Where We Came From
“Stories need to be told, otherwise we don’t know who we are, or where we come from.’
I love that quote. It was first told to me in a youth theatre workshop when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I wish I could remember who to attribute it to, but the author escapes me, and Google hasn’t been much help in finding out. I’ve also definitely paraphrased it in my head over the years. But it’s always stuck with me, as a sort of personal motive for why I choose to be a storyteller; to work in theatre.
I thought of this quote when I very first saw the Walk This Play project advertised here in Wigan. I’d moved here as a student a little under three years ago, during the height of the pandemic, and those circumstances made the town feel rather inaccessible in some ways. The local tales and customs beyond the surface level Wigan kebab and Wigan Pier eluded me as I made steps into making this place my home. Of course, I acclimatised in some ways, eventually learning the true pronunciation of Mesnes, but I also began noticing all these amazing stories and narratives hidden around the town that no one really spoke about, that unless you were the keeper of, you would struggle to access and learn.
So, I applied for the project, in the hopes that it’d help me learn something more about this town, and that the project itself would be a steppingstone for these stories about Wigan that brim under the surface to get pushed out there into the wider world.
We met twice weekly, and one of the first things that struck me was how cool the technology was we were using to tell the piece. A GPS activated audio play? Sounded complicated, but Neil Bettles, ThickSkin’s Artistic Director, talked us through the system and made it make sense (It’s called ECHOES and it’s actually available for anyone to use, so go check it out!).
The next few sessions involved a lot of writing and A LOT of walking. We made recces of the route, and this is where we discovered many stories hidden away in Wigan. Did you know there was the remains of a Roman Bath House outside the back of the Grand Arcade shopping centre? I didn’t! This is where it all started to piece together, and as we came across each landmark, we’d discuss back in the room what the story could be to tell there. We let our imagination run wild sometimes, with one great suggestion being that the silver head by Believe Square was a giant, holding up Wigan in an Atlas-like way (that may or may not have sung Lionel Richie to us at one stage of development). But the one thing we desperately needed was how to connect all these tales together.
This is where the idea of memories crept in. The idea that we need to remember these stories and keep the memory of what it means to be from this town, and what Wigan is, alive. To do this, the listener would be lead around Wigan by a friend, who took their hand and would ask them to “remember”. After this discovery, links between stories and a through-line became easier to identify. Eventually, we had a full route plotted along a post-it smothered map; all that was left was to write the stories.
For each location (or scene) on our story we came up with an event, whether getting chased out of a club by a bouncer on King Street, or nervously walking into town at Christmas to get that gift for a special someone. As well as this, each scene had a specific person holding your hand, guiding you, asking you to remember. These were best-friends, relatives, or significant others. We were all given one of these to write about, and some beautiful words came out of this process. I particularly enjoyed writing about the Northern Soul scene and Wigan Casino that once stood on the site of the Grand Arcade. A reminder to the world that there once stood the greatest club on Earth, and that the centre of many people’s lives in the 1970’s was here in Wigan.
With all our content created, we recorded what we had with voices from within the group and Neil got to work on piecing this Wigan jigsaw together. Eventually, we had a version we could try out, and in one of our final sessions we did a test run (well…walk) of the audio play. It was when doing this, that I felt like we’d really hit that quote I’d opened with. We were painting a picture of a town, of its people and of its stories, and it was also made by the people from here; it held authenticity and community in its heart as it was literally created for and by Wigan.
All that was left was to promote the walk at the Streets Apart Festival on 9 July on King Street, right next to where our walk begins. We adorned our swanky new ThickSkin Walk This Play T-Shirts and set off to stir up some interest. The response from the public was fantastic. Many people were intrigued by the idea and everyone that we spoke to expressed an interest in taking part on the walk. It felt like people were genuinely excited something like this had been made about them and their town here, and it was something anyone could do, whenever they wanted, not a specific event or limited-time-only performance, but a walk. A walk through their town done with their own agency, with stories about their town with voices from their town.
Throughout this project, what was brilliant to see and be part of was a group of young people of all different ages and walks of life, coming together and singing from the same hymn sheet. It didn’t matter if you were 14 or 25 (in my case), everyone spoke with the same passion, care, and creativity for the project that you wouldn’t have known if you were in a professional creative environment or not. Everyone was dedicated to the project, and they let their ideas run free.
A special thanks to Abi, Joe, and Neil for leading the workshops and nurturing us over the course of the project (and for all the free Pizzas), and of course a shout out to all my fellow Young Creatives! Keep on seeking those stories!
Follow the link below for more blogs, or join our mailing list to be the first to receive our latest monthly instalment. ThickSkin’s Theatre Blog takes you behind the scenes of running a theatre company, with articles from our company members and guest artists.