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The Vocal Local: It’s time to give Blackpool a voice on the stage

Abi Hellam has recently joined The Old Electric team as assistant producer for their Arts Council England supported festival of new writing, Power Plays. She reflects on what it’s like to work in the arts having grown up in Blackpool.

When I tell people I’m from Blackpool, I can normally tell from a person’s response whether we’re going to get on or not. It seems everyone has an opinion on this town.

“I love Blackpool!” is the most common response. These people usually burst into nostalgia: fond memories of childhood family holidays, weekend trips to the beach, dropping 2ps into coin pushers, and other stories across a sunny backdrop of donkey rides and Blackpool rock.

The other type of response usually starts with a pause, and I see a conflict of sympathy and slight panic as they try and find something thoughtful to say.

Whilst both of these angles have kindness intended behind them, they can sometimes feel a little tiring or frustrating. Even if a person hasn’t been here, they’ve usually formed an opinion on Blackpool based on what they’ve read in newspapers or taken in subconsciously from pop-culture references.

But despite this, there is a third category of people who respond a little differently to my hometown in conversation, and it’s by far my preferred follow up.

“You’re from Blackpool! What’s that like?”

I have a difficult relationship with the word ‘resilience’, but I’d use it to characterise the soul of my hometown.

Growing up in Blackpool is a unique experience. Aside from contextualising your own day-to-day existence within a tourist destination, living here comes with its own challenges – environmentally, financially, socially. It’s not an easy place to grow up for the majority of us, but no matter what is thrown at us, the town and its residents are full of an infectious and inspiring spark and pride – an unrivalled determination in the face of challenging circumstances. I have a difficult relationship with the word ‘resilience’, but I’d use it to characterise the soul of my hometown.

I fell in love with theatre early on. Dance, drama and music became part of my daily routine when I started at Bispham High School, a since lost secondary school that had a specialist in performing arts. I loved every minute and spent most of my time outside of school hours rehearsing for shows and singing in the school choir.

Alongside my studies I picked up bits of work experience supporting front and back of house for shows like Schools Alive at the Winter Gardens, and working in the wardrobe department at the Pleasure Beach making hats for the Hot Ice show. At Blackpool Sixth form I carried on my arts journey, although I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to end up, I felt drawn to the development process.

If we see ourselves reflected in a narrative it can be life changing. In that magical, transformative moment we can reshape even the most stubborn perspectives and reframe narratives to empower change.

I started to develop my tastes, seeing theatre outside of Blackpool for the first time on visits to The Royal Exchange, The Octagon, Leeds Playhouse and other spaces across the north. I realised that there’s something special about theatre that suspends reality for a short time, allowing us to step outside of our own lives for a moment to experience something new.

If we see ourselves reflected in that narrative it can be life changing. In that magical, transformative moment we can reshape even the most stubborn perspectives and reframe narratives to empower change. I could never express my gratitude enough to the passionate teachers and professionals who truly cared and supported my understanding of this notion.

I moved to Manchester for a number of years, building on my experience by working music and theatre events at The Bridgewater Hall and Manchester International Festival (now Factory International). I left Blackpool in search of opportunities that I couldn’t find outside of a major city,
but in the last five years I’ve noticed a wave of bold ideas and energy has seen a thriving community of local artists and creatives setting up new spaces for new work – revitalising old spaces for new purposes, and holding space for each other to ensure that everyone can thrive in this new cultural ecosystem.

I’m prouder than ever to tell people where I’m from, and to be creating theatre that is relevant to communities.

When I first heard about The Old Electric’s festival of new writing, I immediately imagined the pride I’d feel producing new work with an organisation that is dedicated to highlighting the experiences of the communities whose voices have been overshadowed by imagined narratives of writers who haven’t lived these stories themselves.

As the producer of the first of hopefully many Power Plays festivals I feel a real responsibility to ensure that we are creating space for those stories to be told. Through workshops, talks, and other engagement opportunities we can facilitate the development of new ideas and elevate the voices of our communities, especially those who might never have thought about writing before.

Coming back to my hometown to support new work and centre the experiences and voices of my community feels special. I’m prouder than ever to tell people where I’m from, and to be creating theatre that is relevant to the communities we’re engaging with is a privilege.

You can find more out about Power Plays festival by signing up to receive regular e-newsletters at www.theoldelectric.co.uk

Image credit : Claire Griffiths – Mykey Young at Old Electric Fundraiser

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