Off on our way to Guild 2012

Culturapedia Director Sue is cooking up a project for the Preston Guild 2o12 in partnership with Dutch location theatre company PeerGroup. Its early days but momentum will soon start to take place. As part of this work she went out to visit the company in their home province, Drenthe, in the North East Netherlands to understand their work, its context and to see their current  project, Van Mond Tot Mond.

Here she outlines what she learned and experienced. The Guild (www.prestonguild2012.com) is an ancient festival, dating back to at least the 13th century, which runs every 20 years. This year it coincides with the Olympics, and for the first time, the city council have employed an artistic director. The Guild ran a commissioning scheme, to encourage local arts organisations to come forward with ideas. We proposed a collaboration with  PeerGroup. We were commissioned to work together on making new theatre with young people and the project, still in development, is called from Stephen to Avenham. Linking a wild, national park (AONB) space, with an urban victorian space which is the main festival site. From Stephen to Avenham will draw on the history of the Guild when traders came in from distant parts to trade and celebrate.The project links groups from the Hodder Valley and Preston via the Rivers Hodder and River Ribble. Young people will work to create two human scale theatrical maps which will form a performance showing their lives through images, food, music and storytelling. Putting young people’s lives from rural and urban Lancashire firmly on the map.

My trip to Drenthe allowed me to understand PeerGroup’s work more, to see their extraordinary premises, to see the landscape which inspires them, and to see one of their current shows.

PeerGroup make socially engaged art. They work with communities identifying stories  of local importance and create professional work which reflects those stories,and involves those communities. The work can be small scale or monumental. They are based in an old ammunition storage site, the size of several football pitches, in a forest. With a wide range of buildings to use as workshops, and storage space, only one building, their office, is heated.

They have a chef, Ellis, who works with them and she farms Gloucester Old Spot pigs as part of her work on food and food culture. The pigs roam freely in the woods around the buildings until their inevitable demise. The company share the site with a project supporting people with mental health problems back into the community and they regularly collaborate. The company, like UK arts organizations recently, are facing an uncertain funding future, and will know in August if they are funded for another 4 years. They are the only Dutch Arts Council funded company in the northern region, and the only rural company in the country. I would like to think they’re in with a good chance.

Whilst in Drenthe  I was shown the flat parts, and the hilly parts of the county. It seems there are several definitions of flat that only a trained eye can see. Drenthe is partly a sandhill, 50m above sea level, which for millennia has housed Romans, Celts, Saxons and many others on their journeys to the north and south. It was formed from glaciers from Scandinavia and large granite boulders often are found in the soil.  It has 54 known megaliths and many more as yet unearthed.  These megaliths are called Hunnebods (Giant Beds) with Hunne meaning giant.  It links to Hun- the German tribes, and the local dialect is known as Netherland-Saxon. On the sandhill  exists forest and heathland and, lower down in the surrounding areas, was once swamp, now reclaimed; this is low lying peatland which was farmed and transported out via a huge canal network. A lot of peat (veen) was sold. That industry is now gone, and tourism, horses and controversially 120m high windmills seem to be the next  main income.  You can see the villages linked to the peat, they have veen as a suffix. (eg, Hoegeveen) I also identified a lot of villages with the suffix  “loo”, which comes from the French word, l’eau (there’s a history of French rule and influence) and this name reflects the low lying nature of the landscape (eg, Grolloo, Exloo) Curiously “loo” is also known in the UK for its watery connections. Part of my trip was to watch Van Mond Tot Mond (from Mouth to Mouth) .

This current project is based in the Mond area of the peatland. Monds – or mouths- are places where a network of canals come together as part of the peat transport system. Villages around these areas have developed in a linear pattern, often being extremely spread out (some can be as long as 10Km) PeerGroup set out to make a series of pop-up restaurants in empty spaces, and using local produce, create a theatrical feast. The audience is invited to enjoy a huge meal produced using local vegetables, cheese, fish etc  (the show is also a play on words) They are then encouraged to then select their evening’s entertainment from a menu of acts. This could include songs written by the company reflecting local themes (Windmolen being one about the controversy surrounding the local windmill development) or could equally be entertained by local performers, professional or amateur (eg a local community choir, a euphonium player, a puppeteer)

This particular pop- up restaurant was in a disused garden centre, and a huge greenhouse was transformed into a fabulous theatrical venue. The community from the village, Valthermond, contributed to the entertainment, and the stories. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the company gave equal platform to local performers, the high quality theatrical experience of the evening, and the way food was part of it all. In addition to the show, the company are working with the local TV channel to produce a TV programme. I may end up in it looking suitably quizzical.  The show concept would work well in rural touring in the UK and I plan to work with the company on developing it as a transportable concept. Although the show was in Dutch, I understood the sentiment, and was delighted to hear a local community choir singing in English.

The trip gave me a valuable insight into the company’s work, and motivations, and is helping us both develop our Guild commission with a deeper understanding of how, and why we work in rural areas.