Saturday, June 06, 2015

Caer Llyr – Why Leicester can be the true city of culture

Did you know that in Cymraeg, the Welsh language, Leicester is Caer Llyr – Lear's city? One learns something every day, doesn't one? 

Read more in the Leicester Mercury article under the heading Why Leicester can be the true city of culture. (Follow the link or read the copy below).

"Curve chief executive Fiona Allan is set to leave the city theatre in October. Here, she looks back on her time in charge – and to the future.

I came to Leicester from Cardiff four years ago. I emigrated from Australia seven years before that and I have to say I knew very little of this city's culture before moving here.

I had heard of De Montfort Hall and the Spark Festival and I knew of the creative work Curve was doing with well-known names such as Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche that was making some big ripples in British theatre.

I was also quite enamoured of the aesthetic and architecture of Curve's building itself.

The concept of inside out theatre, a brave step forward I thought, had inspired much debate in theatrical circles.

I also knew Leicester has a young and multicultural population, both of which really excited me about the opportunity to move here.

I knew Adrian Mole, whom I'd spent my teenage years empathising with, had grown up here.

And I knew that in Cymraeg, the Welsh language, Leicester is Caer Llyr – Lear's city. The place King Lear is said to hail from.

That intrigued me, too, as it allowed a glimpse of Leicester's ancient history and heritage.

But other than these snapshots, I had no real view of what Leicester had to offer, culturally or otherwise.

In seven years in the UK I'd never contemplated visiting Leicester. I didn't see it as place with a whole lot to offer, or that it projected any real sense of identity or purpose.

Coming into a cultural leadership role here, and throwing myself into that with some gusto, what I discovered was a city of complexity and contradiction.

In my view, it's a city that would like to be known for its cultural and creative excellence and yet, for some reason, seems to hold itself back from greatness.

I was told by many of the cultural practitioners I met this was a city that hides its light under a bushel and it was time to let our creativity and talent shine, to celebrate what we have here.

It was exactly those sentiments that became the thrust of Leicester's bid for the UK City of Culture in 2013.

The bid was a really exciting time. As a cultural community, we allowed ourselves to dream of greatness.

We threw ourselves into consultation and engaged with hundreds of people.

We brimmed over with ideas and gave ourselves permission to think really big.

We thought up commissions, collaborations and major projects that would truly put Leicester on Britain's cultural map, helping create an identity and sense of place for our city along the way.

And then we lost to Hull.

Fast forward 18 months. Have we moved on all that much? And if not, what is holding us back? We certainly have some terrific cultural assets, projects and events, that are truly of international class and enjoy national attention:

  •    The German Expressionist collection at New Walk Museum.
  •     Curve's own-produced musicals and plays, such as Adrian Mole The Musical, which we very much hope will go on to tour.
  •     Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival which, with 640 performances this year, transformed the most unlikely places into comedy venues.
  •     Kasabian's homecoming gig in Victoria Park.
  •     The dignity, simplicity and grace with which Leicester reinterred Richard III, and the sublime Leicester Glows celebration that lit the city streets, closing a week in which Leicester was under international spotlight.
Then there are certainly those that are truly remarkable and yet remain hidden under the bushel:
  •    The Mighty Creatives and their Board Academy a world-class innovative programme providing young people with the skills to govern organisations.
  •     Leicester's incredible design community – we have one of the largest design hubs in the country, with agencies working internationally from creative workspaces all over the city and county. We don't talk about it nearly enough.
  •     The incredible talent that can be found here. I truly believe that Leicester is punching way above its weight when it comes to talent development, such as the dancer and choreographer Aakash Odedra – one of Curve's associate artists – who is now performing at the Royal Opera House and touring the world.
Or the dozens of young people involved in Curve's young theatre company and community productions.

We are a city that prides itself on its pluralism, inter-culturalism and, especially, our inclusivity.

But sometimes our desire for inclusivity comes at the expense of creative excellence and it is here we must decide just what sort of city of culture we want to be.

Are we in pursuit of the extraordinary? Do we want to be known as a powerhouse of creative talent and new work?

Do we want to be attracting visitors to our city to have a memorable cultural experience?

Do we really have these ambitions, or do we just use that sort of language because we think we should?

If we really can commit to pursuit of the extraordinary, how do we get there?

Our city leaders promote a commitment maintaining Leicester as a city of culture, and there is a growing acknowledgement of the role culture plays in social and economic development.

It's encouraging to see and I'm not sure culture would be so front and centre had our mayor not supported the UK City of Culture bid.

Leicester, city of festivals were words I heard often in my early days here. I can easily list a dozen – Leicester Mela, Caribbean Carnival, Pride, Indian Summer, Everybody's Reading, our own Inside Out Festival, Spark, Comedy Festival, Diwali, Leicester International Music Festival, Leicester Dance festival, St George's Day, Simon Says... we are a city that loves a festival.

I've often been told, especially by the great and the good, that Leicester is known through the UK for festivals.

That's a lovely thought, but this simply isn't true. We are a city with an enviable volume of festivals and celebrations, which have varying purposes, scale and ambition. Which is only right, but we do not have a national reputation as a city of festivals.

Sometimes, I think it is convenient to confuse volume with impact, inclusivity with creative and cultural excellence and excellence, with elitism.

Take Leicester's Diwali celebrations. They were recently described in Leicester's Labour Party election manifesto as "world famous". Really?

We know it is one of the biggest Diwali festivals outside India, with 35,000 people attending the lights switch-on. Without question, the lights and the atmosphere on the Golden Mile are incredible, a credit to the city.

But is it famous throughout the world?

Furthermore, and this is really my point, by claiming it is, are we already curtailing any ambition to make it better? In other words, does our frequent hyperbole about Leicester's cultural assets actually work against an honest assessment of what we have and what needs to happen to achieve real greatness?

I somehow doubt Leicester's Diwali celebrations are famous across the world, any more than Leicester is known nationally as a festival city.

But there is no doubt in my mind that with ambition for greatness and further investment in a cultural programme, capacity andit could one day become exactly that.

Diwali could be Leicester's calling card. It could attract visitors from all backgrounds to see for themselves what makes this city so special, to feel a part of the city's vibrancy and energy, and who then leave having had an experience like nowhere else in the UK.

But in order to go from speaking in hyperbole to achieving actual greatness to realising Leicester as a fully-fledged city of culture, we need to make some bold step changes.

We need to be more honest. We need to be critical friends to each other and be prepared to take critique ourselves. We cannot continue to accept mediocrity as being good enough.

We must understand the difference between inclusivity and excellence.

Sometimes these can coincide. But more often that not, we seem to confuse one for the other.

In other words, big does not necessarily equate to good.

We need to be ambitious. I didn't move here with an ambition to create the best theatre in Leicester's Cultural Quarter, or in the Midlands.

I moved here to help make Curve one of the best theatres in the country and nothing less can be good enough.

We need to be brave. Much, much braver than we are.

To be ambitious, to strive for excellence, to take risks, to not accept mediocrity. This requires courage.

We need to be fearless. Sometimes we seem paralysed by our own fear of failure, so much so that we don't take risk.

Failure is just a part of any journey towards excellence.

We need to be honest and admit when something hasn't gone so well, so we can learn from it. And to support each other in failure, in order to pursue the exceptional. Great art and culture doesn't happen every time.

So let us embark together on a journey from hyperbole to excellence.

Let's acknowledge we are an emergent city, with exciting opportunity ahead of us.

But we are not world famous yet. We need to get better at shouting about what we are good at, and be realistic about what needs to improve.

To get there, we need to be honest, be brave, be ambitious and, above all, be fearless. And together we can make Leicester a true city of culture.

  •     This is the text of a speech given at the TEDx conference, held at Curve."