You, Me & Everyone in Portsmouth

If you headed to Guildhall Square over the weekend you may have noticed the Guildhall looking rather more illuminated than normal. Friday and Saturday evening saw the culmination of You, Me & Everyone in Portsmouth, a project led by the creative folk at ReAuthoring, which asked local people to submit their stories and memories of Portsmouth. Over 1,000 stories were gathered, including two from author Neil Gaiman, who grew up in Southsea.

We asked the producers of the project, Samantha Holdsworth and Greg Klerkx, where the idea came from and just what it involved.

How did the idea for the project come about?

SAM: The main rationale for ReAuthoring is finding new and exciting ways for writers to share their work with the public and in the past we have developed work with writers that has been shared through sound installations, performances, site-specific work, in festivals, parks and even on a 40-metre ship.  

We are used to working in unconventional ways, however, for You, Me & Everyone in Portsmouth we really wanted to explore scale. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we engage as many people as possible in the creative process and the final event?’. We really wanted to push our own understanding and knowledge of the work we create and so the initial idea was born. We then thought who would be crazy enough to help us do this… and then we remember the brilliant workshop we ran in Portsmouth…

GREG: ReAuthoring ran a workshop with some local writers in 2012, and everyone liked it so much – including us – that we immediately thought about doing something bigger. We loved the Guildhall and felt that it would be a great canvas to tell the stories of people in the community… you know, their building, their stories. Fortunately, both Arts Council England and Portsmouth Council agreed. This wouldn’t have been possible without their core funding, so all credit and thanks to them for supporting it.

To your knowledge, have there been any other projects of this kind in the past? 

GREG: As far as we know, You, Me & Everyone in Portsmouth is the largest crowd-sourced community story project ever undertaken, certainly in the UK and possibly anywhere. We did a web search and also queried Arts Council England, and couldn’t find anything to contradict this. In the end, we gathered more than 1,100 stories in one form or another. 

In terms of architectural projection mapping – the method we used to light up the Guildhall – there have been a few projections that show poetry and stories, but none that have focused on stories told by everyday people. That’s unique. Also, most projection mapping tends to be on very flat, featureless buildings. It’s easier to do, like a standard projection screen. The Guildhall is anything but featureless, so it was a real challenge for our projection team to make it work. They did an amazing job.

SAM: For us, You, Me & Everyone represents an amazing collaboration between the people of Portsmouth, digital art and writers sharing their craft. As Greg mentions, we are not aware of any other project that shares the same scale and reach as this.  

Another layer of complexity which we are very proud of is the ‘liveness’ of the event. Our digital artist, Anthony Head, could have created the final projection on his computer and projected this onto the Guildhall and it would have been the same each night, however, we thought creating a live event would be much more interesting.   

With this in mind, Anthony, created different animations that were controlled from the projection booth live on the night. It was up to him when he wanted to phase different stories and effects in and out. This meant each night a new and unique artwork was created. This isn’t a new idea but combine it with the literary component of the project, the extensive outreach activities we developed and the strong social media focus and you have a very rich and intricate process unlike any I know of.

What do you feel are the benefits of involving the local community in creative projects of this nature?

GREG: ‘Literature’ can be a very loaded word for many people, even off-putting. But literature is about stories, and stories come from the people, places and situations that are all around us. We wanted people from all walks of life in Portsmouth to feel this for themselves; to understand that stuff of their lives, and the stuff of the lives around them, are what makes up the stuff of literature. By then splashing these stories onto one of the city’s most iconic buildings, we hoped this would be a way of saying, ‘This place, this time… it’s yours’. We hope we succeeded.

SAM: People connect with other people through stories. Our project was a way of promoting this idea and inviting each and every participant to have their voices shared and celebrated. We didn’t want to create something that was ‘done’ to the people of Portsmouth or that they had no control over or say in how it was made. We wanted to create something WITH the community that participants could feel ownership over. We hope people feel the project is as much theirs as it is ours, after all it is their voices, stories, hopes and fears that have helped to create the spectacular final event.   

With all the stories to gather and the task of projecting the final work on the Guildhall, this must have been a huge project. How many people were involved?

GREG: In total, 16 people worked full or part time on this project in various capacities, including four core writers, a three-person digital art and projection team, and three people involved in outreach and promotion. All of the writers were from the Portsmouth area and our outreach team worked through New Theatre Royal, which was a great partner on the project, as were the Portsmouth Cultural Trust, the Events Team at Portsmouth City Council, and Team Locals. We couldn’t have done the project without them.

Will the stories be available for members of the public to read after the event this evening?  

GREG: Many of the original stories submitted are on the project Facebook page or website, and we are considering how best to make everything else available online. Stay tuned!

SAM: We have been overwhelmed by the quality of stories and how funny they are. It seems the people of Portsmouth have a brilliant sense of humour. I’d definitely recommend checking out these pages if you get a chance.

As it’s the people who really make a project like this work, and you are two of the people involved, it would be great to hear a little bit about your involvement and passion for writing and the arts.    

GREG: Along with being a producer I’m an author and journalist, so writing is in my bones. For me there’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone really discover a story or a piece of writing. It’s like a whole new world materialises, even a new way of seeing. We started ReAuthoring to help both writers and audiences discover new ways to connect with that kind of magic, and this project is certainly the highlight of our work to date.

SAM: I have spent my career working with communities through arts based projects as a theatre maker, director and producer. I have been lucky enough to do this all over the world and can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been doing this for around 15 years and am still moved by the willingness and generosity of communities that share their histories, stories and soul with me. It’s an absolute privilege and not one I take for granted.


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