Way/s Through the Wood – a project for Meanwood, Leeds
‘Midway through the journey of this life, I found myself in a dark wood, the right road was lost. ‘
Dante: The Divine Comedy. Canto 1
This paper evaluates and reports on the 2016 project by A Quiet Word in relation to its aims and also in relation to the longer term development of the company.
1 A Quiet Word and Site-specific Performance
The project develops the site-specific performance work that A Quiet Word creates in collaboration with people where they live, work, study or seek residence. This involves an in depth engagement process, where personal relationships are developed in local communities. The work starts where people are meeting, for example lunch clubs, faith groups, schools, WI and fellowship groups, the local pub, small businesses and sports clubs. The concerns and interests of people in the area are the drivers of a research process that is supported by close collaboration with library and archive services. With the lead from Alison Andrews and Matthew Bellwood, associate artists are engaged in a creative process that reflects the concerns and interests of the community through writing, creating photographic records and designing walks, making drawings and sculptures and singing, amongst other activities.
The work takes place in the context of hospitality. Here, the artists are the guests of the community. The issue of the invitation can only be made through the development of the relationship between host and guest, and where the mutual interests of the parties are respected and the terms of engagement constantly reviewed.
The performance piece that is then created with professional performers is underpinned by this engagement process. The production team may include people from the community and students, who get involved in the full range of roles, including performance, stage management, publicity and administration.
2 The Meanwood Project
The project as a whole will be referred to as ‘the Meanwood Project’ since there were two distinct but related aspects: the engagement process in the community of Meanwood, and the creation of the performance and the photographic exhibition in the Park. The practical, creative work took place between January and July 2016, but the groundwork began with informal conversations during the Meanwood Festival of 2015. Meanwood residents are proud of their community, but also keen to have the virtues of the area acknowledged more widely in the city.
Meanwood has been known as an in-between place, lacking the ‘cultural’ identity of other city localities – Headingley, (students and coffee) Chapel Allerton (house prices and coffee), Chapeltown (carnival and coffee) is changing fast. Historically a working neighbourhood, ‘the Waitrose effect’ is manifested in the reputation and the self perception of the area.
Project outline September 2015
The project aimed to engage a wide range of people with a stake in the area, in ccreative activities that presented Meanwood, its history and current concerns, to a wide public. The project was funded by Leeds Inspired, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.
3 Ways Through the Wood – a publication for the community
This was the title of the engagement process, and which culminated in the publication of the ‘choose your own adventure book’ Ways Through the Wood.
This was the major artefact produced through the engagement project and contains the material developed through the collective research. This includes historical material, writing created during the workshops, illustrations and the photographs that both document the walks and contribute to the design and feel of the book itself. This was launched as planned at a public event at ‘Edge of Arcadia’, a local café/bar that included participants and their families and friends. Feedback indicates that the readers have both used the book to guide their own investigative walks in the area and as an armchair book that encourages new ways of looking at Meanwood and its heritage.
The original run of 500 has been distributed around the local area. There has been a great interest in the book, with requests for further copies. The company is considering a reprint, if this can be achieved at a breakeven cost.
Meanwood Park lies four miles north of Leeds City Centre. Much of the land that the park now covers was formerly the estate of Meanwoodside – a large private house belonging to the Kitson Clark family. The house was once owned by Edward Oates, the grandfather of Lawrence Oates, the polar explorer. A modern-day memorial to Lawrence now stands in the car park by the entrance on Green Road. The estate was bought by Leeds City Council on the death of Georgina Kitson Clark in 1954 and has been open to the public ever since.
Today, the park covers 72 acres and includes a wide variety of different environments – mixed woodland, open meadows, a beck, several ponds and mires, a children’s playground and various picnic spots. Historically, the park has connections with botanist John Grimshaw Wilkinson, painter Atkinson Grimshaw and women’s suffrage campaigner Mary Gawthorpe. It is also home to an abundance of wildlife – including foxes, deer, bats, common lizards, frogs, toads and newts, herons, kingfishers, chiff-chaffs and woodpeckers.
Lying alongside the park is The Hollies, another public leisure-space that was once a private garden. The Hollies was gifted to the people of Leeds by its former owner – in this case George William Brown – as a memorial to his son, Major Harold Brown, who was killed in the First World War. The Hollies has been open to the public since 1922 and includes a mixture of natural woodland and cultivated formal gardens.
The Hollies and Meanwood Park are nowadays part of the Local Nature Reserve. They are open all year round and there is never a bad time to go exploring. This book aims to offer some ways to do that by suggesting routes both into, through and out of these important local areas.
Like the park itself, the book is not laid out in a linear manner. Instead it is structured to allow you to make your own way through the pages, visiting features of interest along the way. And as the park is a mixed topography of ancient woodland, formal gardens, shrubs, and tarmac, so the book is a mixture: of history, anecdote, poetry and reminiscence.
It has been assembled at a particular moment in time, Spring 2016, and its contents reflect that moment. A fallen tree referred to in one section may have been cleared away by the time you read the book, or a wall repaired. The book is also influenced by those who happened to come with us on the four Sunday walks we led, and those who attended the Wednesday evening groups in The Ranger’s Hut to write a poem or story.
Take the book with you on a ramble, or read it at home and stroll in your mind’s eye. Argue with the historical facts, dispute the names given to this path or that stile. If Ways Through The Wood gets you out into The Hollies and Meanwood Park and inspires you to discover your own way into the trees, it has served its purpose.
Extract from Ways Through the Wood
The original aim was to engage around 20 people with the project and to explore local heritage, storytelling and creative activity. In the end, this figure was far exceeded, as the project gained momentum and many more people from the community were keen to research the heritage of the area, and to contribute their own local knowledge. The creative team designed a set of six walks for Meanwod Park. These were advertised locally. When word spread about the activity, the size of the groups taking part increased week on week. The participants were encouraged to design their own walks, and the walking project culminated in two such events.
A group of around 10 people from the area particularly enjoyed visiting the archives at Leeds University, to look at material with the support of trained historians and librarians and taking this material back to their neighbourhood. Over 400 people took part in a series of meetings, choir rehearsals, one to one interviews, walks, workshops and creative writing sessions.
The local school was particularly supportive of the project and were delighted to have their year 6 pupils involved in the research. The director and designer, with the support of teachers from Meanwood Church of England Primary School spent two days working in the Park with them, to explore the site and to discuss the various historical landmarks. The children discovered facts about the
industrial heritage of the area, including the history of quarrying. This was particularly resonant as the connection between quarried material and its use in a range of civic buildings in Leeds was made.
In connection with the developing themes of the performance, the children collected materials from the park and created a number of sculptures including the figure of the Green Man, which was left in the quarry area of the Park to return to nature. The rubric followed here was ‘leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs’. The workshop team – Kelly Jago, designer; Alison Andrews, director; Oscar Stafford, performer, drew on the working principles of Andy Goldsworthy during the sessions.
These took place every Sunday afternoon in March and April 2016. These were designed to engage people with a wide range of connections to the Park and environs and to support creative activities that would celebrate the area and its history.
Taking a different starting point on each occasion, the A Quiet Word team, including Peter Spafford, writer, planned a route that explored the flora, the local stories, industrial past and current issues affecting the community. Overall, 90 people took part. The walks were also lead by members of the Parks team and by staff of the Leeds Library service.
A different map was created for each walk. These were arranged in relation to the writing workshops taking place in the Ranger’s Hut on Wednesday evenings. Material produced here is included in the Book.
Feedback from participants on the walks indicates that these were highly valued as opportunities to make new social connections, to share stories about the area, to spend time with family and friends, to get to know the place, and, for those familiar with it, to see the Park with fresh eyes.
- I got to know people better through going on the walks – the people that I already know from a history point of view showed a different side of themselves
- The sense of community that was fostered was really closely knit – I felt part of the group
- I realized three are parts of this area I don’t really know, and I’ve lived here for 40 years. I want to find out more.
- There was no division between those who just turned up and those who had been invested in the walks an earlier stage
4 Way Through the Wood – a performance for the community
The Meanwood Project plan overall was informed by the experience the A Quiet Word team acquired particularly during Roseville. This was a performance walk that took place along Roseville Road, an inner city environment in the winter of 2014. The company dealt with the weather of the season, with traffic, with a range of urban challenges. Also, the engagement process, so essential to the company’s way of working, was undertaken without any funding. The context for Way Through the Wood was clearly very different – taking place in a park, in summer. Nevertheless the logistical and production management issues were related. Learning from Roseville in this regard was ported to the management of Way Through the Wood. The acquisition of funding for the engagement process was key, not only itself as a community project with its own integrity, but to lay the foundations for a performance project that would have real value and relevance for that community – and for the audiences invited to take part.
The dramaturgical development of the work was of primary importance to the company. The addition of Peter Spafford to the team was a strategic move towards strengthening the dramatic structure of the work.
The aim was to develop a narrative arc that would bring together the historical elements and knowledge that were developed during the initials stages of the project, and which informed the walks and the production of the book, with the performance. The company wished to offer audiences taking part in the performance a clear story, which would support their experience of the walk through the park.
Feedback: What was particularly nice about it was that when we arrived we were in the Ranger’s Hut and we were welcomed – but is that who these people were? Who were they really?
‘Casting’ the audience as members of the WI did work – because it felt like we were included.
The Ranger’s Hut was a gathering place, and also where the business of checking tickets, and inducting the audiences in to the piece in terms of health and safety took place. The fiction of a WI meeting, which would take place in the Park as an extraordinary affair was set up. The audience was introduced to Carol, an expert on plants, who would be with them throughout the walk.
Feedback: Carol’s role – it was a ‘real’ thing but she was also part of the ‘show’. And I learned something new about plants. Wonderful
They were told that the hut had been used for the presentation of plays, one of which was written by Ina Kitson Clark, whose family is commemorated in the Park for their contribution to civic life.
The relationship with the Parks service was crucial to the success of the project . The Ranger’s Hut served as the base for writing workshops during the engagement process, as Green Room for the dancers, and as the first encounter for the audience for Way Through the Wood.
From this point, the audience was taken on a journey that was both a physical experience of the Park and an encounter with two characters from the past, who also inhabited the present. These were loosely based on the Father, and his son Major Harold Brown, killed in the First World War.
Feedback: It built and developed and gave the piece that emotion – it was a story we hadn’t explored very deeply in the walks
It would have been just as easy to have picked a story that we had already covered on the walks – but this felt quite new.
Audiences were given a stone to carry at the outset of the journey. The grief of the father was represented in the stone he was seen to carry throughout.
Eventually, the father sets down his stone, and the audience is invited to do the same.
Feedback: I loved the point where we all put down our stone. It was intriguing to be given possession of something even if you don’t know what it’s for at the outset. Then it all became clear, and the story became something that was personal to me
5 Community Collaborators
A key aim of the project was to develop strong relationships with organsations and individuals in the area and to support their own creative ambitions. As well as the ongoing engagement with community groups, close collaborations emerged that made a significant contribution to the artistic development of the performance. Staff from Leeds Library Service offered material support during the preparation of the performance, in terms of access to archives. Publicity for the piece was also sent through library networks. The books used for research made an appearance on the walks themselves: We spend a lot of time telling people that libraries are not just about the books – but when the book does come along and people are sharing it, it’s really exciting
Sing Meanwood, the community choir that meets weekly on Sunday evenings, took part in the performances each day. Under the direction of Beccy Owen, choral facilitator and composer, they developed a strong performance presence that formed a core of the emotional impact of the piece. Choir members invested considerably in the work.
Feedback: It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. To see people visibly moved by what we were doing.
The team felt that the methodology of community engagement had been successful overall. In discussion with the library service as part of this evaluation process, it was observed that there is potential to increase the value of the relationship, by for example, holding open meetings in the local library. There is also potential to bring materials and artefacts from the project to the central library in due course towards disseminating the outputs.
Feedback: From the library point of view it’s not often we can create that sense of common purpose
The Myrtle Pub enabled the photographic exhibition by fiving space in the garden for the installation. The management and staff were also vital in supporting the hospitality that was a key component in the final part of the performance. This compromised of the exchange of tokens in the form of a leaf for a drink at the bar. The arrangements took some time to put in place, and represented a large amount of trust between the pub and the company. This was accomplished through the creative team spending a considerable amount of time with management and staff, outlining the aims of the project and finding ways to collaborate on achieving these.
Feedback: We have gone on a walk together artists and audience and then suddenly we are thrust in to this magical world
Pyramid of Arts
A Quiet Word has a long association with Pyramid of Arts, an organisation working with artists with and without a learning disability. An adapted performance was created so that people from PoA could take part in the project. Their participation was key in enabling the company to reflect on the work, to explore issues of access and clarity in the story, and to develop the choreographic aspects for a wider audience.
6 Financial and organizational matters
A Quiet Word aimed to make a step change in its work, in terms of profile in the city, and its operational base. The company’s work is mounted on minimal resources. This reflects the prevailing conditions in relation to funding for the arts. The company operates on a project by project basis, not being part of the National Portfolio. The company accounts demonstrate that the company raises funds to support artistic projects, with relatively little expenditure on organizational costs. Planning and development is difficult to fund, and is invested in at risk. The Meanwood project was no different. Here however, the engagement period (Ways Through the Wood) was supported through Heritage Lottery Funds. Even so a substantial amount of work was delivered on a very tight budget. A major source of subsidy remains the unpaid time invested by the artistic leads, Alison Andrews and Matthew Bellwood.
Company development: The company now needs to increase its administrative base, in order to support the investment of time required to prepare high quality work. The Meanwood Project has confirmed that value of the approach to site-specific performance that A Quiet Word offers to the city, and to the area of practice.
The development in operational terms is still to be achieved. This issue needs to be addressed in activity going forward.
7 Volunteers, students and professional development opportunities
The Meanwood Project aimed to support people wishing gain experience in site specific performance. The project supported 15 volunteers, comprising of 7 students and 8 people from the local community who took on stage management duties and helped to run the box office. The volunteer team was essential to the smooth running of the project. Evaluation with the group afterwards showed that overall it had been a positive experience. There was a discussion about the relative power that a professional company has when working in the community, and the following comment speaks to that issue:
Feedback: Remember that as performers/artists you have a lot of cultural capital, that can be quite intimidating – but you made us feel that we had skills or that we were capable of developing them
As a Community Engagement process, the project achieved its aims. Feedback on the performance indicates that audiences enjoyed a new perspective on the Park and, for some, a new form of theatre experience. Artistically, the work showed development in relation to narrative structure.
The company aims to develop its approach to site-specific performance in the city of Leeds, offering a new piece of work each year that addresses issues of concern to a local community and that presents a piece of work of interest to a wide audience.
Structurally, the company needs to address organizational development, to strengthen its administrative base towards freeing the artistic leads to attend to performance issues.