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As I write this I am flying back to the UK after 16 days of volunteering with Processional Arts Workshop (PAW) in New York City. I worked alongside them as they created a daytime and a nighttime  procession, one in downtown and one in uptown Manhattan. I was Funded by The Artists international Development Fund from Arts Council England and The British Council to  participate  in both Astor Alive and Morningside Lights . It was a luxury to be a participant rather than the lead artist, workshop facilitator. Rather than hold a vision I had the opportunity to watch as others held a vision for a processional arts event, it allowed huge reflection on my own practice.

One of the great joys for me was the luxury of really focusing on why individuals got involved in the project. Attendees were valued and named ‘volunteers’ and ‘artists’ which as makers of the work, they are. Workshops were very well preparared and planned with start times rigourously stepped to avoid the lead artists sending themselves mad through explaining the project on a constant loop. I found New York full of talkers, very friendly talkers both on the projects I was working on and away from them. Whilst I do meet and chat to participants through my work in the UK it is mainly centred (by necessity) on the workshop in hand. As a volunteer myself, I relaxed into chatting at length with other volunteers while we worked and I had the time to discover what led people to get involved in the events. Answers ranged from;

  • Taking the opportunity to be creative.
  • Therapeutic reasons.
  • The sense of belonging to a community.
  • One participant had dropped their catholic faith and the only thing they missed was the act of procession.
  • Some were students at the university (not just in the arts) wanting to get involved.
  • Some had a tradition of lanterns in other countries they had resided in.
  • Learning the craft of puppet and prop building
  • Some enjoyed both the make and the performance and had followed PAWs work for years,
  • others had just discovered it and got addicted and excited.

The majority of participants were adults, I got the sense nearly ALL of whom would be back. If not at PAWs workshops at another community arts event. Some, like me had travelled a great distance from the uk also or (just!) San Francisco to be part of PAW’s work. Some as I was leaving had arrived to become involved in the annual ritual which is the build for PAW’s most celebrated work the Halloween Parade though NYCs East village (I hope that to be me too one day)

And how did the participants tell the stories of the processional performances? 

In different ways for each event.

For Astor Alive it was very much about the individual participants experience of NYC’s east village. Whilst the artists had a clear idea of the uniformity of aesthetic they wanted to achieve and visions for themes for the starting points of about 5 or so of the puppets, much of the imagery used was crowd sourced.
The narrative at Morningside Lights which was celebrating 100 years of Pulitzer Prizes was created very differently. Centring on the Pulitzer Prize for poetry Alex Khan and Sophia Michaelles had immersed themselves in award winning poetry new and old and collected many lines of about 100 characters or so. These were pasted on the workshop walls as starting points and participants were invited to bring in their own favoured lines or dip into books provided. The visions then created were totally up to the participators in the creative experience. Images were united by the poetry and the illuminated ribbons of verse attached to each lantern of which there were about 40. The process was described as the making of cooperative creative collaborations . One participant may have started the work at the beginning of the week and others took on that vision later in the week. Over 300 separate pairs of hands made 40 medium scale lanterns in one week.

Processional Narritives, participation and the making of the work are designed and delivered and most importantly held closely by one dynamic and very organised team. Storytelling is the thread which pulls everything together within which individual creativity is allowed to flourish in a guided way. Planning time and preparation is everything.
The majority of participants were adults, ALL of whom would certainly be back if not at PAWs workshops at another community arts event. Some, like me had travelled a great distance from the uk also or just San Francisco just to be part of PAW’s work. Some as I was leaving had arrived to become involved in the annual ritual which is the build for PAW’s most celebrated work the Halloween Parade though NYCs East village (I hope that to be me too one day)

I have much more reflection to do on this amazing opportunity and I will continue to blog about it as it reaches my life and work as an artist here in Bristol, UK.



And so the day of the parade came…

after a week of workshops with both the local community and PAW regulars there was a calm before the storm. The workshop was hyper organised but I was struck by a few things.

We processed mostly on the pavement which I am told is normal for New York. The pavements are much wider here, but there is something powerful about taking the street with hand crafted fragile objects powered only by humans.

Even on the procession day it was predominantly an adult affair which is interesting to me. I wonder if there will be differences next week when I work on a more established event.

I have learned lots of new tricks during the week in terms of both production and making. One of my quests in coming here was to research how PAW uses storytelling within its processional work. In this particular project the story was well designed before the workshops and the input from the public was in the crowd sourcing of imagery to decorate the generic puppets.

What is the key to the storytelling being well designed

A strong concept & brief.

A reasonably financed project development phase.

A well developed mailing list of keen makers and volunteer performers.

Good use of a wide range of social media tools.

A good visible workshop area which encourages crowd input.

Also yesterday at the other end of Manhattan, workshops began for Morningside Lights. I move over to that project today and the second phase of my research trip begins.




For the last two days I have mostly been covering the puppets in a variety of printed materials reflecting each of the 5 themes of Astor Alive.


Imigrant Populations

Radical Politics

Theatre for All


Scholars, thinkers and writers

All the images used in the surfacing have come from suggestions in workshops, group Pinterest page and Internet searching in workshops.

The thing that strikes me most about this week of workshops is the constant flow of capable adult volunteers. It’s community arts without a pre-schooler in sight.

Workshops have an age 10 plus guidance. WHY? To ensure the work is taken seriously, to ensure four year olds are not dropped off to be entertained as parents chat and to enable the adherence to complex themes, suggestions and aesthetics.

Puppets for Astor Alive have been made from domestic materials. cardboard, paper and glue but the integrity of the way the design has been maintained is excellent.

PAW have a steady flow of regular enthusiasts who follow their work when they are in NYC and volunteer to work alongside new recruits. They bring a great work ethic, a welcoming atmosphere (sometimes cake) and much needed skills and assistance. In the UK, there is a nervousness about inviting “outsiders” as the funding streams are led by the indices of multiple deprivation in particular areas. But why? These figures are often out of date and art is the best tool for breaking down boundaries. 

Workshops are taking place in an empty shop – many local workers & students have joined in through intrigue  based on its visual prescience, returning more than once. This I believe is entirely due to the quality of the experience and products.

Notes on how the quality of work is achieved.
As I near the end of the making of the work for Astor Alive alongside Processional Arts Workhop I just want to share a bit of the pre-production process which I believe really helps the artists in their story building for this particular project.

At least a week full time was spent by the artists in visioning, designing and creating a “flat pack” experience for participants to quickly achieve a sense of satisfaction.

Workshops are targeted to age 10 plus –  this is a deliberate tactic to ensure the work is taken seriously. Whilst children younger are not turned away its is made clear that this is an art project and not a children’s activity.

Workshops are signed up to in advance via a web page which details the project and reminders are sent.

Participants contribute in advance of the project via a Pinterest page.

PAW partners with a host organisation, in this case it was the village alliance a BID (business improvement district)  for the Astor place area. THe host invites the community to participate in workshops and runs front of house.

Weekend workshops begin at midday and last for 6 hrs with a second entry time three hours later. Evening workshops begin 2-8 pm and run on the same format. many adults come after work. PAW have a group of regular keen enthusiasts who follow their work in NYC and attend most workshops. These enthusiasts work alongside new recruits and bring an inviting atmosphere (and cake) with them.


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