Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Deputation to Bournemouth Full Council

On July 30th 2013 I was invited to make a presentation to Bournemouth Council on behalf of Bournemouth creatives in the rather forlorn hope that we might still salvage something from the demise of the Boscombe Community Arts Centre a vital piece of cultural infrastructure for the whole conurbation.

I am Peter John Cooper theatre professional and writer.  I have run companies in Oxford and North Wales and other part of the UK.  Born in Hampshire when Bournemouth and Boscombe were part of that County.  Spent twenty years in Dorset where I have been chair of a number of County wide arts organisations.  Resident of the Borough for three years. Speaking on behalf of Bournemouth Creatives and other arts organisations.
A building is only a roof with some walls to hold it up.  What is significant is what goes on inside that building.  But once the roof is smashed in and the walls bulldozed nothing can be done and its heritage is lost.  I am speaking of the Boscombe Centre for Community Arts.  You will have seen the superb business plan for the building and one, you will agree, where the numbers are real and certainly stack up and which answers every probing question that you and others have asked of it.  The research it contains is much more persuasive than that presented by the officers here which states that Boscombe has adequate community provision because of its wealth of nightclubs.  Would you take your child to a painting session in a pole dance club? You know the historical significance of this building as one of the very first Drama Centres in the UK and its groundbreaking work in education and disability. You have seen the deputations from the hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses and enterprises that desperately need the work of the centre to carry on. It’s all in here. You know how persuasive all the evidence is and you know how important the work that could be achieved under this roof within these walls again because you have already had the foresight to realise how the arts can begin the regeneration of a run down area.
Over the weekend I was delighted to be invited to a number of events in North and East London.  Here there are acres of derelict warehouses and factories among run down estates.  I saw was an extraordinary transformation in the lives of many of the residents through innovative uses of buildings and spaces as live in workshops, arts centres, galleries, start up business units.  All making a huge difference in the general air of optimism.  I saw children and young people using spaces in a myriad of inventive ways some of them not entirely expected and intended. 
We have two Universities with the name Bournemouth in them.  Too many of their Alumni, flee our conurbation to places like these in Hackney taking their skills away with them. What is missing is that vital community hub where we can exploit their knowledge and energy, where children can go and get messy with paint and clay and where pensioners can dance or excerise.  Where people can come together and explore their differences and give them back some pride in their lives.  That child experimenting with that pile of clay may be on a path that leads to experiments that give us new hope in health care.  Those people learning dance steps may be helping to get over stroke or other disability.  That kid painting on the wall might one day be the graphic designer that delivers the new branding to the Borough.
We don’t have the run down warehouses of Tower Hamlets, so where do we place that centre of ideas, creativity, research and development, enterprise, wealth? Certainly two small historical school rooms are not in any way sufficient.  Neither do all the pubs and nightclubs and church halls mentioned in the council’s research. Should we ask you to raise the millions necessary to build a new new palace of glass and stainless steel? A new Imax for the Arts?  Of course not.  That vital piece of infrastructure  is already in place. There is some minimal remediation work necessary, mostly the restoration of what was removed in the process of closing it down.  This Business Plan demonstrates real community engagment and knowledge and genuinely demonstrates that the place can be viable.
So to that real poser.  How do we choose between housing and a community centre?  The answer is that we mustn’t.   You know there are other, better housing options.  But this is the only Community Arts centre we have in the whole conurbation. At this last hour please don’t let the bulldozers roll. Don’t knock the heart out of the community. Please reconsider the importance of this project. And don’t rubberstamp the end of hope for so many people.

Culture in Bournemouth (2)

I know Bournemouth Councillors have a bit of a problem with the idea of Culture. But for a town of its size and importance it's probably something you're going to have to get to grips with. Let me help: Culture is the exchange of ideas and stories about ourselves and the world around. Cultural spaces are places where that exchange can take place. They include galleries, theatres, museums, concert halls and so on. They don't need to be that big or that complex. Lap dance clubs, bars and pubs are not cultural spaces in that they have other primary functions although cultural events may take place within them. I know Bournemouth Councillors would not want to experience the embarrassment and humiliation that occurred for the town with the destruction of the Winter Gardens, The Pier Theatre and the Boscombe Community Arts Centre so if you need help and guidance why not just ask? There are heaps of artists and cultural entrepreneurs in the town.

Culture in Bournemouth (1)

Bournemouth Councillors are considering a new planning application for the Winter gardens site in the town.  This was an important Concert Hall which not only saw the birth of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra but also visits by some  great bands and choirs Apparently the plans for the site include "cultural" spaces. I expect that these will include replacements for the Concert hall itself, the Pier Theatre and a cultural hub to replace the lost BCCA. Hurrah for Bournemouth Borough Council in whose plans culture is a leading part of the regeneration process. 
Here is a report in the Echo

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Lady with the Blue Hair

I've just seen this beautiful work by Bournemouth based artist Clare Shervin.  It is an original painting digitally altered and then worked into again by hand. You can view her facebook page here:


Friday, October 26, 2012

The Weevil in the Biscuit

The Weevil in the Biscuit

I could only manage to get to one of John Foster’s plays in his double bill about Robert Louis Stevenson at Lighthouse Poole on Thursday night 25th October.

 In the end I chose “The Weevil in the Biscuit” and I was not disappointed. This depiction of the relationship between RLS and his American wife Fanny whilst he was in the process of writing “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in their house at Westbourne was both charming and intense.  This was a superb cameo play which owed its effect, not only to its excellent writing but also to the neat direction by Jon Nicholas slipping the characters into and out of soliloquy and dialogue with consummate ease and, not least, to the thoughtful and emotionally moving portrayal of the characters by Mark Freestone as Robert Louis Stevenson himself and Rebecca Legrand as Fanny.

Mark Freestone started with an enormous advantage – he bears an uncanny resemblance to RLS but that was only one incidental part of his portrayal which was driven by a complex of character traits from to frantic writer, sick man to childish, childlike husband. Rebecca Legrand’s character had a similar complex journey as she showed delight in her husband’s work and frustration at his inability to accomplish what he was capable of, even bursting into outright anger at one point.  But it was the relationship between the two where in the play was at its most touching and powerful. Here were two people bonded by a common commitment yet maintaining a childlike innocence. 

This was a dense, thoughtful play and, after it discarded the initial conceit of addressing the audience directly, it became truly compelling.  I took away the picture of two adventurers through the world whose only real home was each other.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Adventures Into the Monochronium

Last night we undertook an adventure into the Monochronium at Poole Lighthouse.  We lost ourselves in the paper forest.  We passed a number of art works and even saw someone beginning a large work that folded over onto the floor.  We say glass objects that contained tiny figures dancing in water.  We marvelled at the shoes. We read the daily newspaper and eventually came to the post office where visitors were having their passports validated and stamped.  Above us there was a video playing of a previous adventure and the tiny voice of Hazel Evans singing strange poetry.  The Monochronium is a land far away in the mind of Hazel and her collaborators. An extraordinary piece in concept and exquisitely detailed. A strange, strange world of the imagination. For her, a land coloured only in black and white is a triumph of imagination and, indeed, last night every detail was black and white.  The drinks were black or white.  The food was black and white and guests were invited to wear black and white.

The Monochronium is an adventure in time as well as space and Hazel tells us that the place will grow and change and its treasures will increase.  I had visited it the day before when it was solemnly quiet except for the ticking of the music.  Last night, when thronged with guests it ha a completely different atmosphere.  So whenever you choose to visit there will be a difference and something new every time.  And when you see Hazel move through her strange world you realise just how colourful black and white can be.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Absurd Person Singular - the original production

By coincidence, there is a story in the Guradian today about the writing of "Absurd Person Singular".  I particular like the comment from the actor Christopher Godwin who played Ronald Brewster-Wright  in the original production:
"I remember having trouble with a speech. I was doing it very emotionally, and Alan told me, "You're forgetting you're English." He was right: the English don't expose themselves emotionally; they imply, which can be much more bleak."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Absurd Person Singular at Lighthouse Poole

Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are belters.  They pick the audience up and propel them through a series of emotional turmoils eliciting, amusement, sadness, sheer awfulness to deep, rich belly laughter.  And although they are becoming rather dated at the moment, their characters and situations are universal and will continue to be theatrical yardsticks of quality for years to come.

So you might think that to produce an Alan Ayckbourn is a veritable piece of cake, just learn the lines and let the play do the work.  Well, yes and no.  The simplicity is deceptive.  The plays are constructed with hairsbreadth accuracy; emotional truthfulness is essential, they can’t be played for laughs or for sentiment.  There is deep subtext that needs to be understood and played. Characterisation must be of a very high order.And, at the same time, they require acting craft of the highest quality.  The actors must time the lines absolutely precisely or the sub text and point of the play will not become apparent. 

“Absurd person Singular” follows three couples over three Christmasses in their three different kitchens.  Actually there are four couples but in a typically Ayckbourn twist we never see the other.
Ayckbourn’s works were all written for his theatre in the round.  This means they required very little in the way of sets and furniture.  Ironically in an unforgiving space like Lighthouse studio more attention to setting is required to achieve the atmosphere of claustrophobic quiet desperation of the characters against a stage of echoing planks. The  company pulled off this trick very well on Saturday afternoon when I saw it but I hope that very soon Dramatic Productions will have the sponsorship and support to be able to give more resources to the setting.

Frank Holden’s company serve him very well.  The progression of the characters through their various stages of development or decline are beautifully portrayed and well delineated in Frank’s direction.

The audience where convulsed with laughter, particularly in the technically demanding second act in which Sasha Paul demonstrated her supreme acting skill in portraying a woman attempting suicide whilst mayhem is being generated around her.  For the whole scene the character has no lines but it was an acting tour de force from Sasha.  Emily Holden held the ring as the cleaning obsessed Jane in Act 1 and Julia Savill produced some of the best laughs and most sympathy as the hard-drinking Marion in Act 3.  The men have equally demanding through-lines- Sean Pogmore as the man with the developing business empire, Steve McCarten as the architect whose business is on the slide and Christopher Mellows as the Bank manager Ronald.  All acqitted themselves well.

Well done Dramatic Productions.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Boscombe Centre for Community Arts

The question is always asked in a triumphalist, aha-I’ve-got-you-now sort of way.  They demand “what is more important – houses (or the NHS or social Services or similar) or the arts?” They know what answer they want to hear but the answer I always give is: “We need both.”  Once you have some sort of roof over your head and a crust of bread in your belly, how miserable and utilitarian your existence would be if the only challenge and inspiration that was available to you was peering at Strictly Come Ice Skating or pouring gallons of beer down your throat at some unlovely drinking factory.

The question is right there in your face if you live in Boscombe.  There is a building available to the community ready to provide every sort of artistic enterprise and with a long and honourable tradition of so doing and yet the Council would prefer to build a tiny number of houses and by so doing demolish what could be a thriving hub.  Yes, Boscombe does need these houses, but it also needs a cultural centre to serve the needs of the whole population.  I do sympathise with the Councillors – somebody has to take these decisions and they are remorselessly driven by the need to be seen to be doing something to help Boscombe’s homeless.  But in this case, to my way of thinking, they have not weighed up the situation properly. 

I have visited the Bournemouth Drama Centre as it then was many times over the last forty odd years.  The last time I was there I saw some extraordinary work by a local group of adults with learning disabilities.  It was an act of sheer folly to close down this resource to such groups in the first place.  But it is always easier to destroy than to build up and the work of forty years was swept away at a stroke.  It would have taken comparatively little to keep the building open and, with the right management it could even have survived with minimal input from the council.   If the council was planning to replace this resource with something else all well and good but there is no sign of that happening and it leaves the Bournemouth conurbation in the unique position of having absolutely no community arts resource.  At all.

It is ironic that just this month a survey has been commissioned by Creative Dorset to try to understand how the arts function in Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth.  The answer quite simply is that they survive in spite of the Councils’ lack of interest.

If closing the Bournemouth Drama Centre was an act of folly then to demolish the building itself without giving it a chance to regenerate and thereby improve the lives of those who live in the area is an act of cultural vandalism of the highest order.