My Cultural Spring Story

by Rob Lawson

Rob Lawson has provided PR support for The Cultural Spring since the project began. A former Editor of both The Shields Gazette and Sunderland Echo, Rob is also a member of The Cultural Spring Steering Board.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been involved with The Cultural Spring since it began. In the summer of 2012 I had stepped down from the role of Editor of the Sunderland Echo and was approached by Paul Callaghan, who had just established the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust, to help with a bid he was making to the Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places Fund. This Fund had the admiral aim of bringing excellent arts and culture to areas of England that didn’t have a particular tradition of engaging with the arts. Both Sunderland and South Tyneside had previously made separate bids to the Fund, but Paul’s brilliant idea was to submit a joint bid.

My initial role was to garner support from local businesses, organisations and individuals. I wrote to, rang or met more than 50 people and they all said yes, they’d be happy to support our bid. That support translated into more than 50 letters of eager support that formed an appendix in the final bid submission. Once the support was captured, I helped pull the bid together, working with Paul Callaghan; Emma Horsman (later to be Project Director); Richard Barber (South Tyneside Council) and Mark Adamson (then of University of Sunderland).

There was a wait once the bid had been submitted to Arts Council England – then real joy and excitement when we heard we’d been successful. Rebecca Ball became our first Project Director and we launched – more or less straight away – into our first project, The Great North Passion. This amazing event, which became BBC1’s flagship programme for Easter 2014, involved local community groups interpreting various Stations of the Cross. The groups were given a shipping container in which to host their project and the containers were shaped like a giant cathedral in Bents Park, South Shields. Thousands attended the live Good Friday broadcast, which was hosted by Fern Britton and included a performance from singer Alexandra Burke.

It was a stunning event, packed full of emotion, talent and imagination and was a brilliant way to put us on the map. I was given the task of working with local media to raise awareness of The Great North Passion, and was later asked if I would provide support for The Cultural Spring on a freelance basis – which I’ve been doing ever since. Everyone involved with the project will have their own highlights and favourite moments, and I have mine.

RUSH, an outdoor dance spectacular performed against the backdrop of St Hilda’s Engine Shed over Easter 2015, remains a particular favourite. Not just for the quality of the performances and superlative choreography from Robby Graham and his Southpaw team, but for the sheer enthusiasm and talent of the dozens of local performers, many of whom had never done anything like it. (Although The Rushettes have done so much since then). It was a real pleasure for Emma Horsman and I to go to Blackpool last year to watch a North West version of RUSH.

Southpaw were also involved in another highlight of mine – 2016’s Wordplay, another mass movement spectacular, this time to mark the official opening of The Word in South Shields. Brilliantly performed by a cast of 90 volunteers alongside Southpaw’s professional cast, Wordplay featured large-scale video and project mapping from NOVAK and text by local writer and author Carina Rodney, who wove in many local stories and legends.

Through in Sunderland, my favourite Cultural Spring events so far have been the annual Summer Streets Musical Festivals and the wonderful A Great Night Out, which became one of the most enjoyable nights of my life. Summer Streets was an early idea from then Project Director Rebecca Ball, who made the fantastic decision to get Ross Millard, of The Futureheads, involved in the event. Summer Streets began as a one-day event in Thompson Park, Southwick, and grew into a two-day extravaganza. Last year it was held as part of the Tall Ships cultural programme in Recreation Park, Seaburn, and this year it moved over the coast road to Cliffe Park, where once again it provided an amazing day of different genres of music. Ross is still the maestro pulling the strings – this year he co-opted Helen Green of Sunderland Culture to help deliver a street theatre programme during the day too.

For A Great Night Out, delivered in 2016, we worked with Wildworks, one of the most successful and most respected theatre companies in the UK. A Great Night Out transformed The Point nightclub into a glittering dream space filled with local heroes and community talent. We’d worked with Wildworks for months before, scouring local communities for stories and talent, and the big night – just one performance – did not disappoint. Expertly hosted by MC Ray Spencer (‘Ray Shine, the hair’s all mine’) the night was nostalgic, inspirational, beautifully performed and truly touching. There were tales from the shipyards, from the mines, from Roker Park and from the war years, with local singers and actors performing superbly, particularly during a section on the Miners’ Strike of 1984.

However, for most people, including me, the real highlight was a solo sang by the then 96-year-old Len Gibson, a Sunderland soldier captured at the Fall of Singapore in 1942. Len spent four horrific years as a Prisoner of War, teaching his comrades how to play an improvised banjo made from a wooden crate and telephone wires. Standing alone and accompanying himself on his guitar, Len performed the song On The Street Where You Live, a song he frequently sang to his wife Ruby, who had died only three months before the performance. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, more than 300 people absolutely gobsmacked by his story and his excellent performance.

More recently, the 2018 South Tyneside Picture Book project where local schools worked with talented artists, writers and illustrators to create picture books which were then published, was The Cultural Spring at its best – working in local communities with people from different backgrounds of different ages on a project that everyone enjoyed, learned from and was inspired by.

There is no doubt The Cultural Spring has been an unbridled success. It has benefitted from truly great leadership from Rebecca, then Emma Horsman and now Michael Barrass and Emma Scarr who are covering for Emma’s maternity leave. The project’s community champions were a brilliant idea and they have risen to the task given them – to be a voice for the arts and the project in neighbourhoods and estates. The hundreds of artists involved in the project have bought into The Cultural Spring’s ethos and have led workshops, programmes and projects superbly.

It came as no surprise when The Cultural Spring successfully bid for Phase 3 support and the project was extended for a further three years.

Have you taken part in one of our workshops, commissions or other projects? Would you like to tell others about your Cultural Spring experience?

We’re looking for people who have engaged with our programme to write short blogs for our website, newsletters and social media pages which will let people know about your very own Cultural Spring journey. Interested? For more information please email