Start Thurrock: The People Speak Build Citizen Engagement with the Future of Arts and Culture in the Area

Since the beginning of year, we have been making our way into the heart of communities across Thurrock to engage local citizens in shaping the direction of cultural activities in the area. From January to May 2024, we popped up in Thurrock to host several Talkaoke sessions and get familiar with local attitudes, aspirations and anxieties. Together we explored what a shared process of cultural decision-making can look like and presented locals with the results of our collective creative brainstorming.

“It’s absolutely central to our work that Start Thurrock’s creative and cultural offer is shaped by residents. Working with The People Speak really helped us reach into communities and genuinely listen to what is important to local people and what creative projects they want for their area. Talkaoke is a really effective and inclusive way for creative ideas to be shared and expressed, giving Start Thurrock rich insights and understanding to act on” – Roxie Curry, Start Thurrock who commissioned the project.

We kicked off our series of Talkaoke sessions at the Chadwell St Mary’s Village Hall. The event saw attendees from neighbouring towns including Chadwell St Mary, Grays, and Stanford-le-Hope. We heard from citizens, young and old and as with all our Talkaoke sessions, the topics were chosen by the participants and ranged from local history to what a future sculptural monument in Thurrock might look like. There to capture the essence of our conversations was our talented visualiser Christopher Gerhardt.

Queen Victoria as Queen Spice? We were trying to answer the question 
who is doing more for the UK - the royals or the Spice Girls.

Crochet for friendship! Participants were up for getting involved in 
activities all year round to build towards NozFest. 
They welcomed opportunities to socialise and meet new people

“Our approach is emergent, which means that we don’t know at the beginning where it will lead us. We have 27 years experience of working with the unknown, which is in our view artistically essential, but it is sometimes hard to bring commissioners on board because they want predetermined outcomes. Luckily, Start Thurrock shares our approach. They take time and care to develop real relationships with communities and grow the ideas with them” –Mikey, The People Speak

A few weeks later, The People Speak hosted two more Talkaokes, which we ran outside the Pyramid Resource Centre and at the Community Church Chadwell St Mary, respectively. Outside the Pyramid Centre on a Saturday, we had the chance to engage regular ParkRun participants as they finished their early morning runs. When asked what kinds of cultural activities people would like to see in the area, theatre and performance was a recurring theme and we began to collectively imagine a plot line for a ParkRun-themed musical, which we called “Personal Best”.

All three Talkaoke sessions were combined and edited by sound artist Jessica Sammut. The final audio captures the highlights of our conversations as well as the various topics and ideas close to the hearts of local people. Since then we have turned the conversations around the Talkaoke table into two creative proposals for Thurrock, that make pathways for the locals to lead the changes in the area in creative and meaningful ways:

Proposal 1. A nostalgia-inspired festival aka Noz fest 

‘Go back to go forward’ was one of the big themes during Talkaoke. Participants were remembering the way community and art was back in the 70s and 80s, e.g.: art seemed more daring than today, the Community Hall was built by the local residents for the future generation. A young boy confessed that his favourite song was AHA’s ‘Take on me’ even though it was released almost 40 years ago. It got us thinking about the role that nostalgia plays in interpreting the present and future. Could it be a link between generations? Is the art of today just re-mixing the art of the past? Or could we bring more creativity into the mix through a year-round programme of events, like Nostalgia Cafes, where people could socialise, exchange ideas and make things happen.

Proposal 2.  Thurrock Presents: Personal Best The Musical

Sport is a connecting point for many people in the area, e.g.: as a place to make social connections, a place to exchange shared experiences, struggles and aspirations. Among the ParkRun attendees were students of Performers College in Corringham, who brought in that showbiz vibe to the event. We heard about the local ParkRun love story and with an air ambulance hovering above the Talkaoke table, we imagined scenarios for a musical.

In May, we were honoured to bring Talkaoke to the Polish Heritage Days celebrations in Grays town centre, organised by the Polish School in Grays. Conversation in English and Polish covered many topics: from organising a Polish-themed night open to all residents, littering as a social action and a good way to celebrate local pride and ideas for making it easier for young people to socialise face to face.

“It was a lot of fun being able to run Talkaoke in Polish – my native language. As a community we can sometimes be a bit reserved about participating in events beyond the usual work-home routine. Connecting with people who don’t engage with culture is essential for us. Our work is about building confidence in people to shape the cultural landscape of their local area” –Margot, The People Speak

Talkaoke in Grays, part of the Polish Heritage Days

Talkaoke at Pyramid Centre, Chadwell St Mary


Leave a Reply