It was on Heritage Weekend (September 12th) that artist Ian Greenall created his performance installation called A Guinea A Box, which gave visitors the chance to enter the iconic Beecham’s building and experience the history and it’s memories through a guided performative tour.
Ian was one of the nine artists awarded a Prototype Projects commission for Round 3. Prototype Projects Producer, Debbie Chan believed it was critical to support this project; not only was it ambitious and exciting, it was important to support his artistic practice, as it was clear that after 17 years of teaching performing arts at St Helens College, he was inspired to make work again.
Ian shares his story about how his project came about:
In some ways the Beecham’s tours project, A Guinea a Box has been 18 years in the making. I first saw the old Beecham’s staircase and reception area when I was appointed the new part-time lecturer in Performing Arts at St Helens College and felt it was the ideal space for a site-specific performance project. At the time, I was still a performer and choreographer myself, but the area was out of bounds and the idea later faded away.
Over the years the space became a storage area, cluttered with old filing cabinets and metal cupboards, and on the few occasions when I had reason to visit the area the idea of performing in there seemed like an impossible dream.
In 2014, a number of seemingly unrelated co-incidences brought the idea to the fore again.
(i) I was part of a college committee, which made the decision to clear the Beecham’s entrance space and convert it into a student lounge as part of their new University Centre rebranding.
(ii) A post on the ‘St Helens – Back in The Day’ Facebook page made me realise there was a desire from many people in St Helens to see inside this historic building. In particular, there were many retired Beecham’s staff, many of who had never had the opportunity to see inside the office building since it’s closure.
I realised there was an audience for the project and decided it was the perfect opportunity to get into the space, before the University Centre opened. I planned the idea that my theatre & performance students could make a performance in there for Heritage Open Day. But then the co-incidences continued.
(iii) I attended a training course through Cultural Hubs, which required me to pitch an idea for a performance in an unconventional space. It was just a class-based presentation task, but I instantly went with the idea of a performance installation inside the Beecham’s building. And people liked it! And I liked it! After 17 years of teaching and helping others to create work, I wanted to create work myself again!
(iv) I then heard about Heart of Glass’ Prototype Projects that funded small and ambitious projects in and for St Helens!!!
Suddenly everything fell into place, and with the support and encouragement of Heart of Glass staff I decided to make an application. And then the dream started to become a reality. On reflection the original proposal seems rather simplistic and minimal, only a germ of an idea compared to the final outcome. But in other ways the idea was an unfocused splurge! After mentioning the project on social media, I realised that the desire of people to see inside the space was greater than I’d ever imagined and I started to doubt whether my initial ideas would even be possible. The plan to simply open the space and allow people to walk around a performance installation was not going to work.
Thanks to Prototype Projects Producer, Debbie Chan, I realised I would have to channel my unconnected ideas into a more focused journey through the space. Through her questioning and ‘what ifs?’ I was forced to re-examine my initial plan and I hit upon the idea of a tour guide to lead the audience through the space at set controlled times.
My initial plan was to create an art project around the Beecham’s heritage. But as the tour guide idea developed, and research deepened, I worried that I’d started to create a Heritage project with some art in it! The Heritage angle was always supposed to just be a hook with which to draw in the audience, so that they might inadvertently engage with the art. But the Beecham’s history had started to take over. Then I realised that the real history of the building was not something which stopped in 1887 when it was built, but was a living, constantly evolving thing. The funny, tragic, fascinating stories I was collecting from the retired staff, the latest changes that the college were making to the space, the many photographs of the building and its surrounding streets that were shared on Facebook, were all as much a part of the history of the building as the facts and figures of why it was built.
And so the idea evolved of time collapsing inside the space and I finally felt comfortable that I could balance the art with the heritage. As the audience passed through the building they moved through 3 very distinct time periods – the present day as they learned about the current changes taking place, 1890 when they met Tom Oldham and heard of the beginnings of the company and the opening of the building, and finally 1994, on the day the factory closed, as they met the factory workers reflecting on their time working for Beecham’s.
The next task was to engage other artists and volunteers in the project, to participate on the day as performers as well as helpers. Then I planned the journey and created artworks throughout the space for the audience to encounter on their travels. These took the form of living sculptures, sound and video installations and the conversion of a whole office into an old Beecham’s poster complete with Victorian bathing girls and a wonderful backdrop created by local artist Karen Hughes.
In order for people to have the best experience and be able to move them quickly and safely through the space, it was decided to limit each (30min) tour to 12 people. Due to the engagement of many different groups of people during the research and development stage, all the tours sold out with 25 minutes of being promoted on social media.
Having tested the tours with an invited guest audience of retired Beecham’s staff, I realised that it was possible to comfortably take 20 audience members on each tour. It was lucky that we’d had this opportunity to try it with larger numbers as on the day we had an influx of people without tickets, who were desperate to see the space and take part in the tour.
The numbers continued to increase throughout the day. From 84 tickets sold, we had 153 people actually take the full tour on the day, plus another 70 who did a reduced version of the tour, as part of the Heart of Glass Heritage Bus Tours. We also had a further 45 invited audience the previous day, and another 50 who turned up to see the space at the end of the day on Saturday. A total of 318 people had engaged with the work over the 2 days.
Feedback was gathered through online surveys, at the event and with email follow ups. Results were overwhelmingly positive, with 97% rating the tours as Good or Excellent. It was also pleasing to note that the project engaged many new people in the arts, with 89% of respondents saying they only attend arts events ‘a few times a year’ or less.
If you have an idea that would like to discuss with us and/or you are thinking about submitting a Prototype Projects application click here