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Uncovering Coventry - An Interview with Oliver Scott

Posted on 6 June 2018

As it marks its own 60th anniversary in 2018, the Belgrade Theatre is sharing its celebrations with another iconic Coventry building, with plans underway for an exciting new site-specific project at the former Coventry Evening Telegraph offices.

Opened just a year apart, these two local landmarks enjoyed a long shared history as storytelling hubs for the city, bearing witness to the experiences of the communities they served and often influencing each other’s output. Now, six years after newspaper staff vacated the building in 2012, this relationship will come to the fore in an ambitious performance takeover titled Read All About It!

Running 10-14 July, this mini-festival will encompass two immersive productions, populating the building’s empty rooms and corridors with stories inspired by its proud history at the heart of the city.

In City Final, nine youth and community groups led by the Belgrade’s pioneering Community and Education department invite audiences on a journey through the building in a large-scale promenade piece, presenting snapshots of local history inspired by the Telegraph’s coverage of major events over the years.

Meanwhile, in Retold, professional company Mercurial Dance take their cues from the ways in which the public interacted with the paper. Setting their scene in the once bustling foyer, the performers combine memories sourced directly from the community with real, historical obituaries, birth and marriage notices, and other elements of the Telegraph’s output from 1959 to 2012.

Retold

“What we really want to do throughout the whole piece is explore the idea of the Telegraph as a vessel for telling people’s stories,” explains Mercurial Dance Artistic Director Oliver Scott. “It’s important to us to find a structure that allows people’s everyday lived experiences to be given validity, to be cherished and retold.”

“Having this building as a starting point is really powerful,” he adds. “All of these pieces are responding very directly to what happened in this building, so to be using it as a canvas gives it a richness and an authenticity. When we read out the notices that were printed in the paper, we know that, if they weren’t phoned or written in, they will have been spoken by somebody, at some point in history, in that same foyer where we’re now speaking them in the performance. It’s amazing to think about them echoing through history like that.”

Set up in a cabaret formation with audiences seated around tables, Retold invites viewers to participate in the story by sharing their own memories of the city. Alongside pre-sourced stories, these are then incorporated into improvised sequences, reinterpreted through music and dance.

Those interested in sharing a story ahead of the show are invited to send in their memories to retold@mercurialdance.co.uk, or post them on social media using #RetoldCov. If you prefer a more traditional approach, you can also post them to Mercurial Dance, 11a Coventry Canal Basin, Leicester Row, CV1 4LH, or even drop them in in person at the Belgrade Theatre.

Retold

“At Shop Front Festival we did a ‘give a story, gain a dance’ event, and we got lots of really lovely, varied stories,” Scott continues. “Some of them were memories of childhood from people who’d grown up here – one person remembered seeing the sculpture of the Devil outside the Cathedral and being really shocked by it, for example. Whereas others were from people who’d just recently come to the city, who talked about what it was like going into Coventry Market for the first time.”

Forming part of the lead up to Coventry’s year as City of Culture in 2021, Read All About It! comes under the umbrella of the Coventry City of Culture Trust’s Great Place scheme, supported by the Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, alongside local partners Coventry University, University of Warwick, Coventry City Council and Coventry Business Improvement District.

“The whole thing started as an idea I had probably as far back as 2012 when the Telegraph first moved out of the building,” says Scott. “At the time I was passing it every day on my way into work, and thinking about what an interesting space it would be for a performance. So I wrote it up this idea of an immersive environment piece and submitted it to Great Place. Later on I joined up with the Belgrade, and that’s when we thought it would be great to bring in the community groups as a part of a tapestry of performances throughout the building.”

Retold

But it’s not just the Telegraph source material, the building or even the Belgrade’s involvement that grounds this project in Coventry and its communities. All of the performers have a strong connection to the city, including three professional dancers – Ashley Jordan, Henry Curtis and Lewys Holt – composer/musician Lucy Anne Sale, and a group of young, emerging artists sourced from local dance courses.

“Bearing in mind that sense of Coventry as a place that is continually developing, an important part of the project for us was thinking about the future of performers at every stage in their lives and careers. So between the youth groups and older Arts Gym groups performing in City Final, we’ve also recruited a group of undergraduates and recent graduates from Coventry University.

“As well as giving them the chance to perform in a professional show, we’re also offering them seminars and training to help them take the next steps in their careers. I’m really passionate about entrepreneurship in the arts, about making your way and finding your own direction, and I think the more we can help people with the transition between university and starting a career, the more confident, articulate and proactive people we’ll have making work in the arts sector.”

For Scott, this entrepreneurial and independent spirit is something characteristic of Coventry, and a big part of what makes it a great place to live and work.
“What I love about Coventry is that it has a really thriving independent sector, albeit one that’s perhaps unsung in many ways,” he says. “We’ve got artists here who are really proactive about making work happen and putting things on – people like Chris and Julia at Shop Front Theatre, for example. I think it’s something that’s in Coventry’s DNA, and I think it’s part of why we won the City of Culture bid.”

Read All About It! runs at the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building from Tuesday 10 until Saturday 14 July. Tickets are available to book now.

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Nov 2, 2017, 9:22 am