It would be fair to say in the race of life I am the tortoise not the hare.
I can clearly remember that at primary school I didn’t really have much of a clue what was going on having been recently uprooted from the post-colonial heaven that was Singapore in the sixties. …… it certainly wasn’t heaven except from a child’s eye view. I only really developed any ambition or vision well into my arts career, I bumbled along quite happily and there is value in bumble – just as long as it is not a forever characteristic.
Anyway, I have now been at Theatre in the Mill, at the University of Bradford since 2003 and Head of Arts (taking in Theatre, Music and the Visual Arts) for the last two years. It’s only just now, really recently, that I’ve started to get in any way happy about what we are up to, crystallised our meaning and purpose as a venue, as part of the University, as part of our community, as part of the arts ecology of the region and beyond.
In doing that we had to change a fair few things. Re-invent ourselves in some quite profound ways. The University agreed to extensively refurbish the venue and at the same time we worked very hard with resident and associate artists to re-work what we are and how we do it. We explored blind alleys and time limited possibilities. In the end (and to this I am indebted to many conversations with and the thinking of Alan Lane) we simplified things. We returned to the the thinking of Ted Edwards the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Bradford – the point of it all in the end is to have artists on campus, offering new perspectives on the world in which we live. So we put artists first, moving away from the receiving house towards a commissioning house, one that allowed artists to make the work they wanted to make and through ‘Open House’ to experiment with new ideas or new practice.
That in place we have worked hard to re-invent our relationship with the University. If our programme was much more tightly focused we would be leaving gaps and so, thanks to my boss Alison Darnbrough, we have found a sum of money and created a ‘Cultural Fund’ which allows members of the University, staff or student, the opportunity to make the work they want, in the way they want to make it. Decisions are not yet in from the panel but the take up has been amazing – proposals have come in for carnival, tea-parties and circus, a student animation festival, a student devised play about the black experience, an art exhibition, the list goes on. We are working with more (and more diverse) students than ever before – and it’s all coming from them. We are also, separate from the Cultural Fund bids, talking to the Student Union about the development of a ‘LivingNewspaper’ theatre project, which will allow student issues to be aired in less conventional ways.
Furthering this widened involvement we’ve done a whole raft of work this last year through staff training and conferences that allows us to take the role of jester – with licence to question, support and satirize the institution and the way it works. I will return to this in my next post.
Finally our community, we’ve made a step change in how we work – pushing hard to create really high quality challenging work with young people around the district, work that challenges them politically and personally as much as it does artistically. We are planning to spend about 9 months in Residence at Grange Technology College and are exploring how we can follow up on the Schools Linking Network project from this last year. Again, I will return to this at a later date.
We’re doing good, I reckon. And I hope we’re going to do a whole heap more over the next few years.