The Fun Began When …

… about a year ago (early summer 2016), I was sitting outside a bar in Ramsgate, by the harbour … the sun was shining and I was talking to a friend about a theatre based project that I was interested in doing … it was something to do with Thanet (the sticky out bit of Kent that juts out into the English Channel and my home for over nine years); the people, the changes occurring, the new people moving in, the problems the area has … and that sort of thing. I just wasn’t sure what it was, how it worked or how I could make it. I knew it was about people … and that it could only work if it used people’s voices; what they thought about living in the area .. good and bad. I wondered if I could create something that was based on people’s stories but I couldn’t quite find the “way in” to make this happen. There were two young chaps sitting at the table next to us, and being an inveterate eavesdropper, I overheard a part of their conversation. They were talking about going to Margate for the evening. My ears pricked up when (and I won’t use the words that they used) one of them said he wouldn’t go to Margate because it was full of “weird people” (he was much more derogatory than that). And as I heard that I was struck by a lightning bolt (not literally) and I had a “sudden realisation” and at that moment I knew what my project was.

Now, as often happens, something else occurred that added to my “sudden realisation”. The Looping the Loop Festival, a festival of world class theatre that happens twice a year in Thanet, had a company called Lung Theatre coming to perform a show called “East 15” … they are a company that use verbatim and from real life testimony theatre to create powerful and provocative work. This piqued my interest. I looked them up. I was intrigued. Stay with me here. Some weeks later I was in the car listening to the radio. I caught the last fifteen minutes of a play on Radio Four, “The 56”, by Matt Woodhead and Gemma Wilson. It was based on the memories and thoughts of those people connected to the fire at the Bradford Football ground where 56 people died in 1985.

Here’s a link to The 56

This piece of theatre was by Lung Theatre. To cut a long and shaggy story short, I ended up doing a series of workshops with Lung Theatre and, lo and behold, my “sudden realisation” led to the creating of a brand new project; Utter Thanet. 

So, what was my “sudden realisation”? It was this. Perception. Every single one of us perceives the world around us in a different way. So, in this instance, the changes occurring in Margate (the gentrification?), was perceived by this young Ramsgate man as something that he wasn’t prepared to even venture into; was he frightened of it, was it distasteful to him, was he annoyed by it … who knows but how people perceive the world around them is central to Utter Thanet, and indeed, I would suggest, to drama and theatre generally.

So, what is Utter Thanet? It is a project that aims to talk to and record 1000 people who live in Thanet about what it’s like living in Thanet. What’s great? What’s not? Thanet is changing; what do you think about these changes? For the better? Worse? Once we have spoken to as near to a thousand people as possible and recorded those conversations, we aim to put their words into the mouths of actors and create a new piece of theatre. The play will, I’m sure, be provocative but also uplifting and hopeful. Quite what it is about … I’ve no idea yet, we’ll have to wait and see but I can tell you now, we have already had some fascinating conversations about everything from tricky neighbours, fun on the beach, dog dos, closed toilets, hordes of teenagers, being sick in Dreamland, loving the new energy coming into Thanet, hating the new energy coming into Thanet, Thanet District Council and … oh, it goes on and on.

I’ve heard people’s life stories, what they think about the changes occurring here, the political landscape, the closed shops, the events across Thanet, the beauty and tranquility, the noise and the feeling scared and dog dos, Thanet District Council, closed toilets and … did I mention dog dos … oh, and litter and low horizons, lack of ambition, poor educational standards, an island mentality and dog dos and closed toilets and caring … and not caring. One thing is for certain, the people of Thanet love to chat!

So, hopefully you’ve got the gist of what Utter Thanet is about. It is about people, the human condition, our loves, hates, hopes and fears, our community, neighbours, living cheek by jowl with, sometimes, people we don’t like very much, it is about a place; a place that means different things to different people. A place that is, like much of the country and the world, undergoing change. It is about how people cope with those changes, or don’t, it is as much about those new people moving in as it is about those who have been here all their lives. It is about perception.

 

There is another element to the project. As well as talking to people and collecting their thoughts about living in Thanet, we are also using some techniques that were used by the creators of the Mass-Observation project which was set up in 1937. This was a project that enlisted the help of 500 people. Their task was to record, over a year, in a diary, conversations that they had overheard in the street, at work, in the pub. The creators of the Mass-Observation project were, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It ran until the 1960s and then stopped for almost 20 years until it was revived in 1981. The massive archive is housed in the University of Sussex. We are trying a similar thing but over a few weeks rather than a whole year, and with a couple of volunteers rather than 500 but the idea is the same; listen to what people say and write it down.

Here’s where you may be able to help. We have spoken to people of all ages, backgrounds and situations but we need to talk to more young people about their thoughts and to those many people who seem to be under the radar. The young seem to keep themselves very much to their peer groups and seem reticent to talk about themselves, and those under the radar are difficult to find. They don’t belong to clubs or associations, they don’t seem to go to events, they don’t seem to go to pubs and cafes, they don’t come forward but remain in the background; hidden. These people’s voices and thoughts are as valid as anyone else’s and we need help to meet them. If you have any thoughts about how to meet some of these hidden people, or ways into talking to young people, you can contact me through this blog.

 

The Isle of Thanet, like so many other seaside areas, has had a rough ride for some years, and it isn’t over yet but it is changing. There are new bars, cafes, shops, businesses and new people; there is a new energy coming to the Isle. Could it become a two tier society, the haves and the have nots, the newbies and the originals? There is a definite increase in culturally and socially aware people moving into the area. How does that sit with those who have lived here all their lives? Turner Contemporary has changed the area considerably … for the better? Dreamland, re-opened as a nostalgic nod to the past is now re-inventing itself; is this a good thing? What do you think?

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