Over Yonder Hill

Feature in Issue 19-4 | Winter 2007

John Fox reflects on some North West alternatives.

There is a lot going on in the North West that doesn’t receive much publicity. Much of it on the ground in the cracks between the big guys. Take Solfest for instance, a joyous music festival held every August Bank Holiday for the past three years, up near Silloth in North West Cumbria 10,000 people, mainly families, assemble in carnival guise for a celebratory weekend of bands and booze which is inspirational.

Then there is More Music in Morecambe under the artistic direction of Pete Moser, which has for a decade been a largely unsung flagship of community music/participatory arts – currently reaching well beyond Morecambe with The Long Walk, an ambitious and healing musical work that brings together Chinese and local musicians in an invocation of the deaths of the 22 Chinese people who died cockling in 2003.

Whitewood and Fleming are another powerful force. Since Tim Fleming and Elaine Whitewood moved their company from Yorkshire to the Rusland Valley in South Cumbria a couple of years ago they have generated workshops and videos with ‘looked after children’ and produced numerous participatory events, bringing theatre with a world flavour to schools and halls around Barrow, Penrith and the West Coast.

In Barrow in Furness, The Ashton group directed by Rachael Ashton have been plugging away for 17 years with local actors such as John Hall, writers like Sarah Miller, and guest directors such as Noeline Kavanagh. Their theatre is well received on occasional circuit tours of established venues but they regularly maintain a local and exhausting creative focus with talented young people in a town still more dedicated to weaponry than wonder.

Other people in Barrow offer primary creative escape routes whether it is Art Gene with their international programme of mixed media contemporary visual art, Shoreline films with a steady input of training for local film-makers, or Ali Rigg the ex choir leader of Welfare State International, an exceptional singing teacher and performer with Tongue Tied & Twisted.

I have to declare an interest in Dalton in Furness (also in South Cumbria) as BoomDang, their street percussion band is run by my son Dan Fox and his work partner Therese Johnston. BoomDang have been around for nearly ten years and are a rigorous highly choreographed outfit who play tight raunchy sambas and more, and are in much demand at festivals locally and internationally, from Brussels and Belfast to Barcelona.

This is just a brief trawl though a few of the lesser known companies and people I am in touch with. It excludes major showcase and significant producing organisations like Grizedale Arts, the Ruskin centres at both Brantwood and Coniston, Abbot Hall, Blackwell, Cumbria Institute of the Arts, the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, and The Duke’s Playhouse in Lancaster who all produce vital necessary work.

Of the bigger venues The Nuffield Theatre at Lancaster originate and receive quantities of innovative work outside the mainstream – Forkbeard Fantasy are appearing there currently (October 2007).

Finally there is Littoral, the socio-politico art based group working partially from their lump of woodland in the Langdales in mid Cumbria. Last week they presented an imaginative and unique mix of lectures and events to celebrate Kurt Schwitters. In the vacuumed relic of his last Merzbarn (desecrated or rescued, depending on your viewpoint, by Newcastle University in 1966) there was a sound installation (by Dan again as it happens) containing a recording of maybe Schwitters, performing wild generic sound poetry. It had me reaching for the brandy flask, for how many of us will be listened to in fifty years time?

‘There is a palpable passion for experimentation in the North West. A close network of venues has thrown its doors open to new and challenging performance makers while increasing numbers of artist-led initiatives are putting on anything from anarchic cabarets to international exchanges for live artists.’
Richard Kingdom Performance Programme Manager, The Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool

‘I think the range of opportunities for new artists in this region at the moment is extraordinary. There’s still space for new thinking on how artists might be assisted in their artistic development beyond the opportunity to show their work, and there needs to be more support for established artists to ensure that the role models are there, but it’s hard to imagine a better landscape for new artists with strong work stepping out into professional practice.’
Neil MacKenzie Artistic Director, Alsager Arts Centre, Salford

‘There’s no doubt that the North West is one of the most active and vibrant regions for theatre in the country. The artists and organisations in this profile testify to that. Over the next few years we will build on this and make the most of the new opportunities that lie in the region’s growing international profile. Major events such as Liverpool City of Culture 2008 and the Manchester International Festival provide obvious examples, but alongside this the work of organisations such as Quarantine and the Nuffield Theatre prove why the North West’s reputation is so strong, and its influence is expanding on the world stage.’
Roddy Gauld Theatre Officer, Arts Council England (North West)

John Fox is the founder and co-director of Welfare State International, which he archived on April Fool’s Day 2006. He is now working both as a solo artist supported by Arts Council England, North West and collaboratively with his new company Dead Good Guides which he has started with Sue Gill. See www.deadgoodguides.com

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-4
p. 18