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, 9 March 2017: Ropewalks #3 – A fun object handling session

by Joe Woolley, Arts and Heritage Placement

As part of my traineeship at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery I was eager to be involved with as many interesting projects as possible. Luckily for me within the early stages of my traineeship I was offered the chance to be the administrator for the theatrical walking tours project!

The role I was assigned involves me liaising with all the different members of the project team to help organise meetings, collate media and keep everyone up to date with what’s going on with the project while also providing insight on the use of technology within the project.

Although I don’t come from a cultural or history-based background this role was perfect for me. It allows me to utilise my technological background while also helping me to gain valuable experience of administrating a group for the first time.

It’s been an honour to be involved in such a ground-breaking project. The experiences and knowledge I’ve gained from interacting with the other people working on the project as well as the staff from the Museum and Barbican Theatre have been brilliant.

As part of one of our regular weekly meetings we recently had an object handling session which was provided by my colleague Joanne Gray and myself.

Plymouth Museum handling session

This was a great opportunity to give the project members a chance to get their hands on some historical objects and to help inspire ideas.

The items that we had a chance to look at were mainly food and drink based objects with a strong link to Plymouth. They ranged from old records of recipes that were common in Plymouth’s past, to ships biscuits which are a long lasting food source that were once widely used on ships.

Photograph from Plymouth Museum's Rope Walks handling session

As well as being a great way to inspire ideas for the project the handling session was a chance for everyone in the group to discuss the historical context of the items and the functions they had. I love this photo of scriptwriter, Jon Nash below with a basket on his head!

The session was also of great benefit to me as it tested my knowledge of some of the items the Museum has in its handling collection and enabled me to engage with my peers in a really lively and interesting discussion.

Members of Plymouth Museum's Rope Walks team take part in an object handling session

Museum on Tour, 23 February 2017: Ropewalks #2 – A visit to the film and television archive

by Chiara Cabri, City Explainer

I am one of the team of people working on the realisation of the theatrical walking tour of the Barbican. My role is to capture the development of the project in a short film, helping to promote the people who are involved and the results of their hard work.

As a producer of sound and film, as well as an enthusiast of history and the arts, I was fascinated by the idea of a project that would unveil the rich heritage of Plymouth through entertainment. Being part of the team has exposed me to an amazing amount of knowledge about the past of the city where I’m living.

During one of the recent team meetings we had the chance to visit the South West Film and Television Archive.

Photograph of Plymouth Museum's city explainers at the South West Film and Television Archive

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) is the largest regional film and television archive in the UK.

The archive was created when Television South West (TSW) closed at the end of 1993 and a great deal of SWFTA’s material is from TSW and its predecessor, Westward Television.

SWFTA’s core functions are preserving and making the material in its archive available. My role within this project will benefit from the archive, which contains invaluable footage of the Barbican in the past.

During the visit to SWFTA we were welcomed by Stacey Anderson, the Archive Director. She was kind enough to guide us around the building and give us an overview of the work that is carried out there.

Everyone on the team enjoyed the visit. A particular highlight was getting to see Gus Honeybun. I didn’t know who this funny puppet was, but it was a nice surprise for those who were born and raised in Plymouth and the local area.

Gus was the Westward Television and TSW mascot from 1961 to 1993. He’s a sort of a legend to a generation of people who tuned in at tea time on their birthdays to see if they were lucky enough to have their birthday cards read out, accompanied by a magic button or some bunny hops!

Photograph of Plymouth Museum's city explainers with Gus Honeybun

Some of SWFTA’s material dates back to the 1890s. It was fascinating to see how much history can be stored in a few rooms, and how much effort goes into the preservation and digitisation of the collections and old equipment.

The visit was particularly significant to me as the film maker for the walking tours project. Experiences like this visit have really cemented the project and boosted the enthusiasm of all those involved. I can’t wait to see what the team achieves and, eventually, be part of the audience.

Museum On Tour, 9 February 2017: Ropewalks #1 – Over the cobbles and back in time

by Sara Norrish, Learning Development Officer

While the construction work starts to transform the Museum and Art Gallery building into the big, new, shiny History Centre we’re busy developing new ideas behind the scenes!

I’m part of the Programmes Team and one of our roles is to make our ‘Activity Plan’ – a huge document containing a number of projects, initiatives and plans to help maintain our profile – come alive. We’re also using it to test out concepts over the next four years while we’re closed, with a view to integrating some of them into the History Centre’s programme once it’s open to the public.

I’m currently working on Cultural Tourism, a strand of the plan through which we’re creating a vibrant new way to interpret the incredible history of Plymouth’s Barbican. We’re doing this in partnership with the Barbican Theatre and writer, Jon Nash and we’re using food as a linking thread through the work.

In 2015 we all worked together for the very first time. We piloted combining history with an immersive theatrical experience at the Elizabethan House. ‘The Spice Box’ completely wowed audiences and clearly demonstrated a thirst for history to be experienced through contemporary theatre. It was an amazing performance that’s still talked about passionately.

Photograph from 'The Spice Box' 2015 theatrical production at the Elizabethan House in Plymouth
‘The Spice Box’ wowed audiences when it was performed at the Elizabethan House in 2015.

A crucial and defining aspect of devising this performance was that it was done in collaboration with Company B (the Barbican Theatre’s company of 16-25 year olds), Mark Laville, the Barbican Theatre’s Creative Director, Sheila Snellgrove the CEO and Jon Nash, the writer, alongside experts from the Museum and Art Gallery. Arts Council England were so impressed that the project became a Case Study.

Photograph of cast members from 'The Spice Box' at Plymouth's Elizabethan House
‘The Spice Box’ was a true collaboration with a cast of young people.

As a result of the success of ‘The Spice Box’ we wanted to expand our repertoire and offer other contemporary theatrical experiences. So, Sheila and I met early last year and started to cook up a project that would not only meet the needs of our respective audiences but that of our joint concern, emerging professionals. Both organisations have a strong commitment to supporting emerging professionals in the cultural sector by offering real live projects that they can be involved with, in order to gain much sought after experiences in the field.

Jon started his research last summer and has unearthed and gathered together a huge wealth of tantalising information. We’ve had trips to the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre, the South West Film and Television Archive, handled museum objects and investigated the Barbican under Jon’s guidance. All this research has given a huge amount of food for thought and debate.

Photograph of an old ship's biscuit recipe
One of the many items unearthed as part of the research for the project.

Since the Autumn the team has met on a weekly basis to create theatre, discover the threads that link places together into a route and to plan, organise and decide how to promote the work. It’s a huge undertaking and the complexities have sometimes blown our minds but I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all believe this is going to be a really stunning piece of theatre.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with very talented students, recent graduates and someone returning to work in a different sector after time away from her career. It’s a privilege to work with such a diverse group of people from those who’ve been round the block a bit to those freshly on the cultural scene.

A photograph of a devising session for 'Ropewalks'
One of the devising sessions for the walking tours.

We’re aiming to create a theatrical experience that gives audiences the best 50 minutes of their day as they follow in the footsteps of the people who have helped connect Plymouth to the rest of the world. Our story will take you through hundreds of years of history and we’ll be revealing all the dates and times very soon through the Arts and Heritage Service, Barbican Theatre and History Festival websites and social media. I’m really looking forward to seeing and being a part of a unique journey through history – as we step over the cobbles and travel back in time!