Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 22: On the village green

Every time that I feel that I must stop play Lines And Ladders and get on with writing the thesis another irresistible opportunity comes up. This time it was Family Tree Live in the Alexandra Palace, London.

Family Tree Live was a massive gathering of family historians and genealogists. I was invited to bring my project to the village green.  In the vast space of Ally Pally, a miniature village green was created with picnic tables, picket fences and the sculpted family tree rooted at its centre.

Across the two days this space provided a place to rest weary feet, to gather thoughts, make quick notes and catch up with friends. #AncestryHour planned tweet-ups at the village green, so that people who had only met via twitter before could chat face to face.

This village green was a space that was performing intimacy and community within the grand splendour of the Alexandra Palace. Set apart from the rest of the show and yet capturing its essence: a space to share stories, experiences, knowledge and understanding with other family historians. A perfect staging for Lines And Ladders.

Most of the people who have played Lines And Ladders are interested in family history, but only a few had done any detailed research. Often when playing, I am cast in the role of expert explaining how discoveries can be made. Family Tree Live was a chance to chat to people about my performance-research, who have an extremely high level of expertise and enthusiasm for family history. I needed to accept my limitations as a family historian and learn from those who played with me. This is something that I love about playing Lines And Ladders. Every time I play, I play with different people and so each game needs to pitched differently. The play must be differentiated. I am sure that I don’t always get it quite right. Sometimes I assume too much is known. Other times, I go overboard explain something familiar. This is part of the challenge for me as the performance maker.

I’ll confess now that I didn’t expect to play many games at Family Tree Live. I thought that lots of people would be interested, that they would be happy to chat about the game, they might even want to take a game with them, but wouldn’t want to spend the time playing it.

I was wrong.

People were happy to take part in this tiny performance. They liked sharing their stories in this playful and informal way. And I think that they liked taking the time to do so. I barely had time to pause, make notes or eat my sandwiches!

Thanks to everyone who took the time to chat on the village green and especially to those who made time to play, including Mike Esbester, Natalie Pithers, Elizabeth Lloyd and James Halstead. Thanks to Shane Surgey, who has supported me throughout, including  supplying me with coffee, taking photographs and sharing the driving – not to mention being responsible for all the design work!

And a big thank you to Helen Tovey and the organisers of Family Tree Live for inviting me and to Debbie Kennett for helping me to get Lines And Ladders to this event.


Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 21: Li Yuan-chia

On a recent visit to Manchester Art Gallery, my friend and I happened upon an exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work. We had visited the special exhibition on the top floor and weren’t going to look further into the gallery. We have visited many times before and have seen the permanent exhibits. We were working our way downstairs towards coffee, when I was distracted by a Bridget Riley. This was out of place. We’d had enough; we were ready for refreshment. But the Bridget Riley was a breadcrumb that distracted us and we turned the corner only to be blown away by several giant metallic discs. Each disc adorned with a splattering of magnets, restricted by the palette of gold, black, red and white, Li’s work is distinctive.

A few years ago, the Tate Modern in London displayed three of Li’s original discs. These were delicate, suspended by thin wire from the ceiling. They turned almost imperceptibly and were placed, firmly, wisely, necessarily, out of reach beyond an alarmed wire. They could be admired. They could be watched. They weren’t for play.

Manchester Art Gallery has done something different. They have commissioned new versions of these works. Far more heavy-weight than Li’s originals and with magnets cut from plastic, rather than delicately hand-decorated. This Magnetic Playground recreates the experience of the LYC gallery. Children are invited, they are welcomed and play is possible, but is not just for children.

The LYC Gallery closed before I could possibly remember it, but I remember the house. I remember the garden. I remember Li.

I remember the solid, sticky traybakes that he used to make and share with us. I remember photographs drying, pegged over the bath. I remember his patience telling us an elaborate folk story contained in a single Chinese character. My incredulity that so many complicated details could be contained in the individual brush strokes that combined together to construct the artistry of the character and the incidents of the story.

The LYC Gallery was near Hadrian’s Wall, in the wild, debatable lands between England and Scotland. My parents were friends of Li and we used to visit him in the house that had been a gallery.  My brother and I played in the garden, which rose steeply from the back of the house to what – for us – was a maze of pathways. The garden was full of eggshells. As children it felt as though the garden might crack open to produce new life or perhaps there was some exciting creature buried there. I wonder now, if that was an attempt to ward off slugs!

In Manchester, we sat and watched a short film that has been made by Helen Petts. An exploration of the house in its setting. Capturing some of the lingering sadness that taints the space that Li was unable to escape.

Behind us was the laughter of people enjoying the space. People playing a three way table tennis game. People drawing at the table. People creating new composite shapes with magnets.

There is a sign on the wall taken from the LYC Gallery, which invites visitors to ‘Enjoy yourselves, but don’t waste paper. The paper is free. Please leave the table tidy.’ This gentle exhortation to tidy playfulness resonates with me. I want you to play and I will provide the space for you to do so, but please recognise the parameters of the game. It is those rules that make play possible. Respect the time that you have given to the game by committing and playing whole-heartedly. Playing is most enjoyable when you dedicate yourself fully to it.

For the first time in Manchester, I saw a connection between Li’s work and my own. Work that I have known as long as I can remember. I recognise in my own playful methods, the restrictions that Li placed on his work. The importance of playing for adults, as well as children and, if possible, all playing together.


Photographs taken during visit to Manchester Art Gallery.

This exhibition is on until 22 April 2019. More information can be found here:

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 20: Place Matters

I was born in Carlisle, but growing up in north Cumbria, I didn’t feel particularly local. Neither of my parents had grown up in the area and although my paternal grandparents lived nearby, I don’t think that I really appreciated what that meant. I knew the house where my grandfather was born – his cousins still lived there – and it was just 5 miles away from where I lived as a teenager. But as a kid and a teenager, even one fascinated by history, I wasn’t really interested. History was further away and further back. Perhaps the thought of my Grandfather as a baby was too impossible to comprehend and so I didn’t connect.

When I did become interested, it didn’t take long to dig up roots buried deep in the Cumbrian soil. Knights Lodge, Ivegill, where my Grandfather was born, had been bought by his grandparents in 1903. As a teenager I had been living within a five miles of where my 2x great grandparents lived and farmed 100 years back.

To get to Ivegill, Isabella and William Nichol had moved from north west of Carlisle to the south. Although, as every local will tell you, Carlisle is the largest city in the country, this really isn’t very far. Their lines can be traced further back into the villages of Cargo, Rockcliffe and Bewcastle.

It mattered to me to bring the game to Carlisle. To take my research home.

I was very lucky that the owners of Cakes & Ale were happy to host me for the week. Cakes & Ale is a relatively new café in Carlisle, but it is part of a local chain of bookshops that has been in the county for many years. As a child, I spent hours selecting second hand copies of Nancy Drew paperbacks in Bookcase and just over 20 years ago I started a Saturday job in Bookends. Back then Bookends was in a different building. It had a small front on to the street, but a flight of stairs led to a maze of rooms underground.  On first discovering this people would often re-emerge in wonder at the treasures they found buried in those caverns.

Now Bookends, Bookcase and Cakes & Ale are all in one rambling building. A building bursting with books, corners crammed with delicious volumes and a welcoming café with mismatched crockery where reading is encouraged.

Bringing the game back to Carlisle was important, but even more than in other cities, the venue here mattered. Taking the game to Cakes & Ale was re-visiting part of my own personal history.

This didn’t mean that the games were always easy and, in the end, there weren’t many conversations about Carlisle, but it was an important thing to do and a perfect place for Lines And Ladders.


Clockwise from top left: Rockcliffe Church; Gravestone of Joseph and Sarah Lowry and their grandson Joseph Edward Lowry at Rockcliffe Church, Joseph and Sarah are my 3 x great grandparents; Lines And Ladders in Cakes & Ale; Carlisle Castle; Hot chocolate and traybake in Cakes & Ale; West Walls in Carlisle; Cakes & Ale.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 19: Meeting people for the first time

Writing the post about playing with my family, I started to think about how to describe the other people who have played with me.

Some are friends, people I know well, have known for ages or have been getting to know for a while. Playing with friends is a chance to find out more about their background; it prompts different conversations from those that we would normally have over coffee. Rather than chatting about work or what we’ve been up to, we find ourselves talking about growing up and about family.

Other players are strangers. People that I meet for the first time when we play the game together. These are the people that I am thinking about today. The word ‘stranger’ seems inadequate and ‘people that I meet for the first time when we play the game together’ is a little too wordy, but describes the group more accurately. The nature of the game means that by the time we finish playing we know quite a lot about each other.

At the Living Memory Association in Edinburgh, I played a game with Sheila Webb. She had grown up in Sheffield, but moved north to Edinburgh when still a child following the death of her father. We talked about her family and we talked about Sheffield. Maybe I was a little homesick by this point, but I really enjoyed sharing memories of my adopted home city. Sheila recalled the evocative perfume of plants from the step outside her Sheffield home; a scent that could still conjure place. She remembered re-visiting the city years later as a married woman and seeing a small seemingly insignificant thing – a pipe in a wall – that took her back to a moment so many years earlier.

We spent a long time chatting and playing, but the details in my notes seem slight. As I sit here and try to recall facts, I struggle.

But I remember the feeling. I remember a friendship made through the game. I remember Sheila who had faced so many difficulties in her own life sharing her stories. I remember her making me smile with her memories. I remember the hug that she gave me when she left.

The research is about experience. One thing that Sheila said was that the game was emotional, that not all the emotions were happy, but that it was nice. I’ve underlined ‘nice’ in my notebook. It’s good sometimes to talk about sad times, about people we miss; I found this when I played with my family, but I also found it when I played with people that I had never met before, including Sheila.

‘Nice’ is a funny word. It’s a positive, but inflected with a sense of inadequacy. Maybe it is a perfect word here, talking about our own family can be comfortable and also uncomfortable. The ladders up and down ensure that the performance moves between both and, I hope, overall that the experience is nice.


Games can currently be booked at Cakes & Ale Café, Bookcase, 17-19 Castle Street, Carlisle, CA3 8SY Sunday, 3 February to Saturday 9 February, 2019, A week of games at 2.30pm every day!

Reserve a FREE place:


Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 18: A Cast of Storytellers

I’ve been thinking again about the naming of players in this research project. As I mentioned in an earlier diary entry, this research is about people’s personal stories so I feel very strongly that they should choose whether or not they wish their experience to be anonymised. The statistics continue to suggest that people wish to be named, of the 41 people who have played, 11 have requested to be anonymous. This is about 27% and is an increase of a little less than 7% since I last reported, but it still minority.

It’s not just the fact that these are personal stories that mean that it is important to use people’s names if they choose. This is performance research; the players of the game are performers. They are a cast of storytellers who make a new performance every time Lines And Ladders is played. The game is facilitated by me and I do tell the same stories sometimes, but each player brings their own experiences.

Graham Dalton told me how much a letter written from one ancestor to another meant to him, how much it revealed about the woman writer, and later, by email, he shared this very moving letter with me. Helen and James McKay played the game on their 47th wedding anniversary and had lots to share about their research, including how Helen had pieced together stories from fragments of information and James’ experiences of genealogical DNA testing. Margaret Milner told how her research had started with the discovery of an Irish Civil War medal. Graham, Helen, James and Margaret are just a few of the storytellers who became performers in Lines And Ladders.

This idea of being a performer in the work may frighten some people. The idea of taking part in a micro-audience performance – of being audience-participants, rather than audience – may be off putting for some people. I hope it isn’t, because people do generally enjoy it. The first question on the reflections sheet is ‘Did you enjoy playing the game?’ The most frequent responses are – ‘yes’, ‘very much’ and ‘I did!’ The only player who did not use one of these phrases in their response, explained that she found herself disinterested in family history the day that we played. Of the cast members mentioned above, Graham wrote that he enjoyed the chance to speak about family history and its role in his identity. Margaret commented that the game gave her a rare opportunity to share her research, whilst James commented that playing ‘stirred memories and brought back the art of communication between people’. Helen also liked the way that the game brought back memories and that it prompted thoughts about family connections.

Myself, I don’t like taking part in performances that set out to make me feel uncomfortable and where I feel put on the spot.  So, I try to create work that allows the audience-participants feel supported and the expectations are clear. The format of the game allows for twists and turns, but only within a carefully managed framework. This allows for improvisation, but, I hope, provides the security of structure.

Most of the people who have played the game do not describe themselves as performers or storytellers. Some have said that if they think about it as performance it is off putting, but having played recognise the performance skills practised in the game.

So far, Lines And Ladders has a cast of 42 players. I am hoping to get to 50 before I move on to the next part of the project, so if you’re interested in being in the cast come along to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on 19 January or Cakes and Ale in Carlisle in the first week of February. More details on the links below!