Friday, 21 October 2011

Ramblings: The Art of the Matter

As a teenager, I longed to move away from my hometown of Derby, in the East Midlands area of England. I saw it as a grim, industrial place with limited culture and poor architecture redeemed only by its position nestled in the beautiful Peak District. Surprisingly, I’m still here aged 40 and more surprisingly have actually grown to feel very proud of the place and its achievements. I think I’m revising my pride in my home town, though due to the short-sighted attitude of our local council. The statement looks like being changed to “a city I once felt proud of”
I don’t discuss politics generally, unless it’s a subject I feel I know enough about to hold my own in a debate without making errors. I’m making a partial exception here and want to express my views about cutting arts funding but will focus more on a viewpoint of describing what I think we may well lose. I’m not an expert on funding or political spending but I do have a lot of experience of local arts. Let me preach a little, if I may.
My first proper experience of theatre was at Derby Playhouse as child of 12. There was a scheme running whereby local schools were allocated two free tickets to each performance which was fantastic and a great oppurtunity for a boy from an ordinary working class family. I got a ticket to see Julius Caesar and although I found Shakespeare a bit hard to follow at 12, loved the staging and sense of drama. I was instantly hooked and was lucky enough to see scores of really top productions for free which inspired me and left me with a lifelong love of theatre. A memorable event was “The Ghost Train”, written by Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey actor, Arnold Ridley. I totally loved it and can still recall scenes from it now, 28 years on. That’s quite a testament to the power of the arts on a young imagination.
The Playhouse was a spectacular place, putting on their own productions of both well known and more obscure plays, each season interspersing more populist farces with high drama and cutting edge plays which still drew in good audience numbers. The main house was used to its full extent. I can remember gasping as the curtain drew back in the late 80s to see a full picket fenced house on stage in a play about Lizzie Borden, the time they had a swimming pool on stage (which the actors swam in) and the clever use of the revolving stage for the stunning and nationally acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd, to mention but a few.
The studio theatre allowed for more intimate productions and I still smile when remembering seeing the darkly comedic “Two” by Jim Cartwright and the stunning (and mostly completely naked) production of “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair Du Lune” bolstered their reputation as a bold local theatre. I smile about that one too, but maybe for a different reason.
I could write all night about plays I’ve seen in Derby (I won’t though, I’ll desist soon), the polished productions of Tennessee Williams which inspired me with a passion for his works, the international collaborations, through to the final production of “The Killing of Sister George” with the lovely Jenny Eclair. The production of both rarely seen and better known Sondheim plays attracted national praise and Derby featured daily in the broadsheets as a place to go for top quality theatre.
Sadly this is mostly a thing of the past. We’re now left with no Derby Playhouse and a few home grown productions at the renamed Derby Theatre or the inadequate Assembly Rooms, which, I’m sorry to say, are distinctly lacklustre with the odd exception (The Mountaintop and the Pair of Pinters at The Guildhall being good examples). For the past few years Derby certainly hasn’t been on my radar as a place to stay to see quality plays and I’m not tempted by the odd tired looking touring production. I travel elsewhere and go to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, cities which have thriving and vibrant theatres performing quality innovative drama. I also spend my money there, taking money away from Derby which I would have spent on meals and drinks here.
In my teens I also discovered a love of cinema. I wasn’t however, drawn to see big blockbuster films. I wanted things which suited my tastes and experiences. I fondly recall the illicit thrill of seeing the depiction of Joe Orton’s gay lifestyle in “Prick up Your Ears” and the antics of Cynthia Payne in “Personal Services”. The plush green womb of the Metro Cinema provided me with sights I couldn’t see elsewhere and made me feel a little less alone and like I wasn’t the only oddball in the world.
Thankfully this continues and we’re so lucky to have the Quad Cinema. It’s a beacon of excellence in the region, with less mainstream films on show as well as the opportunity to see world class art exhibitions for free and participate in events. I’ve seen countless films, completed a couple of brilliant creative writing course there, seen some inspirational art exhibitions and shared my love of literature with the book group, amongst other things. The Quad is a consolation for the lack of theatre, which soothes me, somewhat. I even chose to celebrate my 40th birthday there with a screening of “Running with Scissors”.
The “Objects of Desire” exhibition chosen by older people and endorsed by Dame Joan Bakewell was a rare treat. To see works of art for free by Edward Burra, David Hockney and Vanessa Bell in a small provincial city is a wonderful opportunity. The acclaimed Format Photography Exhibition was inspirational as well as entertaining and something to be proud of. Events like the Alt. Fiction weekends, although not my thing, draw in revenue and acclaim from all over the country. Again, I could eulogise endlessly about how much the Quad enriches Derby with visiting film directors, film courses, participative events, but I’ll stop at that.
We’re also lucky enough to have Deda, the only dedicated dance house in the East Midlands. I only discovered contemporary dance a few years ago, thinking (quite wrongly) that it was all inaccessible arty stuff which wouldn’t appeal to me. I was very wrong and have been inspired by diverse performances which have proved inspirational and emotive. “L.O.L.: a dance about modern love and online dating? Sounds odd but was a hilariously funny and breathtaking show which we were fortunate enough to get before it hit the Edinburgh Fringe. I saw a very surreal performance based on Freudian dream interpretations which still haunts me. These are the things which enrich my life.
Deda isn’t just about watching performances either but is a fantastic place to see art, attend classes and caters for many groups of people in society and liberates them through participation and inclusion.  
Finally, the crown jewel of the local arts achievements, Derby Feste: I’ve attended over the last few years and it’s an amazing experience. Where else can you see French drummers suspended hundreds of feet in the air on a giant mobile, a singing nun on a motorised piano and attend a giant open air disco? I learnt a complex disco routine and took part in a flash mob which was frankly hilarious, watched tap dancers, break dancers, weird comedy and, more importantly, I wasn’t alone. This year the streets were packed, it was hard to get a table anywhere to eat and the businesses of Derby must have increased their takings substantially. It’s unlikely, with the proposed cuts that there will be another Feste. The local council state otherwise but I’m more inclined to believe the people who are involved in the arts.
Derby is earmarked as having a city of culture year in 2015. Leading up to this the council has decided to withdraw all funding from the theatre, from the Quad and from Deda. They have chosen to cancel all arts funding, which is a resounding death knell for Derby arts scene and a short sighted move which will result in Derby losing out in many ways as the consequences of this ripple outwards.
I know we’re in a recession and I know desperate times call for desperate measures but I find these decisions unpalatable. The council’s choice is to spend vast quantities of money on a new sport arena, refurbishing their offices and a new swimming pool is insanity when balanced against a total withdrawal of arts funding.
My friend Bill posted a very apt quotation by Winston Churchill. When asked by a minister during the Second World War whether we should cut funding to the arts to support the war effort he replied “Then what are we fighting for?”
The leader of Derby City Council offers the consolation that at least we aren’t turning off streetlights, something Bill cleverly lampooned in the cartoon above. Interestingly, the aforementioned council leader describes his interests as being theatre and travel. I imagine that like me he now has to combine the two.
There are things you can do if you feel passionately about the city and I’ve posted a link to the Deda website which gives suggestions of how we can fight these absurd cuts.

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