Museum on Tour, 13 April 2017: Ropewalks #5 – Bringing heritage and performing arts together

by Victoria Lester, City Explainer

Once upon a time I was an historian, a published historian in fact who became a language assistant who then came back to the UK – back to Plymouth to become unemployed for two years!

But that was once upon a time.

I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do which was work in the performing arts. It hasn’t been easy. Starting down a new career path in my mid-twenties when my confidence was in the dustbin wasn’t something I ever thought I would have to do. Starting a career in an industry where your confidence can sometimes take a beating hasn’t necessarily made it easier – but it has made me more determined.

I enrolled in a BTEC in Performing Arts at City College to test my resolve and now here I am. It’s nearly four years since I decided to go down this route and without the help and support I’ve received from the Barbican Theatre I wouldn’t be here today.

Where’s here? I’m one of the devising actors on the ‘Ropewalks’ walking tours project, working with the Barbican Theatre and staff from the City Council’s Arts and Heritage Service/History Centre to help bring heritage and performing arts together.

A photograph of the Ropewalks team in a devising session at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth

It’s been a fascinating experience, working with a large team of actors, directors, writers, costume designers, graphic designers, marketing officers, historical professionals and more to bring a series of theatrical walking tours that will bring the Barbican to life to the people of Plymouth.

I thought I knew the history of Plymouth. I’ve learnt that you can never really know the full history of a place or of a people. You can only know so much and there’s always something new to discover.

The 'Ropewalks' team taking part in a filming session at the Mayflower Museum, Plymouth

Over the last few months, as part of the research and development process we’ve visited the South West Film and Television Archive and the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre – a place I’d only ever heard of. Going there and hearing about the social history of Plymouth alongside the military was fascinating. We heard about:

  • the widows of the ropewalk: ladies whose husbands had been killed in the line of duty
  • The ever present rivalry between Plymouth and Portsmouth
  • the ladies who lived on board ship, and just why someone could be called ‘son of a gun’
  • how during the First World War the telegrams from sailors would often come long before official word of a battle having been fought

……….and so much more.

Back in the theatre we’ve been taking extracts from texts, history books and original sources, and considering potential scenarios, characters and pieces that scriptwriter Jon Nash has written. We adapted them and ‘threw them around’ to see what would stick. One thing we realised very early on was that an historical fact or object without a glimpse of the person behind it wasn’t engaging. Put a person behind it though and suddenly it was brought to life.

Victoria Lester in a devising session for the 'Ropewalks' project at the Barbican Theatre

Among the many things I’ll never forget us doing are:

  • six of us being on stage and throwing the history of the Barbican around the room, starting in the prehistoric we bounced the story between us all the way to the present day
  • Re-enacting aspects of the Bread Riots – a part of history I’d never heard of! Who doesn’t love a good riot?
  • Finding the often contrary voices and characters of the ladies of Plymouth and realising how you actually go about gutting a fish

It’s been a long journey with many a wander through the streets of the Barbican marvelling at the rich and colourful history of this city that deserves to be remembered.

Members of the 'Ropewalks' team in discussion at the Mayflower Museum, Plymouth

Plymouth is a city that we should be proud of and I am very proud to have been part of the team involved in a project which is combining so many strands to develop a lively new form of theatre that I firmly believe will create an immersive experience for everyone who comes to watch.

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Museum On Tour, 23 March 2017: Ropewalks #4 – Creating an immersive experience

by Toluse Farley, City Explainer

7 years ago I was hospitalised. Although this sounds like a dramatic way to begin my post it’s important as it was a life event that would end up being the catalyst for my recent career path and my involvement in this project!

To help aid my recovery I decided to enroll in a course at City College. I was looking for something that would challenge me.

I went to an Open Day at the Goschen Centre and left later that day having signed up for a BTEC in Performing Arts. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but was determined to apply myself.

Through the course I was introduced to the Barbican Theatre. The experience has been invaluable. Without it I could not have progressed to the point I’m at now or developed the confidence to ‘put myself out there’!

Toluse Farley from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery's City Explainers Team

Mark Laville from the Barbican Theatre gave a presentation to our entire year. He explained what they were about as a company and how they work to empower young performers to express themselves through the arts in a safe accessible environment. Moved by his passion and integrity I approached him about how I could get involved.

Some 14 months later here I am working on a project with the Barbican Theatre and the Arts and Heritage Service to help bring the stories of the Barbican to life through a series of theatrical walking tours.

I am one of the devising actors on the project and have thoroughly enjoyed the process. It’s given me a chance to work as part of a large team with fellow actors, directors, costume designers, graphic designers, historical professionals and more.

Learning about the history of Plymouth and the Barbican area has been really inspiring for devising the theatrical aspect of the tours.

A figurehead at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre in Plymouth

One of the things we’ve done as part of our research and development process is to visit the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre where I learned many facts that I was previously unaware of.

Many of the things we heard about have had an impact not only locally but also worldwide, such as:

  • How a Plymouth-based engineer named Dummer was commissioned to build the Dock in Devon in 1691. It was the first stone clad dry dock to be built and has since been copied worldwide.
  • How Aggie Weston set up a sailor’s rest home on Fore Street, Devonport among the theatres, shops and department stores. It provided sailors coming off their ships an alternative to the pub and brothels and had facilities like restaurants, cafes, billiard rooms and cabins.
  • HMS Plymouth, a Frigate (warship) that served in the Falklands.
  • How Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse was amalgamated from three towns into one in 1914 as a result of the First World War
  • How the West Country has produced some of the greatest sailors we’ve known who have developed colonies, circumnavigated the globe, defeated the Spanish in the Armada and more.

A model of a warship at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre in Plymouth

These are just the tip of the iceberg. What the visit confirmed for me is what a rich cultural heritage there is here in Plymouth. It deserves to be remembered and celebrated. I hope this project will help bring more awareness of this.

Since our visit to the Naval Heritage Centre we have spent many hours mulling over our research. It’s helped us to conjure up scenarios and characters drawn from the history of the area. Combined with the landmarks around the waterfront and the events we’ve learned of it’s a fantastic recipe for creating an immersive and entertaining experience.

Members of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery's City Explainers team on a research visit to the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre

I’m proud to be a part of a team that is developing this innovative form of theatre – and hope you’re all looking forward to something which commemorates Plymouth, from its humble beginnings through to its monumental achievements.