Shop Front Theatre puts words centre stage Five new commissions, part of Humanistan

Image credit: Andrew Moore

Five Coventry city-based poets will put their words centre stage at the Shop Front Theatre from October through to February 2021 with a series of new commissions, funded through Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, enabling Theatre Absolute to continue to provide essential support to independent artists.

Commissioned as part of Theatre Absolute’s two-year project Humanistan, which was paused earlier in the year due to COVID-19, Shahnaz Akhter, Laura Nyahuye, Andrea Mbarushimana, Lanaire Aderemi and Raef Boylan have responded to the project’s central provocation with new work which will be exhibited in the Shop Front Theatre windows. The monthly exhibitions allow for a safe, physically distant experience whilst also connecting people through culture which is at the heart of Theatre Absolute’s practice.

Shahnaz Akhter’s work is the first to appear in the Shop Front Windows. Having just gained her PHD from the University of Warwick, Shahnaz’s work looks at the discourse of British Muslims. She comments “Writing about non-mainstream voices, both within my PHD and within my playwriting is something that I am very passionate about.” Her words will be exhibited at the Shop Front throughout October.

Chris O’Connell, Artistic Director Theatre Absolute said: “We’re really pleased to be able to feature five Coventry based poets over the next five months, and present their words to people through our Shop Front Theatre windows. We asked each of them to respond in their own way to our Humanistan provocation and we are looking forward to sharing their work. These poems are for the people of Coventry (and beyond if you are able to stroll past the Shop), because we are one, and now more than ever we should support artists and our community, and aim to connect, inspire and bring people together through sharing culture.”

Humanistan takes inspiration from the thoughts on nation and society from writers such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Francois Matarasso and Ben Okri. The definition of ‘istan’ means land, country, of place. In that case, Humanistan means Human Country – a place we all belong to, but can find it hard to spend as much quality time in as we’d like. The idea behind Theatre Absolute’s provocation is to create a critical mass of work that forges meaningful connections, challenges division and isolation in society, and celebrates our humanity.

The Humanistan programme returns in full from 2021 with a poetry performance by Stephen Lightbown at the Shop Front Theatre in March, to be followed by performances of new work by Theatre Absolute’s own Chris O’Connell in June, and Sharron Devine in the Autumn. The full programme will be shared via theatreabsolute.co.uk and regularly updated in line with Government guidelines.

The commissions for the Shop Front Theatre windows will be on display from mid-October through to February 2021, with a different poet’s work featuring each month. Find out what’s coming up with Theatre Absolute and the Shop Front Theatre via twitter @theatreabsolute and the website: www.theatreabsolute.co.uk

The displays will run as follows:

October
Shahnaz Akhter – Shahnaz has just gained her PHD from the University of Warwick, her work looked at the discourse of British Muslims. She comments “Writing about non-mainstream voices, both within my PHD and within my playwriting is something that I am very passionate about. Theatre especially, provides a medium to tell stories of past and current events which are not always heard and brings these to life. I discovered Theatre Absolute through Coventry Peace Week and a phone call later found myself sitting near the windows, discussing writing for a scripted reading on a piece called The Stranger. Working with Julia and Chris helped inspire a love of play writing, and I am currently working on a piece inspired from an @38 session on mental health, which is an important for the body as any other kind of health.

November
Laura Nyahuye – Laura was born and raised in Zimbabwe.  She lives in Coventry. Laura is an Artist, Storyteller, Creative writer, Community worker and Activist.  Laura recently had a solo exhibition at Belgrade theatre (I MIGRATED an exhibition echoing the voices of migrant women, challenging perceptions using handcrafted Adornments…) During Refugee Week (2018) Laura curated an Art Event, (FUSION) with local and international artists and performers taking part. 

Laura makes unique handcrafted Adornments that address issues such as Migration, Women’s issues, Community issues, Marginalisation, Tokenism.   Her work challenges perceptions surrounding these subjects. Her adornments are a means of communication.  They carry a message of Hope and Freedom. Laura’s aim is to touch lives and shout….. ‘You are not alone, you can make it….you will make it!

Her work is driven by her love and passion to see Humans connect.

December
Andrea Mbarushimana –
Andrea has been published in two chapbooks ‘The Africa in my House’ from Silhouette Press and the V20 competition winning ‘Air Show’. A headliner in the UK and Ireland, Andrea’s poem ‘For My Husband’ recently featured nationally in the BBC Upload festival. She is in the current cohort of the Room 204 mentoring programme with Writing West Midlands. You can find out more at www.andrea-mbarushimana.com

January
Lanaire Aderemi – Lanaire is a playwright , poet and performer. Her work mainly explores the politics of memory whilst challenging the marginalisation of Black women’s voices, histories and stories. She graduated from the University of Warwick with a 1st Class in Sociology and the Best Dissertation in her department in 2020 and is currently on the Warwick MA Writing Programme.

Lanaire has years of experience mixing poetry with music to create powerful stories and multidisciplinary work. This experimental approach alongside her research in Black feminist, specifically, Yoruba oral tradition(s) has inspired the creation of productions like ‘an evening with verse writer’ (Tristan Bates, 2018), (Coventry Shop Front Theatre, 2019), (Warwick Arts Centre, 2019) which pushes the boundaries of storytelling, poetry and music. This play also won the Shoot Festival Artist Development Award in 2019.

Central to Lanaire’s work is re(imagining) community and creativity through various artistic mediums. Through her collaborative EP ‘Ancient History’ with rapper King Solomon, Lanaire blended spoken word with singing and lo-fi rap. She has also worked with communities in Coventry to celebrate unique stories. In 2018, she was one of 30 artists in Coventry selected by the Coventry City of Culture Trust to produce a commissioned poem for #HumansofCov. In 2020, she was commissioned by BBC Coventry for their #makeadifference campaign and recently wrote and voiced part of an audio play for ‘The Future Show’.

Her poetry film ‘change your style’ explores the hair journey(s) of Black women around the world whilst combining childhood songs with monologues from research she conducted in hair shops. She also shared her developing practice of mixing songs, chants and poetry through dialogical activations at the Tate Modern’s ASSEMBLY – a programme that explored protest and autonomy to 1500 young people. Lanaire can be found on @lanaire_aderemi on social media.

February
Raef Boylan Raef Boylan was born and matured (sort of) in Coventry, and wanted to be a writer from the age of five. He predominantly writes poetry – for both page and performance – and short stories, with a focus on social realism; but is also interested in stage drama and other forms. Over the years, he has won first prize in the CU Short Story Award and the inaugural Frederick Holland Poetry Collection Award, and was shortlisted for The Big Issue Short Fiction Award. Alongside this, he has had work published in various magazines/anthologies. Raef is keen to keep people engaged with Coventry’s literary scene – he’s had involvement with publisher Silhouette Press, organises local poetry night ‘Fire & Dust’ and is lead editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine.He really hopes investing his whole life into the written word pays off, otherwise he’s screwed.

@theatreabsolute | @shopfrontcov | #humanistan | theatreabsolute.co.uk

Artist Spotlight: Talking Birds

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Talking Birds is a collaboration of local artists based in Coventry, whose most recent project took place at the Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art. We interviewed Janet Vaughan, Co-Artistic Director to find out more about them and what they do.

Who are Talking Birds?

Talking Birds is a company of artists based in Coventry, with a 25 year practice exploring the complex relationships between people and place. The company is well known for its site-specific Theatre of Place; its interactive works for festivals (which includes a giant aluminium whale-shaped theatre on wheels); its pioneering mobile captioning tool the Difference Engine; and its smaller sociable events which bring people together for unexpected conversations in unusual places – most recently with pop up social space. The Cart, which has been touring the city inviting people to sit down with a cuppa and have a conversation about what culture is or c/should be.

What type of performance art do you do?

There isn’t really a typical Talking Birds project – and although we are a theatre company, our work doesn’t always involve performance. We tend to work with people and place to find the right form for the ideas and spaces we are exploring. We want to find a way to bring people together to look afresh at a familiar place – to give them a reason to talk to each other, and we want it to be enjoyable but also gently provocative. Because the company is led by a designer and a composer, the way things look and sound is really important.

So far this year we have made performance guided tours during residencies at the Warwick Market Hall Museum and the Albany Theatre in Coventry; taken The Cart up into the Ikea restaurant to sketch the city skyline and compose haikus with diners; made an outdoor telling of the story of Hannah Snell who dressed as a man to join the army in the 1740s and fought fiercely, undetected, for 5 years; and toured a piece about prisons and mental health in the 1850s, which we made in partnership with researchers and historians from the Centres for the History of Medicine in England and Ireland.

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Previous work includes:

– The Virtual Fringe, an imaginary festival for Coventry designed to make people think about how art and cultural events could animate the city;

– site-specific pieces or tours in unused or about-to-be-knocked-down buildings such as Whitefriars Monastery, the Bishop Street sorting office and the Coventry & Warwickshire hospital;

– the FarGo Space Programme – a series of curated residencies for Coventry artists in an empty space at FarGo prior to the redevelopment;

– participatory web artworks exploring online spaces and behaviours, such as Helloland and Web Demographic;

– We Love You City at the Belgrade Theatre, telling many city stories of the day Coventry City won the FA Cup.

– Market Forces residency on a stall at Coventry Market collecting radios and stories to make a city symphony for the Radio Orchestra.

Talking Birds, Backstage at the Albany

What was your project at the Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art?

UnFound was one of our smaller sociable events bringing people together for unexpected conversations in unusual places. Billed as a secret event for artists and creative thinkers and created especially for the inaugural Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art, it happened in a secret location in central Coventry, and involved intrigue, food, conversation and some consideration of the future.

What future projects have Talking Birds got lined up?

There’s an instalment of our Festival of Ideas series of panel discussions coming up in November – this one exploring art, culture and climate change; then next year we’re making a handful of guided tours of the city which allow people to see Coventry through the eyes of someone else and walk in their footsteps. We’ll also be re-making Capsule, which is an immersive experience for an audience of six at a time – with a twist; and continuing to test our mobile captioning invention The Difference Engine.

Where can people follow you for more info?

w: http://www.talkingbirds.co.uk

Twitter: @birdmail

Instagram: @birdmail

Facebook: TalkingBirds

Godiva Festival 2016