The Late Shows, the Newcastle and Gateshead annual culture crawl, celebrated it’s 10th anniversary this weekend, with a riot of diverse, vibrant and exciting opportunities to visit over 70 local culture and heritage venues after-hours. Throwing open their doors to the public for the evening, our museums, galleries, studios and historical buildings offer a rich variety of one-off events, including workshops, tours, performances and parties.
After a busy week and a fruitless search for a babysitter, we decided to take the opportunity to pop in to Bensham Grove Community Centre with the children for half an hour, for a look round. At less than half a mile from our home, it’s a particular surprise that we’ve never visited: It’s a handsome building and I’ve certainly read plenty about the recent restorations and the wonderful array of classes on offer, so I was really keen to visit.
Our first stop was the dining room, which appears to be a crafter’s paradise- perfect, as the décor beautifully reflects the house’s Arts and Crafts background. The wall-to-wall cabinets, which once would have housed fine china and ornaments, are now packed full of wool and fabric and needles and mats and pins and all kinds of haberdashery. Many period features remain, such as the beautiful stained-glass windows, tiles and glossy wooden ceiling. The stunning heavy curtains are a recent edition, hand-embroidered with love and care by local needlework volunteers.
The Mini-Apprentices were warmly welcomed by a lovely lady, who settled them down to do some origami.With patience, care, kindness and encouragement, she clearly and simply explained how to create pretty paper flowers with some double sided tape, a stick, a button and a glue gun. The children were thrilled with their creations, and have been proudly showing them to friends, family and anyone who they come across!
Some other visitors seemed to be having a very enjoyable and productive time learning to crochet further along the expansive table, however we decided to go in search of a ‘midnight feast’ instead. Stopping off for a brief visit to the imposing and peaceful library, we arrived at the sitting room, where the children enjoyed a packet of crisps and some juice. Hot drinks, cake and wine were also on offer. After our snack, we had a meander round the beautiful, tranquil garden and admired the stunning tiles on the sun room floor. The house, which is available for event hire, really is very beautiful and exceptional care and skill has been put in to restoring it and replicating key period pieces. It was a real pleasure to see.
As we wandered, we found out that Streetwise Opera were to begin a performance in a few minutes, so we made our way to the venue- a modern community hall round the back of the building. We met one of the singers, a warm and friendly lady, who was eager to make us feel welcome and to tell us more about her group. She told us that it’s for people who have experienced homelessness. “It helps us find our voice”, she said. Several other members came over to greet us and make sure we were comfortable- we felt very included and welcome. The performance, we were told, was of Donizetti’s ‘The Elixir of Love’, apparently a famous and short opera.
The scene was set with a busy street scene, men and women milling about, playing cards, looking at wares. We could see some real characters, who were embracing the opportunity to put on an entertaining show for us. It was interesting and a pleasure to watch the gregarious scene. All of a sudden, one of the number burst into song. My goodness! The young man was suddenly transformed and I was transported and amazed, and I began to understand what our new friend had meant when she said that Streetwise Opera “helps us to find our voice”. Every singer stood up, in front of strangers and opened their lungs and SANG! They sang with gusto, joy, vitality, vibrancy, confidence and enthusiasm. What a pleasure, to see and hear! I was grinning!
The children were also enchanted and enthralled. The bawdy humour went way over their heads, thankfully, but they grasped the gist of the story. They tried to cast their own love spells, with great relish, and proudly announced; “I love opera- it’s great!” Well done, Streetwise Opera- you’ve made four new opera converts. I was invited to come along to rehearsals myself. “I’m always there,” said one man we’d chatted to earlier “so you’ll know me, and there’ll always be a friendly face. You wouldn’t feel alone.”
Some might wonder what value there is in a charity that encourages people who have experienced homelessness to learn to sing Opera music. Wouldn’t their time be better spent in job training programmes, CV workshops and interview-technique classes? The charity’s rationale is on the website, but I saw it too, about 90 seconds into the performance. In fact, it was explained to me before it even started- I just didn’t really understand it, then.
“It helps us to find our voice”
It is by meeting others, building relationships, taking on challenges, surmounting fears, building communities, increasing resilience, working with others, trying new things, engaging and learning new skills, that the Streetwise Opera crew can start to find their voice. When that is achieved, we have the self-esteem, tools and impetus to make positive changes in our lives. It really was precious to see those truths so clearly and eloquently expressed before our eyes.
After a chat with a few of the performers, we decided it really was time to get the Mini-Apprentices to bed, so we started to make our way home. Within a few steps, however, we were waylaid, as we discovered a massive pottery studio with a kiln. While Master Mini-Apprentice stood outside playing with his newly-acquired heart-shaped balloon and zapping love-potions at passers-by. Richard had a long chat at the doorway with a potter and our little girl and I had a go at pottery ourselves. Again, the volunteers were so warm, helpful and affirming about our efforts. It is community at its best.
Eventually, after a two hour visit, we went home, tired and happy. We may have only visited one Late Shows venue, but I think it achieved what it probably set out to do: We had a very happy time, we tried a range of new things, we enjoyed ourselves, we found a new place, we engaged with new people, and we left thinking a little bit differently from when we arrived.
That’s definitely worth a late night, don’t you think?!