The Great Boxing Booth Revival

The Great Boxing Booth Revival was an Arts&Heritage project presented across Northumberland at 13 agricultural fairs during the Summer of 2012.

The project

The Great Boxing Booth Revival was an Arts&Heritage project for the Cultural Olympiad that proposed to revive the old fairground boxing booth and take it on a tour of 16 venues including thirteen agricultural shows across Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham during the summer of 2012.

“A modern re-interpretation of a forgotten aspect of Britain’s cultural and sporting heritage, the booth will be both an archive-museum and a work of art in itself” – Harry Pearson discussing The Great Boxing Booth Revival in his text, Boxing Booths, 2012

Developed in partnership with Harry Pearson, The Great Boxing Booth Revival brought together sport and the arts in a creative and original way, allowing mainstream, minority and regional sports and arts to be performed in a bespoke booth that was based on the original boxing booths that travelled country fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this way it fitted closely to the Cultural Olympiad themes and values, and presented art and performance to a public in unusual settings that encouraged participation.

Arts&Heritage completed its tour of venues across the north east and west in September 2012. The Great Boxing Booth Revival had, by that time, developed a reputation as a ‘must see’ experience, with most of its audience being attracted by word of mouth enthusiasm, and regional and local press coverage.

Arts&Heritage successfully established a core team of artists, and arts professionals who throughout the summer worked closely together, each helping to deliver an unusual, energetic and brilliantly entertaining touring project.

The Great Boxing Booth Revival brought opera, contemporary dance, performance, magic, parkour, fencing, a new sung play and duelling yodelling performers to an entirely new audience to the arts, and an entirely new audience to the artists. The artists were chosen specifically for their area of expertise and were briefed as to the location and situation they might have found themselves in. All understood that this would be an entirely new experience for them and for Arts&Heritage, that came with considerable risk; yet all the performers (and project team) were ready and excited by the opportunity.

The project demonstrated that there is art in sport, and sport in art. The Boxing Booth provided a platform for the showing of what already exists (North East Fencing, Parkour, Circus Skills, Street Dance and Martial Arts) alongside specially commissioned and performed work (New Contemporary Dance, A sung play called FOUGHT, operatic performance and magic -amongst others). Tied together by a specific ‘theme’ and particular context, The Great Boxing Booth Revival was especially successful in challenging both artists and audiences, and provided an opportunity for the development of new work and challenging existing artistic practice.

The performance venues were specifically chosen: the intention was to take the performers to agricultural fairs that had an ethos and identity of their own. This was outside of Arts&Heritage’s comfort zone and offered its team the opportunity to immerse itself within that different culture and calendar.

Taking the new booth to audiences who were expecting to see prize sheep, bulls, leeks, traditional regional bands and all the brilliance of rural Northumbrian and Cumbrian life was a challenge and a risk. How would contemporary dance go down in Stanhope, in Sedgefield Show, or in Egremont Crab Fair?  We had selected our shows and fairs to reflect the richness of the northern region, from small intimate village fairs to the larger more commercial agricultural shows. We wanted to be part of the show circuit, just as the boxing booths had been in the past.” – Extract from The Great Boxing booth Revival, Judith King (Creative Director of Arts&Heritage), Arts&Heritage 10th Anniversary publication, 2021

Impact

Arts&Heritage believe that the success of The Great Boxing Booth Revival rested on a clear understanding of what the project hoped to achieve.

The project attraction was very visible within the agricultural fair context and it presented a completely different experience to the stalls that surrounded it (mostly pens of prized sheep, cows  and other livestock alongside Industrial Tents with prize-winning produce and crafts). Feedback from audiences as they left the Booth was overwhelmingly positive. The atmosphere was heightened by music and by the resident ‘Barker’ who provided a fantastic focus for the audience throughout the day.

The project was clearly based on a historic fairground attraction and as the tour developed, the Arts&Heritage team were approached by many people who had direct experience of entering the Old Boxing Booths. These visitors spoke of what the interior had looked like and the atmosphere within them (dark and dangerous, with much gambling and fixing). In addition, boxers who had performed in the Booths themselves visited, and also relatives of fairground families, who shared their stories.

We found great warmth and camaraderie from within the show circuit as we toured, recognising familiar faces and supporting each other as we traipsed through mud (it was a very wet summer), sometimes organising tractors to pull us all out. The audience for our booth was mostly the farming and rural community who took to our tangential take on the old boxing booths with curiosity, generosity and a genuine appreciation and enjoyment of our spectacle.” – Judith King, Arts&Heritage 10th Anniversary publication, 2021

The project’s total audience numbers were 12,903. These were mostly agricultural/rural/market town audiences, and predominately a family audience.

Legacy

Much was achieved through the project:

  • New partnerships with organisations and individuals
  • New skills learnt throughout the team
  • Short term Employment for artists, curators, and filmmakers, that also allowed for placements
  • A new team that worked well together and were committed throughout
  • New opportunities and venues identified, should the project be repeated
  • Lively discourse and exchange through discussion of the project and performance at fairs/venues
  • Sport in arts venues/art in sports venues
  • Opportunity presented to artists and performers that has had a lasting effect on their practice and new work emerged from the context/theme of boxing
  • A range of equipment that can now be used by artists/organisations for other touring projects
  • Increased audiences for the arts
  • The project took a substantial risk and proved that art can be taken to places that others fear to tread.

The Booth was also presented at the BALTIC in Gateshead, where it looked incongruous and exciting. It proved to be a great success, attracting an entirely different audience who were introduced to Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, Boxing/Dance.

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