Tag Archives: Windmill Hill City Farm

Culmination – a Mayfest journey from audience to stage and how to fall off a precipice

‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.  

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Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over.  At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly.  I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.

To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long.  Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.

These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.

However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?

I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:

Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.

I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space.  I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances  around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds  around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.

I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.

Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response.  It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.

A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals.  This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities.  For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?

You can’t stop the passion

Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate.  I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity  in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.

Changing direction and starting again

There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of  ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’  new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago.  Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.

Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.

The show

The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people.   Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.

I hope you can come to see it.

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‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s   ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com to reserve your seats.

The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.

‘If things don’t change’ performances at Windmill Hill City Farm & Mayfest/The Wardrobe Theatre 2013

If things don't change flyer v.5.JPEG

Good news! My first solo piece ‘If things don’t change’ has been selected for the Mayfest / Wardrobe Theatre 2013 collaboration! Mayfest is Bristol’s unique annual festival of contemporary theatre which is dedicated to presenting a broad range of unusual, playful and ambitious work.

‘If thing’s don’t change’ is a short piece I wrote in support of a voluntary ‘active citizens’ community project I am working on at Windmill Hill City Farm . The piece draws on my own experiences of family, growing up and growing old. It is about transformation  and new shoes. ‘If things don’t change’ is a story of a grandmother and a granddaughter,  a tale of loss, acceptance, love and the simple extraordinariness of everyday life. I hope that most people will be able to relate to the themes in it in some way.

I’ve now performed ‘If thing’s don’t change’  twice at Windmill Hill City Farm – the first at the poetry and performance night which was an evening of food, music, spoken word, poetry and even the odd clown intervention from Clowna Patata and the second as part of the Windmill Hill volunteer celebration day.  It was a privilege to be taking part alongside such great performers. On the whole I think both performances went well and we had some great audience members in!

One opportunity I missed  was to not ask formally for feedback from the audience. I got some comments after the performances which were helpful but I now realise that to review it in depth and develop it further it would be helpful to get a range of feedback on what I’ve written/performed so far. It wasn’t necessarily possible at both events given the nature of them but it’s something I will be hoping to get into the habit of requesting/offering in the future. I hope to create some opportunities for a couple of showings in non-theatre spaces before May so I will also use these as a chance for some more feedback. So I will be busying myself over the next few weeks promoting the show and preparing for the performance.

‘If thing’s don’t change’ will be showing on Thursday the 23rd May at the Wardrobe Theatre as part of a double bill with Chris. Dugrenier ‘s ‘Wealth’s Last Caprice’. All tickets are  £5 and are available to reserve by emailing: tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com. Huzzah! Hope to see you there!

On remembering and sharing – reminiscing with the older peoples group at Windmill Hill City Farm

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The Sharing Memories, Sharing Futures project

Windmill Hill City Farm is an independent community project situated half a mile south of Bristol city centre, which aims to meet the needs of local people through a wide range of social, environmental, educational, recreational and economic activities.

I’ve been working alongside community development and volunteer coordinator  Jules Allen and artist in residence Joe Nute to develop work with various local groups and local people and finding out about their personal stories for the shared memories, shared futures project. The first project topic is that of food.  It is intended to create an exhibition with illustrations, photos, stories and poetry. We spent some sessions with the Windmill Hill City Farm older people’s group  asking them about their memories of times past. As we began to discuss food, in the process, many other stories emerged, from work to play to the challenges faced day to day.

The benefits of reminiscing

Reminiscing is about reliving and sharing aspects of the past with others. Often our memories can be triggered by a song, smell, object or some other anchor which reminds of some aspect of our past experience.  Through reminiscence we can connect and relate to what’s gone before. It is not about cataloguing the past chronologically (such as you would on a CV) but about connecting with past experiences in an engaging and vivid way. This can help to foster self esteem, express individual identity, deliver a sense of achievement and self worth and provide perspective in relation to a life review.  In a group setting reminiscence can increase awareness of the uniqueness of individuals, highlight shared problems or concerns and increase a sense of belonging and acceptance.  Additionally sharing stories can help to increase understanding and widen perceptions of others experience and often encourage audiences to examine their own views with a realisation that we are all different and similarly, all see each other in different ways . Reminiscence is often used to help with dementia however in this case it was intended that we shared space, connected, had a nice time together and used the inspiration and stories to contribute to the arts project.

Lots of things were discussed but here is a mini – collection of accounts we heard from our group members.

Specific food memories:

  • ‘I loved corned beef stew – we never had any proper meat so we used to have corned beef stew – I liked it’
  • ‘No fruit, no bananas’
  • ‘I remember being in the shelter, eating a saucepan of stew with a wooden spoon and sitting on a plank of wood’
  • ‘My husband came from a family of nine – he used to eat a lot of offal’ (‘I guess you have to be quick with a family of nine’).
  • ‘In our day we only had two veg shops and you had to queue up. You took home whatever was there’
  • ‘I remember having to get up at 4am to go to the meat market so we could get some fat so we could cook chips’
  • ‘On VE day, the Americans would pass you in the street and pick you up and put you on the lorry… they were always chewing … they would always say ‘got any gum, chum?
  • ‘We used to do a lot more ourselves, keep chickens and have allotments for veg’
  • ‘I don’t remember ever learning to cook – I think it just came naturally’
  • “Bread and dripping it was very bad for us but oh so good……better than sex really!”
  • “Bath Chaps, they are pigs cheeks, oh so tasty, I would love to eat them again.”
  • “My nan used to take her chicken for a walk in the pram….I can see her now, the chicken with a bonnet on it”
  • “You would have a piece of wedding cake and a cup of tea, we couldn’t afford a buffet. We would sit round the piano and sing ‘Nelly D’ The men would have a beer, no beer for us”
  • “The cake was made up of one layer of cake at the top and the rest of the layers were made of cardboard with icing on it”
  • “My mother in law taught me how to cook, I grew up in an orphanage you see, no mam and dad, and I had no one to teach me. Chickens was a luxury, my mother in law would hang the chickens on the washing line so all the blood ran out. They showed me how to be a family, I had all the love from my husband’s family.”

Memories of work and leisure:

  • ‘I used to work with ammunition up at Avonmouth, testing the tins, the ammunition came in a tin like a petrol can, you used to have a big tank and you put the tin in and if it bubbled you knew there was a hole in it so you couldn’t use it. We did shift work and our days off we used to go to the Barclay tea dances on a Wednesday or to the cinema’
  • ‘I left school at 14 and I had several jobs, I worked with my brother in law dipping pokers. You needed to dip the ends in black paint so they could be safe to stoke the fire, and I worked in three pet shops’
  • ‘We didn’t have Halloween in my day, I remember May Day being a big celebration, the whole town would come out and dance around the Maypole, everyone and the Brownies and the Guides –  you would have a dress that matched the colour of the ribbon you had and you would all have to work together to plait it and keep the ribbons straight.  Someone would always get it wrong though or get a knot, we didn’t have much to do during the war ’

From past to present:

  • ‘We go to a lunch club for older people that’s really good, I don’t cook that much now, I’m not bothered, I might do a jacket potato. I’ve got family that see me, yes but only for a couple of hours a week. It’s not the same as coming to the farm or going to lunch club, it’s important to be part of a group – it’s good to have people to talk to’
  • ‘I like a roast dinner now or a piece of fish – the lunch clubs I go to are really good I don’t cook so much for myself these days’
  • ‘I’m on crutches so I can’t get out and about without the bus and groups like these. If they were not here well I wouldn’t go out’
  • ‘I like coming to the farm, going to the hairdressers and the lunch club it’s good to get out and about – before the community bus service and the community groups I didn’t really go anywhere – I didn’t go out at all’
  • ‘My scooter has been a god send since giving up driving – it’s good to get out and about and up to the church hall – people couldn’t believe it when they saw me zipping around on it’

The sessions were very enjoyable and we had a lot of fun. It really brought home to me the privileges we have today despite the current economic climate, and we picked up on lots of ‘make and mend tips’ and other bits of info including a recommendation for a brawn recipe for pigs trotters  . Also how our lifestyles have changed was emphasised, with many people in the group reliant on growing their own vegetables/raising livestock, shopping  locally and cooking slowly in comparison to today’s hectic consumer lifestyle.

Whilst we collected lots of stories and memories I was left with an overwhelming sense of the value of the wisdom that an elder’s perspective can often bring, as well as the importance of this specific community group and the benefits of community activity in general. I was grateful and privileged to be a part of the sharing.

Do you have a recipe passed down through generations, a favourite childhood food or thrifty idea to share with us? – Please get in touch – we would love to hear from you!

Windmill Hill City farm also runs a variety of volunteer projects from farming to radio – read about them here and contact Jules Allen for further information and to take part in our project.

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