Museum On Tour, 8 June 2017: Ropewalks #8 – Getting our message across

by Sheila Snellgrove, Project Producer and Sara Norrish, Project Director

How do you turn 70 pages of extraordinary writing into a walking tour with a difference? Well, I think we’ve just done it with ‘Ropewalks’.

Our theatrical walking tour takes a look at the underbelly of our city and the lesser-known tales of some of its inhabitants. History is written by the victors we know, but this tale scripted by writer Jon Nash takes some of the invisible people and puts them front and centre.

Ropewalks performance on Plymouth's Barbican June 2017 From fisherwoman and abolitionists to the starving inside our walls during the civil war, ‘Ropewalks’ traces the steps of the untraceable and celebrates their extraordinary stories. We hope it also charges audiences with excitement and enquiry about our hidden city. The Blitz may have decimated our physical spaces but this walk offers you a glimpse into the beating heart of those who call themselves Plymothians, past and present.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the tremendous audience response so far. ‘Ropewalks’ started on 20 May and to date we’ve had 14 performances – all of which have been brilliantly received and more or less sold out.

The three characters who lead people around the waterfront are all women. In days gone by the females of our city had to be tough while they were left to hold the fort by the men who went to sea; battling, fishing, trading or exploring the world. When Count Magalotti visited Plymouth in 1669 he remarked that he could only see women and boys!

All our audiences so far have told us how much they’ve enjoyed the experience and they’d love to see more like this in Plymouth – what a wonderful start to a pilot project! Looking specifically at the words they’ve used to describe the performance is really interesting. ‘History’, ‘Fun’ and ‘Very’ (as in very interesting, very good, very funny) appear in half the responses, so we’re clearly getting our message across. We wanted to tell history in a new and very exciting way and it seems people agree we’ve achieved that.

Some of my favourite comments have been: “Fantastic, funny, enjoyable and informative”; “Very professional, very funny, very PLYMOUTH! Well done and thank you”; “Very informative and entertaining, smiled the whole way around” and “So different and very entertaining”. I was thrilled that my elderly neighbour hobbled her way around and loved it as much as one of my friend’s little six year old and 13-year old – that proves to me that the performances have something for everyone.

‘Ropewalks’ is now taking a short break and will begin again in time for the summer holidays on 6 August when we’ll deliver another 16 performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. Two of these have already sold out so if you want to come along don’t leave it too late to book your tickets!

Visit our ‘Ropewalks’ project page for more background information and links.

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Museum On Tour, 1 June 2017: Ropewalks #7 – Creating the Costumes

by Hannah McArthur, Costume Designer and Maker

I’m a recent graduate from Plymouth College of Art where I studied Costume Production and Associated Crafts. I’m ready to set out on my career as a freelance costume designer/maker and the ‘Ropewalks’ project has enabled me to take the first step on this path as well as work locally.

I have a passion for creating elaborate costumes that capture the imagination of others. ‘Ropewalks’ was the perfect opportunity for me to go all out with my elaborate designs!

I wanted to harness the colours and atmosphere of the Barbican so have used the rich shades you often see on the fishing boats in the harbour as well as inspiration from our local maritime heritage. My design process began with a range of mood boards that I put together, filled with images of the history of the Barbican, the boats and their colourful nets.

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Whilst creating these costumes, I met Mariana from ‘The Ocean Corner’. Mariana collects ocean debris for creative workshops and transforms vintage fashion into beautiful works of art. This was the inspiration for the headpieces I made to accompany the costumes.

I wanted to create a visual spectacle with the three Barbican women who are the main characters in ‘Ropewalks’. They are meant to be timeless and have so many stories to share. I wanted to create an image of three women who think they are invisible, when in fact they are quite the opposite with their colours, shapes, tales and all round kookiness!

I was around for the first weekend of performances in late May and was able to observe the reactions that the general public had as these three women and their audiences went walking down the Barbican’s cobbled streets. People were intrigued. What’s going on? What on earth are they wearing? That’s exactly the reaction I was hoping for!

I feel honoured to be a part of this new and exciting project. It has boosted my confidence and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with established professionals. I hope that the tours capture peoples’ imagination and help them learn new things about the Barbican in a fun and memorable way.

See more images of Hannah’s brilliant costumes on our photostream.

Museum On Tour, 10 May 2017: Plymouth History Festival

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Hopefully many of you will be aware that the Plymouth History Festival began on Saturday (6 May).

This is the fifth year in a row that it’s taken place and I have been involved with helping to co-ordinate and promote it since it began.

The festival runs until 4 June. Many people might think this is the busiest time for me on the project – but the bulk of the work actually takes place between December and April.

Myself and other colleagues who are responsible for event programming usually meet in early October to decide the dates and any particular themes for the following year. We then announce these in the press and give the individuals, societies and organisations who want to be involved around 2-3 months to confirm their events with us. We also have to make sure we have our own events organised by the deadline!

Once all the information is in I have my first major task on my hands: editing everything into a consistent format, double checking dates, times, address and contact information, creating a diary of listings for each day and then using it all to build our website. I usually put this live by mid-February.

After this my next major task is to take this information, source around 40 different high resolution images to go with it, write the foreword, draft copy about the latest developments with the History Centre and then brief all of this in to a graphic designer so they can produce the festival brochure. This is a massively popular piece of print.

While the brochure is being designed I source the printer, book advertising space in as many of the local what’s on publications as the budget will allow, liaise with our distribution company and raise the relevant purchase orders. Then there’s the job of proof reading the brochure, running it past everyone involved, briefing any amends back to the graphic designer, proof reading it again, signing it off, getting the artwork to the printer, checking their proof to make sure everything is fine with the colours, pictures and fonts, and then finally approving it for print.

Once the brochures have been delivered our distribution company collects around half of them and gets to work dropping them off at a range of venues across Plymouth and the travel to work area. The other half are distributed through our own networks, at the events we attend throughout the month and by the festival event providers – all of whom have been brilliant about coming to the Museum to collect their copies this year.

By this point I will have also sent out information about the festival to local media, forwarded the artwork for any adverts we have booked to the relevant publications and planned a social media campaign. The History Festival has its own Facebook and Twitter feeds and in the run up to and during the festival I post and share regular updates. This year we have also produced a series of graphics for the Big Screen in Plymouth’s city centre – I’ve used them in this post. I’ve also been able to secure some of the large format poster sites in the city centre car parks so we have produced a series of posters for these, as well as for the library network and Tourist Information Centre.

I’ve been very proud of the History Festival since it began and as a Service we are hugely grateful to all those who take part. It is a mammoth amount of work – a fact that isn’t necessarily acknowledged the way it should be. Lots of my colleagues from the Arts and Heritage and Library Services are involved too and are running events at different times throughout the month. There is no separate team to deal with the management, coordination, promotion or facilitation of the festival – we are doing all of this on top of our ever-growing commitments to the History Centre.

This year’s festival began with a really successful Local Studies Day and there are nearly 100 different events on this year’s programme including exhibitions and displays, guided walks and tours, talks and presentations, music, film and performance, special events and family activities. There’s real variety on offer for all ages and interests and the range of subjects highlights the depth of Plymouth’s history.

Take a look at the festival website if you haven’t done so already and I hope you enjoy the events you attend. Plymouth History Festival will return in 2018 and we will announce the dates and details a little later in the year!

Museum On Tour, 4 May 2017: Ropewalks #6 – Writing Ropewalks

by Jon Nash, Scriptwriter

As a writer and theatre maker I’ve always been interested in story. The stories we hear, the stories we tell each other and ourselves. Stories help us make sense of the world around us and can bring us together to learn and think and feel.

So around a year ago I began a project of research into the history of the Barbican: its buildings and people, trades and events. As I collected the expected dates and timelines and names and records, I was looking for the smaller human stories that stood out against the backdrop of history with a capital H.

An historic photo of the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

In workshops with young people from the city I shared some of the stories I’d found and asked them which ones they felt were the most interesting to them. The ones that caught their attention had a few things in common:

  • They connected Plymouth to big important history in a way they hadn’t known or imagined
  • They showed how ordinary people lived often during extraordinary times and talked about people just like them
  • They were unexpected or surprising or funny or a bit dangerous or subversive

Over the weeks of research and development with our brilliant volunteer actors we talked and improvised a lot about these ideas and how, in something like a walk, we could bring them to life and surprise our audiences.

An historic photo of fishermen on the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

We began to take fragments of history, from the Bread Riots, to smuggling to Dutton’s shipwreck and looked for the human beings that could tell us those stories, what they might have to say about them that could surprise us. We’ve been pirates and fishwives and emigrants and customs officials and all sorts of characters. Which led to the questions: who is telling these tales on this walk? Why are the telling them and from whose point of view?

Among the historical quotes about Plymouth, one stood out. Count Magalotti (visiting from Italy) in the 17th century describes Plymouth as a city of ‘women and children’ as the men were often away fishing or sailing or at war. We wondered what stories the women of the Barbican might tell and how they might view the events we were interested in. We imagined them being there by the harbour side from the very beginning. They’re still there today if you look in the right places.

The initial focus of my research had been food and drink. Over time this isn’t really about menu options but something much more urgent. How do you survive? How have people who live on the Barbican survived? What would these women want us to know about how they lived their lives, even when the going got tough?

Photograph of Nancy Astor campaigning on the Barbican, Plymouth during her historic 1919 election campaign

Much of my work in writing the final show has been about finding these voices, listening to them and not minding too much when they argue or disagree or even stretch the truth a little. To create a trio of long-lived Barbican women who can bring these stories to us and make us feel as if were were really there.

I’m on to my second draft now and they still keep surprising me. I hope they’ll do the same for all those who come to see the final performances.

Buy your tickets for ‘Ropewalks’ here. Performances take place on selected dates during May, June and August.

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.

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.

 

Museum On Tour, 15 March 2017: Plymouth After Dark #1

by Tony Davey, Learning Development Officer (Communities)

I’ve been busy with colleagues from our Programmes Team over the last few weeks planning ‘Plymouth After Dark’, a new exciting community project from the City Council’s Arts and Heritage Service.

Darts players in a Plymouth pub, 1950sThe project will spend the next four years examining, recording and documenting life in the city when the lights go down, from both an historic and contemporary viewpoint. We’ve been talking with a range of potential partners, from Public Health to Devon and Cornwall Police.

We’re currently developing a range of initiatives and events to suit all ages and all tastes. The project will culminate with a major exhibition in the new History Centre in 2021, as well as create a brand new permanent collection for the city.

Men playing dominoes in a Plymouth pub, 1950sWe’re officially launching the project with a series of events looking at ‘going out’ in Plymouth, whether that’s dancing the night away at an all-nighter, shaking your head to a live band performance or enjoying a quiet drink with friends at your local.

The first major event from the project will be ‘Sounds of the Sixties’ on Friday 12 May at the New Continental Hotel. The evening will be a chance to relive the sounds that shaped the decade, with a 2 hour set from one of the country’s leading tribute bands, The Revolvers.

Before getting on your dancing shoes, local historian Chris Robinson will present a brand new talk, ‘Going Out in 60s Plymouth’. We’ll also be bringing along our Photobooth for you to strike your best 60s pose in. There’ll be a free 60s inspired drink on entry, as well as 60s inspired nibbles on your table. It’s sure to be a fun filled night.

Sounds of the Sixties event flyer, March 2017

There is a serious side to the night as well – honestly! We’re really keen to collect people’s stories from their nights out in the city and we hope this event will help bring the memories flooding back. Myself and other colleagues will be on hand to talk to people and arrange suitable times for their memories to be recorded. People can also bring in any memorabilia they have for us to look at.

I’m very excited about the project as I believe it will provide lots of opportunities for many different people to participate, and put the spotlight on a part of peoples’ lives and the city’s heritage that isn’t always considered – after all we spend around a third of our lives in darkness…..