Tag Archive for: City Bridge Trust

During our lock-in weekend, I pulled Simon Startin into a virtual Zoom room and asked him: “You know that assumed modern-day-normal-world that a lot of plays take place in? At what point does COVID permeate that ‘normal’ world in a play that’s definitely not about COVID?”

It’s an interesting time to learn to be a writer.

Coming from a musical theatre background and working heavily as a dancer and a puppeteer in my early career, I didn’t ever really see myself making my own work. I like the reassurance of being told where to stand and what to do. But as I got older, those very narrow boxes became suffocating and I have started to explore the possibilities that writing brings. I regularly gig as my cabaret character Cava Charley, which also involves choreographing and rhinestone-ing(!!!), as well as continuing to work as a voiceover artist. I have been lucky enough to tour with Le Gateau Chocolat’s show DUCKIE recently, taking me back to my musical theatre roots while honouring my non-binary and autistic identities – a healing and empowering experience. To be honest, I am most excited to pass my writing on to other actors and let them play with it. I am garnering a fresh appreciation for my own craft.

Wellspring presented an opportunity to show up as an autistic creative without having to unpack to everyone else what that actually means. That saves a lot of energy, and I’ve been able to focus on the buffet of tools and tricks they provided to get us writing in a way that best served our needs and the areas we wanted to work on. I imagine I will continue to refer back to my notebook for years to come. As for To COVID or Not To COVID – I went with the chaotic tail end of 2019, when we were all so busy being busy we somehow didn’t see anyone or do anything.

I am blessed with two incredible working class Nanas. One was orphaned in the blitz over East London and sent to live with an aunt, the other took shelter from bombs in the Griffin Brewery, and remembers being amazed by post-war Chiswick lit up in the evenings. I wanted to take the adult grandchild / loving grandparent relationship and test it in the rocky waters of modern life – through the rapid, intertwining shifts both in technology and attitudes to trauma, mental illness, and queer identity. Most importantly, I wanted to bring that voice of grandmother to the stage – nanny who put up with a lot of rubbish, Nana who somehow made it work, Nan who is the only person rooting the a family tree that keeps taking swipes at each other. Nana who, befitting the expectations of women at the time, retained her good humour and in her later years strays in to mischief – and that musical, grounding, rumbling voice of home. I hope I do it justice.

Paula Brett, Wellspring Writer 2021 – 2022


Paula is an actor, writer and theatre maker. Their experience spans classical, contemporary and family work, including as a principal puppeteer on In the Night Garden Live and with Illyria Theatre’s production of The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle. They make independent work about mental illness, queer identity and neurodivergence. They can also be heard delivering traffic reports for radio stations across the UK.

Wellspring is Vital Xposure’s professional development programme for London-based disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent playwrights and script writers, funded by City Bridge Trust and delivered in partnership with Paines PloughBush theatreTheatre 503 and Hampstead Theatre

When I began my career as a young actor with autism, I was – without knowing it – shy, scared and ashamed. Not of who I am, but how I am.

My experiences navigating the shape of the industry, the advice of people higher up, and the opinions of those I deemed to know better all left me with a lingering impression: to even have a shot at fitting within that shape, I had to change everything about myself. I felt my neuro-divergence as something I needed to conceal in my professional life, bury from public view and, worst of all, hide from myself.

But then I tried something else.

Writing about growing up with autism helped me be more honest with myself, positive about who I am, and when I performed my first play, the floodgates blasted open. I discovered a new landscape; an exciting movement where d/Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists were expressing themselves and receiving platforms they previously hadn’t had.

Last year I attended the launch of Jack Thorne’s ‘Underlying Health Condition’ campaign. Its drive to create more accessibility and opportunity for disabled people in television was beyond inspiring. My hope is that its ripples will also exact real change in theatre; not just with more disabled narratives or representation, but championing disabled artists to tell whatever stories they want.

The potential for change was riveting, but partaking in Wellspring galvanised me even further.

From the start, it was such a welcoming, supportive, and creatively enriching environment. I learned lots, from tutors and fellow participants alike, about idea generating, structure, disability theory and more. I’m grateful for every gathering, and for me the highlight was the weekend writing Lock-in. With Simon Startin’s mentorship, having the designated time to build the world of my piece was exhilarating.

The play I’m developing explores the relationship between class and having children. It follows a couple with differing class backgrounds who, after being outed at their engagement party that they want a childfree marriage, are tested on everything they value by their families…cue the juicy tension! I’m also currently on the BBC Doctors Scheme, reworking my play Turnip (a sci-fi rom-com), and soon filming a sitcom set in a cult!

I know what it’s like to be daunted about professional development: but for anyone searching for non-stressful ways about it, I can promise you they exist. Firstly, there’s writing workshops: Wildcard Theatre and DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community) have great accessible programmes with amazing people at low/no cost. You can approach theatres or companies whose aims and work you admire, and see if they have schemes you can join (most people tend to be nice by the way). And lastly, I’d recommend checking the BBC Writersroom website and the DANC newsletter. Both list great opportunities…including this one!

I’m incredibly thankful to Vital Xposure for this whole experience. It’s given me more confidence in my abilities, lots of tools, empowerment as a writer, and I’m looking forward to what the future holds!

Robbie Curran, Wellspring Writer 2021 – 2022


Robbie is an actor and writer from Walthamstow. After training at the Oxford School of Drama, he has worked in Shakespeare, new writing and TV, performing his writing debut ‘Thomas’ at VAULT Festival 2019. He has also partaken in Soho Theatre Writers Lab and BBC Writersroom’s Writers Access Group.

Wellspring is Vital Xposure’s professional development programme for London-based disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent playwrights and script writers, funded by City Bridge Trust and delivered in partnership with Paines PloughBush theatreTheatre 503 and Hampstead Theatre

I’m a queer neurodiverse woman of colour writing stories from but not always about this perspective, for theatre and TV. I’m interested in telling stories in new ways and dramatizing seemingly complex, but actually simple, philosophical ideas.

At times, having ADHD can feel like a super power, I charge into hyper focus mode and get sucked into writing, cooking, skating, but most of the time it’s extremely tiring and spend most of my time find fixing mistakes I’ve made due to it. I was drawn to Wellspring because of its focus on working with D/deaf and/or Neurodivergent playwrights and writers, I was craving being in an environment that was aware of the importance of access where I felt like I could be myself and explore what was possible in such environment.

The highlight of Wellspring has been meeting other artists who have encountered similar blocks in the industry to me. Sharing experiences made me feel seen and validated and ultimately gave me the confidence to state my access needs in new situations. The tutors have been so generous with their knowledge and support, it’s felt like a realty safe space for growth, and learning through exploration. I’ve always felt like I’d needed to ‘fit in’ to an environment, for example, in meetings and rehearsal rooms, I’ve not felt able to get up and walk around for fear of it being inappropriate. Wellspring has taught me to honour my needs, and has given me to confidence not to fit in, but to assert myself. Since I’ve been doing this, my wellbeing and working relationships have improved, there is a greater sense of connection and ease, meaning creating work, in a safe space where everyone feels comfortable, feels radically expansive and authentic.

My advice for playwrights looking for professional development support is to know that you don’t need to change yourself to fit in to any structure, you’re allowed to make up the rules and talk about what you need. The more we advocate for ourselves, the more people will listen.

I’m currently making the leap over to TV writing, working on an original pilot as part of the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, it’s a huge learning experience as the process if very different to playwriting. I’m working with two wonderful script editors who know my needs and how I like to work, I cannot stress enough how wonderful people are when you’re brave enough to share your authentic self!

Nicole Latchana, Wellspring Writer 2021 – 2022


Nicole is a queer, neurodiverse, Indo-Guyanese playwright from London. Her plays have won competitions and have been on at several theatres including The Arcola, The Bunker and Southwark Playhouse. She wrote her latest play OCO-2, a dystopia about the climate crisis, on the Royal Court writer’s group

Wellspring is Vital Xposure’s professional development programme for London-based disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent playwrights and script writers, funded by City Bridge Trust and delivered in partnership with Paines PloughBush theatreTheatre 503 and Hampstead Theatre

Hello, my name is Fatima and I own two ring lights.

I was named after my two grandmothers, both called Fatima. They had the most extraordinary Amazigh (Berber) tattoos on their faces. The ancient Berber tradition of facial tattooing of women was a mark of cultural identity, womanhood and beauty, but is fast dying out in today’s Morocco. Fast forward to me…Fatima generation 2022… to be honest, I sometimes spend more time at my vanity desk with my ring lights obsessing over skincare than I do at my writing desk.

That said, I love plays, I could read plays for days on days, talk about plays for days on days and watch plays for days on days.

I wanted to join Wellspring so I could be with a group of people who also wanted to talk about theatre. And write plays for days on days and more importantly, to be encouraged to spend more time at my writing desk.

The biggest highlight of the programme for me has been my mentorship with Paines Plough. I was already a huge fan of some of the writers they had worked with in the past. I watched I Wanna Be Yours at the Bush Theatre in 2019 and was so excited and in love with Zia Ahmed’s writing. I recently finished reading Sabrina Mahfouz’s 2018 play, With a Little Bit of Luck, and feel so inspired and energised by her work. I was over the moon to be paired with Paines Plough. Dream. Come. True.

My three top tips to playwrights looking for professional support, is read – read – read – plays. I have learnt so much from reading, I have been moved to the brink of tears and made to roar with laughter. Last year I read, You for Me For You, by Mia Chung, and learned so much about magical realism that I started to use it in my own work. My second tip is to watch plays when you can and watch different plays, not just ones you like. Finally, it’s not a race, there will always be another job, another submission rolling around, so you can take your shot as many times as you like!

My piece for Wellspring is inspired by my father’s and my late uncle’s time in Billy Smart’s Circus. It was a very big circus in the 60’s – a 6000 seater tent, the largest in Europe and for some years the largest touring tent show in the world.

Moroccans were always present in large numbers – always as tumbling artistes and often working in the stables and as “Ring Boys” – responsible for taking props in and out of the ring during shows. They were always there in the thick of it during build up’s and pull down’s. My play, Rock the Casbah, is a love story of twin brothers who become estranged. It explores themes of class, race and love.

When I’m not watching 12 Step Skincare Routines YouTube tutorials, I am an associate artist at Stockroom (formerly known as Out of Joint), training to be a Dramaturg. Stockroom is a Theatre Writers Room dedicated to script creation and a radical new approach to playwriting. I am part of a creative team on an exciting verbatim project with writer and actor Tonderai Munyevu. I am honoured to be a mentee of the legendary screenwriter and director of the Writers’ Guild Lisa Holdsworth. At the end of last year, I landed my first telly job in a writers’ room on a Netflix Show. I do believe these are very exciting times to be an emerging writer (with ring lights!).

Fatima Serghini, Wellspring Writer 2021 – 2022


Fatima is an emerging West London writer. She is interested in producing stories about human diversity and inviting audiences to see worlds not accessible to them. Her stories are funny, sexy, and direct.

Wellspring is Vital Xposure’s professional development programme for London-based disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent playwrights and script writers, funded by City Bridge Trust and delivered in partnership with Paines PloughBush theatreTheatre 503 and Hampstead Theatre

Firstly, let me get all the tick boxes out of the way. I am a neurodiverse woman from a regional working-class background who has never knowingly turned down a free bag of chips. (Okay, the last one doesn’t qualify for a diversity tick box but is, I feel, a pertinent insight into the nature of my character.) Oh, and I write plays.

It’s an exciting time for playwrights. I think theatre, once steeped in conservativism, has blossomed into something bolder in recent years, with a conscious desire to reflect a broader vision of the world. Let’s just hope this new verisimilitude continues to expand rather than contract under the weight of fashionable causes; as tempting as it is for theatre to follow the gravy train television is endlessly chasing, playwrights are the surrealists to TV’s impressionists and should be permitted to explore truths without succumbing to the pressure of commercial popularity. It is not a playwright’s job to focus on being new and exciting, the confines of a stage dictate story-worlds that are far more tonal.

I think this is where development programmes can be great for playwrights in that the right one can be instrumental in building a writer’s confidence and offering guidance whilst exploring complex themes. Personally, I would advise emerging playwrights to seek out development support with organisations that they feel reflect their values: not every writer’s attachment or development initiative is going to suit you so resist the urge to apply randomly or take up every offer; if the chemistry is wrong, it can be a less than positive experience, stripping the writer of that all-important courage to opine. As the Canadian playwright, Raymond Hill, once said:

‘He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.’

On that, note, Wellspring has been a very supportive experience for me. Now that the programme’s teaching element had ended and we have all been allocated our respective dramaturgical mentor, I am in the head-banging phase of assembling a two hander that explores the dark, but sadly universal subject of teenage suicide and its links to social media. As a mature writer, I must confess to finding the navigation of an adolescent worldview challenging, but that’s why artists create art, isn’t it, to push boundaries – other people’s and their own.

I joined Wellspring the hope that working with likeminded creatives, who had also faced challenges due to their differences, would permit me an authenticity that I had not previously felt free to express. I was not disappointed; the creative mentoring team have been wonderfully accepting and hugely generous with both their knowledge and with their care – I felt cared about throughout, which was just lovely. Either I got very lucky or (as I suspect) Simon Startin and his clever cohort picked my peers with a foresight that has meant the participants became a great team, with everyone showing a genuine interest in having each other’s backs. That has meant a lot to me and I look forward to watching my newfound friends grow and succeed.

Victoria Taylor Roberts, Wellspring Writer 2021 – 2022


Victoria is a  published writer who has created works for stage, screen and audio. Her stories focus on social issues told through a comedic lens. She is the winner of the EDALYA International Youth Theatre Playwright award (2019) and the Kenneth Branagh Drama Writing Award (2015).

Wellspring is Vital Xposure’s professional development programme for London-based disabled, d/Deaf and neurodivergent playwrights and script writers, funded by City Bridge Trust and delivered in partnership with Paines PloughBush theatreTheatre 503 and Hampstead Theatre

In autumn 2019  we undertook a research  and development period of White Pariahs, unearthing the hidden stories of white working class women who crossed the ‘colour line’, and fell in love with, or married Black men.  This was the beginning of an exciting collaboration with Dervish Productions that brought two innovative artists and theatre writers in the same room: Hassan Mahamdallie (Writer / Dervish’s Artistic Director) and Julie McNamara (Writer / Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director).

Following the R&D in 2019, Hassan and Julie continued to develop the work towards a new theatre production entitled White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels. They decided to call the protagonists of the real-life stories ‘quiet rebels’ because they found them to be both ordinary and extraordinary individuals, self-effacing and courageous at the same time.

As we entered one of the strangest period of recent times, a global pandemic in spring 2020, the team shifted to new, digital ways of working and sharing, with the support of renowned, Birmingham-based digital artist Mohammed Ali of Soul City Arts.

Navigating through online platforms of remote collaboration, the two writers brought the story forward to 2028, in a dystopian future where the glaring figure of Enoch Powell dominates, and Racial Purity Laws now control our communities. In part, Julie and Hassan wanted to show that history does not always go forward, sometimes it is thrown backwards, and our hard-won gains are erased. They also experimented with their own script writing, tackling the question how to translate the live theatre experience into online platforms, that have become the new, but so different, theatre stage during  the pandemic.

You can watch a short trailer of the Online R&D to get a flavour of the work produced (click play below):

Two online sharing events of the second phase of the ongoing Research and Development took place on Zoom in July and August 2020. The team used these events to test the story and ask questions about audience’s live engagement with the subject matter through online platforms. Thanks to the digital wizardry of Mohammed Ali, the creative team also pushed Zoom’s boundaries for creativity and the aesthetics of access within this work.

Below are a few screenshots from the online sharing:

We were amazed by the responses received by our critical friends and the insightful feedback towards future steps:

“That was the most powerful experience I have had on Zoom yet. Such creative use of the platform.”

“I’m so impressed with the experimentation with zoom and pushing its (desperately annoying) limits, and I’m also fascinated to see what you take from here into next format (post-Zoom?). I also was mostly grasped by the moments when I could really focus on the story and feel more emotionally connected.”

“I really like the futuristic thread you’re weaving into the story,  it allows past present and future to coexist in parallel. A strong reminder to the viewer that times change but the human condition often remains the same.”

“This kind of dystopian drama is frightening, as it’s not too distant from reality, or possibility.”

“I enjoyed the experimentation with the zoom format, both for its filmic qualities and its potential to comment on history and archiving.”

“I thought the way the read was tailored to Zoom (really engaging with the form, rather than ‘merely’ being on Zoom out of necessity) such a refreshing change from many other things I have seen recently.”

“I thought using the detective/narrator character as a form of integrated audio description in this setting was extremely inventive.”

“Wonderful textures, I was transported, ethereal but real point in time. The interplay of BSL positioning was too good. It felt dystopian! Yes!”

“So different to watch on this platform, chilling, confronting, well done!”

“Audio describing was on the point…well done”


Creative Team (Second R&D 2020)

Researchers / Writers / Directors: Hassan Mahamdallie and Julie McNamara

Digital Arts Director: Mohammed Ali, Soul City Arts

Actors / Researchers: Charlie FolorunshoDeni FrancisFiona Whitelaw

Actor / BSL Interpreter: Clare Edwards

Movement Consultant: Jeanefer Jean-Charles

Project Producer: Isobel Hawson

A creative partnership between Vital Xposure, Dervish Productions and Soul City Arts.

The second phase of Research and Development was supported by Arts Council England and City Bridge Trust.

White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels will be further developed towards a national tour in 2021 -2022.

For further information about the project  please send us a message using our online enquiry form. Alternatively, drop us an email, give us a call on 020 8123 9945 or send us a text (SMS / WhatsApp) on 074 3242 18253.

In autumn 2019  we undertook a research  and development period of White Pariahs, unearthing the hidden stories of white working class women who ‘crossed the colour line’, and fell in love with, or married Black men. The women risked hostility from wider society and often from those closest to them, to defy convention, cross the colour-line and marry men from the colonies. These ‘White Pariahs’ of the 50s, 60s and 70s demonstrated rebellion, defiance and courage in the face of racism and class and gender prejudice.

A new thrilling collaboration with Dervish Productions, that has brought together two creative forces to make this ground breaking work, Hassan Mahamdallie (Writer / Dervish’s Artistic Director) and Julie McNamara (Writer / Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director).


Hassan and Julie collected testimonies from mothers, partners, fathers, husbands, wives and children – all of whom have their own stories to tell.  They invited  3 superb actors with lived experience of dual heritage families to work with the team: Fiona Whitelaw, Charlie Folorunsho and Deni Francis.

The initial exploratory work took place at Brady Arts Centre and The Albany, where the team presented the work in progress before an audience of critical friends and peers.

Tender and moving stories emerged, telling of women, men and children of mixed relationships, who faced hostility from the wider society, often from those closest to them. Ostracised by their own communities, suffering abuse and battling discrimination, the stories showed their defiance and courage in the face of racism, class and gender prejudice. These moving stories revealed extraordinary survival and lasting, loving relationships.

Photos from the research period at Brady Arts Centre. Credit: Rehan Jamil


The sharing event at the end of the R&D was followed by a discussion session, with a vibrant room filled with people keen to respond to the questions raised in the piece.  We are grateful to everyone who joined us on the day, the Q&A could have lasted all evening!

“I love the way it is fluid and ambiguous in the script. I love the relevance of this piece. We need this work now! Great work in progress. Vital work.”

“Thought-provoking, poignant, inspiring. Love the richness of the stories against the bleakness of the wider political structures that prop up racism. Disheartening to realise we are moving into the same kind of racial politics again.”

“Great story-telling, would love to see more. So much history that speaks to today. It’s made me realise I need to stop being passive. Thank you.”

“Beautiful show – telling important stories really humanely. Interesting to talk more about white women entering BME communities.”

“Very powerful. Much needed. Good having both African-Caribbean and Asian mixed stories.”



Photos from the sharing event at The Albany Credit: Rehan Jamil


Creative Team (First R&D 2019)

Researchers / Writers / Directors: Hassan Mahamdallie and Julie McNamara

Assistant Director: Simon Startin

Designer: Khadija Raza

Project Producer: Isobel Hawson

Actors / Researchers: Charlie FolorunshoDeni FrancisFiona Whitelaw

Historical Consultant: Professor Hakim Adi

Movement Consultant: Jeanefer Jean-Charles

Photography: Rehan Jamil

Filming: Mohammed Ali

BSL Interpreter: Audrey Simmons

Photo of the Creative Team involved in the R&D (from left to right): Fiona Whitelaw, Hassan Mahamdallie, Charlie Folorunsho, Isobel Hawson, Khadija Raza, Simon Startin, Julie McNamara and Deni Francis.

White Pariahs R&D Creative team. Photo by Rehan Jamil

The Research and Development stage of the project was supported by Arts Council England , City Bridge Trust and The Albany.

The research will feed into our the next stage of development in 2020 and the future theatre production of White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels (touring nationally in 2021-22).

For further information about the project or to enquire about the tour in Autumn 2020 please send us a message using our online enquiry form. Alternatively, drop us an email, give us a call on 020 8123 9945 or send us a text on 074 3242 18253.

In summer 2019 we collaborated with poet, playwright and performer, Tanaka Mhishi on the development of his extraordinary new work, a visceral excavation of the impact of sexual assault on young men, entitled This is How it Happens.

The work aims to shine a light on the hidden everyday of the many different men living in the wake of sexual violence, as they navigate love, health, sex, work and fatherhood.

The creative development days at Chats Palace in late August culminated in an intimate sharing of four stories inspired by lived experiences, charting a journey from deep in the forests of trauma out to the clean air of hope, visibility and recovery. Tanaka presents the process below in his own words:

“I had the great pleasure this summer of partnering with Vital Xposure on a short R&D of This Is How it Happens, a semi-autobiographical show exploring men’s experiences of surviving sexual violence.

I began the first drafts of This Is How it Happens in late 2014, ten months after being sexually assaulted. Since then it has been waiting, quietly and patiently, for the right team; for a community which could support me as both an artist and a survivor. So many discussions around abuse and harm are happening in the light of #MeToo, but I knew that if I were going to pursue this project I would have to do it in the safest, most nourishing way- for both me and the audience.

Vital Xposure have been there every step of the way and I found myself constantly astounded by their patience and support. Putting together this stage of the project taught me a lot about my own capabilities and limits and I don’t mind admitting that I both over- and underestimated myself in certain roles. Julie McNamara and the rest of the Vital Xposure team handled all this with aplomb, whether it was coaching me through a pre-show mental health dip or helping out when I was quivering over spreadsheets.

We finished the three day development process with a small showing. It’s difficult to believe how uplifting it was to share difficult material like this with an audience, to find them willing to process and parse it, to hear the increasingly enthusiastic engagement in our Q&A afterwards. And I marvelled at how emotionally supported the performance itself was. It set a benchmark for the next steps.

I am so privileged to be have worked with a group capable of weaving passion and compassion together so seamlessly.

And as for the next steps? Watch this space.

Tanaka Mhishi”



We were thrilled to be involved in this process and it has been a privilege to work alongside Tanaka on this piece of work.

The intimate sharing event offered some touching responses from attendees which have positively fuelled us for the project’s future steps. We are sharing some of these responses below:

“Very powerful, intense piece! Well done!”

“It provided the insight of the inner world also how the trauma was played externally.”

“Becoming aware of the silence of this issue, the lack of narrative in media on this.”

“It was important to tell the impact beyond the assaults.”

R&D Creative Team

Writer / Performer / Lead Artist: Tanaka Mhishi

Director: Julie McNamara

Movement Consultant:  Imogen Butler-Cole

Photography: Copy to the Writer Photography


The Research and Development stage of the project was supported by Arts Council England and City Bridge Trust.

A little over a year ago a fire destroyed our storage unit and all its contents. Ten years of our work along with our replica of Pullen’s Giant puppet went up in flames. But like the Pheonix we’ve risen from the ashes to rebuild yet another magnificent puppet and continue the journey.

Following a creative development week in June 2018, Pullen’s Giant III hit the road for Surrey where he spent a long summer. He’s been happily ensconced at the beautiful Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village for the ‘James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius’ exhibition, where Pullen’s Giant came to life on 27th October as part of their Museums at Night programme. Audiences were thrilled and over 150 people of all ages were delighted to get up close and personal with our extraordinary giant puppet!

Watch a short video below showing Pullen animated. Many thanks to the amazing staff at Watts Gallery for this footage:

Thank you to Vital Xposure and Julie McNamara for animating Pullen’s Giant for us today as part of #MuseumsAtNight. We are open tonight until 8pm – #WattsLate – #Imaginarium.

Posted by Watts Gallery – Artists' Village on Saturday, 27 October 2018

The story of James Henry Pullen has stirred Vital Xposure’s hearts and minds. Pullen was a brilliantly skilled creative artist who spent close to 70 years at the Earlswood Asylum, positioned as an ‘idiot’ in an era when society did not accept people with learning disabilities. By building the replica of Pullen’s Giant, we paid homage to James Henry Pullen and attempted to give him a voice, marching across Stratford’s Olympic Park to the joyous screams for Freedom and Equality for all!

Pullen's Giant at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, June - October 2018. Photo of a man looking at the giant puppet, which is twice as tall, in the middle of the gallery room.

Pullen’s Giant at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, June – October 2018. Photo of a man looking at the giant puppet, which is twice as tall, standing proudly in the middle of the gallery room.

Read our Artistic Director’s, Julie McNamara, heart-warming words about Pullen:

“Of all the extraordinary objects I came across in the museum collections I investigated, I fell in love with Pullen’s Giant. He’s quite magnificent, ready for battle on behalf of Queen Victoria or taking on the asylum authorities of his day. I’d suggest he was ready for both. Never mind his splendid moustache, his uniform with Fez and sash, he is something else, with his marching arms in full swing, his flapping ears, his fully moving eyelids and a head that can swivel 360 degrees.

I felt we simply had to rebuild him. And that proved quite a feat as Pullen had designed that puppet so that he only he could operate it, or manipulate it, with a system of pullies, pedals and ropes. It took some doing to create our first replica. Puppet builder, Tony Mason was scratching his head looking at the intricately designed system inside. Pullen had created a track at the base of the neck with over a hundred ball bearings he had fashioned himself to enable the head to turn in a complete circle. The eyes had tiny tear ducts with string fed through to the lids to ensure full movement. Once we had created a replica as faithful as possible to Pullen’s original creation, we set out to cast a team of actors with learning disabilities to bring him to life. And what a joy that was to witness – an exuberant revival at Liberty Festival in Olympic Park in 2017″

Much has been written in the medical records available to us about Pullen’s mood swings, his eccentricities and his rages that interrupted the smooth running of asylum life. However, very little is documented of Pullen’s conversation, or of how he represented himself, other than a dismissive comment in the notes about his only intelligible word being ‘Muvver’ [Mother]. And yet we have the most poignant of evidence, almost eclipsed amongst the collection of carvings on display at Langdon Down Museum; Pullen’s short poem to his grandfather, once concealed in the mouth of an exquisitely carved moon (now on display as part of James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius here at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Vilage), one eye decorated with ebony and ivory, the other showing a detailed watercolour by Pullen of Earlswood asylum itself:

Oh this moon in cloudy smoky rain
See moon cry want grandfather
Shine the moon and keep cloud away
Bright the eye to see Earlswood Asylum
(Pullen, 1850. Langdon Down collection)

The poem offers us the only self-penned evidence of Pullen’s inner world and reveals quite a different person to the one represented in his medical records and archives collected from Earlswood Asylum.

Pullen was already creating intricate carvings in ivory when he entered asylum life. He was in the habit of selling his wares at the local taverns, where it seems he plied quite a trade. He might not have been a great scholar, but here was a man with huge imagination that far surpassed his tutors in the asylum.

We can only surmise what life was like inside Earlswood Asylum, with its strict protocols containing and controlling its 400 inhabitants. We do know that Pullen was allowed small freedoms in exchange for his extraordinary carvings. As an adult he was permitted to take his meals with the staff and was escorted on several occasions to a local tavern where ‘he became enamoured of a woman from the local town’ who worked as a barmaid. It is recorded that he requested permission to marry her. Any lunatics, idiots or feeble-minded people coming under the Idiocy and Mental Deficiency legislation of the time were prevented from marrying; so Pullen was of course refused permission. The staff procured an Admiral’s uniform to mollify Pullen, who was informed that Queen Victoria had intervened and requested his services at the head of her fleet, but that Admirals were not allowed to marry. He was offered the uniform if ‘he should forget his request to marry’. He wore the uniform almost daily for the remaining years of his life. There are no records of what became of the woman concerned.

This aspect of Pullen’s life seized the imaginations of our cast at Vital Xposure. We wondered together at the idea of choosing a shiny uniform instead of life outside the relative comforts of the place he had come to know as home. We wondered about how a life with a ‘wife’ might seem to someone who had run their own workshop for so long, albeit inside the walls of an asylum:

‘Maybe it was too much to get married?’ said Adam.
‘Yeah, because she’s used to running the bar. She might be expensive’, said Eden.
‘What if he had shiny buttons on his uniform and married the barmaid and then they ran off anyway?’ Eden thought.
‘What if she was just his friend and she wanted him to escape?’ Emma suggested.
‘What if he just breaks free and leads all the people outside, through the gates of the asylum?’ said Adam.

With the help of our cast we gradually built the story of Pullen’s break for freedom – which fit snugly into the Liberty Festival event in 2017 and on to the ensuing Hackney Carnival where his Giant took to the streets to celebrate. We were joined by crowds of bystanders lining Mare Street near Hackney Town Hall, where dancers from Access All Areas led a flash mob partying for all their worth ahead of a magnificent giant belching smoke and screaming for ‘Freedom!’ I rather think Pullen would have approved. It states in Pullen’s records that he thought of The Giant as his ‘guardian and protector’. Descriptions of Pullen’s activities suggest that he sought refuge inside his Giant, most notably on summer fete days when visitors were invited into the grounds to watch the lunatics make lively. He would climb inside the puppet through a door at the rear, have the nurses roll him out across the manicured lawns and roar at the gathering crowds through two horns or cornets he had fashioned, like early versions of a megaphone. Apparently he delighted in frightening the local children with the full 360 degree head swivel – it brings to mind my own terror of the most startling scene in the 1973 film, The Exorcist!.”

We would like to thank Emergency Exit Arts associate Tony Mason for building both of our beloved puppets in 2017 and 2018, Without Walls for their financial and creative support and City Bridge Trust for supporting this work.

There is more to read and watch about the first time our adored Pullen was liberated in 2017.  Simply click here.

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