TB Agent Hannah Nicholls reports from the People, Place, Power conference

Hannah Nicholls shares her moving experience of the conference she attended in her hometown as a TB Agent earlier this year.

In June 2018 I attended the People, Place, Power conference at Wolverhampton’s Lighthouse Cinema as a Theatre Bristol Agent. It was a very special experience and here I hope to give an insight into why. I couldn’t include everything so I urge you to search #peopleplacepower on Twitter, and follow the hyperlinks below for a deeper understanding of the brilliant people and projects involved in this event. You can also find some of the recorded talks on the Creative People and Places website: http://www.creativepeopleplaces.org.uk/

As I stepped off the train from Bristol, I drank in that intense nostalgia that is laced through your hometown. The monuments to your childhood and the accents ingrained into your emotional past engulf you in comforting strangeness. I abandoned Wolves for London in my late teens when the only thing important to me was to become a successful artist/producer, the kind that waft around galleries in colour block two pieces.

There were few role models in the arts where I grew up. Being a creative wasn’t considered a “proper job”, and the best thing I could do was study for my academic subjects and lose my accent.

Luckily for me, despite having worked “proper jobs” for over 30 years, my dad was on my side. He took me to galleries and to shows at Wolverhampton Grand where I sat on the edge of my seat. I was smitten, but these people didn’t live here – they were gone as quickly as they arrived.

So, imagine the thrill when 20 years later I rock up at the Lighthouse Cinema, welcomed by a Brummie accent, and sit in the café I frequented as a kid watching like-minded people, many of whom I recognise and respect, flood the courtyard.

The first day was packed with inspiring speakers including the ever powerful Jess Thom talking about how “change isn’t always a battle,” and if we “collaborate, innovate and improve, nurture unpredictable outcomes and make new connections” then we can make positive changes and see obstacles as enriching challenges.

Quddos Ahmed, creative director at Poetical Word talking passionately about the power of creative audacity and making great mistakes: “We grow through what we go through.” And Tina Redford, director of LeftCoast, left us with an honest and familiar account of working in the creative industries noting, “Being a creative can be a bit like putting your head into metaphorical stocks and inviting an online cabbage.”

I attended a workshop with More than 100 Stories where we were introduced to the techniques required to create artworks out of evaluation data, and munched samosas and bhajis courtesy of one of the many local Indian restaurants (which reminded me of a Sunday evening take away in front of Antiques Roadshow).

I was captivated by artist Jason Wilsher-Mills who told the story of how his disability forced him to put down the paintbrush. He described how learning to paint digital artworks on an iPad gave him back his practice and most importantly his voice. He became interested in people who are hidden in society, and now works with communities to help people find their voice through digital art. But he also made the important point that “We need to make the technology relevant to the communities in order to engage them.”

As I entered the last session of the day: Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton, I was buzzing. Author of The Boy With The TopknotSantham Sangera, gave a spot-on account of growing up in Wolves. He described the places and people of the city with such accuracy and affection that I welled up.

“Wolverhampton doesn’t do inspiration,” Santham said. He talked passionately about needing better role models for kids growing up in cities like this, and how state school kids are “rarely given the opportunity to dream big and expect more”. We met afterwards and chatted about our childhoods, the bus routes, schools and landmarks. I felt a renewed love for this place, and a fire of inspiration to reconnect with my roots.

Day 2

My dad (who still lives in Wolves and choked on his tea when I said I was coming to stay for work) dropped me off at the Lighthouse. By this point, I’d dropped the southern inflection and my YamYam accent was in full flow. What better way to start the day than Life’s a Beach by Black Country Touring?

Fifteen people piled into a tiny caravan parked inconspicuously in the courtyard. Once inside we were greeted by none other than… Elvis Presley! We were transported to the seaside (figuratively speaking) where we played bingo, and watched as Brummie Elvis and his Brummie side kick/wanabe singer battled to find pride in their identity. It was about trying to be someone you’re not, about battling with your accent to try and fit in, it felt very familiar. I came out grinning with a stick of rock and a lesson about appreciating the quirks of your local community and finding the joy in this process.

I was really interested to attend a session hosted by the director of the Lighthouse Cinema, Kelly Jeffs. You wouldn’t believe that the Lighthouse is struggling. Kelly and her small team are holding it together so well that the cracks are barely visible, but the future is shaky for this venue. It is such an important hub for the city and would create a big hole in the cultural landscape if it were to close. Listening to the questions and comments afterwards, it is evident that organisations and venues all over the country are in the same boat. In a room full of arts professionals, not one had a suggestion that Kelly had not already thought of. It boiled down to the simple fact that the creative industries need more investment from all sectors – the Arts Council can’t support everything. With rent escalating, diminishing corporate social responsibility and limited government funding, arts venues like the Lighthouse are on the brink of closure. See the website for how you can help.

The penultimate session of the conference was by far the most emotional and inspiring. Jeanette Bain-Burnett, community engagement manager for the GLA talked about making honest and meaningful connections with our communities. “We need to stop knocking on front doors,” she said. “How do we find the windows, the back door, climb the building and break it down.”

Stella Duffy, co-director at Fun Palaces, literally leapt around the stage and with incredible, infectious enthusiasm talked openly about her experience of managing community-led arts projects. “When we say yes, astonishing things happen,” she said.

Creative Barking and Dagenham producer and member of Studio 3 Arts, Sharlene Carter, described the personal challenges she faced whilst making a theatre piece about a debilitating condition suffered by her mother. Talking about her journey through this project, she broke down. Her overall message: “Keep making work that tells important stories.” Nothing could have summed up the conference better, and by that point I had seen and heard so many incredible stories from amazing people supporting creativity against ALL odds that, along with the majority of the audience I had a little cry.

I spent a while at the end of day two in the gallery space, trying to digest the past 48 hrs. I felt a particular connection to this poem by More Than 100 Stories entitled ‘Grim’.

I grew up embarrassed of where I had come from, but these two days instilled a great pride for my home city and I left starry eyed. Following comments on Twitter afterwards I was brought back down to earth by the reality that, without financial commitment from the Arts Council, the People, Place, Power model would not be sustainable. But I’m hopeful that where there is a will there is usually a way; if people feel empowered then creativity and community will thrive and the cycle will continue.

I also feel hopeful for Wolverhampton and cities like this where, as I heard from many of the delegates, “nothing is happening”. If you give people the opportunity, and the encouragement, then they will do brilliant things. As Santham said, we need better role models in state schools and to build this ambition from the bottom up. People from Wolves may be the most humble of the lot, but they are also some of the friendliest, most hard working and ambitious people I know. It’s about telling a different story, and we are all responsible for choosing the ending.

Special thanks and shout outs to:
The Creative People and Places team
Amanda Smethurst and the other conference organisers
Our excellent host Talia Randall
The many speakers and contributors involved
Theatre Bristol for trusting me to be an agent. This was a life changing experience and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Written by Hannah Nicholls – Freelance Creative Producer

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