Rob performs his story

Home: The Way I See It

They are powerful things, stories. Sometimes when I speak about my work, it feels a bit contrived. Do stories really deserve so much reverence? This storytelling project and performance by Extant Theatre at Theatr Clwyd in Mold went right back to basics – and has given me a renewed appreciation of how vital it is to share our memories and ideas with one another.

The set up was simple. Support a group of Blind Veterans to share their childhood memories. Develop their skills and confidence. Share their stories through performance.

Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.
Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.

However, Extant always bring a bit of magic to projects, particularly when Theatre Director Elizabeth Wainwright is involved. The telling and retelling of stories, supported by someone who is so passionate, dynamic and responsive has created something really special.

A group of storytellers, made up of Blind Veterans and friends have worked together for 10 weeks. They have learnt to tell as story from their childhood; to move you, make you laugh and prompt you to think about your own life and if it were you, what you might tell others. It’s an intimate portrait of how we can gather, despite differences, to share a piece of our history. And you’re invited.

text From the film ‘Home: The WAY I SEE IT’

Judge for yourselves – the film is now available to view on Vimeo. Thanks as always to Project Manager Jodie Stus for inviting me to get involved in another Extant project!

Multisensory Delights – Part 2

Recently I reflected on my blog about the strides that Extant are making in increasing opportunities for visually impaired artists and theatre-goers.  Opening up opportunities for people who have long struggled to be part of the arts world is creating new narratives and new approaches to performance which can be exciting for everyone.

‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Dance Artist Billy Read is another fine example of what can happen when artists with physical impairments are enabled to put their ideas and talent into the public domain.  ‘Unlimited’ is a funding stream which supports disabled artists across all art forms.  For Billy, a deaf Dance Artist (hailing from Walsall, as all the best of us are…), it gave him the funds, time and rehearsal space at mac Birmingham to experiment with different techniques and tools to create a really special piece of work.  It also enabled him to collaborate with Ariel Fung, a deaf Dance Artist from Hong Kong.  I went along to mac Birmingham last month to document an R&D performance of the work in progress.

The premise of the piece is that Billy and his friend Ariel inhabit a dystopian world where deaf people can be controlled by the use of implants.  Sign language is prohibited, deaf clubs are shut down and this army of automatons are put to work in mines and office blocks.

Billy’s approach to dance is of necessity different to dancers who can hear music.  His reliance on being able to physically feel beats and visually follow cues gives him a different starting point.  He and Ariel were accompanied on stage by a percussionist and a DJ artist who together provided a live score – the vibrations were felt throughout the audience, and in places can be seen on the footage(!)  Projected text, film, images and audio description were used in places to help to provide a narrative, but as with the music, it helped to create a multi-layered performance, a real sensory feast.  I particularly enjoyed seeing sign language incorporated into the dance – both BSL and the ‘secret sign language’ which was enhanced by use of small lights on gloves moving in the darkness.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the whole creative team, where the audience gave their thoughts on the performance and we could learn more about the artistic process.  I felt really inspired by how the R&D period had given Billy time to collaborate with other artists, to play around with projection, lighting and sound.  They shared their experiences of trying to work out how these tools of communication could move from being functional to become something which really enhanced and complemented the whole performance.

The core message of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ is that deaf culture can be inclusive and creative – our world would be a poorer place without the contributions of the stories, talent and creativity of people with disabilities.  You can judge for yourselves when (we hope!) the piece goes on tour.

Billy is represented by Deaf Explorer, who are working to increase involvement and visibility of the deaf community in the arts and develop deaf artists as leaders.  To find out more about the development of this work or if you are interested in booking a performance, e-mail Alan McLean at deafexplorer@gmail.com.

Multisensory delights – Part 1

When I was asked earlier this year if I would be willing to document a performance by ‘Connect and Co’, a group of visually impaired performers who had developed a piece for stage with Extant, I jumped at the chance.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote on here about how much I had enjoyed documenting some really excellent work by Extant, increasing access to drama and performance opportunities for people with VI in Manchester and Birmingham.  Their belief that not only should people with VI be able to access artistic opportunities, but that they can also bring an energy, creativity and perspective unique to their own experiences was really exciting to me.  It was clear that there was an appetite to develop the initial drama workshops in 2016 into something more.  You can learn more about that project and view the film here.

A year later and Extant wanted to take that work a step further by staging a performance at mac Birmingham.  They worked in partnership with Birmingham Vision who recruited and supported the performers, some of whom had no previous experience of live performance.  Directors Suriya Roberts-Grey and Jo Gleave worked with the group to create a performance which was developed and driven by the participants themselves.  Rehearsal space and artist development support came from mac Birmingham, one of Extant’s ‘Regional Hubs’ featured in last year’s film.

What emerged was an evening of short sketches called ‘Getting on with Life’, exploring different aspects of life living with VI, using humour to show the challenges and adventures of everyday life.  From dealing with incompetent taxi drivers, challenging irate gym staff or exploding assumptions about their love lives, the performance sought to highlight what ‘Getting on with Life’ means to them.  The full performance (35 mins) is here.

As well as being able to articulate their everyday challenges, it was the first time that many of the participants had been recognised for their creative talents.  Ian, one of the performers, believed strongly that the sharing was an opportunity to highlight the artistic potential within the VI community.

The project also raised the question of how theatre makers and venues can realise the potential of people with sensory impairments through creating multilayered, multisensory and accessible work where audio description and touch tours can be tools which enhance the experience of all theatre-goers (there will be more musings on that in the second part of this blogpost…).

There is already talk of performers’ next steps, of taking advantage of other opportunities at mac Birmingham, of future performances.  The film below features footage of rehearsals, excerpts from the performance itself and interviews with project staff and participants.  Watching it, you can’t help but sense that this is just the start of something…

 

Reaching Home, Reaching Out

Back in November I wrote about some dance rehearsals and workshops I had been documenting for ‘If I Could Reach Home’.  It was clear from the outset that something beautiful and vital was emerging.

The final performance certainly lived up to that early promise.  The result of the poetry workshops, dance rehearsals and careful choreography was a piece which showcased the beauty of classical Indian dance forms alongside the horror and heartbreak of modern day migration.  As so many of us struggle not to become desensitised to the human suffering on Europe’s shores, this was a very human and real response.

If I Could Reach Home at Rowheath Pavilion

Here is the film which documents the evolution of the project and which gives a few tantalising snapshots of the full performance.  I will be sharing those soon, so do check back if this whets your appetite!  For more information on Magdalen Gorringe’s work, including performance, choreography and her research work into Indian Dance forms in Britain, have a look at her website.

Extant – looking through a different lens

Have you been to the theatre lately?  What did the set look like?  The costumes?  Was there dancing?  Impressive lighting?

Most of us take for granted our ability to see what is happening on stage – theatre is such a visual medium.  But ‘Extant’, Britain’s leading professional performing arts company of visually impaired (VI) people, is making huge leaps in ensuring that people without sight, or with limited sight, are able to have a rich, stimulating and enjoyable experience of theatre.

photo-09-03-2016-15-42-03

I have been documenting the first year of Extant’s ‘Regional Hub Building’ programme in Birmingham and Manchester, working alongside Extant’s Jodie Stus.  Working in partnership with The Lowry in Salford Quays and mac Birmingham, Extant have developed a comprehensive programme, focusing on creating more opportunities for people with VI to engage with drama and theatre.

The first year of the programme has involved performance, participation workshops and training – all of which are explored in the film.  However, for me, it seemed only right that everything that I had learnt through documenting the project came into play when editing the film together.  So, this is my effort to make a film with a clear narrative which isn’t reliant on visuals, which makes as much sense for people without full vision as those with.  I’ve focused on using bold text, high contrast and simple graphics and I have tried to audio describe cut-aways of performances and workshops.

I would be eager to find out what ‘viewers’ think of the film.  How can film makers improve accessibility without compromising narrative and style?  Do get in touch with your comments!

Confessions of a lazy blogger

Hum – so it’s been a while since I’m blogged anything I notice.  I’ve not gone away.  Or at least I did go away, had a baby (yes, another one!) then got back to the business of making more lovely films, albeit on a part time basis.  Fellow travellers in the world of creative and freelance work will know that time is precious when small people enter the equation, so I’ve been head down in work when I’ve not had small children tugging at my legs (and sometimes even when they have been tugging at my legs!).  Sorry for the silence!

So, what to update you with?  Here are a few projects I’ve worked on to give you a flavour…

I’ve been so lucky to work yet again with the fabulous team at DanceXchange who as ever are doing pioneering work in bringing Dance to new audiences.  This time I documented ‘Strive’, a training scheme devised to support Dance Artists in their work with vulnerable and marginalised groups.  The rigor and thought that went into the scheme was fantastic, with plenty for me to take away and use in my own practice.

There have been some really powerful stories that I have been privileged enough to share over the past couple of years.  A series of short films for Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust focused on the stories of patients and carers to try to unpick what ‘care’ means to them.  From a mother of a terminally ill child to a nurse with an unapologetically forthright approach to delivering care, the films really showed how complex a subject it can be.  The films are now part of a package of training materials shown to medical students prior to placements.

Another project in Rowley Regis brought to the screen some research done by a group of adults with learning disabilities. They wanted to share their experiences and frustrations as they navigate their way through the many challenges they face in the day to day – including paying bills and filling in forms, finding work, doing shopping and paying for the Bedroom Tax.

On a much more lighthearted note, I continued my longstanding relationship with The Lichfield Festival by helping a group of young people film a series of shorts, all filmed at Chasewater Light Railway.  The filming was silly amounts of fun and hopefully that’s reflected in the finished films!

I have also been collaborating with other Film Makers – the very talented Sam Lockyer and James Watson of Iconic Productions.  We worked together throughout last Summer to film twelves short films for Nottinghamshire County Council, focusing on The Care Act and the range of services being delivered throughout the County.  You may recognise the voice on some of the voiceovers!

Right – back to it with an edit. And this time I will be sharing it widely when it’s done!

Discover Dance!

I was a keen little dancer as a kid – ballet, tap, stage dancing.  A precocious little ball of energy, clad in pink lycra with hair in a tight, tight bun and face caked in blue eyeshadow on the stage of Aldridge Youth Theatre.  I loved it, and always get a tingle when I see others experiencing the liberation of leaping about, the point when they are given permission to let go of inhibitions and discover how joyous dance can be.

So how wonderful was it to document a project that encourages dance in the middle of lessons?  Yes, that’s right.  Dance in English.  Dance in Maths.  Dance in French!  And for that to be coupled with seeing professional dancers perform in the middle of your classroom?  To have the opportunity to go on a trip to see a live contemporary dance show?  Tingly.

‘Discover Dance’, a project developed by DanceXchange and Dance4, brings live professional dance to the classroom and uses dance to engage pupils in learning key subjects in a creative, exciting way.  It’s hard to visualise how dance can be relevant to learning about algebra, but as you can see from the film, this works.  Pupils use their bodies to explore concepts and ideas that may not make so much sense on paper.  It’s fun, and so, so liberating to push the desks to one side.  Pupils also have the opportunity to attend a live dance performance, to make connections between what they have learnt in school and the world of professional dance performance in professional venues.  Inspiring stuff.

I’ve been documenting the pilot project in two schools.  The short documentary is now doing the rounds of schools to encourage other schools to participate in developing the project further and bring this wonderful scheme to others.  I think it’s a great idea.  See for yourself.

Discover Dance from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

I’ve worked with the fabulous staff at DanceXchange before – their creativity, vision and commitment to advocate for dance as an art form is wonderful to be around.  Jane Ralls, DanceXchange’s Dance Development Director also provided me with this wonderful reference.

“Rachel Gillies is a wonderful community film-maker, demonstrating real ability to make people feel at ease with her presence and obtain exciting and relevant footage. As the film-maker for our Discover Dance project in 2013, she had a warm and friendly manner and was exceptionally flexible in approach. She did a excellent job of editing the material that she captured to create a snappy advocacy film for us to promote the project – and its already been used on numerous occasions. She would be a real asset to any education/community project – either to help document and evaluate work or to help with promotion.”

If you are a teacher and want to learn more then do contact DanceXchange (in the West Midlands) or Dance4 (in the East Midlands).  Teachers and pupils were raving about the project – I’m excited to see how it develops!

everybody

There’s so much to be said about the wonderful Radiate training scheme that I (shockingly) last mentioned on here last November.  I’ve just come back from the final exhibition and evaluation session and my head is buzzing with ideas! I’ve met so many inspiring creative minds and I really hope that this scheme will form the basis of some great collaborative educational projects.

Anyhow, in place of a proper update I wanted to share the final film that I created with pupils at Frankley Community High School.  Let me know your thoughts!

everybody from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Birmingham’s Culture blogged

As I type the seconds are ticking down until midday on Saturday 24th April, the deadline for submitting your cultural shenanigans in Brum onto the Birmingham Big City Culture Blog.

The blog is part of Birmingham’s bid to become the ‘City of Culture’ in 2013. It’s hoped that through allowing people to add their ‘cultural activities’ over a 24 hour period that the website can get a snapshot of the broad range of exciting activities taking place across the city. Reading through the blog so far I’m really enthused by the variety of events, both in the city centre and in local neighbourhoods. It’s really lovely to see children’s events in community libraries next to contemporary art exhibitions at the IKON, next to research projects by students, next to lunchtime chamber music at the CBSO centre.

What really strikes me is that we seem to see culture as encompassing all kinds of different activities, many of which would never normally register on the radar of those who spend time hand-wringing over Birmingham’s lack of culture. The blog is incredibly refreshing, and really highlights the passion and pride we have about what happens in our city.

So, in the spirit of the blog, and not wanting to fall into the stereotype of the unassuming Brummie, here’s my contribution on what I got up to yesterday!

For more information on the bid you can go to the bid’s website or follow them on Twitter.

Viv’s website

Over the past few years I’ve been part of the campaign to save Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath. As a group we’ve had some fantastic events and produced some great work. Not only are all the members of the group incredibly passionate about the building and the need for swimming in this inner-city community, they all seem to have a multitude of talents!

One member who has shared her skills for the campaign is Vivienne Harrison. A few years ago she took some wonderful photos of the building for our Strategy Document which outlined the group’s proposals for turning the building into a viable swimming and community facility. The fact that a voluntary organisation with limited resources was able to put out such an impressive looking and beautifully laid out booklet was really testament to her hard work and skill.

Last year she also worked on bringing these images to life through the Moseley Road Baths Virtual Tour which takes visitors to the site through the whole building, including areas not currently open to the public.

So, although shamefully I’ve not made it to any of her exhibitions yet, I’m pleased to let you all know that a selection of her work is available to view on her new website at www.vivienneharrison.co.uk. Please have a look and keep an eye out for upcoming exhibitions!