INTERVIEW: Louisa Davies, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s new programming creative

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The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has appointed Louisa Davies as its first Head of Creative Programme. Louisa was previously Events Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, before that she was a producer at MAC Birmingham for ten years. Here she tells Gill Sutherland about her new role

What tempted you over to The Shakespeare Birthplace (SBT) from the RSC?

Lots of things, it felt like an exciting opportunity. SBT have joined the Arts Council National Portfolio – which means they’ve got four years’ worth of funding which means that’s enough to have real impact on the way the organisation works with artists.

It’s such a rich canvas here – you have these five very different but interesting places that lots of visitors come to every year. I’m increasingly getting excited about what’s in the collection; I didn’t realise all the town records and history were in it – I think that’s really amazing.

I have a real interest in the town itself, and this felt like a role where I could do more programming in the community.

Bit of a big question, but what are your plans for the future of art at SBT?

At the moment I am thinking about a couple of projects. I’m really fascinated by Stratford because it’s this small provincial town in the middle of England but with this huge international story and it strikes me sometimes that it’s out of kilter with itself and I find that really fascinating.

I’m part of a project called Creative Producers International which I started doing when I was at the RSC – it’s a programme for creative producers who work in public spaces, as opposed to galleries, and I’m the only one in a small town, they are all in big cities. What I’ve been doing through that is a research project about how local people feel about living in Stratford and how they feel about their relationship to the heritage – do they feel like it’s theirs? Do they feel like they own it or does it feel like something that’s being curated elsewhere?

It feels very timely to me to be asking these questions because next year is the 250th anniversary of the Garrick Jubilee [actor and theatre manager David Garrick’s 1769 event in celebration of Shakespeare held in Stratford] – that was the event that started the Shakespeare Industry in this town. Even though the event was a disaster it all feels like really rich territory. So we’re looking at doing something to mark the Jubilee that’s very much aimed at local people; it’s still in early development.

The other thing that I’m thinking about is how we can collaborate across all the Shakespeare houses, and thinking about how we can embed artists in our programme. Before we commission artists I’d like to invite them in to do research and development with us. So the early part of next year we’re going to do an ‘artists lab’ with four or five artists of different backgrounds and genres – dance, visual arts, authors – and invite them in to spend time at our sites, and talk to the people who work there – their knowledge is incredible and it’s important for them to be involved.

I’m really ambitious for the programming here. I look at the work that’s been done at the Historical Palaces and how they have been transformed, they are now much more appealing and exciting places to visit; just look at the impact that something like the poppies at the Tower of London has had. I’m inspired by that in terms of thinking how we can transform people’s experiences and people’s perception of Shakespeare through working with artists.

You mentioned talking to local people, hearing what they think, how are you approaching that?

Several ways: we have been distributing a postcard that asks people to tell us their story about Stratford; I’m very interested in hearing individual stories. We also did a Facebook survey – and from the 250 who responded we’ve asked people if they’d like to do one to one interviews. From all of that we’re hoping to build up a sense of what the townspeople feel about Stratford. What’s coming through is a mixture of thoughts and opinions; people say they love the town, it’s beautiful, then there’s more negative comments about things like the traffic, the disappearance of independent cafes and shops, that there’s not much here for young people, and that there’s been a change. There’s also some interesting individual perspectives coming through – like someone who has lived here for two years saying she finds it hard to make memories here because she doesn’t have a sense of what the town’s local identity is – I found that a compelling comment.

So the idea is that you will use local people’s responses to plan cultural events and artworks?

Yes. The interesting thing about the Garrick event is that it was a community coming together and asking what can we do to celebrate Shakespeare. And the question now is how can we bring a community together again around Shakespeare? How do we build a community?

There’s a brilliant woman down in Bristol, Claire Doherty who runs the Arnolfini Gallery, and she says some very interesting things about public art – one of them is: don’t do it for the community, make a community. And sometimes it’s the act of doing something that brings people together rather than imagining there’s a collection of people that are somehow a community that you are doing things for.

What project that you’ve worked on stands out?

The Fairy Portal Camp we put on with Slung Low in 2016 would be my standout. RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran said “Make something about what Elizabethans believed about midsummer, like a fairy portal” – and I was like crikey! It was the week of the Brexit vote and after Jo Cox had been murdered, and you wanted to believe in magic; opening up the fairy world and inviting them into ours had an added poignancy because of what had happened. I loved the fact that people came and ate lunch and dinner there for free for the week – word spread, and we were feeding people that were really in need. It felt like something exciting happened; I look back and think was that a dream?

Finally, when did you become interested in the arts?

I’m a morris dancer and play the violin, which I took up aged six after seeing Japanese children playing on Blue Peter. Although I’m actually the fourth generation in the family to play violin – my mum still plays in amateur orchestras. Music was my way in, and then at university I got involved in putting on events…

My dad was a musician too – he was 58 when I was born so everyone thought he was my granddad – he played a percussion instrument called the bones, a bit like the spoons, he was a fantastic player and went round the country to folk festivals doing bones workshops – which I started doing after he died in 2000.

I sometimes wonder if I could tell my dad that I now run bones workshops in his memory 20 years after he died how he would feel?

To see what’s upcoming at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust see www.shakespeare.org.uk