Private Viewing: Suffolk needs to love the arts and embrace cultural tourism

Evelyn Hoskins and Rachel Lumberg in the premiere of This Is My Family at the New Wolsey Theatre la

Evelyn Hoskins and Rachel Lumberg in the premiere of This Is My Family at the New Wolsey Theatre last year. Suffolk is the home to many new works and needs to embrace cultural tourism to make the most of the economic opportunities this presents - Credit: Archant

Suffolk has a great artistic heritage, and Arts Editor Andrew Clarke says it now needs to sell itself to the rest of the world

Kacey Ainsworth and Shaun Mason in Feed The Beast by Steve Thompson, directed by Peter Rowe, a new

Kacey Ainsworth and Shaun Mason in Feed The Beast by Steve Thompson, directed by Peter Rowe, a new comic drama was premiered at the New Wolsey Theatre. Shows such as this contradict Michael Billington's belief that regional theatre has stopped creating new work. - Credit: Patrick Baldwin

Earlier this week I attended a conference about cultural tourism in East Anglia in preparation for a massive campaign which is due to be launched next year.

As someone who works in the arts, I know that there is an awful lot going on but even I was amazed at the breadth and the quality of work produced in this county and its environs. What impressed me more than anything was the quality of the events on offer and the fact that the vast majority of work is designed to appeal to a wide audience.

It was pointed out by one of my colleagues at the meeting that Suffolk culture has a very rare attribute – quality and quantity. “But,” pointed out a perceptive voice from the far side of the room,” Suffolk’s great problem is its modesty. It does have some amazing, world-class arts to offer but it is terribly shy about promoting it. It creates cultural events which go on to play at venues in London and around the world but it doesn’t want to shout about it. This needs to change.”

I have to say I agree and hopefully next year’s cultural tourism campaign will do a lot to raise Suffolk’s cultural profile not only at home but across the country and around the world.

Joss Arnott and Dame Evelyn Glennie will be staging he world premiere of 5/10 at DanceEast in Octob

Joss Arnott and Dame Evelyn Glennie will be staging he world premiere of 5/10 at DanceEast in October. - Credit: Archant

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The plan is to engage local people, informing them about the variety and diversity of top-class arts on their doorstep, while at the same time attracting people from London, the Midlands and the North to sample our cultural wares as well as enjoying our landscape and heritage.

Cultural tourism is already a substantial part of our economy but with Looksideways EAST and Culture 365, the twin campaigns which are about to go global, it could develop into a real growth industry. The key is to use star draws like the myriad festivals that are staged during the summer or premieres at DanceEast and the New Wolsey to help highlight the less high-profile but equally creative events.

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Suffolk is a place where an awful lot of brilliantly creative work gets made. International companies like Gecko and Tilted choose to be based here, although they work around the world. International artists Maggi Hambling and Sarah Lucas, among others, live and work here. The DanceHouse is home to three world premieres this autumn, the New Wolsey presents new work on a regular basis, the HighTide festival has just finished two weeks of presenting new theatre and FlipSide is about to unveil a world of books and South American food, music and culture at the Snape Maltings at the beginning of October.

Suffolk is a hive of cultural activity, which is why it is really annoying to read dismissive generalisations about the arts outside London from so-called experts working in the national press.

The Guardian’s long-serving theatre critic Michael Billington attracted howls of protest this week when he described regional theatre “a shadow of what it used to be”.

He said: “Venues outside of London are making increasingly bland production choices. I worry about grassroots and particularly regional theatre, and whether it will have the capacity to bring on the next generation of playwrights, actors and directors.”

Billington believed that the rise of co-productions, where theatres shared the costs of development and staging, was the cause of increased blandness in British regional theatre.

With the New Wolsey, Colchester Mercury, Eastern Angles and Bury Theatre Royal investing in new writing, acting and directing talent on an annual basis, I feel incredibly aggrieved on their behalf. They make work for their audience. In effect Billington is criticising the taste of regional audiences.

DanceEast is dance theatre and is entirely dedicated to creating new work. Aldeburgh Music spends a small fortune on developing new talent and bringing them to a standard where they can perform on an international stage. I really can’t see how a critic as knowledgeable and experienced as Billington can articulate an opinion like that.

I suspect part of the problem is he may not see much of what is happening in the regions.

He has never, to my knowledge, reviewed a play at either The New Wolsey or the Colchester Mercury. Maybe if he saw more and if we shouted louder about our cultural heritage, then maybe, just maybe, critics like Billington may have a better opinion of what happens outside the M25.

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