Wide Awake Devon is the perfect title for this organisation which is addressing the arts situation in this sleepy south west county. Thanks to the work of Emily Williams (22), Monique Luckman (23) and peers, there are big changes getting under way in Exeter at the moment, and these changes are very exciting for practitioners and audiences alike. Lyn Gardner wrote an article earlier this year about the state of affairs in Exeter: “For too long, Exeter has been without the kind of development investment that has gone into other regions of the south west.” This culminated in Exeter Northcott losing it Arts Council England funding and going into administration in 2010. However last year, ACE ring-fenced £750,000 to be split amongst different companies within Exeter, including the Northcott theatre and Kaleider (an organisation where Luckman and Williams work as producers).
The aim of the company and its site theatredevon is to provide a network for artists, practitioners and venues both locally and nationally. It also provides a sounding board for artists to discuss their work, and find ways of improving and creating pride in the performance ability of the area. The founders explained to me how there are pockets of activity throughout Devon but these areas need some way of connecting up, which is the service Wide awake Devon provides: “There were things happening in Exeter under the surface, it felt quite fragile and wasn’t really getting above the surface at any point,” Luckman told me. “Then in Plymouth it’s quite vibrant and quite productive but then again there is quite a lot of frustration at a lack of a network.” Frustration is the key term in what forged the determination of Williams and Luckman to apply for funding and set up the organisation, Williams explains: “In lots of other areas within the south west there are organisations throughout pulling people together and kind of raising the ambition in developing artists and developing the ecology. And we went to a few events and observed there wasn’t really anything in Devon.”
The work being done isn’t just internet-based, they are also getting out in the community around Devon to hold discussions with practitioners and venues to find these pockets of activity, as they are well aware that in Devon “one of the biggest challenges is the geography”. On 9 May there is an event called Divided Devon: How can we undivide Devon?, the aim is not to solve the problem but to start conversations with young people and older practitioners regarding the current situation, and find out what they think is needed to move forward and to give Exeter and its surrounding areas a bigger national identity. By holding it in a village in North Devon that is easily accessed by road and rail they are hoping “to make the county feel a bit smaller”. This is an area of country that used to have such a rich theatrical history with the repertory theatre scene in Ilfracombe and as the home county of writers such as John Gay. Hopefully with the establishment of a network people can make connections and then go on to create amazing live performance.
Anyone who has ever holidayed or lived in Devon will know that it can be quite lengthy to get around compared to other places in the country, but we shouldn’t let that be a barrier in the development of regional arts in the area. By setting up these connections it opens up the area to companies from around the UK and makes it an exciting developing arts community. The network is just a stepping stone in uniting the different arts factions in Devon and it is exciting to see what can be developed by Wide Awake Devon and its counterparts in the next three years.
I will be covering Divided Devon for A Younger Theatre via my blog and twitter, but for anyone wanting to get involved in the discussions there are details for the event here, and for anyone who can’t make it feel free to get involved at #divideddevon on twitter where conversations are already starting.
Image: Monique Luckman (left) and Emily Williams (right)