Writing workshops with ArtSpeak

I’ve just finished a commission for ArtSpeak which gave me the opportunity to nose into the lives of retired and elderly people across the city. My brief was to find out what arts activities people are interested in and where they would like to see these take place. The research would then help ArtSpeak develop a series of Creative Cafes. The research was conducted during two-hour writing workshops at Strelley, the Meadows, Clifton and Bulwell. From these sessions I created pen portraits of participants to demonstrate the different ways in which the arts fulfil needs, particularly in terms of health and mental wellbeing.

I got this commission after giving a talk at the Nottingham Contemporary about my contribution to The Bigger Picture, a multi-collaborative research project exploring the impact of intergenerational arts programming on minority communities in Nottingham. Sharon Scaniglia and Hannah Stoddard of the Radford Care Group were in the audience and approached me afterwards about their ArtsSpeak project. I mention this because as lovely as the internet is, nothing compares with getting off your arse and meeting people in real physical space. This is how I get most of my work. It was also nice to work with Sharon again. We had previously worked on the board of directors for Festival of Words.

I began each ArtSpeak session with some literary or historical link to the area. This was partly to see how much people knew about their home turf and as a reminder that artists are ordinary folk from ordinary places. This led on to a series of writing exercises from a pre-set list of questions. You can’t predict how these sessions will go or how participants will react, so the questions were a loose guide that could be adapted as and when. Similarly, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Folk from Bulwell were absolutely on it. They were self-motivated, well-organised, and had a good infrastructure in place to keep themselves busy. Their complaint, and one I heard repeatedly, was not having enough time to do the things they wanted to do. Therefore, anything that took them out of their busy schedule had better be worth it. I have featured one person from this session (Joy Rice) on my Whatever People Say I Am Instagram account as she confessed to knocking out the first brick of the now defunct Broadmarsh carpark. How dearly I would love to meet the person who one day gets to knock out the first brick of the Broadmarsh shopping centre …

When I began creating Dawn of the Unread in 2014 I was highly skeptical of one stop libraries. I was deluded by the aura of books, believing the presence of any other service within this space would trivialise the experience of reading. I was wrong, and Strelley library typifies this. Opened on 14 November, 2018, after £1 million of investment, Strelley library acts as a cultural hub for the wider community. It’s also a very inviting space, with light pouring in through the glass fronted windows. Above the library are 37 one-bedroom independent living flats, run by Nottingham City Homes.

The participants for this workshop came from the flats, one of whom was really grateful that Hannah Stoddard had knocked on his door twice to encourage him to join in. He said he wanted to answer the door but didn’t have the confidence, so appreciated her perseverance. He was introverted, anxious, and uneager to get involved at first. He said he’d not undone his curtains in two weeks and was very ill. But once we’d won over his trust he became really animated, sharing an incredible life story that had taken him around the world and in a variety of public facing service jobs. He temporarily forgot about his illness and our session overran by an hour. This validated the objectives of ArtSpeak. It was a pleasure to meet him and I felt genuinely sad to say goodbye. I felt as if I’d known him all my life rather than for three hours on a Thursday afternoon.

The Clifton session took place in a less inspiring library, but this didn’t bother participants. Cost and access were the factors that seemed to matter most, rather than aesthetics. Clifton library is on the bus and tram route. I met a man who took The Beatles’ ‘All you Need is Love’ as his personal mantra, travelling to India in a clapped-out van. On his way he stopped off in Afghanistan and fondly recalled that they were the kindest most hospitable people he’d ever met and how much it saddened him to see what we had done to the country in the aftermath of 9-11. I would love to tell his story as part of the graphic novel element to Whatever People Say I Am and may do so if I can find additional funding.

Participants at the Meadows were exactly as I expected – vocal, proud and heavily involved in their local community. Again, I encountered incredible stories of ordinary lives – from a woman whose best friend is a parrot to a man who copes with bereavement by growing food in his allotment and sharing it out with his neighbours. This group all wanted to learn how to write ‘properly’ so that they could write their memoirs to pass on to their grandchildren. I recommended The Accidental Memoir by Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper as a good starting place for getting their ideas down.

ArtSpeak is an arts strand of The Radford Centre. Read their blog about the project here. Website: www.artspeak.org.uk




Upside Down at the Bottom of the World

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is an award-winning play that details D.H. Lawrence’s brief spell in Cornwall and Australia. It has particular resonance for David Faulkner as he played Lawrence in the original play at the beginning of his career and has now directed it in his retirement. 

D.H. Lawrence lived in Cornwall from 30 December 1915 to 15 October 1917 in what he hoped would be a new life away from the industrial Midlands of his birth. It didn’t quite work out as he planned. He was accused of being a spy, his passport was removed, and he was booted out of Cornwall under the Defence of the Realm Act. His short tenure on the edge of Britain would have a profound effect on his ideas, not least his developing fascination with cosmic vibrations and the mysterious secrets of primitive cultures emanating from the dark black granite Zennor coastline.

Lawrence courted controversy throughout his short life, which is what I love most about him. He married a German woman called Frieda Weekley, a distant relation of the ‘Red Baron’, 15 days before the outbreak of WWI. The Rainbow, published the following year, lasted two months in print before being seized under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Prosecutor Herbert Musket declared it ‘a mass of obscenity of thought, idea, and action’ for daring to question fundamentals of everyday life, such as work, marriage and religion. Judge Sir John Dickinson ruled that the book ‘had no right to exist in the wind of war’, and that Lawrence was in effect mocking the very principles British men were fighting to defend. With no sense of irony, copies of The Rainbow were publicly burned, while ‘our’ boys fought for freedom on the Western Front.

Lawrence would live a restless life, travelling the globe and staying no longer than two years in any one place. His experiences of living in Cornwall and Australia would serve as the backdrop to David Allen’s play Upside Down at the Bottom of the World. Originally performed in 1980, it scooped the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play. More recently, the play has been revived by David Faulkner and was performed at Lane Theatre, Newquay in March. It’s hoped the play may make its way back to Nottinghamshire at some point.

Frieda once said that what she loved most about Lawrence was his saying ‘yes’ to life, known as ‘Bejahung’ in German. The same could be said of David Faulkner. “One day, while on the London tube, I happened to see an advert in Time Out which read, ‘English Speaking Actors wanted for the Cafe Theatre Frankfurt’. Rather than send my CV, photograph and covering letter, I bought a £17.50 Magic Bus Ticket, packed an overnight bag and the next thing I knew I was in Frankfurt looking for The Cafe Theatre. Probably due to bare faced cheek rather than my chosen audition pieces I was offered the job. Eighteen months later I was still working at the Cafe theatre as both an actor and director, doing three monthly rep.”

It was here that he first encountered Davis Allen’s play, offering to play the part of Lawrence after the original cast member had to withdraw. “I had just ten days to learn the lines and replicate the role in preparation for a continued three-month tour of Holland and Germany. I remember so little of that production but often returned to the script with the thought that one day I would revive it.”

Now he has found himself directing the play that helped kickstart his career. Although remaining true to the original script, David has introduced some interesting extra details, such as Lawrence knitting bloomers. “Frieda liked wearing French knickers yet Lawrence preferred her to wear bloomers, which he often made for her. Therefore, at the beginning of the play we see Lawrence sewing a pair of bloomers which Frieda puts on in front of him. We see this sexual game playing is indeed a significant part of their relationship.”

David is now retired and living in Cornwall and runs a small touring company as well as guest directing for several local community groups. So why did he decided to put the play on now? “Sometimes a play comes along that has particular relevance at a certain time. Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is one of those plays. The political turmoil of the Diggers, the right/left struggle, the influence of the Unions in conflict with the capitalists is almost a mirror to what we are experiencing here and now.”

Brexit has certainly delivered plenty of turmoil as of late, so would Lawrence have voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’? “Now that’s a hard one. Married to a German, he may have voted Remain. Then again having no truck with a capitalist world order, and being the son of a miner, perhaps, Leave. Now that would make a great play, haha.”

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World was performed at Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall, TR8 4PX from 14-16 March and 21 – 23 March 2019. This blog was originally published on the UNESCO City of Literature website. I’m currently working with Paul Fillingham on the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. You can learn more about this digital pilgrimage by following  the project blog or Instagram account.