photo of a man and child talking beside windows looking out over a town
Lookout performance event, St Helens. Photo: Joe Lee.

Lookout was an encounter-based performance event produced by Heart of Glass and created by Beckie Darlington and Andy Field with children from Broadoak Community Primary School in St Helens. Adult audience members were paired with child performers to discuss the present and future of the town from the top of the Century House building.

My first impression of St Helens was as a child. I used to follow the Rugby League and only viewed the idea of the town through the haze of a successful team dominating the other towns I grew up near. When you’re a kid, you see things as larger than they are – most times literally as when you’re four feet tall every building is larger than you can comprehend – but sometimes you create larger cities through your imagination. I used to think St Helens was a monolith that stood proudly in Merseyside. It was bigger than Wigan or Warrington because their team was better at Rugby. It was a giant stadium that let off fire before matches. It was big burly men running fast. It was exciting and full of life. Visions of the terraces at Knowsley Road were blurred by the excitement of being a young kid watching sports. I used to think St Helens was a city because of how successful they were.

I grew older, lost interest in the sport and St Helens faded into just another town.

I’d never actually been to St Helens before seeing Lookout. I assumed it’d be like every old industrial town I’d lived in or visited, and walking through the streets toward Century House, my assumptions rang true. Each street felt like another I had walked down during my adulthood. Memories were brought forth by the same shops, boarded up windows and empty promises by property developers for a brighter future.

When towns exist as an inflated, imagined memory, the hearsay of family members or simply google maps, you can forget that there are futures being written.

I get to the top of Century House and can see the horizon line sitting on top of hills, shopping centers and one lone factory still puffing out smoke. It isn’t the big city my child self thought it would be. It’s a small town, much like where I grew up.

I stand and look out of a disused office building window, listening to children’s voices telling me about what will happen next. Robots roaming the streets stopping bullies, nice things that only kids can imagine. These quotidian streets are transformed into a canvas for a kind of imagining that I did when I was young. I miss that. When I think of how towns will be shaped by the future I always fear the worst – rising rents and staples of night culture being destroyed by greedy councils – but I’m smiling looking onto unknown streets, feeling a slight sense of hope that instead of just practical changes, maybe fun and silliness could sit alongside these ideas.

photo of adults and young people talking and looking out of windows in an upper floor of a building
Lookout performance event, St Helens. Photo: Joe Lee.

A small child runs up to me, tiny glasses, tiny notepad and paper. She looks out with binoculars, after a moment she turns, takes a big deep breath and asks me if I’ve done anything for where I live. I’m stunned by this question because, well I don’t really know. I’ve recently moved to Liverpool, to an area that was fairly cheap to rent and one of the first signs of regeneration is artists moving into an area. I’m kind of the problem. What I want for where I live is very different to what locals who have lived there for decades want. They want a greengrocer’s, I want a rehearsal space that can also act as a light night live art cabaret space where I can get really drunk. These two wants are very different. I think about how I’ve not seen where I live through the eyes of locals and what would happen if we decided to redesign the whole area. Are we playful? Are we practical? Can we use our imaginations to shape our ideas, or do we risk falling back into a memory of what our neighbourhood used to be like?

We talk about our favorite buildings in our view. We agree that we like the older town hall and that the newer buildings don’t look as fun. One has a giant puddle on its roof and she observes that if anyone was to play there they would get hurt. There’s no need for people to play on rooftops or even opportunities for that, but this kid mentions it. It’s important to her. As I’ve grown up I’ve forgotten about play. I realise that there are no swings in the park near me. Where do people play in their towns?

She asks me what my favorite animal is and I say ‘shark’. I like them because I want to befriend all sharks. I tell her this and she smiles and says ‘I like sharks too’. We listen to more voices, young voices saying that they are 100 years old and telling us about their imagined present/ our possible future. Play and practicality sit alongside each other. After a while she says bye and runs away. I’m left to look out over St Helens. The town slowly turns into the place I imagined it was like as a child. It feels more vibrant and full. It’s playful. It’s not a ‘forgotten town’. I think about the idea of a forgotten town a lot and realise that towns are only forgotten by the people who hold power over them.

But St Helens doesn’t solely exist in memory. It’s real. It’s the old town hall and the building that has a puddle on its rooftop. Lookout asks you to view it with imagination and gives even the wildest ideas plausibility, making a different kind of future feel possible.

Lookout is part of the Heart of Glass programme and took place on 20 and 21 May, and was followed by a gathering event on 25 May, 2022.

Josh Coates is a Liverpool based theatre maker.

Published 16.06.2022 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

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