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Queens Park Centre Aylesbury - where the arts thrive

PUBLISHED: 14:42 03 October 2014 | UPDATED: 14:49 03 October 2014

Aylesbury’s very own John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett.

Aylesbury’s very own John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett.

Archant

Queens Park Centre in Aylesbury hides amazing energy and a huge amount of creative talent behind its façade, Sandra Smith discovers

Old school premises tucked away in a residential quarter of late Victorian and early Edwardian properties barely epitomise the profile of an organisation that seeks to promote The Arts. Such a setting lacks the convenience of a town centre presence, after all, not to mention the kudos of state-of-the-art amenities.

Location and financial challenges, however, have yet to deter Queens Park Centre. Considered to be Buckinghamshire’s most thriving arts centre, Aylesbury’s unique venue offers an eclectic mix of workshops, entertainment and exhibitions while boasting an annual footfall of 40,000. Keen to discover the features of its success, I drop in on the Centre and encounter a remarkably committed team of staff and volunteers.

“People deserve good facilities and we want to elevate things to that level,” Artistic Director, Sarah Lewis, explains. After 12 years in the role, she retains all the enthusiasm of a new recruit.

We’re sitting in the middle of a brightly painted classroom surrounded by storage boxes and craft equipment stacked on top of cupboards. “Part of our ongoing vision is to upgrade our technical facilities in the Limelight Theatre; we already have the funding in place. We’d like to improve our dance area, too, by providing a purpose built, sprung dance floor.”

Sarah is lively and engaging. As she spills ideas, her eagerness is infectious. When my attention is momentarily drawn to an old pram in one corner, she proudly reveals details of this latest initiative.

“The pram is part of our WanderHouse Project which will take flight in the autumn, going out to children’s centres and primary schools. We aim to provide arts and craft experiences to people in the community using this mobile unit. WanderHouse is run by our Artist in Residence, Pippa North.”

Undeterred by the challenge of Centre funding – basic operating costs run to £230,000 per annum – she goes on to share news of their forthcoming pantomime: “This is our fourth year of pantomime and rehearsals for Dick Whittington start soon. The set is designed in-house and built by volunteers. It’s a team effort.”

I’m beginning to appreciate how this concept of teamwork forms a core element of QPC’s mindset. When I meet Nikita Ferguson, the Centre Manager, she, too, radiates an enviable level of commitment. “The emphasis is on affordability; we aim to be inclusive and provide a positive experience; it’s not intimidating.”

One of the many accessible aspects here is a pay as you go approach. For most courses clients pay only when they turn up, as Marketing Assistant, Dario Knight, confirms: “Anyone can come and try a class. And they’re not just for professionals. Our ethos is Arts for All and we’re always looking out for new things.”

The Centre caters for every age group. Classes vary from woodworking to jazz, belly dancing to life drawing, and jewellery making to yoga, and take place both during the day and evening, with weekend and holiday workshops also well supported. Numerous volunteers contribute towards the its smooth running with most tutors freely giving their time, enabling fees paid by clientele to contribute to earned income.

During my morning visit a variety of sessions are in progress including pottery – a popular subject since the Centre first opened - painting and beading. But QPC is always open to new ideas as Nikita proudly testifies: “We don’t usually go searching for tutors, they come to us.”

A walk round quickly reveals other appealing characteristics of this energetic place. Opposite a reception packed with information about forthcoming events, a couple of volunteers man an inviting coffee bar. In the Subway Gallery a selection of small paintings, including a number from the Wings Art Group, are being admired. Meanwhile the more spacious Main Gallery houses an independent exhibition of sizeable and vibrant acrylic mounts.

Along the corridor, the Limelight Theatre, originally the school hall, has recently had its retractable benches reupholstered. With a seating capacity of 120, the theatre regularly attracts musicians, comedians and magicians. “We have an Open Mic Night every month,” Dario confirms. “There are also folk nights and blues is very popular, too. Gigs provide a chance for local bands to perform. Outside theatre companies put on shows here and in 2015 we’re reviving two in-house shows each year.”

Although parts of the building still cling to an aura of its educational heritage, there’s been an overall transformation into a 21st century amenity. More importantly, the creative mood is tangible.

This site first opened as an arts centre in 1980 but when the Council withdrew its funding during the nineties, a determined effort began to raise sufficient funds to make Queens Park Centre an independent body.

Dario picks up the story: “We raised £375,000 to buy the freehold. We are now the largest independent arts centre and still receive funding from the District Council and the Hardings Foundation.”

After helping myself to several course brochures and admiring the recently refurbished foyer, I’m mindful of the passion and loyalty. It isn’t just the fabric of this building that has been saved; the whole arts opportunity might have been lost if it hadn’t been for the resolve of staff and volunteers. There are still physical problems to tackle, of course, and the fundraising is relentless. Nevertheless a dedication to participatory arts is a common denominator amongst everyone involved.

In fact, I’ve experienced one of the most stimulating mornings I can remember and, as I make my way outside to the playground-turned-car park, I realise that Queens Park Centre may have started life as a junior school, but it has evolved into the heartbeat of the cultural community.

***

About the centre

• Malcolm Thackwray was the first Artistic Director and his tag line, Arts for All, still holds true for Queens Park Centre.

• Fans from all over the country attend gigs at the Limelight Theatre where Eddie Izzard and Jo Brand have performed.

• Over 70 classes are run each week with adult drama and creative writing starting again in the autumn.

• See www.qpc.org

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Read on

Celebrity chef Brian Turner at Aylesbury College

Berkshire and Buckinghamshire events

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