work. We went on to talk about risk, and how it can be hard to take one, and perhaps it’s a barrier to museums working with artists. Someone clever (I’m sorry I can’t remember who) said…

‘There is no activity that’s not a risk. Maintaining the status quo is a risk”

Post lunch (a very delicious potato was included that I would like the recipe for) we were treated to a dance warm up which every conference afternoon should in my mind!

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Ria Ashcroft doing a dance at a conference

We heard about projects from partnerships who have had very successful collaborations, including Punch Drunk and the Maritime museum who made an immersive piece for families. They spent time in the museum, ran workshops, researched till they came up with several ideas for what might work. Their adventure took the audience on a journey around the museum, chasing a mystery and responding to happenings, lead by characters to empower them to connect to the collections and learn in a fun and dramatic way. This reminded me of mantle of the expert, a style of workshop I have used to give children the control, make them the expert, let them work out the problem. This often opens up the subject as they are not being talked down to, they are literally being given the captains hat and told to dive the boat (although this didn’t happen in the punch drunk show as far as I know) We also heard from Katie Green, dancing in Museums, who used eccentric tour guide characters to help the audience to engage with the piece and the more abstract sections of performance.  I was really taken by the feedback that the British Museum got about their Shakespeare exhibition:

“It’s stopped it being something you knew to something you felt”

This is what theatre in museums should aim to do, in my book, to create a deeper connection, an emotional one. At the Mansfield Museum a man came in and discovered his wife’s wedding dress on display. Jodie, our museums development officer had picked the dress at random from five they have in the store. His wife had sadly died not long ago and he had no idea that she had donated her wedding dress. I can imagine this might have been quite a moving moment. He has since contributed his story to their Married in Mansfield project. He obviously has a deeper connection to the museum; a personal one that I imagine will make him a regular visitor. I hope we can do this for people, one or two maybe. We talked later about quantitative versus qualitative feedback and although both important, for us it’s quality over quantity.  We also heard from Theatre na n’Óg who created a piece for the museum, which went out and toured. This is another way of connecting audiences with museums, taking their work out into the community, taking the museum on it’s own journey. Looking at the exhibits in Mansfield Museum yesterday I read that Mansfield sand is such high quality it is used all over the world. It’s a nice thought that there is a bit of Mansfield in New Zealand. This must be how museums feel when their work tours, it’s as if it’s been a passport and can truly travel the world.

The day ended as all conferences should with a sing off summarising the days thoughts, particularly focussing on the feeling that there is not enough time to fit it all in…

“It’s not another thing to do, it’s another way to do things” was the final chorus.

Overall: a very inspiring day. We can’t wait to get our teeth into our residency and bring new life to the museum through theatre.

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Hannah Stone ready to make some theatre in Mansfield

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End to End at Inside Out!

We’re very excited to be part of Curve’s Inside Out Festival again this year, this time with End to End. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, or if you have and would like to see it again… you can catch it on Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th May, where you’ll find out more about the journey we made in 2012 from one end of Great Britain to the other on as many different forms of transport as possible and with only £1 per mile for travel. Not sure if we managed it? Come along and find out – we want to take you on our journey with us!

Book tickets here.

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Tarzanna

Last week we spent a wonderful day in the company of Babbling Vagabonds; we talked, we wrote thoughts and ideas down on post-it notes (and argued about which of us owned the best ones..), we drank a lot of tea, and talked about the problems this planet is facing and what we can do to help.

Since then we’ve done more reading and talking and Ria has created this video blog to give you more of an insight into our ideas and plans for our new show, Tarzanna. Enjoy!

 

 

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Derby Feste and Inside Out

So, we’re very aware that we haven’t posted anything for a while but please don’t worry we have been busy, things have been nicely bubbling away under the cyber surface and we’re now very excited to announce that we’ve been commissioned to make a show for this year’s Derby Feste. And, we’ll be trying something a little bit different… we’re going to be making an ariel theatre show in collaboration with the brilliant Babbling Vagabonds and are looking forward to taking a step in this new direction! We have our first ‘play day’ scheduled for this week to start exploring our initial ideas and needless to say there will be more to share with you after that!

Until then, we’re also very pleased to be part of Curve’s Inside Out Festival again and will be performing End to End on 7th and 8th of May. For more information and to book tickets please click here.