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History of Apples and Snakes

Apples and Snakes was established in 1982, at a pub called the Adams Arms, to run regular performance poetry events in London. 

One of the founding principles of the organisation was that artists should always be paid for their work and for many of these early events the founding members ensured that this happened by covering fees from their own pockets. Thankfully for the founders their events quickly became popular and soon won the support of the GLC (Greater London Council) who undertook to cover the costs of all artist fees. 

This value placed on the artist continues to run through the organisation and its mission today. Apples and Snakes has been the development ground for many high profile poets and artists: early shows featured Billy Bragg, Jenny Éclair, Phil Jupitus and Jackie Kay. In more recent years the organisation has been proud to develop the work of artists such as Lemn Sissay, Francesca Beard, Malika Booker, Zena Edwards, Charlie Dark and Polarbear. In addition, some of the best international artists including Notzote Shange, Jayne Cortez, Will Power and Sapphire have been commissioned to perform amazing tours of the UK.

In the late 1980s the organisation became core funded by GLA (a precursor to the Arts Council) and LBG (now London Councils). This necessitated a change in the structure of the organisation and Apples and Snakes registered as a charity and employed a paid administrator. The organisation had for some time felt that performance poetry would be a good way to engage children and young people in literacy and education and following a successful campaign was awarded additional funds in the early 1990's to put poets into schools and employ an education specialist.

Our education programmes are still extremely popular and Apples and Snakes poets have inspired large numbers of children and young people to participate in the arts by encouraging them to write and perform their own work within the workshop environment. 

In the late 1990's, Apples and Snakes started to think about how it could engage with larger audiences and develop performance poetry by working with different art forms and in a variety of settings. The organisation embarked on a number of ambitious cross arts projects that took performance poetry to new places. Aisle 6 combined poetry, photography, textile design and tea dancing in a participatory project that culminated with a day-long performance in an Asda supermarket.  Bus Jam saw six poets devise a chorale piece with Ralf Ralf’s Jonathan Stone and composer Paul Clark, which they performed to surprised commuters on London buses at rush hour for two weeks. The Waltz was a commission by the Austrian Cultural Institute which gave five artists the brief to respond to the bicentenary of the birth of the waltz and Malika Booker and Toby Jones’ pieces ran in a studio at BAC for two weeks. Apples and Snakes took a cabaret show to the Pleasance during the Edinburgh festival for a month and ended the decade with a fresh outlook and a new set of audiences.
In 2001 the organisation took time out to think about its future development and to develop a strategy for growth which then gained support from Arts Council England. Apples and Snakes decided to develop its strength – its relationship to the artists and the grass roots community. This was envisioned through a process of national development appointing coordinators to be based around England to develop work for and from its varied regions, creating a national network for performance poetry. Alongside this organisational change, Apples and Snakes also initiated a commissioning and producing policy that would enable the company to stimulate art form development and inspire artists to create new sorts of work. Early examples of this included Lemn Sissay’s Something Dark co-produced with Contact in Manchester and Francesca Beard’s Chinese Whispers with BAC. Both shows toured over four years nationally and internationally, gained new audiences and a wider profile for performance poetry.

In 2003 Apples and Snakes celebrated its 21st birthday with a sold out show in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank. The show featured some of the stars from over the past 21 years and we also produced an anthology of the best writing together with an outreach programme, a show and a party back at the Adams Arms attended by hundreds of people who had been part of the first 21 years.

In line with our move to a national organisation we now organise education workshops in schools around England as well as run national education projects.  Word Cup was a unique national team slam for young people that culminated in a celebratory weekend at Warwick Arts Centre. Our first touring show for audiences aged 8-11, Charlie Dark’s School of Dark combined performance poetry and creative writing workshops and toured nationally to venues. The work of young people was also featured alongside established professionals on our twofive album which we showcased live at the Big Chill festival. We have also presented many mixed bill performance poetry shows for touring on the arts centre and theatre scene. The Temptation and Exposed tours pioneered a new way of working which commissioned five artists from five different regions to write on one theme and then create a show which tours back into performance poetry nights in each of those five regions. Following the success of these projects we worked in partnership with Black Country Touring on Things that Can’t be Said a project that worked with artists from the Black Country to create a new show inspired by the themes of Exposed.

Apples and Snakes values diversity and is dedicated to working with the disenfranchised and giving a voice to those whose creativity is surpressed either by their circumstances or by censorship. In Greater Manchester from 2006 – 2009 Inside Out was a programme for young people at risk of gun and gang crime funded by the Paul Hamlyn foundation. This project reduced youth crime figures in the target areas by up to 40%. Broken Words commissioned three artists to write new work based on Dickens’ Great Expectations and inspired from an intensive workshopping period with young ex-offenders at Barnet’s Arts Depot. In 2006 we began working in partnership with the British Council in five countries across South East Asia (Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam) to help create a performance poetry scene in these countries where artists may be subject to censorship and considered subversive. In autumn 2008 an artist from each of these countries together with four from the UK created an innovative spoken word show, Speechless, on the theme of freedom of expression, which toured the UK. The artists also participated in training events and debates - a really incredible experience for all involved.  

Since 2001 Apples and Snakes has developed a greater international profile. In addition to the Speechless project described above we have run programmes in India and Sri Lanka, built relationships with festivals from Harare to Calgary and continue to work extensively with The British Council in various countries around the world. We have also built a relationship with Fritt Ord, a Norwegian Freedom of Expression organisation. In 2009 we worked with Sustain Theatre to commission four top South African poets to tour England; the Beyond Words tour played to rapturous houses across the country. 

Since 2008 Apples and Snakes has begun to develop its digital output both organisationally and artistically with the development of a new interactive website (including high quality video of poets in action) and other web-based communications. All the tracks from our twofive album are available to download and the full cd can be bought online through this website. The My Place or Yours project has taken our digital output to a new level: this two year project was designed to show the whole creative process from commission to delivery online.  Working through the medium of an interactive blog, artists, their mentors, other poets and members of the public could post, look at and comment on the development of the work at every stage.   

Many of these projects would not have been possible without developing work in partnership and consortia. Almost all of Apples and Snakes’ activity is delivered in this way. Partnerships and consortia have been key to increasing the organisation’s profile and enabling it to reach new places. We are currently part of Free Word, a project that provides a new home for literature and freedom of expression events and organisations on Farringdon Road in Clerkenwell, London.


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