Towering more than 30 feet above the city’s streets, Royal de Luxe’s Giants arrive in Liverpool on July 23, part of the city’s commemoration of the start of WWI. On their last visit in 2012, they drew over 800,000 visitors and generated £32 million for the local economy. This time around, the Giants will be lit by the city’s youngest technicians – a group of 18-25 year olds on the Base Technicians apprenticeship scheme with the Everyman and Playhouse theatres – who will work with writer-director Jean-Luc Courcoult to design the lighting of the giants as they sleep and work technical aspects of the lighting during the five-day event.
The cultural coup is a triumph for the Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP) scheme and will place their young technicians’ work in front of an anticipated audience of two million people. Far more than ‘just’ a theatre, coordinated work in the local community and a commitment to practical training is a long-held aim of the much-loved institution. The Everyman and Playhouse (E&P) has run outreach programmes for 15 years now – since the two theatres pooled their assets in 1999 – working with people they consider ‘underrepresented’ in the industry. In the early 2000s, Liverpool’s impending Capital of Culture status provided the catalyst to find funding, leading to research projects in Liverpool 8 and the Four Corners/ Find your Talent programme in North Liverpool.
The genesis of this Giants project stretches back seven years… At the request of the youth service, the E&P was working with youth worker John Murray and artist Mark Storer, who they’d paired up in North Liverpool; ex-offender Murray was working to help young men who found themselves in the same situations he’d been in turn their lives around, while Storer’s flamboyant style garnered plenty of attention on the streets of Kirkdale. The pair ran their first “creative listening session” with the community the morning after a stabbing in the area, with a group of young lads the youth service had highlighted locally, who it was struggling to engage with. “Amazingly,” says outreach manager Laura Hall, “the lads took John’s message on board, and created a series of ‘anti-stabbing banners, which they hung outside the youth centre. We had no idea if anyone would even turn it up, but they really responded to it.” The idea of “creative listening” came from those experiences. “John and Mark asked them what they wanted, and they said ‘we wanna throw light on the Rec’”, says Hall. “All they were interested in was playing football, but they couldn’t in winter because it was too dark.” That simple line remains the first step in the trail that leads directly to the Giants.
The E&P’s team roamed the streets of Kirkdale with their group, talking to residents about the idea, and asking for people to donate lights. They organised generators, took some stage lamps, and waited. And waited. And then one of the neighbours came out, with a string of fairy lights. Hall says: “it was the break we needed. Table lamps, uplighters, and standard lamps followed until we had enough to light up once whole side of the Rec – and then the lads played football under the lights. We made a film, which was instrumental in persuading partners to join in; the film premiered in Kirkdale, giving us the impetus to speak to Liverpool Football Club, who arranged for their staff to provide weekly training sessions, and to the council, which agreed to light the Rec from that point onwards.”
Scott Lewis is one of that original group. “Bringing all the lamps out was just funny – it had never happened before,” he says. “We thought ‘why don’t we just do it?’. It was an opportunity to get involved. We were in to everything – it was an amazing thing to do. Sometimes you’re just waiting for an opportunity, but you never know how you’re going to feel until you get the chance. It was ‘safer’ for us because they came into our community. That’s the difference it made.” Scott went on to dance on the roof of the Playhouse theatre at daybreak, wrapped in the lights, and featured in ‘Tough Call’, an anti-gun crime film made by Merseyside Police; he’s now at college studying drama, and will go on tour to the Edinburgh Festival this summer. “It was the most amazing feeling,” he says of the film: “doing that video changed my life.”
Not only did it change his life, but became the pilot for a new funding bid. A partnership was born between the E&P, sponsors Riverside Housing, Liverpool City Council and Liverpool Football Club. Their training, incidentally, ran for a further five years and became the best-attended football training programme in the city.
After the success of Lighting up the Rec, the E&P team continued working with the group they’d put together, training the young team in technical skills, and rigging the lights and sound for some club nights, and other installations around the city. The issue, it found, was in accessing enough techs to train their apprentices – especially during the theatre’s busy winter months. They were faced with a group of young people who wanted to learn, but a shortage of techs. So they decided to train them themselves. Riverside Housing (which had funded the Kirkdale Rec project), provided the funding – alongside the Primary Care Trust’s Artistic Residency Fund – for a new project, De:Light. By now, every member of the original group was at college or working in the industry, so the E&P began recruiting again, for young techs to work with light artists Illuminos to light up the city’s Trinity Vaults. The new group of 12, which included two girls, worked with both a technician and a youth mentor, making sure they had the support they needed alongside the technical training.
Paul Booth is community regeneration manager at Riverside Housing, which sponsored the much of the E&P’s work in North Liverpool. The group has more than 70,000 homes around the country, and is an active participant in creating decent homes, areas and opportunities for its tenants. Booth says: “We were looking at how to create social economic advantage through the arts in the run-up to Capital of Culture year – giving people a reason to get involved leads to education, alongside a huge sense of community pride.” The Everyman and Playhouse had already tendered for and run a Big Lottery-funded scheme for Riverside around the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in Vauxhall, bringing the waterway and bankside back into use for the community. On the back of that, Riverside was able to draw in other funding, including E&P’s work at the Rec. “It was a great partnership,” says Booth, “with a lot of imagination. Sustainability is the aim in our community work, and everyone got something from the project. It coupled quality arts with access to training. We know that if we give our tenants quality programmes, they feel respected and respond positively – it’s about creating social change and giving young people their dreams.” Feedback from both participants and the wider community was very positive, bringing in another year’s funding, in what Booth describes as a “testament on all our parts that it was sustainable. Arts projects are always a leap of faith and not everything will work. The Everyman was willing to put in lots of different ideas, to see what people wanted to get behind. They created relationships, encouraging people to get involved in the next thing.”
And the results of the De:Light pilot group speak for themselves – at the end of their apprenticeship, every member of that ‘hard to reach’ group all went on to more specialised training, or a job in the industry. “All the young people are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) when they start, with more than 90% from some of Liverpool’s most disadvantaged wards, with severe socio-economic disadvantages, including Toxteth, Norris Green, Croxteth, Stockbridge Village and Kirkdale,” points out Rebecca Ross-Williams, the E&P’s director of theatre and community. “The vast majority of young people have never thought of light and sound being a route to employment but all of the scheme’s graduates have since found further training or employment.”
Jamie Thompson, one of the original De:Light group, now tours for ten months of the year with the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, the Yoko Ono-backed audio/ video facility that’s run for 17 years in the US, and launches its European incarnation in Liverpool last year. He works as a sound engineer and video director/ editor on the project, which tours schools across the continent giving young people the opportunity to work and record in the music and film fields. And when he’s back in Liverpool, he works with the Base Tech group, supporting them in capturing the creative spark he did. “Sound can be done differently to create a mood. It was something I’d never done before – I played in bands and had learned how to record my own songs, but I had no idea how many opportunities this would open up for me, especially with the theatre reopening,” he says. “The biggest part is getting your foot in the door. The only thing I could say is to always try your hardest – do everything. Don’t take it for granted, and take every opportunity. It does get noticed.”
De:Light became the pilot project for the Base Techs – who’ll be lighting the giants – supported by a three year grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Targeting 18-25 year old NEETs, the group again works with a youth mentor for support, alongside learning a range of technical skills from sound and lighting to stage management and computer software; so successful is the model that this year also sees the roll-out – funding permitting – of a new Creative Construction project, focusing on stagecraft, woodwork, metalwork and construction skills. The group will also go to Nantes with members of the Base Tech group to create a public performance show that will then also play in hospitals in France, before arriving back in Liverpool as part of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital’s 100th birthday later this year.
Kieran Singh and Marlon Magaby are two of the current Base Techs team. While they’re new to the world of theatre, it’s the opportunity to try real jobs and learn practical skills that has captured their imaginations. “You’re actually doing real things here,” says Kieran. “You learn how to do it for yourself, and know the real terms for things. And if you mess something up then you work out how to fix it too. That’s important. There is hope in this. It’s an experience in itself, but its also preparing you for a job. I’ll be made up to have the Giants on my CV.”
Giving young people responsibility and respect is vital to the future of their communities, says Booth: “young people are often undervalued – especially by their communities. It’s up to us to show them that they are respected, and have value. People are often confident in their own environment, but not necessarily outside it, so their opportunities can be restricted. Our aim is about opening up new opportunities to them – giving them the chance to be brilliant at something.”
Marlon agrees: “I’m really hyped about working on the Giants – I’ve just never worked on that scale before. I’m looking forward to seeing the mechanics of it and how it all works. I used to be more into film and writing, but I hadn’t done any of that for ages. Getting in to this has really sparked writing for me. It’s not really what I expected so has been a pleasant surprise. We’re not forced to do things here – we get asked ‘what is it you want to do?’, which makes you more motivated. That’s started me writing again.”
It’s hard to ignore the opportunities Liverpool’s thriving cultural economy offers. Mayor Joe Anderson has described the city’s cultural assets as the “rocket fuel” of the local economy, while assistant mayor, Councillor Wendy Simon, says: “Our event programme is not just about bringing high-quality cultural activities to the city, it is also about investing in this city and the people who live here and making sure there is a tangible, positive legacy. I’m delighted that this group of talented young people have had the opportunity to play a role in what is set to be the biggest street theatre event in the UK this year. These technicians are being given the chance to work with, and learn from, the very best in this industry, and the results of their commitment and dedication will be on display for the hundreds and thousands of visitors who will descend on the city in July.”
The Giants already promises to be the highlight of the summer for more than two million people. But for those 12, it’s an experience that may just change their lives.
Cover photo by James Maloney, (c) Liverpool Echo