Many of us Londoners will have been to a local festival, concert or outdoor cinema to take advantage of the weather this Summer, but have you made time for any outdoor arts performances?
The photo below is one I took at the Big Dance Bus event last week, it’s a touring event which popped up all over London this Summer.
You certainly don’t even need to leave the city to get your culture fix. London’s positively heaving with things to do and there’s no denying it’s the city of culture. Home to nearly 600 art galleries, 170 museums and boasting three of the world’s top 10 museums and galleries are in our wonderful capital. There are over 17,000 music performances across over 300 London venues each year. The Society of London Theatre (SOLT), which among other things produces The Box Office Data Report, found overall theatre attendance close to 15 million in 2015, with gross sales of well over £633 million.
Head outside of Zone 1 or 2 and it’s a different story altogether. According to a recent report by the 50pforculture Campaign, some London Boroughs are definitely more cultural than others. Where I live in the London Borough of Hounslow a mere 3p per person, per week is spent on culture by local government, while in the City of London it’s a whopping £70.68. That’s pretty shocking when you compare the population of Hounslow, which is 250,000, to just over 8,000 for the City of London.
Hounslow Borough covers a large area; Bedfont, Brentford, Chiswick, Cranford, Feltham, Hanworth, Heston, Hounslow, Isleworth and Osterley – that’s a lot of places getting very little money. One area, Hounslow town centre, is going through an extensive (and sometimes rocky) regeneration but is far from being gentrified. Aside from a spate of cash machine robberies and a drubbing down on this week’s Eastenders for introducing fortnightly rubbish collections, Hounslow is quite unremarkable. It’s not really famous for anything, well not quite yet. The ambience more like Bethnal Green in the 90s, before the burgeoning Shoreditch and Hoxton really took off, than a West London suburb. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not but change is afoot!
The area has a large multicultural population which is changing quickly. Young people have moved into the area, buying up affordable new build flats (or shoebox homes as the Daily Mail so kindly puts it) and there are great little places like Thakers popping up. The high street has been pedestrianised too and there’s a weekly street market with some really authentic food.
With all this happening at speed, there’s not really much of a shopping, night life or arts culture in the area – there are 11 betting shops on Hounslow High Street and while there are lots of chains and pound shops, there’s no room for hipster coffee shops or chi chi indie retailers – the local economy just wouldn’t sustain them. Unlike other areas of London, there’s no embedded pub culture to sustain and nurture a strong social scene, gigs, pub quizzes and so on either.
It’s not all bad – it’s not quite the cultural wasteland of the suburbs that on the surface it seems to be. Urban spaces like Hounslow can be the perfect canvas for events which involve the community and transform the way we look at our surroundings, which is where Bell Square comes in.
In 2014, Bell Square was developed as an outdoor arts venue for Hounslow town centre. It’s a paved area at the upper end of Hounslow High Street Funded largely by the Mayor of London and London Borough of Hounslow, the event programme is funded by a wide range of leading outdoor arts networks and cultural institutes. The space is nondescript until event days (every other Saturday May to November) when it becomes a pop up theatre space.
Outdoor arts is a puzzling term; is it graffiti? No. Street painting? No. It’s more of a catch all term for a diverse range of performances which take place, you get it, outside. It’s hard to pigeon hole but safe to say it encompasses dance, theatre and circus at the very least. Over the past few months I’ve been heading along regularly to Bell Square to watch some amazing work. Have a look at the video for a taste of what’s been happening so far.
The quality of performers would not be out of place in Sadler’s Wells, Covent Garden or the West End the setting is decidedly al fresco which leaves everyone at the mercy of the weather – but no one seems to mind. Hundreds of people from the local community gather to watch the performances from some really cutting edge dance, acrobatics, circus companies, and more.
The Hounslow community is very much a multicultural audience so it’s safe to say English may not be the first language. Traditional format plays wouldn’t work here. The storytelling is done through physical theatre rather than the spoken word and this transcends all boundaries. Some performances may centre around a love story or a particular journey. The narrative is clear and nothing is lost which is great and it’s certainly not a dumbing down of anything. The choreography is sophisticated and complex. What’s even better about this is the regulars who come along to each performance; it’s good to recognise the same faces and make friends. Lots of local clubs get to participate in various shows; people of all ages are involved from school kids to pensioners.
I’ve been to many performances now and not been disappointed by anything I’ve seen. It’s a really uplifting experience because everyone feels connected. Most of the performances take place in daylight and the audience doesn’t need to sit passively; they talk, clap, fidget, and move around, making it the polar opposite of a West End theatre show, and even better, every performance is free.
If this piques your interest and you live in the Hounslow borough, why don’t you come along yourself and blog about your experiences? I’m adding my voice to the throng in the capacity as a blogger as well as working with Bell Square to help spread the word on social and digital media too.
Click on the link here to find out more, see you there!