10 January 2018

Happy New Year from Walk the Plank

So how was 2017 for you?  Already, a couple of weeks into the New Year we’re starting to get some perspective on 2017, not least because with the passing of Storm Eleanor we were reminded, once again, of the precarious nature of this thing we do called ‘outdoor arts.’

No matter how much contingency planning we build into every one of our shows, nothing can protect us from the vagaries of the British weather, as we found out back in October when we staged our major Feast of Fire event in Milton Keynes, to mark its 50th anniversary, in the path of Storm Brian.  There was certainly no shortage of wind power to blow out any candles, nor indeed the intrepid spirit of the people of Milton Keynes who came in their thousands to enjoy a party quite unlike any other.

A few months earlier, we were battling the 40-degree heat of Cyprus with the staging of Eternal Voyages, one of the highlights of the cultural programme to celebrate Pafos: 2017 European Capital of Culture.  And at the start of the year, unexpected gales nearly blew away the Front of House tent during our rehearsals for their opening ceremony Pafos: A work of art.

Talking about the weather is a uniquely British pastime. And the reason why we think it deserves a mention is because of the way in which it galvanises people to carry on regardless in a shared experience that gives them a platform to express what their community and their local place means to them.  It also brings out the incredible professionalism and determination of our invincible pyrotechnics team who, during our autumn season, staged over 70 shows across the country in wind, hail, driving rain and snow.  Battling against the weather  to stage incredible displays in a range of locations (from city centre roof tops to parks and forests), no team quite understands the force of the natural elements quite like this one – as our fireworks showreel demonstrates.

The galvanising force of nature was nowhere more in evidence than in the near tropical heat of our 8th Manchester Day in June, which saw 60 community groups parade through the city in sweltering conditions. In a city renowned for its rainfall, the Manchester Malayalee Association’s colourful parasols were, amazingly, deployed as intended: to stave off the heat. The wall to wall sunshine also gave the day an incredible celebratory feel at a particularly sensitive time following the global attention Manchester had received in the wake of the Arena bombing four weeks earlier.

Thankfully, a relatively dry winter meant that our brilliant new home Cobden Works, lead funded by the Arts Council, was completed near enough on time. This allowed us to finally move into a longed-for purpose-built space that enables our fabrication and learning spaces to sit under the same roof as our head office.

2017 also saw the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) for a record breaking $450m.  At Walk the Plank, we believe that the value we place on our work is best measured not in monetary terms but by the impact it has on the communities where we work, the artists we engage with in the process, and the new talent that we inspire through our masterclasses, and training programmes.

For us, the creative journey is as important as the final destination, particularly when co-creation and participation are such crucial elements in the way our work evolves from initial idea to the final production.

The Oxford Dictionary declared ‘youthquake’ the word of the year for 2017. Defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”, perhaps some of our projects – like Peel Park’s re-opening in Salford; the European-funded Schools of Spectacle in Lithuania, Bulgaria and Ireland; or our cultural skills training for the British Council in Nigeria, where more than 50% of the population is under 25 – are helping bring about change.  We hope that our work sometimes enables people, young and old, to say things about the world they live in when other forms of democratic engagement feel less effective.

In a world of so called ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, the work that we and our peers do in the arena of outdoor arts do is both priceless and authentic.  While our audiences aren’t looking to acquire expensive art in auction rooms, they are looking for a sense of ownership through genuine, creative projects that resonate with their concerns, hopes and aspirations.

It’s within this context that 2018, and our next 25 years, will be shaped by our continued passion to bring unforgettable shared experiences to communities near and far. And so, we give the final words to poet Louise Wallwein in this extract from her poem ‘The Crucible’, composed specially to mark the November 2017 opening of Cobden Works:

‘This is the crucible of dreams
Where wild imaginations are forged from molten steel and sulphur
Where we take a huge leap into unknown oceans
Each thought wrought out of thin air
A charged wish to disrupt the ordinary’

Happy New Year.

Tom Warman, writing on behalf of all of us at Walk the Plank

[Photo Manchester Malayalee Association at Manchester Day 2017]