My MRes has partly come out of my involvement, over the last five years, with site specific events within the city of Plymouth. In 2008 I got together with another theatre maker, Rachel Aspinwall to create something in our joint home city, the result was a week long festival of new writing performed in buildings across the city that were either hidden away or had a hidden story behind them. As a result we were commissioned by the University of Plymouth to write a book about the process.
here is the beginning of the book explaining how we started Hidden City
Points of Departure
When we first started to exchange ideas for ‘making something happen’ in the city in which we lived, we were influenced by our backgrounds as performers, theatre makers and culture seekers in other cities across the world. What we found to be lacking in Plymouth were opportunities for the talented emergent and established artists of the city and region to develop their work, work together (or even discover each other‘s existence), and to have their work showcased locally. How could the city’s cultural community grow and flourish if so many of its artists left, or felt the need to make work elsewhere once they reached a certain level of development? We set up our company, Part Exchange Co, in direct response to what we saw as a ‘gap in the market’ in order to offer Plymouth and its regional artists (many of whom regularly travel elsewhere to develop and present their work in a professional context) the opportunity to create and network in their own city.
Deciding to embrace the opportunity that being a non-building based company gave us, we chose to focus on making site inspired work outside of conventional venues and reach non-traditional arts audiences in the process. The question was: what should our first project be?
Plymouth was – and still is – undergoing enormous re-development. Buildings and sites of interest, including many that were standing empty, were all fair game. Making a response in performance to this fast changing city seemed a way to intervene in the giant game of building and knocking down of sandcastles that was going on before our eyes. With our shared background in working in new theatre writing, we settled on the idea of a festival of site-inspired performance that would prioritise working with the city’s and region’s writers and artists, bringing them together in exciting new collaborations and in engagement with a city and its changing landscape. As we traveled the city’s streets looking over potential sites for our festival, we found that the most intriguing places, those that spoke to us, were those that had been hidden away. These sites included both grand and gracious buildings and far less distinctive structures that also happened to house extraordinary history. Something in their desertedness left space for the imagination and, as we discovered more about how they had come to be the way they were, we learnt a tale of another city, of many other cities, different to the one that we thought we knew.
It was about at this point that the city itself started to intervene. Once it had started to speak, it was impossible to stop it, talking ten to the dozen, gathering pace, taking us on a helter-skelter ride of serendipitous meetings and revelatory moments. The city of Plymouth is a fascinating entity. It is an imposing military town bristling with war ships and nuclear submarines, has a quaint medieval quarter full of cafes and antiques shops, is a post war planner’s dream of pedestrianised shopping streets and ring roads, and is an elegant seaside retreat in one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the British Isles. At the time we were developing our ideas, it also had the ward with the highest indicators of deprivation in the country. Its public image did not do justice to the complexity of its diverse identities. Blossoming under our investigative gaze, the city best known for Sir Francis Drake, the Blitz and the Pilgrim Fathers was revealing a host of other histories. This was no longer just about what we wanted; it was also about what the hidden city was demanding.
So the Hidden City Festival found its name and its aim, grounded in and inspired by Plymouth, its communities, its built and natural environment and its history and heritage.