Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What we take for granted, we could so easily lose.

Last Saturday I took part in an open forum to debate the future of our town's much-loved theatre, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. If you've never heard of it before, you should look it up, as it's one of our country's real gems, not least because it's the only surviving Regency theatre in the UK.

Being a 'punter', you never really get to see what goes on behind the scenes, and by this I don't mean 'backstage'. The theatre actually offers many opportunities to take a tour and I'd encourage any visitor to give it a whirl.  On this occasion, I refer to the hard work that takes place to deliver a creative programme and the management of a venue to ensure that it stands up to the adversity of modern times. 

And on Saturday I caught a long glimpse of this, during the Open Space event that was attended by members of the theatre's Board, its staff and volunteers, as well as interested members of the public, offering an opportunity to debate issues that are crucial to ensuring a bold, exciting and sustainable future for the Theatre Royal.

It soon became clear that it's a future that faces a cold climate of continued funding cuts combined with a well-recognised credit-crunch that has already tightened the wallets of its audiences.  Against this, the theatre has to ensure quality programming to compete for attention in a society that suffers from information overload, busy schedules and a whole host of entertainment offerings on tap.  These are challenges that it has been able to overcome to a certain degree but I got the impression that the current situation is extremely fragile, economically, administratively and politically.

It also became clear that there is an enormous lack of confidence in the proposals from the borough council and the board of trustees, who are steering the theatre towards a management merger with the Apex, a relatively new arts venue, which is owned and managed by the council and which has generated a loss ever since it was up-and-running,

As events unfolded on Saturday, what began to emerge were definitive statements from the leaders of both organisations clearly wanting to work together strategically, but with strong feelings that they were being forced along a route that they consider to be detrimental to each venue.

Questions were raised over the board's leadership of the process and its transparency and with the final decision being made soon, I don't think Saturday's event will be the end of the debate.

However, whatever happens next, whether a merger is put in place or not, I am worried about the future of the Theatre Royal as well as the Apex.

It's not the on-site day-to-day management of the theatre that concerns me.  The innovation that I've seen under the leadership of the theatre's Chief Executive, Simon Daykin, already demonstrates that as an organisation it has a dedicated talent pool to meet tough times ahead.

Neither are my fears limited to the boardroom issues, council politics or funding challenges.

The threat to the theatre's success that is at the forefront of my mind right now actually comes from somewhere much closer to home.

And that threat comes from people like me!

Yes, little old me, who until now has taken our local theatre and all that it offers for granted.

It was only upon listening to the passionate views of board members, staff and volunteers about how they could increase audiences, that I recognised I was part of the problem.

I couldn't ignore the unpleasant irony that emerged.  While I enthusiastically shared my ideas about how to get more 'bums on seats',  I also confessed that my own attendance, outside of social-media events and the annual pantomime, is actually quite low.

Even though there are always lots of quality productions that I want to see, by the time I get my own act together, I often miss the occasion, forget about it and promise to myself that I'll be better organised next time.

Meanwhile another night sat in front of the TV goes by, another glass of wine, or curry, an evening on Twitter or browsing the web.

So you see, it's not even as if the theatre has any strong competition from the rest of my social life.

It really hasn't.

Neither is my issue one of apathy.

I absolutely love the Theatre Royal and I count myself as a strong supporter.

However, there is nothing like looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of hypocrisy starring back at you.

So it is becoming clear that there is no time more urgent than now to offer greater support to the Theatre Royal and that individual actions really now need to speak louder than words.

What we have in our community is a real asset of local and national significance, which not only provides a place for performance but offers great educational and creative support to our younger generation.  Regardless of what is happening at a higher level, and despite the success of certain productions such as the recent Mansfield Park, the theatre still needs to generate more sales.

I would love to help protect the theatre's future, but like many, as an individual I don't really know what I can do.

Well, perhaps the best place to start is to physically put my money where my mouth is.

Like, actually taking the opportunity to go to the theatre.

More regularly!  Getting out there and enjoying a good dose of comedy and drama.

Now that's a bloody good idea, don't you think?

So, what do you reckon?

Do you want to join me?

I hope so.

For what we take for granted, I fear we could so easily lose.

If you are on Twitter, you can find out more about the issues that were raised at Saturday's event, and join the debate about the future of the Theatre Royal (@theatreroyalbse), using the hashtag #openspacebse.  A report, highlighting all the topics that were explored, can also be obtained directly from the theatre.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The House of Burlesque: Shipwrecked in Bury St Edmunds

Well, here's a turnip for your cookbook!

Last night, things got a bit fruity on the South side of town, with Bury St Edmunds' prestigious Theatre Royal playing host to the House of Burlesque, performing their latest show, Shipwrecked, a tale of a group of young ladies stranded on an island.

It was billed as a slightly naughty, nautical and thoroughly unsinkable experience, and as a blushing Burlesque virgin, I really had no idea what to expect.

But I can certainly say that from the very outset it was an eye-watering experience, not least because a trapped eyelash made my eyes stream during the opening scene, which meant I couldn't see a damn thing for the first ten minutes and had to make a discreet exit to calm my own dramatic censorship.

Thankfully, with my eye-sight problems quickly resolved, I returned to my seat just in time for an experience that was filled with spectacular and cleverly choreographed performances featuring hula hoops, feathers and tassels.

The very animated audience responded with whoops and applause to the tasteful and delicately-performed striptease routines and raucous laughter filled the theatre during the more comedic moments, which were indeed plentiful.

My personal favourites were the glittering and majestic performance of burlesque comedienne Audacity Chutzpah, who was most definitely the queen of mime and could make you laugh with just a single expression. And the very talented Tempest Rose was not just a fabulous host but tantalised the audience beautifully with her performance as the Voodoo Queen of Burlesque.

Even though I recovered quite happily from my eyelash incident, my eyes didn't dry up during the entire performance. From the moment I was back at my seat, they streamed with tears of laughter and the audience participation scenes made my sides ache.

The show was so superb, I hope the House of Burlesque returns for another billing next year and it would be great to see it featured on the annual programme.

There are many who could describe it more eloquently, but for me, my introduction to Burlesque was a wonderful mixture of glamour and comedic entertainment, and could be deemed adult pantomime at its finest.

And judging by the reaction of the rest of the audience - which bonded most wonderfully during the imaginary tassel twirling tutorial - I have a sneaky feeling that I'm not the only one to think so!

So, to the directors of the Theatre Royal, I have just one word.... and that one word is...



Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A night-time blogpost

I'm about to do something quite frivolous.

I'm going to write a blogpost and it's going to be rather self-indulgent, well for me anyway.

It's going to be about nothing particular at all. 

It's such a long time that I've done such a thing.  In recent years I have dedicated most of my writing to championing campaigns, promoting the great and the good and sharing those proud moments that bloggers love to position carefully on the public mantlepiece that is the world wide web.

But this blogpost isn't about any of that.  It's about this precise moment in time, when I catch myself awake from my slumber and unable to fall back into the deep sleep that I desperately crave.

My mind is alert, buzzing heavily with creative ideas as well as worries and anticipation.  They feel so loud against the stillness of the night.

It's 3am.

The hour is late.

Yet some might say it's early.

Perspective is a wondrous thing,,.

as is having the space to write without barriers, expectations or pre-conceived ideas about self-expression.

Sentences begin to flow following the spirit of word association, with one stream of thought bubbling into the next.  Even if it doesn't make much sense, there is great satisfaction in just letting the words trickle out of the mind to fill the unlimited space that stares back at you.

If there are limits, they are only defined by time, point-of-view, or for whatever reason, the paths where you most fear to tread.

In the silence, it is easy to confront such limitations, or if more passively speaking, simply ignore.

And when the night sky is your only audience, your dreams can be set free, like fireworks that add sparkle to your imagination.

The night still lies silent and I can hear the clock tick..and tock.

I'm suddenly sleepy.

Maybe this blogpost about nothing particular at all has ultimately reached its destination.

And at its end, it now seems quite possible that it wasn't really about nothing at all. Instead it's made me very mindful of an imminent blogging challenge that's very important to me and at times feels quite daunting. Suddenly my tired words are beginning to make sense to my tired mind.

I think I'm ready to go back to sleep now.

In the morning this will most likely look like nonsense.

Such is the self-indulgence of blogging.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Call the Midwife: my own memories of a very important delivery

Just a day old. It's hard to believe he's now 10.
I am looking forward to tonight's new television series, Call the Midwife, with much anticipation. Ever since I saw the trailer, distant memories have been bubbling away, taking me back to one of the most significant events in my life and reliving the birth of my eldest son as well as the time I met Jennifer Worth, the midwife and writer who inspired the series.

But he wasn't born in the during the 1950s, which is the period setting of the TV drama - that would have been some miracle.  No, he entered the world half a century later, in the high-tech environment of Hemel Hempstead General Hospital, in 2001.

Born at just 34 weeks, it was a struggled labour, which spread across a whole weekend and four or possibly even five midwifery shifts. It started with the hospital's early decision to delay delivery due to his gestation. They told me that every opportunity to increase his lung capacity would help him, even at 34 weeks.  My labour was temporarily halted with the appropriate drugs, but when the contractions started again in earnest the following day, even though nature was taking its course, when push came to shove (excuse the pun) it became apparent that my baby's head was in the wrong position to enable a safe delivery.

After thirty-six hours in the delivery suite, he was finally born by emergency caesarian and than spent the first two weeks of his life in the Special Care Baby Unit.

Those first few weeks were some of my most traumatic ever and I was grateful for the care that we'd both received.  However, it was not until I met Jennifer Worth, several months later and I heard her tales of midwifery and births during the 1950s, did I really appreciate how lucky we were.

Jennifer Worth, the author of the books that inspired the new BBC drama, lived a couple of streets away from me in Boxmoor, an old Victorian suburb of Hemel Hempstead.  I first met her at the local bartering group, which I joined after my son was born.  She gave a talk one evening about her new book that had just been published, featuring her memoirs as a midwife in London's East End.  She painted scenes of a bygone era and I recall tales of her cycling through the streets from her nursing convent to over-crowded blocks of flats with poor sanitation and babies being born at home into situations that we would wince at today. Yet it was one where the human and community spirit thrived. It felt a different world to the one that I had experienced only months earlier.

Jennifer was passionate that the stories of life back then should be told to a modern audience and that the work of the midwife and what a mother went through during what may be many births, should be both acknowledged, recognised and celebrated.

I asked her about my son's birth and what would have happened if times were different.  It brought a distinct chill when she said he most likely would have died without the modern facilities and intervention that I had experienced.  It was a reminder of how much the midwifery profession had changed.

It was some time after that, I had the pleasure of talking to Jennifer Worth again, this time in the beautiful setting of her garden. I'd popped in to visit her husband's art studio, as part of the local Open Studios event.  She was sat at a table near a tree, writing her next manuscript and again we spoke of her memories and her ambitions to put the role of the midwife into the spotlight.  What was most distinct about her manner was that amidst her passion and love of her work, was a total air of gentle modesty.  I don't think she could have even guessed that a whole decade later her books, which were then printed by a small publisher, would become commissioned as a major TV series for the BBC.

Over Christmas, whilst reading the Radio Times, I was sad to discover that Jennifer Worth had died last year, just before filming had started.  In the meantime her work had become a best-selling trilogy.  Indeed, chatting to a trainee midwife friend of mine just the other night revealed how much her books are loved amongst those in the profession today.

I only have her first book, which I bought after her talk.  If that is anything to go by, the series, which starts tonight at 8pm on BBC1, will make viewers laugh as well as cry.

And dare I say, as well as reminding someone like me, how lucky my own birth experience was by comparison, in Jennifer Worth, I think the country has belatedly found itself an inspirational new role model.