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The Birth of Something New – Mildenhall

Things will never quite be the same again. At least, that’s what it genuinely feels like post-recovery from the intense Mildenhall Birthday Party week which just finished on Saturday, 9 July. Check out photos by Libby Appleyard here.

The Birthday week was the result in real terms for me of over a year and a half of involvement, dating right back to when I was attending Market Place Consortium meetings at the end of 2014 during my local government internship. It’s really special and kind of affirming to see the outcome after all this time for my hometown be a big success. Generally, the Mildenhall Birthday Party went incredibly well! You can see and hear the impact from the photographs and the feedback but I also felt it in the relaxed Summer bliss of our Saturday Arts Trail. I’ve felt that in other places but never before in Mildenhall. We’ve started something.

Photography: Alex McElroy

The Mildenhall Birthday Party ran from Saturday 2nd July to Saturday 9th July and included an Arts Trail of music, storytelling, craft and poetry, a Sunday Crafternoon, Yarnbombing and Singer’s Circle, interactive workshop sessions during the week with local community groups, and a final super celebration on the last day to top it all off. Robin Grey and Rose Croft joined us as artists-in-residence while others visited for special occasions. The following are my personal conclusions from a cracking 8 days.

What Really Engaged Audiences?

Thursday Yarnbomb JPG - Copy

We’ve learned that in particular craft in combination with visual arts really goes down well here. During our yarnbombing sessions throughout the week Rose and I struggled at times to even get anything done with the sheer volume of people wondering what we were all about, or sitting down to make pompoms with Rose, or asking us ‘Why?’, and this process actually emerged as one of the best methods we can employ for marketing our events. Next year if we take craft to the next level (which I am almost certain we will), it would be mad not to do our serious yarnbombing before the events even begin to get flyers out and start conversations with local people who are really interested. Audiences enjoyed taking part in such simple crafts and this opened them up to much more, which they might otherwise have been closed off to – craft broke the ice, if you will.

Music events were dependent on setting and format. Robin’s Ukulele lessons during the Arts Trail were quite popular,  a few people stopped in the street to listen to Adam Beattie’s stunning Scottish folk band. The back garden Barleycorn accordioning also brought many people in, who also stayed for the cakes and teas.

Puppetry and circus also fascinated our audience, with the former unveiling a blossoming community of puppeteers in Mildenhall during the week. The local puppeteers were thrilled to meet Ronnie Le Drew at the final big party, and were very appealing to families (who made up the bulk of our audiences), particularly when enabling them to take part by picking up and showing puppets to their children/parents/siblings. I noticed at the Arts Trail that our juggler was particularly fascinating to participants (it can be seen in the photos). The miniature spectacles created by circus artists can draw together large crowds, which may boost future arts trails on busy streets.

Photography: Alex McElroy

Finally, Robin brought with him an emphasis on pure ‘fun’ which really did work, particularly with younger people who as far as I could see absolutely loved their time at our events (especially the final Birthday Party). Throwing pompoms, burying people with pompoms, pompom rounders, destroying pompoms, dancing with pompoms – it was all done. And it was powerful engagement.

How was the Turnout?

Glorious sunshine for the Arts Trail meant families out in force, and I was stunned to see just how many were walking around with maps in hand. At the face painting booth we ran over by an hour, it was so popular. Despite the incentive of taking part in the trail really being geared towards children (with collected coins earning a free, incredible face painting) many older people were also doing it!

Facepainted Children

The Sunday Crafternoon saw 26 people of different ages turning up to do crafts and make pom poms.

Our final big Birthday Party itself, the ‘grand finale’, was well attended. I was also overjoyed to see some faces not only from the beginning of the week, but even back from The Lost Story at Mildenhall Library in June! This absolutely proves Market Place are providing high quality art, a key aim of the project.

Robin Grey and Audience

We definitely appealed to families and children with the week as they dominated every event; our ambition moving forward should be to be branch out to other audiences if we can, particularly teenagers and younger adults.

So what’s next…?

Great question. Thankfully it’s one many have been asking after taking part in Market Place’s Mildenhall events. The short-term answer is the FREE Mildenhall Community Showcase on Sat 17 September 11:00 – 14:00 featuring professional storytellers funded by Market Place, but the long-term one requires some careful thought and evaluation. We’ll discuss much more as a Forum in the weeks ahead, but so far I would say the following:

Top Timers and Rose

Robin and Rose’s workshop sessions with local community groups were very well received. All seemed to love taking part and contributing in their own (comfortable) environments, and really enjoyed working with such upbeat artists. Some very special and dedicated volunteers emerged from the Birthday week that I think we can rely on to help make next year an even bigger success, which really shows there is an appetite to ‘join in’.

Another positive was that our venues exceeded expectations and proved adaptive, supportive and well-equipped. A lack of good Mildenhall venues was identified as a problem in early planning but the Library, Social Club and Jubilee Centre showed all of us just what they can do. Businesses and organisations across Mildenhall were almost universally supportive of Mildenhall Birthday Party (astonishing for a brand new project).

Personally my favourite event was the Arts Trail (it always was going to be), but I would love to see this expand and branch out further. The atmosphere in Barleycorn’s garden during the Arts Trail with Garance Louis and local melodeonist Edward Stokes playing to full tables was beautiful and is strong evidence that gardens can transform into magical performance spaces. My dream to see Open Gardens and art forms coming together in Mildenhall feels one step closer. It was certainly a breath of fresh air to see areas other than the Jubilee Fields used for events, and long may it continue.

This project proved to me that we must hold on our ambitions and keep aiming exceptionally high, because we now know that we’re on to something.

Luke, Mildenhall Creative Forum