Interim Project Report
Graham Lister, Jeremy Weller, Lala Meredith-Vula
In September 2015, film and theatre director Jeremy Weller, visual artist Lala Meredith Vula and producer Graham Lister were engaged on behalf of De-Montfort University to work on a research and development project exploring the opportunities as well as the complexities around a possible large-scale community drama involving the many different communities of Leicester.
The project set out to examine and understand Leicester’s diverse communities and how they might come together to create a large-scale piece of community activity. It was agreed the format of the final proposition would be identified and fixed during the R&D phase and would be either film or live performance.
Jeremy Weller is a world expert in Social Inclusive Art. His work has focused on connecting with some of the most challenging environments, both nationally and internationally. He has worked with the most recalcitrant and difficult subjects, telling the story of their lives in the form of film, theatre and radio.
Report on activity
PHASE 1: Making Connections – October to November 2014
With the support of DMU, Jeremy and Lala had developed and nurtured relationships within the community since 2011 and included: The Foodshare and charities in Braunstone so were able to build and expand on these contacts spending most of October 2014 meeting and speaking to as many individuals and groups as possible. These included leaders of religious groups, representatives from a broad range of communities, students and a range of local performance based artists including local rappers, poets, musicians, film and video makers.
The interviews were recorded and photographed with the permission of participants. Exhibition photographs were made of the various communities, some of which a shown here:
PHASE 2: Intensive Research – November 2014
A series of carefully planned informal workshops and meetings were held during the first week of November 2014. These were used to consolidate the connections that had been made during previous networking activities. This provided an opportunity for people to understand the nature of the project and crucially, how their participation would crate and shape the outcome. Initially many of the individuals were suspicious and reluctant to make any further commitment other than the initial first meeting, however as the week progressed it became clear that there was a growing enthusiasm and many were keen to explore the opportunity.
Outputs and findings
- Jeremy and Lala met over 200 people in this phase with 72 participants being filmed and recorded for research purposes. 30 participants progressed to Phase 3 of the project.
- Graham, Jeremy and Lala met regularly throughout Phase 1 to plan, discuss progress and agree actions for Phase 2 and 3.
Key learning points and principles emerged during this period which were used to influence and shape the next phase:
- Jeremy Weller’s informal approach to connect and engage with the participants worked in engaging many who had little or no previous engagement with local arts company’s or groups.
- The people of Leicester wanted a chance to have their say… to tell their story. It was important to use the known environment as the location for exploration and engagement: workshops and meetings took place in people’s homes; in their kitchens, living rooms, in their garages, local clubs, cafés. Even on the street!
- Trust – cynicism and mistrust among some will continue throughout the project and needs to be carefully managed.
- It was agreed that the next phase would need to allow some form of sharing of experience to take place – where participants would have an opportunity to take part in a live performance.
- It was recommended that a live performance and short film should be developed to be premiered as part of the DMU Cultural Exchange Programme 2015.
PHASE 3: Live performance and short film for De-Montfort University’s Cultural Exchange programme – February 2015
Following the completion of the Phase 2, De Montfort University and Leicester City Council agreed to support the third phase of the project to produce and showcase a devised live performance and short film to be premiered as part of De-Montfort University’s Cultural Exchange programme. The creative team were keen for the artistic output to be participant led, and for it to benefit from some key (more traditional) creative team additions. At this stage the team was expanded to include Musical Director and Film Composition – Dom Coyote, and Designer and Installation – Kate Unwin. Both experienced independent practitioners, native to Leicester.
Jeremy directed the short film working in collaboration with Lala and students from De-Montfort University. The film was edited by Leicester based film maker Zubair Satwilkar. Dom Coyote composed a musical score which sat behind the visual and audio narrative.
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Jeremy and the artistic team lead a series of workshops and rehearsals to develop the live performance which allowed for all participants to take part through acting, spoken word, rap and song. This was an extremely intense period, and required participants to either commit to the live performance or step down. Many of the participants have complex and fairly chaotic lives, which at times provided logistical challenges to the team – the flexible approach that Jeremy’s method takes and the improvised nature of the performance made allowances for this. Further comments on the risks of this approach are addressed in the ‘Risks associated with the project’ section of the report.
Outputs and findings
Both the live performance and the film were seen as a showcase of the ‘work in progress’ and to demonstrate the potential of a large-scale community drama production, so this was an important tangible outcome and central to the R&D work. Participants felt something had been achieved and vital connections had been made between themselves and with the wider project team.
There is no doubt the whole experience was a positive one for all the participants and the project team. There is a genuine enthusiasm for the project to develop further.
The project provided a high quality learning and personal development opportunity for most of the participants, while highlighting the depth of talent in Leicester and crucially how disconnected some are from the mainstream arts organisations.
The objective of the “This is Leicester” project was to create and showcase a drama performance to:
- Highlight the potential for a large scale collaborative community drama project in Leicester with DMU, The Curve, the creative team and local community.
- Build community relationships and generate enthusiasm.
Given the participant involvement and feedback from the performance it is felt that the project delivered the above objectives.
The major success of the project was in reaching those hidden voices within leicester’s community and giving them a space and oppotunity to be heard. Another exciting prospect is that the 26 young people that we worked led us deep into their communities allowing for a future project to be drawn from hundreds of would be participants. The project also brought communities together that normally had little or nothing to do with each other. Ie Muslim and Jamaican community worked side by side in the development of the performance. The whole cast were keen and excited about the prospect of taking the project to the next level and into a professional venue like the Curve.
The project achieved the original scope, to stay within budget and timeframe.
PHASE 1: Intensive Research Period
- Directors fees 4900
- Researcher Fees 500
- Misc. expenses 600
PHASE 2 & 3: Live performance and short film for DMU’s Cultural Exchange programme
- Directors Fees 7500
- Composer 1500 Total 9000
Lessons Learned : Structured Informality
Unlike traditional forms of theatre production Jeremy’s method demands a level of flexibility and uncertainty throughout the project because of the constant devising and evolving of material. Even on the final day of rehearsal it could be unclear what final content would be included in the live performance! This artistic approach is not without risk, however this “risk” can give the participants the freedom to embody their performance without being inhibited by a “script’. However, for this project a lesson learned for the future is that time would be put aside for a full technical and dress rehearsal, therefore avoiding the over run and the issues that this caused. This was very regrettable and I apologised to those impacted by it. Further for the future development, the team plans to have several pre premier test runs of the performance, this would also allow for further technical and timing issues to be ironed out before the premier.
Negative impact of the Channel 4 Documentary (Making Leicester British)
Because of the perceived “negative impact” of the Channel 4 Documentary (“Making Leicester British”) we were met with a level of cynicism and distrust which underpinned many of the early discussions. People who were new to the project, were concerned about exploitation and misrepresentation “are you going to misrepresent us, like Channel 4?” was often heard. With this in mind and to address the issues concerning trust, it was important to find meaningful ways for participants to connect with the project team – and particularly with Jeremy. Through a series of thoughtfully constructed informal workshops and meetings Jeremy was able to demonstrate his 20 years of experience of devising art in the community so was able to reassure those being interviewed that what he was developing was a devised piece of theatre, in which they “the cast” would have a chance to express their views, they would be invited to stand on stage and give voice to their feelings about their life in Leicester, they would also hold editorial control over their own material, but Jeremy in collaboration with them would shape the individual stories into one artistic whole. Jeremy’s methods of working reassured the interviewees and thus we were able to work very quickly in drawing a cast together.
Post Project Review
Artistic challenges and ambition
The important and exciting challenge for the future is how to nurture and develop all of the ‘new’ talent that we found and transform the small piece of drama into the large scale experimental community drama which we believe is crying to be made. The cast took us and the audience into another Leicester were tensions and pressures exist but also where there is a will to create a difference and not give into racial and cultural tensions and rather to reach to the so called “other” to build a community.
This is what we witnessed and heard from the Imam’s, Rabbi’s, street rappers, musicians, poets, mothers, and families from all the communities that we met and the diverse audience who shared the performance experience. This is what we can celebrate in a large scale community drama, built naturally on from this first phase.
For a large scale project to be constructed in the future there are a number of considerations that would need to be carefully examined and balanced. For example:
- Determine the correct scale for the project to enable it to be successful creatively and financially.
- Address the challenges regarding funding, regardless of the adopted scale.
- A large scale community project would be resource hungry and couldn’t rely on box-office receipts alone.
- Address the challenges related to the practical nature of creating and maintaining an audience-led project over the duration of a pre-determined rehearsal and playing period.
There are no simple solutions to these challenges but they must be addressed if the project is to move from being an enthusiastically received performance to a highly professional ticketed event.
In the next phase of development we aim to raise the funds needed to create a large scale professional,ticketed Community drama, with the support of DMU, Leicester City council, that would culminate in a premier at the Curve theatre in 2016.
Feedback from audience members who attended the final performance was overall startlingly positive. Many commented on how deeply moving they found some of the performances and expressed genuine enthusiasm for a further, more substantial piece of work to be made.
“To hear this group of young adults from ethnic minorities speak about and describe their feelings about their home city, Leicester, was a truly memorable experience. It was raw, poetic, thoughtful, reflective, full of wisdom, and, most importantly, everyone expressed in their own way a real urgency and desire to move forward in a positive way, often coming from a dark past, and to change society for the better. There was such confidence and energy, such calm and mutual respect, and the expression of core values were deeply moving: peace, love, and tolerance. It was wonderful to experience the sheer thirst of these young people – whether through rapping, storytelling or comments – to get on and thrive in their home city. All this was driven by a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Underneath one could sense uncertainties, questions, fragilities – some half-baked thoughts, views and opinions. One could feel the need for reassurances, support, more engagement and dialogue, and a positive vision. These young people deserve that. They are trailblazers for a whole generation. Indeed, they are our future.”
Chris Szejnmann, Professor of Modern History, Loughborough University
“Powerful in its raw shape, the audience witnessed something quite extraordinary during This IS Leicester. Jeremy Weller’s fresh company of dignified and eloquent young people, some performers some not, used rap, poetry, song and storytelling to command our attention. With insights borne of hard experience, and with humour, sensitivity and maturity, the cast confronted us bravely with their personal truths, world-views and aspirations. This is powerful content crafted in workshops with Weller, the sense of ownership from the cast is apparent in every word and gesture, insisting wake up audience- think about this! Indeed the audience did interrupt to question the cast, such was the impact of their performance. Surely we need this work with these voices whether it becomes a film, a play, or a movement – to allow debates about the state of the nation to happen, the ones we don’t see on the news on a daily basis? As the performers said, the multi-cultural city of Leicester is a mosaic but you can see the cracks when you get up close, like you can in any relationship. Vote for these young people and Weller’s work, this is the next generation and they are rising up so let’s listen and debate, not patch over the cracks.”
Head of Arts Department, DMU
“This is just to say last night’s performance was really exceptional well done- I hugely enjoyed it. Please can you pass on our congratulations to Jeremy and the team of superb young people he found to tell their stories, and everyone involved. I wasn’t sure what to expect and the combination of the film, the setting, the people there, and the way it all morphed into a wonderful immersive experience made it one of the best performances I have seen for a long time. The skill with which every young person was helped to find their voice and tell their story was wonderful and the whole thing was really uplifting and a testimony to modern Leicester. Whew! What more can I say! I loved the way the audience began to join in- I just assumed it was intended, because of the consummate way the young people engaged with it. It was so natural- art making the best of nature- and all those detailed speeches, songs and raps were flawless. It was also nice when we all ate together at the end too, and it was great to find out more about how it all happened from Jeremy and the young people. Good luck with the next phase!”
Sarah Levitt, Head of Arts and museums, Leicester City Council