The Colchester Arts Centre: Alternative thinking
PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 January 2016
Think of Colchester and may think of its historical importance, fabulous parks, lively high street, great museums and thriving arts scene. But Colchester has a cutting edge. Petra Hornsby talks to some people masterminding entertainment and even exercise of an ‘alternative’ nature. Images: Deborah Cosgrove
The Colchester Arts Centre has been serving the town since 1989 as a hub for music, comedy and alternative performance, catering for all ages and all tastes. Found at St Mary at the Walls Church, on Church Street, and built against the Roman wall along Balkerne Hill, the church dates back to 1206 and is recorded as being the site where 23 Protestant martyrs were burned to death during the reign of Queen Mary I. The tower was also put to use during the English Civil War, serving as a gun emplacement by the Royalists. Consequently, it suffered significant damage with some speculating that the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty refers to the destruction of the tower, although this is now widely regarded as a myth.
The church became redundant in 1978 but donated its bell to St Leonard’s in Lexden, while Braintree Cathedral received the organ. Now the church interior plays host to the moshing of rock fans, anarchic comedians, fulsome or feisty folk bands, arts fairs and children’s theatre groups.
Many of today’s top acts have performed at the Arts Centre including Coldplay, The Killers, Catherine Tate, Jo Brand and Harry Hill, to name just a few. But it was the centre’s reputation for embracing the avant garde which meant that, for one enterprising Colchester resident, the Arts Centre was a perfect venue for her own form of party entertainment. Jo Coldwell’s Tea & Sympathy events are now highly-anticipated themed evenings of entertainment and music, but how did it all begin?
Jo explains: ‘In 2012, my friend, Melissa Porter, and I were offered the opportunity to open a pop-up shop in a friend’s beautiful period property in Crouch Street, but being at the Lexden Road end meant that we didn’t get the footfall to keep it going just as it was. We racked our brains and came up with the idea of holding evening workshops as well, which included lessons and workshops about learning to play the ukulele, how to make gin cocktails and creating burlesque accessories. Soon the shop was becoming more like a bar by night and shop by day, with an intimacy that people enjoyed – akin to a house party.’
This led to the pair wanting to extend the party atmosphere and create party evenings that would incorporate cabaret, music and a chance for people to dress up and participate.
‘As people came in to the shop, we would ask them if they would like to come to a party and if their answer was no, I’m too old, married or single, we would give them a good reason to come – and they would! Our nights have an age range from 18-70 – there’s no age restriction to enjoyment.’
Now the evenings have evolved into one of Colchester’s most celebrated night’s out. ‘We work around a theme and each event is different. We have had Day of the Dead, a Ghost Ship in the Hythe, White Christmas in Narnia and a Quentin Tarantino night. One of the most successful was Alice in Wonderland, where people would book tickets to visit the tea table and literally take part in a performance with actors taking on the main roles. We have in the past had cabaret featuring magic, burlesque routines and floor performances. We finish the evening off with a DJ set, which always gets people dancing. People can choose to dress up or not, but we find those who do tend to be more involved in the proceedings. Either way, everyone seems to have a great time.’
For 2016, Tea & Sympathy is planning party nights, such as their recent Stripped Back and Striped Dance Night, as well as more themed nights that will again incorporate performance as well.
‘Our first event in the planning is a Hairspray night which we will be holding in an actual hair salon. The date and exact details are yet to be announced but we do have a facebook page for people to find out more.’
One performer who has taken part in the Tea & Sympathy events is Danii Sosta who runs Flight Aerial Arts, an exercise studio which offers an unusual way to not only keep fit, but develop fun new skills and body confidence too. Danii has performed an Aerial Hoop routine using a static rig, while her studio partner Caitlin Banks did a floor routine and burlesque. For the Heroes and Villains night, the pair enacted an aerial fight scene.
Their studio based in West Bergholt runs weekly lessons or one-off two-hour workshops in silks, hoops, floor work, static trapeze and pole dancing, yoga and pilates.
‘We believe in fun, not gym. Although some people may get satisfaction from just working out, we offer something quite different. Gyms can be daunting places which may put people off, but part of our appeal is that we offer a safe and supportive environment to those who may feel a little uncomfortable exercising around others.’
Danii, a translator by day, has no formal dance or gymnastics training, but became hooked on aerial silks and static trapeze after taking it up as a hobby while studying at Leeds University. She found herself taking every class going and went on to train further in London and in the Caribbean.
‘We regularly have showcase evenings where all our ‘students’ perform a routine. It is a really good way for everyone to highlight the things that they have learned and enhance self-esteem, as everyone is so encouraging.’
Danii is due to perform as part of A Very Vintage Circus in April at the Colchester Arts Centre, which is a Tiger Tiger event to raise money for charity.
Find out more
A full programme of forthcoming events at The Colchester Arts Centre can be found online at www.colchesterartscentre.com. To find out more about Tea & Sympathy get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details on classes at Flight Aerial Arts, find them on Facebook.