Steph Brocken is artistic director and co- founder of Minerva Arts, a Youth Arts Education and Development organisation based in Cheshire and working across the North West and beyond.
We met up at the Kingsway campus of the university in advance of the Minerva seniors’ (11-18) production of The Tempest this Friday/Saturday. Steph spoke about the formation of Minerva and her thoughts on culture in general in Chester.
“I am a Chester person, Chester born and bred” said Steph who now lives in Manchester. “I was brought up close to the city centre and attended Queens Park High School. I was a member of the Chester Gateway youth theatre from 1998 up until closure.” Of the closure of the Gateway , Steph says that the threat of closure had been looming for some time.
“For any of us that had spent as much time around the theatre as I had, we were thinking it was closing every year since the mid 90s anyway. We knew that it was always on the cards. The original plans for the Northgate development were in 1992. ” In 2005 when the news broke , the Gateway had a large youth theatre with a full staff. Steph says that the expectation was that the closure would allow the youth group to break out into the “great wide world”. However this optimistic view did not translate into reality and the provision to keep the group going was not there. Chester Performs took on the group for one term, and Wirral based Off the Ground took on the senior group.
Minerva was founded in 2009 by Steph and another local artist, Hayley Wood. It was not originally founded as a youth theatre. “Myself and Hayley were both staying in Chester and we were both realised that there was no work for us in the creative industries. So we created Minerva as a way to make work for ourselves” Steph now runs Minerva solo, handling the creative direction, programme, recruitment of participants, press, direction of one show a year and “everything else that being a one woman band entails really! “Minerva have 4 facilitators working on a part time/freelance basis to assist with running the group.
The first proper show with the Youth Theatre was Brecht’s Life of Galileo in 2012. ” We did that with 6 young people. . We did a show at St Mary’s and one at Queen’s park high school. Our main youth theatre is based in Kingsway. I am a PHD student here, and we engage with a lot of students here as volunteers.” The main Minerva group consists of 11-18 year olds, but there is also a young group for 7-11 year olds that meets on Saturdays at the military museum. In 2014 “Mabel’s War” was a collaboration between the military and Grosvenor museums based around the centenary of the first world war. Minerva also have a group based in Malpas.
“We’re really easy to get involved with” says Steph . “Drop us an email or visit the website, or just come along to a session. We always offer free tasters. I believe really strongly in the fact that youth theatre isn’t just about performance.. Putting on the shows and learning the drama skills are of course, really important. But its also about the buzzwords, that I hate, which are developing confidence and self esteem, making friends , learning about commitment and teamwork and learning to be part of something which is bigger than yourself. We are really well connected with the North West arts scene so we can offer things like work experience.
“For the first time ever this year, we had to close our doors to the senior group. We kept getting new people every week. It was wonderful, but theres only so many characters in The Tempest, so we’ve already had to make up a few!” The Tempest is Minerva’s first Shakespeare production.
“We always try and put a bit of a spin on.. and this is set in a reality TV show! We have played around with the space and creating an immersive space, using elements of the corridors as well. The audience will be moving around, they’ll be kept on their toes! But there will be some chairs!”
Steph says that the cultural scene in Chester is on the up. “Things are getting a lot better. A lot more people are doing things themselves. One of the things we have benefited from in the “cultural desert” period, as it will go down in the annals of Chester history, is that people have picked themselves up and done things themselves. People will whinge about it, but its a really positive thing. If it wasn’t for the closure of the theatre and the cinema, then we wouldn’t have groups like Chester Culture, Chester Fringe, people wouldn’t be putting on their own things. The only issue is its ad hoc and it doesn’t provide a lot of income. But with the cultural centre, that will then start to provide more paid opportunities and more placement and development opportunities for young professionals. More people are starting to stay after university. In 2009 hardly anyone stayed.”
“What a lot of people who work in the arts don’t like to admit is that the downtimes are actually the best times. Because if you didn’t have something to fight against what would you be creating ? If everything was happy and rosy all the time, wouldn’t the arts be so boring? It’s been on the up for a long time. It can be a stressful place to be when you get really embedded in it and involved… It’s very stressful to not be able to walk around your own home city without thinking about stuff all the time. .. What are people going to think about this building blah blah blah? I moved to Manchester, which offers a wonderful anonymity…”
“It’s beginning to feel more inspiring spending time in Chester and I think the cultural centre is going to be really interesting. I’ve been following some of the online chat quite closely. I was actually quite glad that there has been some negativity. I think we surround ourselves with people who are positive about it. I think it’s only good if we also acknowledge and listen to the people who think its all a load of rubbish! Its going to be an inspiring building. I am in favour of the name. I will be really interested to see what the programming will be like!” she concludes
The Tempest is at Kingsway campus
Friday/Saturday 730. tickets on the door £6 £4 concessions