To describe St Leonard’s ExploreTheArch theatre company as just that is to ignore the vast range of community activities with which they are engaged. Neither is it accurate to define it merely as a community arts group with the emphasis on local, when its scope embraces the global stage, employing stories and legends that link the distant past, via St Leonards and its people now, to the faraway present in its bold and exciting productions.
A dynamic approach to nurturing talent
Gail Borrow, the lead director, celebrates the diversity of this seaside town in every production and initiative. A puppeteer herself, informed by the tradition of Javanese puppetry, her paper models and objects animated by visible strings are a part of the multi-disciplinary performances and installations she plans with the many talented artists who form this dynamic collective.
Committed to encouraging early career artists, particularly those encountering some kind of barrier to success, whether physical disability or the challenge of neuro-diversity, the emerging talent is nurtured by established performers in many different disciplines. Drawn from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the teams reflect the rich social mix of this town and all productions are in association with other organisations from residents’ groups to international sponsors.
Shared history, shared present
Based at Archer’s Lodge, the rambling Victorian family house that is home to Gail and others in the collective, ExploreTheArch mounts three productions of interactive theatre there a year. The vision is to connect the homely and the known to a wider world. This may be to a Europe in the present through many cultural organisations, and to a Europe long past using history and story. Links are made with high rise living in Kyiv through the Four Courts – the only high-rise flats in St Leonards, and links are made to Iraq, to the Caribbean, Africa and India through the artists, links to the Windrush generation and to Hastings’ dazzling past.
And so it was with their recent production, inspired by the ‘Fossil Finder in Us All’ project, an interactive experience encouraging families to search for stones and fossils on a Hastings Beach, which in turn was inspired by the work of Mary Anning, the nineteenth century palaeontologist who collected fossils in Lyme Regis.
This production, ‘The house of the stone that spoke’, was pure delight, an evening where past, present and future met and melded in music and image, film, drama and story. The action went from the here and now to a fabled, exotic past.
Arriving at the house, entering through an arch of books in the porch, the audience moved from a film in the front room to the attic rooms where Ukrainian artist Anna Smirnova and her two daughters, Elizabeth Isadora and Catherine Rajhans, both harpists, told the stories of three Kyiv Rus princesses who had married into the nobility of Hungary, France and Norway in the 11th century.
Harps, puppets and chess tell the tale
The tales were told in different rooms in varied ways: using chessmen, exquisite paper puppets, the music of their harps or a weaving motif. These were all linked by the stones – stones taken from the beach in 1067 to build Hastings Castle, stones that represent the resilience, not just of princesses far from home, but of women such as Anna and her daughters, travelling across Europe towards an uncertain future. A resilience demonstrated by something one of the girls said, “Did you know that a pawn crosses the chessboard and can become a queen? I have crossed the chess board of Europe, as a pawn. I will compose music for Hastings Castle as its queen.”
This was a tale, moving in its many connections – Ukraine so essentially part of Europe for over a thousand years, a Kyiv princess making a journey similar to that of Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine, to be married to Harold Hardrada, the Norwegian who invaded this island and was defeated by Harold of Wessex. His own daughter Gytha fled to Denmark after the defeat at Hastings and eventually married Prince Vladimir of the Kyivan Russian kingdom, another example of our island story so closely linked to Europe’s through war, invasion, treaty or marriage.
Past resonates with the present
Gytha’s story will be the subject of a forthcoming production ‘You Must Follow Another Plan’, based on an English medieval adventure story. But as ever with this group, following Gytha will not be about some long dead princess but will resonate with the young adult community in Hastings today, once more making connections and collaborating with international cultural organisations, including Indian dance companies.
This begs the question of what Brexit means in places like Hastings, an outward looking and compassionate community, home to many migrants, part of a shared European history, and now a refuge for many Ukrainians. ExploreTheArch encourages us to consider ourselves family, inextricably attached one to another through shared histories, shared experience and shared values.