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You've probably heard of the name Headway Arts if you live in Blyth. They featured in the local press recently at the unveiling of some banners which now adorn the Keel Row Shopping Centre in time for the Tall Ships Regatta. They are also the recepients of the Leading Visionaries in Europe award. But most, I'm guessing, won't have had much contact or knowledge of the organisation. That may be about to change?
Last week I bumped into Headway's Creative Director, Alison Walton Robson, who was excited to tell me of the great things they are working on towards the Tall Ships event in August. And... Headway needs to let everyone they can know about these events and exhibitions which will be at the forefront of the entertainment lined up. This will include a revival of the Blyth Carnival which hasn't occurred since the 1980s and a fringe festival. These won't be for the elite few but for the whole of the community and Alison wants everyone to get involved. "OK, tell me more", I said, and was duly invited along to Headway Artspace for a cup of coffee and a chat.
Headway Artspace was formerly the United Reformed Church on Waterloo Road. Headway took out a lease on the building three years ago when the congregation had dropped to levels that the upkeep of the building was no longer viable. It was at a fortuitous time for Headway as they had been in existence for fifteen years, having operated out of a myriad of different buildings, and were contemplating where they went from that point. They decided upon improving and moving on. The old church would provide plenty of performance space, workshop space and offices in an inspiring setting.
Alison gave me a tour of the building. The stained glass windows still serve as a reminder that this was formerly a church. But where there was once an altar there is now a low stage. The nave has also been cleared of the pews and new flooring with underfloor heating installed. Unseen structural work and clearing of guttering has also been undertaken.
There is still a bit of cosmetic work to do on the interior. This is being done step-by-step as time and grant funding allows, but it is being done sympathetically in line with the heritage of the building. The balcony still remains and adds another dimension that makes this a most suitable performance space, although there are future plans to partition the space for artists workshops. Another room had been turned into a print workshop. The office was surprisingly large with many desks. I had thought there was only a small number of staff but Alison explained that they have many short-term artists and apprentices working on projects and this is a hot-desking arrangement. They have worked with many of the world's foremost practitioners and international artists who want to share their skills and have the shared social values of Headway as an organisation.
"So why aren't Headway more well know than they are?" I put it to Alison. "Do you just work in the background?"
"The mission is for participation, getting people involved in the arts rather than about performances." Headway have been trying to develop a community arts resource for South East Northumberland. Residents can access the mentoring skills and experience of an artist's network. Headway are often commissioned and funded to do specific projects. 60% of the work is with disadvantaged groups, for instance the learning disabled and unemployed. They have done this from the beginning and it has always been a priority.
The Tall Ships Regatta, Alison tells me, is a great opportunity to gain publicity for the emerging Headway Artspace and the extended facilities and performance capabilities now on offer. It is also a chance to get more residents participating, hopefully long after the event as a legacy, especially in the carnival.
So where did the idea for a carnival come from? It seems that a lot of people had been talking about and campaigning for a revival of the long-standing tradition in Blyth of a summer carnival. This had died out in the 1980s. Headway teamed up with Active Northumberland and Culture Creative organisations and started to make plans. They had experience of staging carnivals having been commissioned with work at the Ilkley Folk Festival, Sunderland Kite Festival and Glastonbury in the past.
But this is hoped to be very much a community affair. The carnival will be a walking parade and Headway are to feature budding artists, music groups, sports groups, community groups and any individual who wants to get involved. They have organised a Carnival Club to be held at various times throughout Tuesday evenings for different age ranges. It is at these clubs that the puppets, costumes and dry boats for the carnival will be made. Later in the evening it will be rehearsals for the pirate street drumming band. This is being led by Blyth Valley Samba band. Yes, they need lots of pirates to be involved! They even need people just to carry items on the parade if being in the background is that is more your thing.
The Carnival Club workshops will have the support of professional artists. The Carnival itself will take place on Saturday 27th August during the Tall Ships Regatta. Called "Sagas From The Seven Seas" it will have a Viking/Swedish theme. There are no restrictions to the workshops. Everyone is welcome, the more the merrier, and Headway are going to extend the number of workshops by doing outreach in community centres, doing table decorations and the like, other community groups and arranging more sessions during the summer holidays. It is hoped that the Carnival can become a regular event again every two years as a legacy of this year's' Tall Ships Regatta. It is hoped to form a permanent working group to take this forward.
"So what else are you doing?" I asked Alison. She told me that they will be running a card stall in the community village located at the Community Enterprise Centre car park down by the quay. They will be selling products made by the print workshop group from scratch. They are selling for the first time.
Probably the biggest thing though will be the Fringe Festival held throughout the regatta weekend in Headway Artspace itself. The official poster is still having the final touches made to it and should be available soon. However, it will feature hat making workshops, yarn bombing workshops, musical workshops, story telling of nordic tales, Cabin Fever Circus and music with the Shaw Clarke Project, Driven Serious and Tony Bengtsson. At the end of the evening after the Tall Ships events have ended Headway Artspace will be the venue for top live music into the early hours. Paul Lamb and the King Snakes will headline on the Sunday evening. Blyth-born Paul is "Undisputed Master of the Blues Harmonica", internationally acclaimed in a four-decade career.
Headway are also putting together an arts-trail map of Blyth during the Tall Ships listing all the places that are carrying exhibitions of one sort or another. It will list the likes of St Cuthbert's Church, Buffalo Centre, Silx Teen Bar, Blyth Battery, the Library and more to be finalised as preparations are made. Its should be available around the end of July.
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece of the banners that have recently been hung from the ceiling of the Keel Row shopping centre. Is this typical of Headway's work? What is a typical week at Headway? A "you're kidding aren't you" expression came across Alison's face when I mentioned a typical week. It seems there isn't a typical week. The work is always varied. This particular week they had been doing a show called "Comic Tales" as part of a conference at Gateshead. This was a drama for learning-disabled actors with the Headway Theatre Company.
The banners had been commissioned by the Keel Row as part of the Tall Ships event. Twelve different community groups and schools were involved in the making of them. The subject matter ideas themselves came from the various groups. This is very much the ethos of Headway to have participants using their imagination and enthusiasm for a subject matter to drive forward that piece of artwork and feel ownership of it. In the case of the banners the theme was "Places they Liked" and "What's under the Sea". This is reasonably typical of the projects done on commission. Others can be drama projects such as the lottery-funded "Come on Down" festival where learning-disabled actors showcased their work in communities throughout Northumberland and the "Lives Worth Living" production which was a challenging piece looking at the relationship of a disabled adult and his brother who is also his carer. It was toured extensively and had an impact on all who saw it.
I enquired of Alison how and why Headway came into existence? She explained that around 1994 herself and Frances Castle (the chief executive at Headway dealing more with the governance and entrepreneurial side of the organisation) were freelance theatre artists working on various projects around the country, usually on a six-month basis. At this particular time they were doing a show in the old Fire Station Theatre in Blyth. They decided to have a go at being independent along with two other colleagues and Headway came into existence. Mike Dungworth, an experienced local community activist, came on board to help develop the governance and form a board of trustees. They began taking on various projects and bringing on board freelance practitioners.
Alison had studied for a degree in arts in the community. She had never harboured ambitions to work within the elite art world, the desire was always to work within the community. Her family has a history of community involvement and trade unionism, her ancestor Edward Howes being at one time Mayor of Blyth. Alison was born and brought in Blyth and has a passion to help the town to develop.
Headway Arts has established itself at the cultural heart of Blyth and is still growing with enthusiasm. For more info... www.headwayarts.co.uk
Photos courtesy of Alison Walton Robson