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Cultural awakening: arts venues reopen!

We’ve spent a while wishing for the day we could say we did something other than go for a walk at the weekend. Now that our usually brimming arts scene is picking up again, a little helpful signposting might be in order

As symbiotic as relationships come, ours with culture enriches our calendars and increases our capacity for creativity and colourful conversation, just for starters. Its importance has been simultaneously thrown into the spotlight and swept under the carpet over the past year, with underfunded organisations needing their patrons more than ever. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on Bristol’s wonderful cultural and hospitality sectors, however there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Bristol City Council’s head of culture and creative industries, Jon Finch, told The Bristol Magazine. “The re-opening [of cultural venues and visitor attractions including cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, theatres, concert halls, museums and galleries] during late May and early June will be welcomed by communities across the city and will play a key role in the recovery and renewal of the city centre and its high streets.”

As for events and festivals – key to the reputation and success of the city – those adhering to government guidance and safety planning are being considered from this month onwards. “In particular, we are looking forward to hosting part of the city-wide Bristol Photo Festival at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery with four exciting and thought-provoking exhibitions throughout the building,” says Jon. “Our close work with colleagues in public health, Bristol’s safety advisory group and across the council continues to support the safe reopening of venues.”

We’re so much in love with Bristol’s arts scene – the break-up was one that nobody wanted – and we can’t wait to get back together. We’ve been sitting with the diary looking at what’s to come at just a few of our many cultural hotspots.

Tobacco Factory Theatres
The TFTs team – who have just flung open their doors after more than a year of closure – held back the tears as they announced their reopening. “We continue to be astounded and grateful for the support shown by all of our audiences and communities through donations, memberships and more,” said an overjoyed Mike Tweddle, artistic director. “We couldn’t have done this without you and send our heartfelt thanks.”

If you want to show some love, a ticket for Florence Espeut-Nickless’s blistering one-woman show about working-class life wouldn’t go amiss – D.E.S.T.I.N.Y. that is, developed with support from Tobacco Factory Theatres. Or perhaps you might prefer to re-enter the world of theatre with renowned music and storytelling group The Devil’s Violin and their new tapestry of tales The Beast in Me (two magicians do battle, a desperate soldier strikes a deal with a mysterious stranger, and we meet a being neither human nor animal). We’re excited to see Michael Spicer later in the year, fresh from the sphere of internet sensation, performing live on TFTs’ stage. Yep, he’s finally leaving that little room of his, but we bet he brings his headset for November’s The Room Next Door Tour.

Supporting local artists, TFTs have started in-person masterclasses led by inspiring practitioners, and planned new Acting Lab classes for adults. Many shows and activities are being offered on a pay-what-you-choose basis to keep prices as low as possible yet invite contributions from those who can spend a little more to support the theatre.

Make like a stinky Steerage passenger on the SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain
Engine oil in the dockyard, Brunel’s cigar smoke in the Duke Street Office, carbolic soap in the surgeon’s cabin, bacon in the galley kitchen, rum in the gambler’s cabin… If you have ever wondered whether these would be the sorts of smells you might encounter on a 19th-century passenger ship, every corner of Bristol’s Victorian dockyard – complete with two museums, dry dock and historic ship – is now open for you to find out. This season it’s all about engaging the senses with new sounds and surprises too, plus historical set dressing and plenty of outdoor picnic ➲ tables for supping a glass of pop.

With passengers, crew and livestock living and working in the same space for up to 60 days at a time during voyages to Australia, the SS Great Britain would have been a pungent place. Life in steerage class could be rough and regular bathing was not common, so when wandering around the berths you may get a whiff of some stale, dirty linen. Making your way up to first class does not much improve the aromas, mind – in the ladies’ boudoir poor stewardess Annie Green is finding that sea travel doesn’t agree with her much… The ship’s kitchen is what you want to head for, where pots and pans bubble and the smell of just-baked bread escapes from the ovens. Tickets include free revisits for a year; a pretty good deal for Bristol families.

Bristol Old Vic
The summer season balances breakthrough shows from poetic talent Malaika Kegode and creative opportunities for city communities. Sharing the work of South West wordsmith Malaika, Bristol Ferment’s autobiographical gig-theatre production Outlier – with soaring music from Bristol band Jakabol – premieres on the main stage this month. Genre-defying and emotional, it explores the impact of isolation, addiction and friendship on young people in often forgotten places.

Launching the careers of a new generation of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School stars, in July The Three Seagulls sees 14 talented, hungry actors from the graduating year explore the very nature of art, isolation, ambition and endurance. With Olivier Award-winning director Sally Cookson they merge scenes from three seminal adaptations: Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Anya Reiss’s The Seagull and Christopher Hampton’s The Seagull. The same month, a rolling programme of performance will take over the BOV courtyard.

“We’ve been kept alive by the government’s support and the loyalty of our audiences,” artistic director Tom Morris said. “Responsibility comes with this, and in the depths of lockdown we’ve also had a chance to reflect on the things we did well and the things we need to improve at. We are determined to build on the successes of recent years but also to come back stronger, more connected, more welcoming and more entertaining than ever. This mini-season of summer work shows our first step in that direction and our renewed determination to welcome and celebrate every area and community of our beautiful city.”

The ground floor of the We The Curious is a space where art and science collide

We The Curious
The UK’s first major science centre exhibition inspired entirely by the curiosity of a city’s residents is a go, with over 10,000 questions having been collected from people from every postcode of Bristol. The ground floor is now a space where art and science collide, with exhibits and art pieces themed around seven very different questions. There’s also a new collaborative working laboratory, Open City Lab, where you can meet scientists, join in their explorations and take part in research – helping to democratise science in the process.

If you’ve wondered whether there’s such a thing as the soul, how you measure something you can’t see, or if it’s possible to slow down time, you can investigate for yourself; explore the habitats of aliens or reflect on moral puzzles or the nature of disease, health inequalities and how our experience of illness can shape our lives.

How about a heart-to-heart with the resident robot? Indeed, would spending time with robots change how we feel about them? Working with University of Bath researcher Thalia Gjersoe, We The Curious wants to find out how children perceive robots to help scientists build better ones. The sound of entering a futuristic football stadium and playing alongside robot teammates sounds pretty fascinating – equally, helping to train an AI to recognise facial expressions using cutting-edge AI research, or finding out how researchers are using big data to check in on our mental health. Do you reckon a computer could tell how you are feeling simply from reading your social media?

In the Theatre of Curiosity, consider what a secret looks like while exploring issues around power and ignorance in partnership with the Secrecy, Power and Ignorance Research Network, or find out how Bristol residents responded to the question of why rainbows make us happy as part of ‘A Lockleaze Rainbow’ and make your own pair of rainbow-inspired glasses to strut around in while seeing your surroundings in a new light.

The Bristol Hippodrome
The team have been keeping a close eye on trial events around the country, and the roadmap for reopening is on track. We know the first ever UK tour of hit musical Dreamgirls is due to visit, 35 years after opening on Broadway. If you don’t know the show and haven’t seen the 2006 Dreamgirls big-screen adaptation starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, the Dreams – Effie, Lorrell and Deena – are three talented young singers in the turbulent, revolutionary 1960s. Embarking upon a musical rollercoaster ride through a world of fame, fortune and the ruthless realities of showbusiness, they test their friendships to the very limit. Nicole Raquel Dennis – a finalist on ITV’s The Voice in 2019 – has been cast in the role of Effie White, having wowed at her blind audition for The Voice while performing And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going from Dreamgirls alongside team mentor Jennifer Hudson, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Effie in the film.

Lady Nade who will be launching her new album Willing at St George’s in June

The Wardrobe Theatre
This fringe studio venue and arts hub, mixing comedy, storytelling, live music, spoken word, dance, puppetry, cabaret, drag and more, reopens on 4 June. “We’ve been putting together a fantastic mini-season of theatre, comedy and music including some of our regular and sorely missed favourites like Closer Each Day: The Improvised Soap Opera and Story Slam, plus big name stand-up comedians every Friday night from Chuckle Busters,” artistic director Matthew Whittle told us. The mini-season will run from early June to early August and will have a range of Covid-safe procedures in place including a limited, socially distanced audience and enhanced cleaning, and everyone will enter and exit the theatre through our fire exit car park which has been beautified. “It’s not going to quite be a normal Wardrobe Theatre season yet but we’re bursting with excitement with the prospect of being able to enjoy live entertainment in a room together once again.”

M Shed
As well as in daily strolls around the city, street art has come to take up a prominent role in Bristol summers, especially with Upfest drawing visitors from across the world over the past decade. A new M Shed exhibition this month – ‘Bristol Street Art: The Evolution of a Global Movement’ – is exploring the creative history of our pioneering underground art scene, celebrating its legacy and instrumental role in the development of British street art, and taking in four decades.

Expect rare work by leading Bristolian, British and Irish artists, including seminal works from the late ’90s. Beezer and Henry Chalfant will feature, as will deep-fake viral sensation Bill Posters, and Conor Harrington, with works never previously seen and some not shown in public for over 20 years. Explore the evolution of street art in response to the city’s unique identity and culture – beginning with its anarchist origins in the ’80s and ’90s and leading up to the global phenomenon that is street art today. Art aficionados can also consider the growing relationship between art and sustainability via the work of international artists, all through the lens of the United Nations sustainable development goals.

The Bristol Improv Theatre
Imaginative, immediate and whole-hearted, the REACT season at the UK’s first dedicated venue for improvised theatre is a homecoming for the local improv community and an illustration of the resilience of live entertainment along with the flexibility of this super-fun branch of it.

Bristol Improv Theatre has deftly adapted to the constantly changing circumstances, and is now re-opening for in-person teaching and performances that respond creatively to the new normal and challenges of social distancing in live shows.

The start of June sees Up the Antics return after the extended hiatus with sketches designed to flourish in the socially distant era. In the recent days of Zoom meetings and Joe Wicks, they continued to entertain audiences in their homes with their online magazine show The Antics Home Show on the Bristol Improv Theatre’s Twitch channel. To celebrate the live return, the experienced sketchers have formulated an explosive cocktail of pre-pandemic favourites with a dash of characters from their online streams. Later this month, ➲ Bristol Improv demonstrates how easy it is to maintain social distancing when you’re alone in space… In new devised piece A Space Oddity, find two performers but only one on stage as part of a light-hearted exploration of isolation and our growing relationships with computers and AI.

See Malaika Kegode’s Outlier at BOV

St George’s Bristol
St George’s presents over 300 performances of classical, world, jazz, contemporary and spoken word events to over 100,000 people each year. This is complemented by an award-winning learning programme in education settings across the city and a growing programme of digital work.

The 580-seat venue has been presenting live events since May and as well as welcoming audiences safely back into the main auditorium, the new programme includes sessions taking place both outdoors in the beautiful gardens, and inside the new open-plan café bar extension, underneath Luke Jerram’s permanent sculpture installation, titled Apollo. The schedule for June includes spoken word, music and comedy, world music, Latin funk and Bristol’s own Lady Nade who will launch her new album Willing on 19 June in an afternoon and evening session. Other well known names include Bellowhead veteran and Leveret founder Sweeney, joined by his brilliant folk band performing on 17 July.

Embracing this optimistic season of reawakening and rejuvenation, Arnolfini, with its bonus harbourside bar and the bookshop also open again, has resumed ‘A Picture of Health’ which draws together
a group of contemporary women photographers featuring autobiographical perspectives and social commentaries. It aims to de-stigmatise subjects around mental health.

As part of the 60th anniversary programme, Ian Breakwell’s July exhibition, created while he was resident in Bristol, will focus on everyday life approached through overlooked, humorous or surreal perspectives. Expect a range of media including performance, film, television broadcasts, and writing, as well as painting, collage and drawing; accompanied by screenings of moving image work and responses by artists working in Bristol today.

Also getting underway next month, Sir Frank Bowling summer exhibition Land of Many Waters will feature work experimenting with the painted surface, courtesy of the major international contemporary artist who is currently at rather an exciting moment in his career.