The English Department at JMU is involved in two initiatives relating to the Merseyside town of Prescot, situated in the borough of Knowsley. These come together as Prescot Renaissance.
The first of these projects arises from the fact that Prescot was the site of a unique cultural development in the 1590s when it became the location of the only freestanding, purpose-built theatre outside London in the Elizabethan period (and it is one of only three or four such theatres built before 1625). The starting point for our research is that, while there is clear archival evidence for the existence of the Prescot Playhouse, very little is known about it: when exactly it was built, what performances may have been put on there, who the audience might have been, or what company or companies of players performed there. Our approach has been to explore the cultural ecology of the playhouse in order to produce greater understanding of the functions and meaning of its existence. This line of research into the cultural history of Prescot and into the origins of the playhouse has built on the work of other scholars (the Toronto-based Records of Early English Drama project) in paying attention to non-metropolitan performance in the early period. It has also taken place in dialogue with others involved in the overall project, especially Professor Richard Wilson (Cardiff) whose influential research into Shakespeare’s possible connections to Lancashire is centrally important.
Our research into the cultural history of Prescot led to initiation of a material project, in collaboration with Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council and the independent Shakespeare North Trust in 2005/6. A bid for £25m capital funding towards the building of a commemorative early-modern theatre (inserted in a larger modern theatre and community complex) was made to the Big Lottery Living Landmarks scheme. The project was awarded £250K development funding. It was subsequently one of only nine projects nationally, out of several hundred original applications, to be deemed fundable, although it was not one of the three projects finally awarded funding in late 2007.
From 2008 to the present, the Shakespeare North Trust Development Board has worked to raise funds from private donors and charities, aiming to gain £2m by 2012. SNT has been successful in gaining significant pledges from private donors and to recruit a number of potential further donors. Fundraising will now focus, again, on regional and national public funding applications and funding from charities. Through the creation of the commemorative theatre and educational and cultural activities connected with it, the projects aims to contribute to the regeneration of Prescot and Knowsley. The theatre and associated educational activities will establish Prescot and the borough as a student-centre, a visitor centre and a cultural hub. This, in turn, will stimulate economic, educational and cultural growth and regeneration.
Prescot Townscape Heritage Initiative
The second project strand we are involved with in Prescot is the Prescot Townscape Heritage Initiative. This project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to:
- Conserve and restore five buildings of historic importance in Prescot.
- Generate activities relating to these buildings and populate them in order to make the buildings sustainable in the future.
- Revitalise the culture of Prescot in relation to its heritage in order to stimulate future economic, educational and social growth
- Create a sense of community ownership of both the project and the town's heritage and culture
- Provide educational and skills acquisition opportunities in relation to the conservation and heritage project.
This broader project intersects with Shakespeare North and consolidates work we are undertaking with the community in Prescot and KMBC. Members of English at LJMU are involved both in the development of the THI project and in brokering its interaction with the Shakespeare North project. LJMU students are undertaking work-placements in Prescot relating to the project, researching the cultural history of buildings, leading community consultations, recording the progress of the project itself, and producing plays, poems, and visual materials. They are holding a day-long event incorporated into the Elizabethan Fair in 2012 to raise awareness of Prescot’s heritage. With the project managers of the THI the students are preparing a bid to Heritage Lottery and to the Mary Portas High Street competition to continue this work with groups of Work-Based Learning students in future years.