The starting point for creating a piece of promenade / immersive theatre in Unity Works was to look at it’s history. Prior to the building’s re-opening in 2014, One To One Development Trust undertook a heritage project, some of which is now available online. We used this as our jumping off point for the show. Recently, we spoke to Creative Director / CEO of One To One Development Trust Judi Alston about this exciting project.
How did you approach collecting historical material for a building with such a long history?
I approached the collection of material and research in a variety of ways. Firstly, and probably most importantly was talking to people who had experience or knowledge of the building. These people were sought through word of mouth, existing contacts, features in the paper and promoting the project on social media. Local historians Kate Taylor and John Goodchild helped me considerably with some of the detailed historical information. They were both so generous with their time and support.
As the project to refurb Unity unfolded, more and more people became involved. People were contacting me all the time-sharing snippets here and there, some very detailed stories some much more general. It was an exciting time, there was an energy about it as the rich history of this exceptional and much loved building revealed itself.
I love talking to people about heritage and gathering their stories, but this process was backed up with me taking about a month researching as much as I could about the building and the key characters involved through a mix of reading publications and online research.
The history of Unity covers a long time-period and is very diverse from its commerce and trading to as a social space – my aim was to capture and convey a sense of Unity’s colour and character by presenting the information I found out in an accessible and engaging way through the film, book, artwork and online gallery we produced.
As much of the history predated commercial photography and certainly film, did you find it hard to capture the memories and stories people had?
Luckily there are some old photos which I sought permission to use and they helped tell the story from early days. I also used new photos I took of the building to capture its past – glimpses of mosaic floors, the beautiful stained glass windows, carvings on the posts or on the wall etc. As a documentary film maker I am used to thinking through how to tell stories and present information in a way that has credibly, but may use artistic licence. With Unity + Heritage I gathered so much material that the bigger question was how to present it in a way that told the ‘whole story’. From the moment we began this project I fell in love with Unity so at no point was it hard, it felt like a privilege to be creating this project at such a pivotal point in the buildings life.
The project covered a massive range of time periods, was there one that you found especially evocative or interesting?
The fact of how Unity came about as a co-operative intrigued me greatly as I’m interested in the politics of the co-operative movement and the whole notion of Unity is Strength. So, from the very beginning I knew this was going to be an important piece of work for me.
At first the punk era was an easy starting point as many of the bands who played at Unity I had seen in my youth. That era was identifiable to me and there are obviously lots of people around who used to go to gigs at Unity or play at Unity. It was great fun seeking out these stories, often gritty and funny, and interesting collecting gig tickets and photos.
My favourite era of Unity was the 1920’s-40’s. I love the images of the 1920’s fashion shows, a collective effort from all the shop keepers and tradespeople based in the building to put on these amazing pageants. A true co-operative feel to it. Also, the range of shops at that time, you can imagine them like little Aladdin caves with everything needed all under one roof. At night, the building came alive to the sound of Big bands. I had the most wonderful communication with a woman now living in the US, Celia Conway-Wright who talked to me about how the bands continued playing during the air raids of World War 2, often in the dark. Such evocative memories. If I could visit one point in the buildings history it would definitely be then.
Thinking back, what has stuck with you since the project ended?
The refurbishment of Unity is an amazing success for Wakefield and its shareholders. I hope that it will go on from strength to strength and lead the way as an exciting cultural destination for the District, but we all know that times are hard and it will take a lot of work and investment to make Unity fulfil its potential. It can never go back to being what Unity was, so it needs to find its purpose for the 21st century. I’m sure it’s a case of seeing what works, what pays, and what people want,
Thinking back though, it strikes me is how lucky I was to be given free rein to wonder round the cold derelict empty building, exploring the dark corridors, the hidden rooms with our cameras, sitting on the broken stage watching the sun shine through the magnificent windows lighting up decades of dust particles in the air. The ghosts of Unity were almost tangible on many occasions. I will always be grateful to Chris Hill and Unity Trustees at the time who took the decision to engage One to One Development Trust in this project. My team gave their all to what we created with the film, book and artwork and it was a very creative time for us.
We interviewed so many wonderful people, reconnected with old friends and made many new friends. Local historian Kate Taylor who passed away in 2015 became a mentor to me and will remain a life-long inspiration. As I write this article today I’m thinking about the amazing historian John Goodchild who passed away yesterday. People like John and Kate dedicated their lives to telling the story of the area. They symbolise why it is so important to preserve history. Wakefield is very lucky to have had such amazing dedicated people at its helm.
For me, the time of the Unity + Heritage project was one of excitement and potential. There was a DIY culture growing around Unity, everyone was pulling together, it felt like a real movement, a collective – back to its roots. One to One Development Trust felt part of something much bigger and we were privileged to be part of it. Unity + Heritage will remain one of the favourite projects in my career up to date for so many reasons.