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A Question For the People of Deptford: Nigel Barrett, Louise Mari, and the Albany

This is the story so far

In October last year, out of the blue, we got a letter from Gavin Barlow and Rachel Nelken, from the Albany, London, who we had never met, saying that they were “big fans of our work” and that they wanted to talk to us about a “new and experimental project opportunity we have coming up – as we felt it might be a great fit.”

How lovely.  Not just a chance of some paid work, the battle for which (as many of you understand) is a constant worry and endless slog – but a heart-warming and unsolicited compliment. At the time we were on a wind battered beach in Devon, in horizontal rain, talking to dog walkers about their dogs and putting together an epic Dog Ballet for Torquay. Alongside the boundless love of people for their dogs, this brought a ray of sunshine into a very waterlogged day which ended with the roads closed and rocks thrown onto the street from the sea, smashing all the parking meters.

It turns out that the opportunity was to be part of ‘Here and Now’ – a project celebrating 25 years of the National Lottery. This initiative involves 40 arts centres being given a small budget with which to commission an artist/s to work with a community relevant to them. It is part of a national project thinking about arts centres and the position they occupy in the cultural and political life of the country – “what they do, what they should be doing more of, and how they could do it better over the next 25 years.”

 

So we had a look at The Here and Now criteria on their bumpf and it seemed to be very simply that –

We must create an opportunity for local people to talk to each other – to spark the first conversation between two people who have never spoken to each other before.

New connections will be made through art.

And that the arts centres are being encouraged to think out of the box and to trial a “new” way of working that is both artist and community led – without a prescribed outcome.

 

Ok   That all seemed like something we do and seemed worth doing.

 

So we talked to the lovely team at the Albany and they said what they wanted was for the artists–

To discover people where they are – like a pub or a laundrette- and think of that place as a community. Those communities need to be close to Deptford High Street, where the Albany is.

To engage people in a way that would hopefully help them to learn more about the people around them – especially people who usually had nothing to do with them.

To attempt to discover unheard voices and different perspectives on the rapid gentrification of the area which was seriously affecting local people.

To create some kind of public outcome but they’re totally open to what that will be.

This would then start a new programme of long term ‘embedded’ artists who will work with communities as a key part of their work.

 

Over the last 5 years or so we have been focussing more on community engagement as a key part of our practice and it is work we really love.

So this did, as they suggested, feel like it would be a great fit.

 

After much thought we proposed that we would dress in National Lottery outfits and hit the streets, shops, businesses, homes, clubs, charities and market stalls of Deptford asking this question :

We want to make or do something for the people of Deptford that brings people together and gives them something to talk about  if we gave you The Albany for a day or night and you could do anything at all – what would you make or do – if it was you?

We would then make one idea happen and involve as many participants as we can, that we collect along the way.

The answers people gave us would be recorded and become a resource for the theatre.   It will start a wider conversation about the theatre and what it does.

Over a lifetime of making work in this way and trusting the process will deliver an outcome – we were happy to jump into this project head first with no idea what was going to happen at the end.

The Albany’s response was “It’s absolutely what we had hoped for from this opportunity and we’d love to take you up on it. It’s great to hear both of your enthusiasm for this approach which is quite new for us. We’re really having to work hard not to design a project and stay true to the idea of being genuinely open”

So it was on. And in January we began the project which has now become

“A Question for the People of Deptford”

 

We did not know where this journey was going to take us.  But with the refreshing trust of Gavin and the deeply committed and hard-working team at the Albany we decided, in the spirit of the commission, to not impose our ideas on local people. But go out and listen to what they have to say.

 

Deptford, it turns out, is a magical place.

It’s not an easy place. There is a dark underside. And for many older people it’s a frightening place – they do not leave their houses after dark.

It is a place of extreme contradictions and it has the fiercely fought-for pride of the underdog.  Despite being on the Thames, the high street is cut off from any view of the river. You can feel the history of hard, dirty work that nestles alongside the opulence of Greenwich.

The high street is still full of small local shops selling anything that anyone could possibly want. The market is unique. There is only one charity shop. There are no empty units. There is no Starbucks or McDonalds but there are tiny places you can listen to live music at night. There are people of all ages who have landed up here from all over the world. Everyone seems to rub along together, despite the extreme deprivation that has ravaged through the estates. And then there are the students from Goldsmith and Trinity/Laban thrown into the mix.

 

In the heart of this is the Albany.

 

And this project has slowly become a teasing out of the narrative of what the Albany has been, what it seems to be now and what it can be in the future. For the people of Deptford.

 

The Albany as a building was first established in 1899 as a philanthropic institute. After burning down in the late 70s the current building was opened by Princess Diana in 1982.

At its heyday in the 80’s it was very well funded and was the vibrant creative hub of the community. Much of what it offered was free or low cost. But the funding did not keep pace and by the early 2000’s it was on its knees. When Gavin Barlow – the chief executive and artistic director – took over it was £250,000 in debt. The future looked bleak. “There was a lot of anger from local people that the place had let them down”

But, to be honest, it’s a miracle it stayed open at all. And that level of public funding, realistically, is gone for good.  And philanthropy, despite there being 2.4 trillion dollars of private wealth in London, appears to have its limits.

Talking to people around Deptford that sense of betrayal is still very real.  A lot of people talk about the old days where they would go on Friday night to the gay disco – which was the only place you could get a late drink – then the following week go to boxing – you could see top comedians before they got famous and big-name music acts, there were regular community barbeques, great shows. There was a sense of risk and experimentation. The youth programmes have become legendary locally and many people claim that the Albany saved their lives, literally.  They felt it belonged to them.

 

But these are very different times. Gavin and Annabel Turpin from ARC in Stockton have been instrumental in starting a 21st Century conversation about what the future is for arts centres – looking at new models of sustainability. With local councils stretched beyond their means and a burgeoning older population it is hard to say that art should come before care in a list of priorities. I would argue that it should. But then not many people would agree with me. The Albany seem to be trying to combine the two – taking over the running of local library buildings and extending their remit – and in their creative work with isolated old and young people. They also have an ambition to connect artists and their local communities across arts centres all over the world – making work that speaks both locally and internationally and bypassing the traditional routes of touring theatre abroad.

 

In our first week we attended the Albany’s AGM. The financial model was surprising. The Albany is now a huge multi-million pound social enterprise providing a broad range of community services.  “Everything we do has creativity at the centre of it, but our core mission is about community rather than just culture or the arts”. It’s all about “human potential.”

And they have plans for the future. Our project seems perfectly timed because, after years of talking, there is a massive improvement of the building in the pipeline – that involves using some of the garden on the site to build housing – that will fund the refurbishment and future programmes. It will make the Albany more fit for its ambitions. One man we spoke to on our travels told us “It seriously needs refurbishing and brought up to a standard that is more deserving of the people who use it.  It’s an unusual resource for a community in London but it feels a bit neglected. It needs to be an appealing a place as all the other new places that are popping up all around the area”. The plans are going out to public consultation on the 24th February – the day after our project comes to fruition. So, whatever else we do, we can also let people know about the plans – so they have input into what happens next.

 

In the first week at the Albany we got our bearings, we met the people who work there, we sung with the ‘Meet Me At…’ elders choir, we met the young leaders, we came up with a name for the project and we made some flyers to e-mail and to hand out. We wrote to every business and organisation in the area that we could find asking our question :

We want to make or do something for the people of Deptford that brings people together and gives them something to talk about  if we gave you The Albany for a day or night and you could do anything at all – what would you make or do – if it was you ?

We were gobsmacked by just how much is being done in the area by small voluntary groups that make significant difference to people’s lives and the environment. From the squat providing a place for street drinkers and homeless people to sit somewhere warm and welcoming, to the massive FareShare food distribution centre – rescuing good quality surplus food that would otherwise have gone to waste and sending to places that need it most. There is DAGE pensioners pop-in, Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, and The Creekside Discovery Centre, situated on an old London bombsite – where they have 300 species of wildlife and take schoolchildren thigh deep into the creek. There is so much being done by people, quietly and modestly, day in and day out over years, and it is humbling.

In our second week, wearing our National Lottery sweatshirts, we headed out onto the streets of Deptford asking the same question.

And we began to talk to people about what they thought could happen, or get made, in the Albany – and what might bring them into the building – whether they ever went there – what stopped them from coming – what they enjoyed doing. People seem happy to talk to you once they know that the lottery is paying for this project and not the local council. And pretty much everyone seemed genuinely surprised and even delighted by our question. An offer of something positive. Someone interested in what they had to say. “People round here have lost hope a little bit. There are so many things going on – that no-one understands what’s happening. They need something uplifting.”

 

This one narrative emerged straight away.

The area is developing rapidly.  “Deptford is changing”

“People round here feel neglected. Pushed around. Overlooked”

“People feel lost”

“What’s going on?  You feel like you don’t have a say.  You go and vote but it means nothing – you don’t have a say”

Vast monoliths of ‘luxury’ flats are blocking out the sky and closing in around Deptford.

The train station has been zhuzhed up, which has been very welcome – but the council seem suddenly uncomfortable about the visible presence of so many homeless people. There is outright disbelief that a bar has opened in the high street selling £15 burgers.

“And there must be people round here that can afford that because on a Saturday there’s a queue.” “Other people can’t afford to eat, have nowhere to go that’s safe, and when you provide somewhere for them the council try and close you down because it’s giving out the wrong message. And yet there’s people queueing for £15 burgers”

There is talk of the community being made up of “the incomers who can spend a tenner on a non-dairy coffee and pastry in the Arches, and the rest of us.”  There is a fancy bar in the old job centre called “The Job Centre”.

One man talked to us about “people coming in round here with their watercress sandwiches” with a wry smile. But there’s also an understanding that there has been an improvement in personal safety around the high street at night. The same man said “It’s not all bad –  it has balanced things out a bit. But the real problem is that the way they are knocking down the council flats and building private apartments – they are getting rid of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the black communities.” He says “It started 7 years ago. Right now it is rough to mellow. But we are worried where it will end. We don’t want to end up like Brixton – where it’s been totally whitewashed.”

The traders in the arches have had their rents more than doubled – since Network rail handed over the reins to Blackstone, an American private equity firm, and Telereal Trillium, a multi-billion pound property management and development company – under the, then, transport minister Jo Johnston.  Rent inflation was built into the deal. These damp, noisy spaces have been the birthing ground of small individual businesses for ever. My own theatre company started in a similar space in Bethnal Green where 10 of us shared the rent at a tenner a week each so we could have somewhere to make experimental theatre.

 

With these rents it seems likely that those opportunities will vanish overnight.

The Commando Temple Gym are hanging on by the skin of their teeth – after 8 years building a specialised business that people travel from all over the country to. Rob, the owner, is the strongest man I think I’ve ever met – in many senses of the word – he has run the Marathon Des Sables – but this is no even match.

 

Understandably there is a nervousness about what’s coming. And a protective love for the place.

 

But walking the streets of Deptford and talking to people – their priorities seem pretty unified and pretty clear :

“I’d like the streets to be safe and everything to be fine.  I would start from there”

“There is very little for the under 2s around here. Especially in the winter”

“We need more things for younger kids 12-13. They need to be able to go somewhere”

“Every day people come in and ask about activities for little ones   singing and stories and so the parents can meet other parents and mingle and not feel so isolated”

“Something you could all do together as a family”

“A lot has been taken away from the children.  We used to play snooker in the community hall –  there were places to go, so we spent a lot less time on the road. They only have street corners and doorways. There used to be somewhere for people to be. Even if parents had to pay a little something, they wouldn’t mind so much if they had somewhere to go”

 

Some people just want to do their own thing. Would never go to an arts centre. They work hard. They need time out to do nothing. “When I have time off I don’t want to go out. I work. I go to sleep. I rest. I watch TV. I eat.  I sleep. I work”   “I don’t go anywhere.  Just do my business.  Watch my Facebook.”

 

Some interesting ideas came up –

“I would turn the whole place into chocolate and eat it”

“I would love to try poetry writing.  A chance to make poetry that has never happened”

“a non- judgemental talent contest for kids”

“a pensioner sleepover”

“a baby rave that everyone can join in with”

“make a massive crazy golf – that starts outside the building and goes inside. That would bring in the children”

“build an indoor skate park”

“shoot a mockumentary about Deptford”

“Have paper Aeroplane competition    see how far you can throw them”

“have talks about interesting things – like travelling”

“a pop song singalong”

“Jazz knitting”

“teenagers reading to young children”

 

The same things kept popping up – film, music, dance, art, crafts, games, football.

Pretty much everyone universally has said : “It needs to include eating” “eating and meeting”   “Anything food based then people will turn up”

 

We have had many suggestions along the line of :

“I think it’s important to note that Deptford has evolved, declined, reinvented itself many times over the last few hundred years…  We have a great mix of old locals, creatives, students, immigrant communities here, who for the most part get along with each other and it would be great to have a big party/festival to celebrate this!”

“Have a multi art form event – with art, music, poetry, films – all different subjects so it speaks to lots of people”

“Lots of choice. Give people a lot of choices”

“A free festival with family things. An all age event where everyone’s welcome and involved. With no rules.  An all dayer”

“Have an all dayer with music, food, arts and crafts. In the past they used to have stuff like that all the time at the Albany – when I was growing up they used to have a lot of that. None of the kids here understand what is possible there. What it can actually do. I’m not saying it has to be free – no-one expects that. And not just a one off, once a year.  But every month or two months. Build it up.  And sell the food and drink at the cheapest price possible.  So that people know that it’s coming up and can save up for it. Look forward to it.

 

Essentially, “people in this area would prefer to have a party than a serious event” “something uplifting – that’s what people need”

 

So after 3 weeks it appears we have an overwhelming answer to our question and that is :

A PARTY FOR THE PEOPLE OF DEPTFORD

We have 2 weeks and a small budget to create mini festival full of food and art, music, films – something for all ages and all backgrounds and circumstances – where everything there is free. If we had a limitless budget and time then of course we would pay local people to cook a feast with food from all over the world   “a cook out”   “a hot pot party”  “an international home cooked food tasting menu”  “a feast” –   that we could all share.    And then we would book a programme of the best musicians, artists and performances from London, Vietnam, Eritrea, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Uganda, Afghanistan to share the best of all of us and the great skill and experience of our finest artists.

But we have a modest budget and two weeks – so this will be a small local party, with and for local people. The amazing Commando Temple gym are coming to organise a massive tug of war and some arm wrestling. MOMA – Make Oats More Awesome – are donating loads of porridge for breakfast. The Albany young leaders are going to read stories to children all day. Ron will be organising a paper plane competition and his friend Huw is making a Deptford quiz. Fiorella is coming with her mother to run a drop in multi lingual sweet treat making session and Takeshi is doing some origami dance workshops. Justin from Fusal@Jam is coming to do two hours of football skills with kids in the garden. The legendary Charles Hayward is curating a programme of local musicians. There will be films all day and dancing at night. There will be hot soup and we have asked people to bring cake to share. There will be messy art and magic and many games and we will be performing a few of our interventions through the day.

We are going to personally invite everyone we have spoken to and knock on doors, pop our heads round shops, stop people in the high street and the swimming pool and the parks and invite them ourselves. We will prove that we have listened and have responded to what the people of Deptford have asked for.  And with the party timed the day before the launch of the public consultation it could be an event that connects the story of the Albany’s past to that of the future.

 

What is important for Nigel and me, as artists, is that this public outcome will also be a backdrop for a film that we are commissioning from an extraordinarily talented film maker – Khevyn Ibrahim, who grew up on a local estate. It is an opportunity to make, not a record of the event, but a work of art – a “poetic film” based on his “lived experience and the vibrant people of Deptford.”  The film will be “centred around Deptford being this lost small town in the huge city that’s known around the world. How it hasn’t stopped us from thriving, rising and coming together as a diverse community. Then will be centred around the love that people have for each other.”

 

This whole project raises the slippery question of what and who arts centres are for – and in a larger sense who and what theatres are for. With the new 10-year Arts Council priority being “relevance” as opposed to “excellence” (as if the two should, or could, be separated) there is a growing concern amongst artists that there is a lack of understanding of the unique skills and experience and knowledge that they bring to the table. We believe that rigorous innovation and interrogation in the arts is a vital and essential rejuvenating force in society and not an act of supreme egotism. And there is a nagging unease that taking part in this project is sharpening the axe for our own necks. But we are hopeful that the underlying spirit of the Arts Council’s vision is one of a genuine desire to rid the arts of an all-pervading classism and elitism – rather than a patronising dumbing down of content in a misconceived attempt to appeal to “the masses” and justify the public subsidy. Art is important – we need it like we need food and air.

And so – with so many of us feeling they are struggling from each day to day, scared to look ahead and living in hostile environments – the fact that arts centres are fighting to keep art and culture at the centre of communities and working hard to give voice to local artists and communities seems more essential than ever. And even more so that those voices should have a place in an international context.

 

One local woman wrote to us “If the Albany got its act together it could act as the lynchpin that brings our local communities together.”

That seems like exactly what the Albany is doing and plans to do a whole lot more of in the future. And this party will hopefully communicate that in spades to the neighbours who have never been through the door before, let them know about the plans and invite their input, so we will start conversations between strangers and neighbours – not about a work of art but about art itself – what that means in Deptford right now and in the future.

Or maybe no-one will come – isn’t that the anxiety of every party host !

The party is from 11am – 10pm on the 23rd February 2020 and it will be a free event.

Everyone is welcome

And we will have a collection bucket at the door for local food banks.

 

 

Louise Mari  x

 

Click here to find out more about this project, and about artists Louise Mari and Nigel Barrett.