It’s a big deal for me as I sit, having sent my form group down to Assembly that I’m posing in my head how I will begin gmy conversation with Simon Sharkey, director of the National Theatre Scotland. I’m just thinking that I have questions that he can help me with but where do I begin? I don’t want to sound like a dick or come across as someone who doesn’t have a clue! The latter being the biggest fear as sometimes, especially since starting the MA, I feel as if I don’t have much of a clue about anything.
However the phone rings and Simon’s Scottish brogue picks up. He’s still in the car and on his way to work, we’re on blue tooth so as long as I can hear him he is hands free and we can start. It’s a good connection. Brilliant, I get a grip and just think. He’s just a guy with the same sort of interests as me. Okay so he’s worked on some pretty big projects and pulled together thousands of participants that have worked with artists and designers on a major scale. It’s note worthy stuff. And here I am having run a workshop in Grantham with some fifteen people as part of a project stimulated by some quirky shops.
So what get him started, what is the starting point for him?
Sharkey begins by telling me it’s about an invitation, a conversation from somewhere. The potential of a story from somewhere starting from ‘a row of shops’, he uses my stimulus as something that very much would be a gauge of interest for him too and how that might develop.
He reveals more about his methods “We send a team of artists into the community, become part of the community” and rather than worry about what happens when they arrive the bigger part of the picture is what happens when we go. For Sharkey the focus was very much on the idea of Legacy.
His arguement here was wether the projects that they are involved in are just ‘social acupuncture’ or do we leave the with the infrastructure to make them (community) take stuff forward? Do they leave behind a scaffold for them to build on the experience they glean from the event. Sharkey described how his MO was not one where they ‘parachute in, make art and that’s it. It’s about having a lasting legacy’.
I began to Get a really good understanding and connect with Sharkey’s idealism when he began to talk about stories. I know this seems really obvious when in the business of creating and making theatre as of course we need stories to tell. For him it’s about the stories to be sure. ‘There are the stories that people think they want to hear’, he tells me. ‘Then there are the stories that are underneath, get them to see their community, get them to see what they pass by everyday, bring out humanity, knowledge, connections ‘.
For me here this is where Simon has hit it. I reflected on the process of the people I have met and the connections that I have made with those who got involved with the workshop. The amount of richness in the lives of people’s stories that you may never be aware of unless your prepared to get into the community and dig. And there is the a wealth there and there’s is gold.
Sharkey spoke about how one of his projects was to begin to get people to reveal stories about their journeys. These could be real journeys, actual journeys or metaphors. They looked at two communities and they asked about a story and the story of a martyr came about. Everyone knew the story. Simon asked the question of what was the other story and the community came back with the ‘Ospreys’. This was the story of how the ospreys came back to nest each year and when they did they would ring the church bells. The bells would ring when they layed an egg and when the chicks had hatched. This was the metaphors for his storie about journeys. Finding the metaphor- what connects the story that you find is the ‘glue’, which stops them just becoming disparate stories.
Again the emphasis, to lay out the tools were: Legacy, Metaphor- the actual stories and the structure to connect with them with the community.
Sharkey related to me the idea of the Empathy Museum and their piece A mile in my shoes. The trailer for which I have shared in the blog above. Like this idea he formulated a sense of what he took from the quirky shops I had started with. The gift shop.
For Sharkey he went on to look at what stories he could get from asking the Question What gift would you buy someone? This would create stories and give a scaffold tothen be able to find the form.
We were back in the real world during this part of the conversation, Assembly had been dismissed and the noise from the corridors suddenly flooded the classroom where time had flown, a surreal moment passed as I tried to continue the conversation in amongst the throng of students making their way to lessons and me to the peace of my room.
Back in the sanctity of my room I pieced what Simon was saying about how he would use the gift shop and what lead he would take in following a line of questioning to develop the metaphor and seek out the stories. Here he also moved onto the form. The idea of playing around with different access points for people.
This was all about how to find ways to cultivate a dialogue. Asking him how he gets participants then there might be quirky nand engaging ways, perhaps advertising that they are going to be set up in a cafe for a day, run a workshop.
As part of the journeys project Sharkey revealed the story of Ron, a man with one arm who everybody knew to be a ‘charming gentleman’ but nobody had ever asked him how he lost his arm. As part of the dialogue he was asked and the story emerged how an accident with a thresher machine on a farm had been the cause but the more revealing story was the surgeon who had saved his life. The surgeon had made ground breaking surgery on th3 young boy and years later reconnected wit( him, and all this unravelled through the telling of his journey to the hospital. Now everyone knows the mans history.
What comes of the conversation is a recognition that with participatory theatre it’s a way of connecting, whether it’s through gifts or a mile in someone’s shoes, as Sharkey discloses and as indeed do many who engage with this art, everyone wants to share a story and in doing so they want to hear others’. Working as Sharkey does is about offering a window. Appropriate, I thought.
in terms of time. These projects were big, some of sharkeys work 9 months in the making, the shortest projects in the region of six weeks.
At the moment he is fully engaged with a focus on North Lanarkshire, a look at lives through the lens of work, with everyone touched by work. Communities that have been reinvented from steel and coal industries to see where things are heading with artificial intelligence and the impact and thoughts that that has on people. They are fully immersed in the quizzing of work and community that will have an end project on a large scale as a side specific event in a steel yard.
As part of the engagement of this they have a hundred trucks going around with lockers that may rock up in a Tesco car park and they just invite people in for interviews. Using a question format with some 20 questions on it that will then illicit ideas and end up as a multimedia rave style event!!!
I touched on the inclusivity of his projects, as ever it’s something a the forefront of much participatory activities, Sharkey explains that this is something they are always conscious of. As well as making sure there would be captioning in performances for the deaf, there was an element of actively seeking out that then allows them to have a sense of ownership, it was important to realise that not everyone who engages is ready to be part of a performance. He mentioned work that was done with a group of women who meet, their background was sensitive, but they sat and made tiles, this for them had a medicine process to focus on their story. The tiles gave a form of art.
i had to ask how all this was funded and the Scottish government make a lot of this possible, funding 20 events a year, Simon may be involved in one major one an£ a small one, starting off with a team of four at the beginning of the consultation process before its time to brin* in th3 artists and designers and the finally the tech teams…
So what draws Simon to this field, Why?
the short answer was “I love it”
followed by the fact that it gives him the license to go in and ask people about their story, he says it also comes from his own background. He was introduced to story and theatre and it opened doors for him. He mentions a selfish gene, but I can’t see there being anything selfish in wanting to share your passion for people’s truth and history. We are all one of the people. One of the significant things that has effected me in engaging with people is one my need to hear their stories, the connection of sharing a moment with another human being is tangible.
Sharkey’s thoughts are clear, art is everything outside conscious bias, it transforms life and community.
I would go so far to say that it transforms who we are and what we think we might be.
He tells me as artists we have a responsibility to give it form, it changes people. We can’t have Westminster, politics etc without learning something. I think I can add my perspective on this also in that it is a reminder that we are human and there is ever a need to find the empathy with our fellow creatures and remind ourselves of the many voices we have and the diverse impact we can have when we truly engage with people around us.