Me, Arvon & Claudia Jones

When I heard about the Arvon ‘Writing for Performance with Communities’ retreat in pre-lockdown February, I was so excited. It sounded like just what I was looking for – new ways to develop as a writer and performer, but also as a practitioner and facilitator of others.

Typically, deep down worries got the better of me – is this for me? Will I be able to go? But I quelled them down and hushed their whispers – feel the fear and do it anyway right? Then, lo and behold, after submitting my application I received confirmation that I had a place!  I was lucky enough to receive a partial bursary from Hive and Arvon in support of emerging writers who aren’t often able to financially afford incredible opportunities like this one.

I’m passionate about making changes in the arts, and that more people are able to access opportunities. This led me to set up Nyara School of Arts in 2018, a project aimed at creatively supporting young people from African Diaspora backgrounds. For some time, I’ve been particularly interested in fusing different forms or art, language and theatre. This looked like a course that was really going to inspire me.

I’m passionate about making changes in the arts, and that more people are able to access opportunities. This led me to set up Nyara School of Arts in 2018, a project aimed at creatively supporting young people from African Diaspora backgrounds.

A cocktail of emotions ensued but there I was at the train station a few weeks later waiting for my train. Many questions invaded my mind so I plugged in Leon Bridges (Texas Sun) to quieten the noise. As time passed, small villages and towns introduced themselves and I felt the descent of a relaxed way of life welcoming me with open arms.

After leaving the train station I noticed a woman in the distance who spoke to my spirit and I felt that she was coming to the retreat too (but we’ll leave that till later). I took the local bus towards my destination. Old cobblestones lined the streets of Heptonstall and the closeness of each building made me feel I had travelled back in time.

Then, I landed at the top of a narrow, winding lane that led me down to a farmhouse neatly tucked away – Lumb Bank. Here I was warmly greeted by a group of lovely women who had travelled from various places, as far-flung as Australia, to embark on this journey together. We introduced ourselves, exchanged stories and anxious laughter and I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable I felt.

Then, I landed at the top of a narrow, winding lane that led me down to a farmhouse neatly tucked away – Lumb Bank. Here I was warmly greeted by a group of lovely women who had travelled from various places, as far-flung as Australia, to embark on this journey together.

We were welcomed and briefed with the formalities by a lovely house-keeper, and later met our incredible tutors for the week, Francesca Beard and Sara Clifford, at dinner. We were responsible for cooking lunch and dinner throughout the week which happened to be very delicious I must add – six wonderful vegetarian meals accompanied by wine, games and a lot of laughter. Being an autistic woman – I’m not a big fan of group scenarios, nor do I always work well in groups, but I came to learn so I threw caution to the wind and got stuck in.

Throughout the week we learned about community performance, what community meant, site-specific work and writing in response to the environment we were in. We began most days with the lovely Francesca Beard setting and grounding us into the space creating an open and safe atmosphere. We did many group exercises and drama games which were shared with the knowledge that we would try them in our own practice.

Throughout the week we learned about community performance, what community meant, site-specific work and writing in response to the environment we were in. We began most days with the lovely Francesca Beard setting and grounding us into the space creating an open and safe atmosphere.

As each day passed by, the bonds grew stronger, tears were shed, conversations flowed and discussions of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes strolling the hallways in the late 60’s made for hot debate. There was a quiet permissiveness about Lumb Bank. The many literary companions that lined the shelves, the intimacy of Calderdale’s hills and valleys surrounding the house. The persistent rain that conveniently kept us inside in our cosy rooms, all made it much easier to feel at ease. And, I was picking up many wonderful tools that involved song, mindfulness and improvisation. At the heart of it all was community.

Although I didn’t write much, the retreat gave me permission to think deeply about Nyara and how best I could move forward in my own practice. Most importantly it helped me to feel confident as a facilitator. The one-to-ones with our tutors certainly boosted my confidence in my own projects, and we spent the last day preparing five-minute scratch pieces which were a lovely communal way to end the retreat.

Although I didn’t write much, the retreat gave me permission to think deeply about Nyara and how best I could move forward in my own practice. Most importantly it helped me to feel confident as a facilitator.

Meeting Claudia Jones
You remember that woman that spoke to my spirit? Well, her name is Joyce Fraser and the tingle of my spidey senses were right, she was also heading to the retreat! On the Friday afternoon she approached me asking if I’d like to perform a piece that she had written, a story exploring the early life of Claudia Jones, the Mother of the first Caribbean Carnival in the UK (the prelude to Notting Hill). As a child, she had journeyed from post-war Trinidad in 1924 with her family to Harlem, New York, in pursuit of a better life. Having moved from Jamaica as a child, I immediately resonated with this beautiful story she had written and agreed to play the role of Claudia along with two other stories written by two brilliant actresses.

Later that final evening, we were transported to a school hall, the garden of a mother, a Caribbean carnival, a ship on its way to New York and other wonderful stories written by the women in our group. There was a lingering feeling of sadness and overwhelm roaming the air with the quiet awareness of evolving and connection.

Later that final evening, we were transported to a school hall, the garden of a mother, a Caribbean carnival, a ship on its way to New York and other wonderful stories written by the women in our group. There was a lingering feeling of sadness and overwhelm roaming the air with the quiet awareness of evolving and connection.

The biggest lesson that I came away with was the power of women and community. That when we gather, no matter the age, background, race or ethnicity we are powerful together. This has reinforced my faith in togetherness, what it meant and what it could mean, but most of all the importance of cultivating that family of people that hold the same values, visions and principles. Before I knew it, I was stripping the bed sheets and saying my goodbyes to the place that had been my home, and community, for the week.

In May I got a call from Joyce asking me if I wanted to play the part of Claudia Jones as part of Wandsworth Arts Fringe Festival, and without hesitation, I agreed. We had the direction of the brilliant Moji Elufowoju – Artistic Director and founder of Utopia Theatre who helped us unearth the story. For first timers, this was no easy feat, but with less than two weeks to rehearse, and an unceasing determination to see it to the end, I was committed when it came showtime on Saturday 23rd of May. Rehearsals in the morning and afternoon, research, daily Zoom meetings, and an intense learning and rehearsing process (in light of Covid-19) taught us resilience in the face of the unknown, and adaptability to whatever came our way.

Rehearsals in the morning and afternoon, research, daily Zoom meetings, and an intense learning and rehearsing process (in light of Covid-19) taught us resilience in the face of the unknown, and adaptability to whatever came our way.

Through ‘The story of Claudia Jones’, I learnt so much about myself that I hadn’t known before. I learnt the beauty and importance of working as a team, being committed to a vision, and the importance of honing one’s craft. I learned that it takes dogged determination and love to get to the intricacies of an artform such as acting and I commend every actor that immerses themselves into a story and in front of an audience.

I learned that it takes dogged determination and love to get to the intricacies of an artform such as acting and I commend every actor that immerses themselves into a story and in front of an audience.

Joyce plans for the play to be developed into a full production which will be taken on tour through the Black Heroes Foundation – the organisation Joyce Fraser founded. You can find more about the brilliant work Joyce does in London and around the UK to promote and develop cultural awareness of our Black heroes on www.blackheroesfoundation.org, and you can also tune into the production here.

The tools and pool of knowledge I have taken away from both the Arvon retreat and the production have been immense, and I will continue to pursue training opportunities in acting and develop my leadership skills in the Black arts world. In closing, I will leave you with this that Vicky told me at Hive. I believe it could be true; “Don’t be afraid to dream and to take the opportunities that are there because sometimes they only come once.”

Danae Wellington

Danae Wellington is a Jamaican-British writer, poet and advocate for healing through the creative arts, specifically through the fusion of poetry, storytelling, music and theatre. She’s been published in several anthologies including Halfway Smile and Surfing the Twilight (Hive 2018/2019) and has performed at places like the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival and Sheaf Poetry Festival. She won first prize in the 20-25 category of Hive Poetry Competition 2019. In 2018 she set up Nyara School of Arts a project aimed at creatively supporting young people from African Diaspora backgrounds. For more info: @MamasKitchen31@Nyaraartssheff

(Main photo of DW courtesy of Warren Draper)