A Culture of Possibility #3: Clare Reynolds on Restoke’s Work in Staffordshire

This post, written by Arlene, introduces the third episode of “A Culture of Possibility,” our monthly podcast, in which we speak with Clare Reynolds. Restoke was one of the projects included in A Restless Art, with the photo above, taken by Jenny Harper during ‘You Are Here’, during their 2016 project about migration. You can find to our conversation at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. We hope you enjoy this conversation with Clare. The next episode of the podcast will be a conversation between Arlene and me and it will be published on 16 April 2021.

A guest post from Arlene Goldbard

Clare Reynolds is a cofounder and co-Artistic Director of Restoke (the other is composer Paul Rogerson, her partner in life as well as work). Restoke is a performing arts-based community arts project in Stoke-on-Trent, a district of Staffordshire in west central England encompassing several towns that had been known collectively as “The Potteries,” because it was home to industrial-scale pottery companies such as Royal Doulton and Wedgwood. Stoke’s former industries—coal, iron and steel, pottery—have closed or moved most production elsewhere. So Stoke faces the questions of identity and development common to many places in a changing economy. 

Restoke’s founders grew up in Stoke, went away to school, came back to work in community arts, met on a project focusing on what in the UK is called “regeneration,” and in the US “redevelopment.” A dearth of arts venues led them to work outdoors in old factories, chapels, swimming pools, always highly participatory, always valuing and integrating Stoke residents’ love of storytelling. Restoke was founded in 2009.

In the podcast, Clare, who trained as both a dancer and community artist, describes the organic process whereby Restoke’s founders moved from engaging local people in the early work as participants to an ethos and practice of co-creation. Clare described a project entitled “You Are Here.”

“‘You Are Here’ was in 2016, and it came off the back of doing a few site-specific performances that involved people in Stoke-on-Trent alongside professional performers. Until this point we had a bit of a divide between the stories we were telling for our work—we always started with conversations and gathered people’s stories, and we always worked with participation, so some people joined us to perform a piece that was created around their stories. But there were sometimes disconnects between the people whose stories we were telling and the people who were performing in those shows. So “You Are Here” was a step toward bringing those people together, going ‘how will we work with a group to tell their own stories, and help them to shape their narratives and the way that they’re told?’ 

We started by having conversations with people who had moved to Stoke from other countries. Previously, our work had been more with people who were from Stoke originally; we were often working around historical buildings, so that was the nature of who got involved in what we did. But we wanted to look at the more contemporary population of Stoke-on-Trent, so we talked to some people who moved here or where moved here, including some refugees and asylum-seekers. We held some events called a ‘Culture Exchange,’ where people could bring something from their culture to share with the group, and they were really lovely little sharing events. People brought food and costume, dance and song…. We invited people to come and explore with us more deeply about culture and belonging and how they felt about Stoke. We brought people to a venue, an old college of science and arts in Burslem, a historic building that wasn’t currently used. We took people into the building, explored it, sang and danced.

“What could we imagine happening in here? What would a show look like? How could we tell our stories in this building? We decided to make a promenade performance…they could go into different rooms, and in each room they could experience a different story. Our main art forms are dance and music, and it was the first time we used people talking their own words that we helped them shape in a really interesting way.”

I loved the way Clare talked about Restoke’s work: how community arts work is co-created, emerging from the moment and the people involved, and how it therefore demands willingness to live with not knowing what will in fact emerge. “You have to be okay with the uncertainty,” said Clare, “because the uncertainty is certain.” She pointed out that “the success in making these performances is keeping the door open,” describing how one participant in “You Are Here” moved in and out of engagement, ultimately deciding to take part in the show, bringing letters and diary entries from the war in Bosnia, her home country, excerpts from which she was asked to read. Later on, having revealed her beautiful singing voice, she was asked to sing as well. Keeping the doors open to participation proved critical to Restoke’s process in “You Are Here,” as it did in other stories Clare shared. “You don’t know what’s in the room,” Clare said, “until you’ve spent some time together.”

‘You Are Here’ Restoke (2016)

Clare explained that “You Are Here” was created during the Brexit referendum in the UK. Stoke had a very high pro-Brexit vote, which made it important for Restoke to share the stories of people who’d migrated from Europe, to “have a safe place where they were welcome in Stoke, which might not feel like the most welcoming place at that time for those people.”

The conversation moved through many of the key issues for community artists, such as how do you care for people’s stories? Restoke emphasizes having ownership over one’s own stories, clarifying how stories are to be used, giving participants a “get-out clause,” so they can withdraw at any time, even on the night of the performance. “People’s stories,” said Clare, “and how they feel about sharing them is more important than the product that we make.”

Clare described the support system for Restoke’s work, which will be illuminating for US-based community artists coping with a very different infrastructure. There’s a nuanced discussion of working with professional and non-professional artists, how those lines soften and blur as the roles are clarified. Clare also shared an exciting new development for Restoke, restoring and reopening the Ballroom at Fenton Town Hall as a community arts venue for Stoke, enabling much greater continuity than only working in temporary spaces, and much better working conditions than are possible in spaces without heat or other amenities. The prospect of a permanent place to work and gather led to an account of Restoke’s work during the pandemic and quarantine. And from there, to the thorny question of engagement with social issues and the default funders’ assumption that success equals changing people in some measurable way, as if they needed to be changed when the actual need is to be seen and heard—and it’s the funders that need to change. 

We really enjoyed the conversation and hope you will too!

There Is Something On Your Mind,” performed by Bob Margolin, Nancy Wright, and Mitch Woods.