At the start of 2023, we hit the ground running by forging ahead with the final stage of box listing our archive material and working with our project’s first Creative Associate, Reuben Esson-Parkes.
Our archivist Hope provides a summary of her work so far this year:
“The start of the year was a big push to get everything in place for our amazing Black & Gifted exhibition. One of the main tasks was getting all the stunning photos we wanted in the exhibition from our archive digitised. We outsourced this digitisation work to Max Communications, a company who have a history of digitising material for the Royal Archives, the National Theatre, the Royal Albert Hall, and the BBC among many others.
I went on a quick tour around their offices, the several rooms of high-quality cameras and scanners, as well as a dedicated conservation workshop - an impressive set-up!
Exhibition curator Reuben Esson-Parkes’ bold vision centred around expanding one A4-sized photo of Benjamin Zephaniah to a 2.4 x 1.6m copy, greeting patrons as they enter the atrium. A high-quality reproduction was absolutely crucial to pull this off. If you happened to walk into Riverside Studios when the exhibition was on, you would see that they absolutely delivered.
In March we reached an exciting milestone; with the help of our amazing team of volunteers we have finished box listing the four hundred or so boxes of material and several hundred posters we have in our archive. This means that we finally know a bit more about the wealth of material in our archive.
We can also start creating a detailed catalogue of our programmes, which date back to our first season in January of 1979. Work on this has started with the continued help of our brilliant volunteers.”
Our Creative Associate Reuben-Esson-Parkes explains his role with the heritage project:
“I was first made aware of the opportunity to become a Creative Associate in November 2022, to curate an exhibition of material from the Riverside Studios archive focusing on the venue’s black performance history.
The project was inspired by a conversation our project manager Daniel Thurman had with Benjamin Zephaniah in which Benjamin described Riverside Studios as a “home from home”.
As young black man, this project gave me the opportunity to explore a wealth of black performers, directors and writers who, from the late 1970s, were producing exciting, engaging and thought-provoking work at Riverside Studios.
I laid out my vision to Daniel Thurman and Rachel Tackley (Creative Director). Riverside Studios’ exhibitions have always used white walls as a base, but my goal was to paint the walls in the atrium black and have a large image displayed on the back wall that would immediately pull attention. The programme was to be participatory, informative and inspiring with the full aim to encourage creativity and highlight Riverside Studios as a creative hub.
I was shown the archive by Hope and worked for around three weeks unearthing material. There seemed to be a real sense of freedom and freedom of expression when companies like Talawa and the Black Theatre Co-op first started making work. Looking through the archive and seeing the joy and magic on the faces and in the eyes of some of these young black performers is something I found really compelling. Knowing that a lot of these actors have gone on to be so successful in their careers shows what places like Riverside Studios can be for young artists who are finding their voice.
I remember seeing icons like Norman Beaton and Benjamin Zephaniah on television as a kid. Whether through reruns of ‘Desmonds’ or interviews with Benjamin, the impact of these icons was huge and exploring their work at Riverside Studios is something that was personal for me.
The difficulty in selecting the images for the exhibition came from the fact that there were so many great photos to choose from and not enough space to display them. I made a decision to try to select photos that conveyed energy and really captured the creative process. I wanted people to view the images with excitement and intrigue.
Hope was able to get in contact with some of the photographers and I reached out to some of the individuals who feature in the images. The news about the exhibition was met with much excitement. One of the main things that people spoke about was how much of an important place Riverside Studios was to them.
Volunteers Seema, Elena and Yusra all came on board as volunteers for the project a few weeks in. Through working as a filmmaker in the past, I have always loved collaborating with others on creative projects and getting feedback and ideas from different minds, so it was great to have them on board.
During the process I still maintained my initial idea of painting the atrium black. I spoke with Rachel who gave great advice on the idea which prompted me to just paint the back wall to avoid losing the impact of the images as they were all black and white.
Other than photography, I also found posters and old programmes from shows over the last forty-five years. We agreed that the posters would be displayed in the Bar and kitchen and the old programmes in the plans chest.
With the help of our volunteers, I built a 3D model of the gallery space out of foam board, in order to play around with the composition of the images. This was very useful as it gave us an advantage to get a strong idea of what the space would look like. The contribution from the volunteers in helping with ideas was very helpful as they challenged a lot of ideas and made the process very thought provoking.
Deciding on image sizes and what to crop was difficult as the decisions would be final. This naturally brings mixed feelings of doubt, optimism and excitement. Looking back on the experience, I would have made the 3D model to scale as we planned for too many images than the walls would allow, meaning we had to improvise space for a few of the photos when hanging the exhibition.
The images and layout design were finalised two weeks before the exhibition and the images were sent off to be printed ten days before the launch. When we received the physical images for the exhibition there was a huge sense of relief and feelings of excitement. The quality of the images were so rich and immediately you could see the impact they were going to have once hung.
To be continued....