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It was 2015. A year in from the Scottish independence referendum, when stickers faded pale on lampposts and flags fluttered limply in the breeze, or un-tethered, clung to high fences like a loose pair of nickers. It was as though some basic law of thermodynamics failed to take place. As if that fiery energy ought to have moved on. Heated up some other vessel or agitated another movement. Instead, it lingered in the air, resigned itself to the bar stools and blogs for the time being. And most people just got on with their lives, some relieved, some numb and others, angry as ever.
Writers Sarah Indigo and Eryl Sheilds concocted Brave New Words as a space to confront some of that undirected energy left from the referendum. We worked with them on structuring the day, talking with schools, community groups and others to come along and work it all out through a series of writing workshops, discussions and debates. That evening, we hosted the first Brave New Words Slam, an evening of spoken word, performance and beat-style poetry, reminiscent of the back alley bars of Brooklyn circa 1960 lit up the High Street. Well, not maybe not quite like that. But in my head, everything feels a bit like that. The poets played a blinder. From the ages of 14 to 80, it felt like something pretty special had happened.
A year later, we lost Sarah too soon. A light went out in the spoken word community in Scotland, with tributes pouring in from the central belt to the Galloway coast. Her work broke stigmas, challenged the status quo and energized everyone she came into contact with. Each birthday since then is not only a celebration of words spoken, sung, shot, signed or silenced. It’s a tribute to our founder and visionary.
This year, as it stands, is so unlike all the others. We’re not able to meet. And whilst we’re all weary of the rolling lockdowns, the dead air of pubs without music, the face masks, the rumbling anxiety of purchasing a pint of milk from the supermarket. It seems that now it’s more important than ever to celebrate as we once did and to share our thoughts, feelings, creativity and power with each other is so vital in making sense of the world around us. Beyond the peeling vinyl stickers of the town centre and the tequila-scented hand gel.
Just as in 2015, there’s an energy now that lingers in the air. What it is we can’t be as certain of what it is as then, but it comes out in the quieter moments of our lives. That’s when stories are written, songs are sung and creativity thrives.
Brave New Words is not possible without people. Literally. I’ve tried. More than a couple of empty mic nights confirm this. It’s the space to take a chance, often when you never you thought you had it in you. And each month, it’s completely different from the last. From epic poems on elderly cats, to Kate Bush inspired fluorescent neon dancing, 10 minute silences and rabble rousing political speeches.
So join us as we celebrate everything Brave this September. I mean, what else is there to do?!
Homegrown was an immediate response to the Coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown that saw the world close it’s doors and retreat into our homes. The Stove’s doors too were closed and months of programming, preparations for upcoming events and projects were put on hold.
In the final few days before the government enforced the lockdown, we looked for four themes to guide our direction and settled on solidarity, open heartedness, insight and perseverance1. The title for the project looked to create a platform to share the creativity grown from homes across the region, and further afield – and to help create a space to allow these creative reflections to flourish.
We re-grouped, via the now all-too-familiar ZOOM for our first meeting online, and started to investigate how The Stove could respond. The Stove has always been a future-facing and responsive organisation, but we made the decision to be watchful and listen to those around us, supporting the efforts of the council and other agencies, who took the lead on the immediate challenges facing many of our communities.
As the rug was pulled from under our feet, it quickly showed that the rug was all that was holding some of us up; the floor’s foundations were not equally distributed. Of our 600+ members at the Stove, we estimated that as many as half will be self-employed or freelancers, and the COVID-19 shutdown in March saw many people’s incomes wiped out overnight as events and regular contracts were cancelled. The homegrown project initially looked to draw on our resources to share a series of micro-commissions to support Stove members facing financial difficulties. This theme further developed into Atlas Pandemica – for (more detail about this project visit here).
Hope for Food Origin Awareness. For Helen Walsh’s Feathers of Hope series as part of her micro commission
Each week, we invited a creative response from one of our members (growing to two per week as interest developed) to one of our four key themes, and over the weeks we were able to share the work of 14 different artists from a variety of backgrounds and creative approaches. The aim of these micro-commissions was light touch; the proposals were focused on sharing perspectives and experiences of the sudden changes to our world, and giving each artist the time and support to develop something creative where many were finding the daily routine too overwhelming to allow for any reflection or creative focus. Each commission also gave us the opportunity to meet and find out more about our membership, some of whom were new to our team, or familiar faces that we were able to build new relationships with, and to share this with our audiences and wider network digitally.
Homegrown also developed a series of ‘creative challenges’ that were open to anyone to take part in, and responses were received from a wide collection of participants. We set out not to provide distraction, or to add to the noise as organisations scrabbled to move their content online, but to create a space for reflective creative process – opening up space for ideas sharing, playful interaction and exchange. Some of our challenges were focused around key questions – What memories come in times of silence? Where are the secret spaces in your life now? Others invited an exploration of a particular technique or process – photography, writing or printmaking. All of the responses were then added to our online gallery and shared digitally as part of our homegrown conversation.
Memory Jar created by Andy Brooke
Homegrown was conceived of as a starting point, not to provide answers but to open the door to include as many voices in our conversations – towards a new folklore that documented the response from Dumfries and our wider Stove membership in a time of social isolation. Each conversation, collaboration that we hosted opened for us new ways of understanding and interpreting the world around us. As we were each confined to our personal spaces we were able to reach out and make the connections with other people, who helped to drive and direct the project’s course.
Everything is significant, and we have learned a lot over the past three months. As the lockdown moves into a new phase and the town gradually begins to re-open it’s doors, homegrown comes to a close – but we hope to take forward many of the conversations, ideas and approaches that we have learned during this time through listening and being open to the directions of others. As we look forward, we bring the influences of homegrown with us: our new project Atlas Pandemica looks to draw together a team of artists in response to the changes we’ve been facing in Dumfries and Galloway, and Elsewhere a town centre project will look to draw on and further develop some of the responses shared during the homegrown micro commissions. We hope to bring much of the homegrown content from the realm of the digital, back into the public sphere, the physical and the personal, and will be looking at ways to safely do this as restrictions continue to ease.
Doorways. A collective artwork by The Lockdown Collective, JoAnne, John and Luke McKay
The homegrown webpages will continue to live on the Stove website as a record of all of the work that we have shared and grown in our homes, together. To help you navigate the content, you can find:
“I wrote about what was around me. But some people are so daft they don’t understand that writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his Inferno.” Mark E. Smith
In an in-between place like this, writers have free reign. A place, on the edge of becoming, nearest to the precipice of the green dreaming miles to the coast. We know, it’s not quite like anywhere else. Far from it. Too close to call home. Too far in reach. Too full of hope to try.
Over the last three years, a project has been quietly simmering in the studios of the Stove. Launched in its first year by writer-in-residence, Stuart A Paterson, Lowland sought to create a new literary portrait of Dumfries town.
Now approaching the third year, the project aspires to engage more writers to reflect on a town in a transitional phase of its history.
About The Play
Barnside is sinking and the residents are on the edge of revolution. The local council, in its bleary wisdom, has been drafted in to ease the tensions. Only, not everything is, as it seems. And sooner or later, something’s got to give…
Inspired by over 300 postcards by local people, visitors and newcomers reflecting on Dumfries as well as conversations in the heart of the high street, ‘Lowland’ is a play about life in an in-between place. Developed in association with the Stove Network and the National Theatre of Scotland, this new play written by young local writers is an often otherworldly, farcical and radical presentation into the nature of community.
In July of 2019, a micro-festival of performance art, live music and spontaneous creative action took place across the High Street of Dumfries. Set-up to agitate, disrupt, celebrate, poke fun and play, Behavin’ invited performance artists, the local community, musicians and local artists to contribute to a new kind of scene for Dumfries. 2019 featured the world’s smallest music venue, drag performance, Kung Fu master-classes, a band of seagulls, plays in our elevator theatre and a madcap day of extraordinary work from artists throughout Scotland.
And since then, it’s all gone a little bit quiet. The streets have resumed their normal operation of passers-by, people watchers, the school run, lunch- time meetings, chai latte soirees and bank appointments, all this alongside the looming avian threat of a hungry, sausage-roll-loving-seagull. Colloquially known as ‘Rats With Wings’ (also a good name for a death metal band).
Behavin’ have been invited to take part in Just Start Here 2020 with the National Theatre of Scotland. And this year, we’re doing just that, starting right at the beginning. Our troupe (if you can call it that) is banding together once again to play, chat, explore ideas and perform, in the very heart of the High Street.
Welcome to Elsewhere, bring a chair.
We don’t know what it will be. We’re sure we’ll be sitting on a chair. We’re sure it might rain. We’re certain it’s in Fountain Square. Something is starting.
With Just Start Here, we’re in the most unique position as local artists to explore, create, start, challenge and expand our creative horizons. And we invite you, our community, our network to start something too. Join us on the 28th and 29th of February and explore how we can start a new kind of creative ambition for Dumfries.
Just Start Here is a two day festival of bold new work, taking over shop-fronts, working men’s clubs and the streets of Dumfries this February. Organised by National Theatre of Scotland, Just Start Here will take place on 28th and 29th of February 2020. Tickets are available now, for details on how to get yours along with the full line please visit the NTS website: Tickets and General Information Festival Line Up
by Stuart A. Paterson, Lowland writer in residence
Cometh the hour, cometh the town centre regeneration arts hub, cometh the associated projects and cometh its first Writer in Residence – me. Welcome to Lowland, described thus by its lead artist Martin O’Neill –
A 3-year project conceived and delivered by the Stove Network. It seeks to place writers at the core of the Stove’s and local community’s activities to reflect and celebrate a town in a transitional phase of its history. Generating a contemporary narrative of place, by interacting with and responding to activity in the town through the written word. The central idea of Lowland is to generate an evolving narrative through a series of engagement opportunities and outputs, whether a song, a book, a map, or a play – these outputs will create a collage of work and output that will form the backbone of our future activity.
I’m delighted to have been chosen to launch the Lowland ship into the uncharted waters of the next three years. If it’s only half as successful as The Stove has been in the previous three years, it’ll prove to be something well worth waiting for, for everyone.
What exactly does ‘place writers at the core of….the local community mean’? For me, it means not so much putting writers into the town regeneration spotlight, more about giving words, writing, ideas the platform to inspire, instil inspiration & hope into Dumfries & its future. For we’re all writers, really, all poets of the everyday, although most of us will never write it down. Poetry is in the stories at the bar, the chat at the shop counters, the sharing of memories about the place, the blether on the benches. Aye, it might not always be positive & that’s understandable. Like many towns the length & breadth of the country, Dumfries has had more than its fair share of knocks, disappointments & let downs from those to whom we trusted the future health of our towns & communities. It turns out that that trust was misplaced for much of the time. And external trends & markets haven’t been kind to the business, spirit & lifeblood of town centres. Out of town shopping, death by rates, the internet, a lack of incentives, accompanied along the way by ‘improvements’ to the very fabric of our town centres have been wrecking balls we’ve been powerless to avoid.
I believe that in Dumfries, contrary to what many might think, there is still more than enough of a history, spirit, pride & culture to kick-start it into a brighter future than many towns might hope to inhabit. Not just history in old buildings, stories in stone, memories of the good old days, pride lost & never to be recaptured, glories gone & the old days always being better than now (what was the old joke? Nostalgia’s not what it used to be?). We can do something about that & we’re actually doing it now. Not just talking but doing. The Stove is the acorn from which a hundred wee oaks have started to grow, mostly nurtured & encouraged by the town’s young people, from the outskirts to the centre. Lowland, like Brave New Words, Nithraid, Blueprint100 & the Midsteeple Quarter, is one of those wee oaks, putting down roots in the town centre & beyond. The words I’m harvesting from the people & workers of Dumfries are themselves branches into past, present & future. They’ll hopefully be here long after town centre planners & absentee landlords have sold up, moved on & been forgotten about.
There are, I hope, some good things lined up for the next 3 months. Nithraid is almost upon us again – the boats, the crowds, the Salty Coo. I’ll be getting involved & hope to see you there as I man the Word Oven & keep hearing & gathering the words & stories from any Doonhamer who’ll give me the time of day. There’s a Word Walk planned, a tour of Dumfries & its past inhabited by the writers now no longer here. I’ll be hosting High Street Writers on the first Wednesday of each month, 6-8pm in The Stove, meeting & encouraging the writers who are coming through & here now. I’ll be linking up with Crichton Writers & Dumfries Writers groups to add to the Flood of Words, which we’ll be creating from the feedback on the Lowland postcards – fill yours in now, put it in the box in The Stove. We’re going to have words on windows, poems in shops, stalls on the street – & Latvia 100! on September 5th, which will be amazing & a cultural crossover which’ll have the Norwegians shaking in their boots. And of course, Brave New Words on the last Friday of each month. It goes from strength to strength & shouldn’t be missed. Come along, no matter if you’ve never read in public before. You’ll be among pals.
Before we know it, it’ll be October & my 3 months will be up. I hope to leave a few building blocks for others to add to, as well as the beginnings of a legacy of the town’s narrative in the present day. Nostalgia’s great – but let’s make our own good old days first.