Photo gallery: The Garage celebrates 10 years of championing performing arts in Norwich
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012
Norwich arts venue The Garage has come a long way since it first opened its doors in 2004.
As it gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary, arts correspondent Emma Knights talks to The Garage's chief executive Darren Grice about the story so far.
AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY
Thousands of young people have been inspired by music, dance and theatre through their experiences at The Garage over the last decade.
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The former Theatre Royal scenery store in Chapel Field North was transformed into a youth arts venue in 2004 and has gone on to be a real success story - championing young people, becoming a great hub for creativity and performance, and now branching out to reach people of all ages while keeping young people at its heart.
The Garage's chief executive Darren Grice has described it as an 'incredible journey.'
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He said: 'It's been an evolution. It's been an experiment. It's been driven by a really strong desire from everybody here to really get beneath how you make a venue like this part of its community and how you engage the community...We've seen young people progress for years and go off and do amazing things. Over those 10 years we've seen our first cohort grow up from being 12 when they first came here to going to university to coming out the other end.'
The starting point was a partnership between the then NELM (North Earlham, Larkman and Marlpit) Development Trust, Norwich Theatre Royal, and a new charity that was to become The Garage Trust.
Following a £3.5m refurbishment, The Garage - which had previously been a coachworks and Howes car showroom - was transformed into a performing arts centre which included a studio theatre, dance and drama studios.
'The idea was to create this place where young people could come and take part in the performing arts regardless of what circumstances they were from, regardless of their confidence, and it recognised that performing arts have this levelling of the playing field factor,' said Mr Grice, who at the time was the venue's general manager.
'I think there was a belief amongst those that set it up that taking part in music, drama, dance would have a positive ripple effect across other areas of young people's lives, it might be improved attendance at school, having higher aspirations for life, working harder in their GCSEs...That was really the founding stone for the organisation.'
DEVELOPING ITS OWN PERFORMING ARTS PROGRAMME
In the beginning The Garage hosted outside arts organisations and community groups, including the Norwich Theatre Royal Arts Courses, but when The Garage Trust became completely independent in 2006 it began to develop its own arts programme to run alongside the existing opportunities.
'We wanted to build an escalator for young people, so that they could start somewhere and they could progress, and progress, and progress,' said Mr Grice.
'In 2006 we delivered our first summer programme which was based on the Little Shop of Horrors and we did a number of community projects in places like North Earlham. We did our first breakdancing project which was called Vision Street.
'2006 through to about 2008 was the time where we started to learn how to develop and deliver projects for young people.'
The Garage's summer performance projects over the years included: a Peter Pan production inspired by West End show Stomp; Cinderella set in the Second World War; a 'glamtomime' of Snow White; and most recently The Jungle Book.
The Garage's own class programme began in 2009 and since 2011/12 has included adult classes.
WORKING ACROSS THE REGION
While firmly based in Norwich, The Garage reaches out to young people across the region.
Mr Grice said: 'We've kind of built an arts centre from the base upwards, so we've learnt about the building, then we learnt about how to work with young people and accreditation, then we learnt how to start working regionally.'
In 2006 The Garage launched the Arts Award programme across the east with the Arts Council, running it for a number of years until the Norfolk and Norwich Festival took over.
'We also became the regional host for the National Theatre Connections festival with Norwich Playhouse in 2006. That meant we became the regional heat of the national project which meant we had about 14 companies from across the east region come to both us and the Playhouse to perform 10 new plays every year. We've done it every year since,' said Mr Grice, adding The Garage's own theatre company now enters productions in the festival.
In 2009 The Garage developed Blueprint, a region-wide arts volunteering project, then it moved more into music development projects including Music Leader and Phonic. The venue's Slam nights – an open mike night for young people – began in about 2008 and The Garage holds regular Slam nights in Norwich and supports satellite Slam nights across the east.
The Garage's connections also reach further afield – in 2013 it was picked for the Royal Opera House's ROH Links scheme which sees the London venue support other arts organizations by sharing knowledge, experience and skills.
ENSURING YOUNG PEOPLE FROM ALL BACKGROUNDS CAN ENJOY THE ARTS
While The Garage continues to work regionally, it also stays true to its original aim of giving opportunities to young people from all backgrounds.
When it first opened The Garage offered free places on creative courses to young people from the North Earlham, Larkman and Marlpit area.
In 2011 a referral network was set up with agencies that work with children and young people at risk or in any type of challenging circumstances.
'We decided that we were going to establish a network of people to make referrals into our programmes so that we could make sure we were always reaching the people that needed to access us most,' said Mr Grice.
'We fund it through a Big Break scheme which we launched in the same year. It's a scheme where people can donate to fund an individual young person for a year, and we have maybe 60 people a term who come through that bursary scheme.'
PERFORMING IN NORWICH AND BEYOND
The Garage has become well known for its shows at key cultural events in Norwich's calendar.
Its first performance as part of the Lord Mayor's Celebrations was in 2011, and in 2012 The Garage joined forces with NORCA (Norwich and Norfolk Community Arts) to present a spectacle for Norwich's Olympic torch relay celebrations.
The Pulse company of young artists was formed for the occasion, and became one of the inspirations for The Garage's Emerging Artists Academy which now includes: Pulse, a movement and dance company; the Musicians Development Programme for young singers, songwriters, performers; contemporary dance company Full Tilt; The Garage's theatre company; and Connect Dance Company.
'For different gigs throughout the year we bring all these young artists together,' said Mr Grice.
'We mix it up so that they get to work with other young artists of different disciplines, and that's really taken off now. 'This year we did the Lord Mayor's Main Stage, two days at the Royal Norfolk Show, and produced a performance with the Young Norfolk Arts Festival at Holkham Hall.
'They also do the Halloween and Christmas lights events for the city. We are partnered with the city events team so each time there's a big civic event our young emerging artists will be collaborating and working to create a performance piece for it. 'It's really great training for the young people and creates great new performances.'
PROFESSIONAL SHOWS AND TOURING AMBITIONS
In 2011 The Garage hosted its first professional show, and a key ambition for the venue now is to present a vibrant theatre programme for people of all ages with a view also to creating its own work to tour.
Mr Grice said: 'In 2011 we secured funding from the Arts Council to put on a professional programme which was called Curtain Up. It had three shows in its first season and we have 19 shows this season.'
He added: 'We had a really fantastic show called Look to the Sky in that first season which blew the minds of the young people. At the end of it they flooded the stage to talk to the performers. The impact on those young people - [before then] they hadn't any concept that theatre could be so relevant to them.'
Last year The Garage presented its first professional co-commission, Squally Showers by Little Bulb Theatre, which was performed in Norwich ahead of Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Mr Grice said: 'For us one of the challenges we've learnt since we've been programming is there's still very little [theatre work] that talks about the experience of growing up in a rural community,' he said.
'The next step for us now – now that we've got the building running, we've got the outreach and the referral network, we've got a class programme, we're training emerging artists, we've got a professional programme of touring theatre. The next step for us is to make some theatre. What we want to do is tell the stories of people locally, of young people growing up...We want to produce that theatre and we want to tour it from here to other places in the UK.'
• See tomorrow's paper for more on why The Garage is important to its community, and Monday's paper for The Garage's vision for the future.
• Visit www.thegarage.org.uk