Matthew Pegg. Donning the creative mantle
There are many organisations around the UK (and the world), who are little known outside of the community or area they work in, but do some wonderful work bringing all kinds of people together for creative collaboration or just events for people to enjoy.
Mantle Arts based in Leicestershire has been involved in many innovative projects (to numerous to mention in one post), so I interviewed Matthew Pegg, the director of Mantle Arts, to find out more.
What is the mission statement of Mantle Arts?
It has changed over a period of time. When the organisation started in 1985, it was very local and focused on North West Leicestershire, at a point at which the mines were closing down and the reason for places like Coalville being there was being lost. It started off being an oral history project, which is where the first publications came from. It was about collecting the memories of people associated with the mining industry and preserving them. Then it burgeoned into being about other things. (The book Getting the Coal) is basically the history of mining in Leicestershire in the twentieth century, in the words of people who were actually involved in the mining process. Because the book is an oral history, you get details in it that you might not get in a standard history book.
I think the Mantle Arts’ role now is about education and quality of life. So we’re about bringing things into places that just liven them up. Whether that’s something like a sculpture or street theatre, it’s all about enhancing places, inspiring people and, giving them experiences, as well as enabling them to find new skills and develop new ideas. A lot of what we do to do is supporting other organisations. For example, we are helping a town centre partnership who are trying to run a food festival. We help them find out where they can get money to make it bigger and better, as well as supporting them through the process of applying for funding.
We can use any art form, which gives us a very broad remit, but it’s always about participation. It’s about doing things where people can have some creative input. So even when we do something like a public art project, it will always involve workshops with local groups, either schools or adult groups. They will either make part of the sculpture itself or they will contribute to the design or the ideas. For example the Lutterworth project we have just done is galloping horses on a slope that you see as you come down into the town. That involved finding out about local history: Lutterworth has a connection to Joseph Hansom, who invented the Hansom cab. It was also a transport hub for stagecoaches, hence the horses.
Many of the organisations you’re involved with at the moment are helping people with literacy and developing all sorts of skills and talents they didn’t know they had. So Mantle Arts is not purely festival based.
Yes we do a variety of participatory arts. We do a lot of work with youth groups. At the moment we’re doing some graffiti art/mural painting workshops with three or four different youth groups across Leicestershire. We’re also doing jewellery making and fashion-based T-shirt design sessions. It’s interesting. because we got some new funding from the county council youth service, and for the first year we were offering things and gradually getting groups interested, but now we’ve got enough contacts to ask groups what they’re interested in doing. So the relationship’s changed a bit, because we are asking people what they would like to do and then looking for the right artists to deliver that to them. It is about developing new skills and developing things that people can go on to do in their lives.
We did a street theatre project a few years ago, which was great because it was with just three people. We had some money from ‘Find Your Talent’, and they were happy for us to do this project with a very small group. It had a huge effect on the participants in terms of what they were interested in and their confidence. There were three girls aged between 13 and 15. Before the project, one of them had been attacked by a dog and she had some scarring on her face, which to be honest I couldn’t see and wouldn’t have noticed if it had been pointed out to me, but the girl felt very self-conscious about having facial injuries. Her mum thanked us at the end, because the project had done an enormous amount for her confidence.
What did they have to do in this project?
It was a follow-up to a previous project. We were working with a street theatre company called ‘Dodgy Totty’, based in Brighton. Their director, Helen, is very good at working with young people. So we did an earlier project with a slightly bigger group and did a street theatre performance, for Ashby Festival. The group devised the idea: they were the fairy police. They were all in brightly coloured tutus, but with detective hats on and they questioned passers-by about a renegade fairy, who was actually one of them. He had a black tutu, a striped jumper and a mask. What happened was the fairies didn’t notice this and even when he was pointed out to them they would say ‘Oh no, he’s one of us.’
The way it worked was very interesting, because there are no barriers in street theatre. You’re working with real people, talking to them and that can be very challenging. I remember none of the performers really understood what it was about when they opted into it and there was a moment of ‘Oh my god!’ when they suddenly realised the public could do anything! They might have any kind of response from people, who could say or do anything or just walk away. Helen eased them into it very nicely. After some time in rehearsal, they went out in character, but not in costume, so nobody knew they were characters. Then they went out in the costumes, but didn’t interact with anybody. So they gradually got eased into it.
When we got the ‘Find Your Talent’ money, three of them wanted to carry on and do a new performance. They devised this really quite ambitious and avant-garde, strange performance. They were sleepwalkers carrying puppet versions of themselves that reacted instead of the performers. They drifted around, all in blue. Then they had a garden, which was the garden they were dreaming about, with a big blue cube they could get inside and make shapes because it was covered in fabric. So they did this strange movement sequence to music inside the cube, which was to do with their dreams and nightmares. It was interesting because they were performing alongside a lot of professional companies and theirs was one of the most ambitious and challenging thing in that festival.
They then went on to London under their own steam and performed on the South bank, in the ‘Find Your Talent’ showcase. The whole process did have a major effect on their confidence. You could just see it and you could see it in the way they approached the second project, because they were far more ambitious about what they could do and how they could do it, and what was possible in a public place.
This is interesting, because in order to organise this they would have to work through quite a few creative processes to get to the end product. This is presumably where the guidance is so valuable in helping them doe this, because you talking about creating a narrative. So what sort of guidance is available and how does it work?
They were working with the professional company, who also did their own performance at the Ashby festival, so the girls saw what they did. ‘Dodgy Totty’ had a lot of contacts and they brought in a puppet maker, and a set builder. They could tell the young people what was feasible and if the group had an idea that was too ambitious for the budget they would steer them into other areas.
What would have been interesting is if they had wanted to stay together as a company. We could have supported that. So far we’ve not actually nurtured a performance company in that way.
How were the young people taught to work through the process of what they needed for everything leading up to the performance? For example, they have to work out the logistics of how they are going to create everything and get everything there. They also have to work out a narrative and how they adjust to interactions with the public etc
The process of putting it together was based around two blocks of rehearsal. There was a devising block, which was about generating ideas, working out what they could do and how they could do it and how it would work and what it would be like. Then there was about a month and a half where they didn’t meet, which was when things were being built, like the costumes, the puppets and the set. The next stage of rehearsal was about the practical side of working with those things. It’s all very well having puppets but you need to know how to operate them and work out how they might interact with people, if you’re supposed to be asleep, but the public can interact with the puppets.
It wasn’t as interactive as the first performance. The fairies was very much to do with approaching members of the public and they did dry runs with the two women from ‘Dodgy Totty’. This helped them to work out what they would do if someone was abusive, or how do you deal with awkward situations. Then they would go out and try ideas out on the streets. There were five or six young people in that project. It helped to have strength of numbers, because they were always in a group. There was never any moment where they split off to do something individually. There was the interactive bit and then a performance, which was like a mini silent movie, where they actually found out who the criminal fairy was. That bit was rehearsed as a static performance for a space where people were waiting to see performances. Even so there were still moments of terror for the group.
Normally, when you’re rehearsing a play in a theatre, there is a very clear process and a sequence of events that you need to go through. So you generally do a read through of the script and then you work through it and work on your character and then you start fixing moves and things like that. You see the set model so you know what the set will be like. You have rehearsal props and then you start working with the real props, gradually adding all those things in and looking at your character, breaking down the script into units of action. Devising street theatre however is very different, sometimes it’s just to do with having a role and an attitude. So you don’t really know what’s going to happen and it’s much more improvisational. For example, if I come up to you, as a fairy policeman and arrest you, you could tell me to get lost or you could join in and go along with it. So the performers have to be very flexible.
It does seem to be a very different style of performance.
It certainly is. There is no protection from your audience because you’re right in front of them. You can hardly see the audience in a normal theatre, because of the lights, although you can hear them, and to an extent you’re able to gauge their reactions, but you’re not two feet away from, with them potentially doing something unpredictable. There’s a certain amount of power in doing Street theatre, because you’re initiating the interaction. It can be very alarming being approached by a performer. The best professional companies are the ones that understand that and allow people to find their own distance, allow them to become more involved if they want to be and don’t put people in embarrassing situations. If you try to do a piece of street theatre, it’s to intrigue people or to change the nature of somebody’s relationship with the space they are in, or to purely entertain them or give them something slightly different and provoke some kind of thought process. If you’re alienating your audience, then none of those things happen.
In some ways it’s like when you put on a mask, Street theatre does give you a sense of strength, if you’re the person in the costume, but you’re also in a position of vulnerability, because your audience might do anything and it’s usually something you’ve not even thought of.
There’s a lovely company called ‘Stuff and Things’ in Norwich who do a lot of audio-based work. They’ve now taken to wiring up trees, so if you put your ear against the tree, you can hear audio. I’m not sure how it works but I think the tree resonates sound. So they put an MP3 player at the top of the tree, usually disguised as a bird box, and fix it to the trunk, so you can hear the audio when you put your ear to the tree. They’ve done similar things with park benches: when you sit down you can hear audio. They also have a great character called Edmond Tahl, who’s like a little business man, he’s got a sound player in his suitcase. He goes round with his own soundtrack. He goes up to shop windows and there’s a breaking glass noise, or things fall on him from the sky. It’s rather like watching a silent movie that is happening around you. It usually ends up with loads people following him around the town. We’ve used that company quite a bit.
This video is the end product of a project Mantle Arts ran with Polish and English people in North West Leicestershire, focussed on identity, friendships and home. Artist and film maker Alicja Rogalska worked in schools, factories and shops, interviewing people and videoing them. Children’s pictures were incorporated into the final video and animated, giving a snapshot of a developing community in a rural area.
What sort of work to do with schools?
We have a program at the moment called ‘Start’, which is funded by the Foundation for Children and the Arts. We are working with Embrace Arts in Leicester. It’s about bringing schools and venues together and doing creative work in these venues with young people. We doing more youth work at the moment, because we’ve got that little block of funding and we’ve just employed a development person, who is going to look at how we can do more work in schools.
Animation produced as part of a project with young parents
You must be constantly looking out for funding as well as new projects?
We do, but we also get people approaching us. We’ve done a lot of things where we’ve been recommended to people who have then approached us. Occasionally they even have money! Sometimes people want to work with us and we help them with the process of getting funding. We’ve tendered for things like the ‘Bathing Beauties’ Festival in Mabelthorpe. We did a project called ‘Fire Journeys’ for the Wirksworth Arts Festival, which we had also tendered for. Sometimes they’re projects that we’ve initiated, like the ‘Start’ project we’re doing with schools, which was something we applied for funding to do.
We’ve just applied to the Heritage lottery for a project on Dolly Shepherd, with the Ashby Museum. Dolly Shepherd was an amazing woman. She was one of the first lady parachutists. She parachuted over Ashby de la Zouch, from a balloon. She would go up dangling underneath a hot air balloon, or what they called a smoke balloon, which was filled with smoke rather than hot air, and then let go and parachute down to the ground. She also did the first midair parachute rescue. She went up with another girl on the balloon and the other girl’s parachute got tangled, so they both came down on one parachute. Dolly was quite badly injured as a result of that. In her nineties she flew with the Red Devils display team. So she was a really interesting person and all the more remarkable because this all happened in the Edwardian period, and it’s the complete antithesis of what people think a woman’s life would be like then.
If we get the money, we’re going to do an audio drama. We’ll be working with local people, who will be performing this piece, which will be about 20 minutes long. It’ll be distributed on CD or over the Internet and it will become part of Ashby Museum’s interpretation of Dolly Shepherd. It will break up into little snippets for that, so people can listen to it in the Museum.
You did a recent callout to look for new writing. What was that all about?
The company has a remit to support artists, and we occasionally do training programs. I had just finished the creative writing MA at Nottingham Trent University, and realised that there’s a gap between what you do on a degree and what you need to know to make a living from your training either in art or writing. What is considered good on an MA and what is considered saleable in the real world can be quite different.
So we thought we could create a first publishing opportunity, for the kind of writing that doesn’t really fit into the big publisher remit. People may have short stories or novellas, which are much less likely to find a place. The first book was Katie Daniels’ work The Geometry of Distance. She had some money from the Arts Council to write it. It is a sequence of poems based on a rather turbulent period in her life where she went off to Brazil for a wedding and had rather surreal time at a point of personal change. We liked it and decided to do something with it. So that’s the first thing we published as Mantle Lane Press. The size of the books is based on the Penguin 1960s range. I always thought that was a really nice size that easily fits in your pocket. The cover was done by a wildlife artist from Edinburgh. She had never done a book design before, but agreed to do the cover for us. We made it a limited edition, based on the idea of Nightjar Press’s chapbooks. Although this first one was a book of poetry my interest is more towards fiction, so the next one we thought we would do, would be a fiction writer.
We had 40 applications from people at all stages of development in creative writing. We eventually settled on Emma Lannie, who submitted a collection of short stories. The title story is about somebody swimming down through a lake to the house where she used to live, which is now in a submerged village, to retrieve the bit of wallpaper that has her and her brother’s heights written on it. It’s called Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis and it’ll be about 48 pages. The stories are very dreamlike, and all link to some kind of myth, for example one’s called ‘Minotaur’ and another ‘Noah’s Wife’, but they are actually analogies for the real world.
We are not offering these books to local bookshops at the moment and we’re certainly not putting them on Amazon. We’re working entirely from our own online shop.
I later found out that Mantle Arts is really a cover organisation for a sophisticated spy network.