Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This week’s inspiring woman is artistic director Helen Marriage, who is currently working on the upcoming Processions march commemorating 100 years of women’s suffrage.
On Sunday 10 June, tens of thousands of women will take to the streets in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, dressed in the suffragette colours of white, purple and green. While it might sound like the latest iteration of the Women’s March, it won’t be a protest: rather, it will be an enormous public artwork, celebrating the centenary year of the first women in Britain getting the right to vote.
Titled Processions, the four-city public parade is being produced by Artichoke, the company co-founded by Helen Marriage. Anyone is welcome to sign up to take part in one of the events, which will be televised live by the BBC; upon arrival, each participant will be given something to wear in the suffragette colours of purple, white or green.
“The stripes of the suffragette flag will move through the cities like a living sea of colour, creating this amazing visual impact,” Marriage explains.
Processions is the kind of huge-scale, public art event that Marriage, 60, has built her career around. She started Artichoke with Nicky Webb in 2005, with the aim of producing grand displays of creativity in public spaces. Their first project was The Sultan’s Elephant in 2006, the largest piece of free, outdoor theatre ever seen in London. It took seven years to execute, and was described by theatre critic Lyn Gardner as “nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people”.
Since then, Artichoke has produced other epic public art shows including the Lumiere light art festivals in London, Durham and Derry-Londonderry; London’s Burning, a 2016 festival inspired by the Great Fire of London; and Peace Camp 2012, a UK-wide installation of glowing orange tents on some of the nation’s most remote and beautiful coastlines.
Marriage is conscious of the fact that art events in spaces such as galleries, concert halls, museums and theatres can exclude people, even if they’re free to enter. She believes that the arts shouldn’t just be “about the concerts you put on or the theatre shows you do. They’re about what you do between those buildings.”
“I’ve always had an interest in how you animate public space,” she says. “I think if you put on a show in a dedicated arts building, you’re playing to an audience who already know how to go there, how to buy a ticket, what it’s about – all that kind of stuff. My interest is really in engaging people who don’t necessarily know any of those things.”
She got involved with Processions after she was contacted by Darrell Vydelingum, the event’s creative director. In part, she agreed to take on the project because she sensed it would offer the opportunity to create “a giant artwork”. As well as the colours worn on the day, some marchers will also carry hand-stitched and embroidered banners in the style of those made by the suffragettes; these are currently being worked on by participants around the UK.
“We’ve got everyone from 16-year-olds through to 85-year-olds stitching away,” she says. “So it won’t be like a traditional demo where you might get a cardboard placard or something; it will all be beautifully-made stuff.”
However, Marriage also felt an emotional pull to the concept of the event. Processions won’t just focus on women winning the right to vote in 1918: it will also celebrate the victories of the women’s movement that have occurred in the intervening century, and look forward to what is still to be achieved.
“I’ve got two daughters, I grew up with a single mother, and there are issues around women’s lives that I think still need addressing 100 years on [from 1918],” she says.
“So for me, with my obsession with the occupation of public space, the idea that those four political capitals are temporarily occupied by tens of thousands of women saying ‘My vote really matters’ – that’s a hugely important thing for me. It seemed to me we could create something beautiful and memorable and participatory, that’s also a way of marking the moment.”
Marriage studied English Literature at university, and never predicted that she would end up working on such epic, prestigious public events. She started out producing student plays before moving into various independent arts administration and production roles; before starting Artichoke, her CV included stints working for Canary Wharf and as director of the Salisbury Festival, which she was credited for transforming into “a miracle of modern British culture”.
Now, she’s helming projects that are the stuff of fantasies for many women in the arts. She attributes this success partly to sheer “determination and imagination”, but also to the fact that she’s learned how to invite collaboration, rather than ask for approval. This, she says, is a strategy that comes in handy when negotiating with councils and other authorities.
“I think that when people, particularly women, have an idea that’s a bit unorthodox, they tend to wait for somebody to grant them the permission to do it,” she says. “With the vote, in a way, those women wanted the men to say, ‘Yes, you can vote.’”
But in the end, the suffragettes realised they’d have to push for change themselves rather than wait for it to be handed to them - a philosophy that Marriage herself sticks to when producing events.
“When we’re putting together a new project, we don’t often say, ‘Please can we do this?’” she says. “We say, ‘This is happening, and we really need you to help us’, or: ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could do this together?’”
These kind of questions, she says, are much less likely to prompt refusals from people in positions of authority. “It’s just a completely different conversation and a much more positive relationship, because you’re inviting people to participate in a joint enterprise.”
She’s spent her career getting s**t done, but Marriage is keen to point out that she’s not immune to nerves: in fact, she feels anxious during every single Artichoke project. At the same time, she firmly believes that nerves can be turned into creative fuel.
“I think women imagine that if you have self-doubt or anxiety, that’s a bad thing. I actually think it’s quite a good thing – it keeps you real,” she says. “Don’t worry if something is frightening. If you’re not a bit anxious, you’re probably not pushing it hard enough.”
Processions is produced by Artichoke and commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary. Sign up to take part at processions.co.uk.
Images: Matthew Andrews / Getty Images