Back to The Future: Transit Sheds at Twenty
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
From the Millennium Dome to Barry Docks: the Millennial celebration event that left audiences stunned
‘I guess you aren’t ready for this yet, but your kids are going to love it!’.
Firstly, sometimes you can be just a little too early in terms of audience and taste. Or secondly you plain and simply get it wrong in terms of style and expectation. Or thirdly, its just rubbish or you're patronising. Transit Sheds was a bit of one and two and always reminded me of the scene from Back To The Future, where Marty blasts 1950s audiences with 80’s Van Halen guitar style. Too much, too soon, they are mystified and he retorts, ‘I guess you aren’t ready for this yet, but your kids are going to love it!’. Indeed.
It was twenty years ago this Summer, that jam-packed audiences and Civic Dignitaries, including the then Leader and Mayor of the Vale of Glamorgan Council and Barry Town Council, were amongst the audience that packed the newly developing Barry Dockside. They would witness an experimental, immersive multi-arts event, celebrating Barry Town’s history and the role women played in the development of the Barry Docks and the Millennium Year. Thrash metal, pre-COVID, eerily prescient lab masked and coated dancers, bald-headed drummers suspended from shipping containers and Tango dancing greeted the audience. An immersive walkthrough scaffolding poles and planks, under a sparkling mirror ball, led audiences along the dockside. The whole production was a first and one of the most unusual events that had ever been seen in Wales at the time.
Sometimes working in culture feels endlessly cyclical: place-based art; community-led culture; immersive multi-arts. These were all themes horrendously unfashionable twenty years ago, but now are central to lots of arts and cultural planning. But let me briefly rewind and explain how we got to this point. Back in 1999 I’d just joined Community Music Wales as a Director and was looking for funding for our work. Arts Council of Wales and National Lottery were offering grants to develop community-based celebration events for every county across Wales. Performances would take place at both the newly built Millennium Dome and within the respective county.
Barry & District News, May 1999
I hooked up with the lovely Tracey Harding, Arts Development Manager at the Vale of Glamorgan, pitching a project called ‘Women in the Dock’, a multi-arts project exploring gender and patriarchy in Barry (my hometown). Much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, we got the money to secure the development of the project, partly form the Vale of Glamorgan Council and the Big Lottery’s McDonalds ‘Our Town Story’. Drawing together participants and community artists from across South Wales, we began to assemble small working pieces to be showcased at the Millennium Dome in early 2000. Tracey and I visited the site in the summer of 1999 and it was still rather worryingly being assembled.
Tracey Harding and Simon, Millennium Dome, September 1999
We needed somebody to help pull the theatrical production together. Enter! Firenza Guidi, of Elan Wales (European Live Arts Network). Guidi, an award-winning, writer-director and performance creator, with an international reputation, had worked extensively across the globe. Originally from Milan Italy, Firenza has been working in Cardiff since 1987, now working with NoFitState Circus and of much later created Bianco. The brief for her was simple and I still have it as an email: Push the boundaries of community arts as far as possible, but never lose the community aspect. Create an immersive, conceptual piece of community art that is risky, unapologetic and lets people tell their stories about their community
We began rehearsals in Holm View Leisure Centre in Barry with around thirty community performers and half a dozen semi-professionals, that Firenza brought in from ELAN. The show’s name was changed to Transit Sheds to reflect the history of Barry Docks and the massive influx of population in the 1880s and the physical fast disappearing architecture of the docks and peoples stories. The event promotional artwork showed a stylised contemporary aerial view of No1 Dock. As producers, Tracey and I liaised with Associated British Port (ABP) and were able to see their twenty-year plan for the redevelopment of the docks, with planned flats, schools and retail. Strange to see the dock as was erased as their plan has been implemented over the last twenty years.
After a month rehearsal, the show took place on Bank Holiday Monday. The main production took place on the new dockside walkway and one of the old coal hoist platforms, pushing into the actual dock and framed in the background by Barry Island itself, the now gone huge metal containers ringing the island. The show started at 7 pm. The audience came from all parts of the community, families, teenagers, middle-class arts fans and dignitaries.
For some reason, I’ve now forgotten, I’d decided that the fast assembling crowds would love to listen to Julian Cope’s lost great Acid House album, Everybody Wants to Shag the Teardrop Explodes on loop, eventually finishing up with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Those of you unfamiliar with either recording, let’s just say experimental and difficult don’t do them justice. The tension was rising in the crowd and the weather was perfect
The show was an artistic triumph. Kicking off with lab-coated dancers backed by a thrash metal band from Blackwood, the community participants and others blended seamlessly created beautiful and expressive artwork.
An immersive walkthrough led crowds from vignette to vignette, detailing the history and movement of populations and dreams in the town. Improvised theatre and traditional dance interweaved to stunning effect.
As the sunset, dancers, choreographed by Tracey, rhythmically struck old plastic blue chemical containers and climbed metal cabins to beat out drum rhythms, all backed by the music I’d written and recorded especially for the event. The upcycled costumes, (the early days for reuse and recycle) were bought from charity shops and redesigned to create a stunning and quirky look, presenting the performers in an array of colour. The finale was breath-taking and beautiful. The production was seamless and daring and the execution of the show fabulous. The performers and crew were ecstatic, but it's fair to say it didn't work for everyone in the audience. Talking to people later, I learnt expectations from some people were for something along the lines of a pleasant, mainstream, family-friendly concert, with some funny circus bits. Fair enough but that wasn't this.
Transit Sheds was a unique and ground-breaking production at the time. Over the last twenty years, many elements of our collective approach have moved into the mainstream and placed based community-led art that pushes boundaries is now embraced considerably more. Obviously, other people were doing equally as challenging stuff at the time and before, but I’m extremely proud of pulling off this show and with hindsight wouldn’t change a thing. It combined community voice with edgy art, which is what we'd always wanted for the event. We wanted to show that community arts could have scope and vision and be daring. It was also very much a community team event that everyone pulled together on. My special thanks to Tracey.
Our production went on to show at the Millennium Dome. After an overnight stay for the actors and community performers and presented the piece three times in one day to full audiences. The technical staff said, “it was the best community show they had seen on the McDonalds Our Town stage and the most well attended”. It was a fantastic experience for all involved and a great success. At the Dome, we were presented with a commemorative award from Our Town Story and the Millennium Dome. Twenty years on, some of us are still in touch with participants who have gone on to train and follow professional careers in the performing arts. Which is nice
Showing my daughter pictures of the event during lockdown she loved it and asked why people don’t do more stuff like it (she’s in the front, final pic after the event below). I guess Marty McFly was right and our kids really did come to love it! Bastante!