Middlesbrough Town Hall opened its doors in May 2018. The popular venue had undergone the biggest refurbishment in its 129-year history, restoring rarely seen elements of the Grade II listed building and giving new energy to a Town Hall for the 21st Century. As part of the re-opening, we wanted to demonstrate the new vision for the building – a flagship cultural venue for, by, and with the community.
Middlesbrough Council, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund commissioned Southpaw Dance Company to create a bespoke piece of immersive theatre with a large community cast, the piece was called ERIMUS, taken from the Middlesbrough motto ‘We Shall be’.
The performance was tasked with highlighting the history of the building and led audiences into previously unknown areas, such as the cells and courtroom, culminating in a large-scale mass movement finale, a spectacular dance theatre piece with projection mapping and text derived from conversations with Middlesbrough residents and cast participants.
During the course of two months, workshops were held for community members to rehearse with a professional cast and create a brand new show. Over the rehearsal period, the community cast of 75 committed to over 100 hours of rehearsals in order to be ready for the performance. We worked with partners of grass roots organisations in Middlesbrough to ensure that the cast were representative of the diversity of the city. We ran a number of taster sessions in different areas of Middlesbrough to show community groups what taking part could mean for them prior to rehearsals – which saw a large uptake from within these groups. Southpaw Dance Company said ‘this is the first time we’ve worked with such a diverse cast, both in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender.’ 10% of our community cast were from newly arrived communities, 40% of our community cast were male.
Elements of the whole production involved members of the community, their stories, and why they loved Middlesbrough so much. Below are the comments from members of the community cast and the impact that taking part in Erimus had on their lives:
‘Enjoyed the first session last night and my ears propped up when Rob mentioned the dance with the boiler suits with a steel industry theme. Having spent 50 years in the blast furnace industry around the world I am very excited to see more.’
‘What a journey it’s been! I never thought I would ever learn to waltz, do a Scottish dance or even make it to the front page of the Gazette! I’m so privileged to have worked with such talented people, you’re all legends! I’ve always loved dancing, but this experience has helped me become even more passionate about dance. This has been by far the best experience of my life so far & I wish you all that best of luck for the future’
Attached is a film that includes interviews with the community cast members: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OHbRwy6nAM
What the judges had to say:
“A huge amount of planning and careful constructing went into this project. I particularly appreciated the groundwork done in winning the support and trust of different groups and men as well as women. The final performance looked incredible and the joy it inspired was palpable.” – Samira Ahmed, journalist, writer and broadcaster
“Fabulous idea. A great project taking a number of elements of Middlesbrough’s heritage and teaming it up with an original artistic piece to encompass so many people who have never experienced the performing arts before! It seems to have been a great place for education, collaboration, diversity and pride in the community. When I visit Middlesbrough in the future I will always remember ‘Erimus’ – ‘We Shall Be’. Well done.” – Les Dennis, actor, comedian, television presenter and National Campaign for the Arts Champion
“This sounds amazing. I wanted to be there. It’s a poster child for all we in the arts believe in.”
– Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright, director, Artistic Director of the Young Vic Theatre
“A high quality arts activity which has effectively brought together new and established communities and arts organisations to create a new performance and celebrate the importance of local heritage. Inspiring piece of film, too.” – Lorna Lee, Head of Culture & Heritage Services, London Borough of Waltham Forest, and winner of a 2018 Hearts for the Arts Award
“This is how to open a building! Well-organised, joyous occasions like this, which bring the community together and turn them into an ensemble so much greater than the sum of its parts, can change lives. The town hall belongs to the people; now the town hall IS the people. The very definition of community cohesion!” – Samuel West, actor, director and Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts
What the shortlisting panel had to say:
“A stunning way in which to bind a community together – bringing together all sorts of people who would not otherwise have met in a huge celebration of creativity which is having a continuing impact on Middlesbrough.”
“A high quality socially engaged performance piece to celebrate Middlesbrough, evidencing ambition and a can-do spirit and involving a diverse range of the local community, supporting community cohesion.”