To celebrate Philip Astley’s life and legacy, engaging, entertaining and educational activities took place in Newcastle-under-Lyme during 2017 and 2018 – the 250th anniversary of modern circus, now these Philip Astley Project activities and collaborations are continuing beyond to present day with plans in place for the future.
Please click on each heading to find out more.
‘In conversation’ with Andrew Van Buren, key figures from the circus industry share highlights from their careers and the importance of Philip Astley’s ongoing legacy. Organised by the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University, talks initially took place at venues across Newcastle-under-Lyme between September 2017 and September 2018. Philip Astley talks are available ongoing for live and online events.
In May 2018, visitors to the Brampton Museum followed in the footsteps of a team of intrepid research volunteers who have used their skills, tenacity and commitment to investigate our most burning questions… what is Philip Astley and his families connection to Newcastle-under-Lyme? What would his early life have been like? How might this have influenced his later career? The free 12-week exhibition educated and excited adults and young people alike.
On Saturday 4th August 2018, in Lyme Valley Park, the whole community gathered to celebrate Philip Astley at AstleyFest, a free festival. With performances, exhibitions and activities, everyone had the chance to be inspired and get involved. Local heritage, arts and community groups responded to an Open Call to participate, developing new work to showcase in themed areas which immersed visitors in Astley’s early life, equestrian skills and ongoing legacy.
From this initial large scale live AstleyFest 2018 event the 2020 AstleyFest due to Covid was taken online with the help of Appetite – 1st August 2020 saw a full day of online scheduled shows and performances, live behind the scenes footage from Gandeys Circus in Skegness, plus showings of Staffordshire Film Archive historic circus footage, and collaborations with shows around the world.
AstleyFest 2021 is currently being planned.
In January and February and September 2018, Professor Ray Johnson MBE and Staffordshire Film Archive presented two popular circus film seasons at the Stoke Film Theatre. The season included amongst others: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Director Cecil B De Mille), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, Director Ingmar Bergman) and Freaks (1932, Director Todd Browning). After the screenings, Professor Ray Johnson MBE hosted a discussion, drawing out the themes and issues raised by each of the films.
Local people were invited to work with the New Vic Theatre developing a brand new performance about Philip Astley, performed at AstleyFest 2018. With multiple opportunities to participate from writing to performing to taking part in a community choir, this new performance brought new opportunities for the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Under the tuition of Andrew Van Buren, students and staff at Newcastle-under-Lyme College developed their circus skills in order to bring Astley’s story to life in public performances at the College’s state of the art Performing Arts Centre in spring 2018.
A local artist was commissioned by the Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) to develop a town centre trail that included both historical sites and brand-new art work, illustrating highlights from Astley’s amazing life. Launched in June 2018, visitors and residents can pick up the trail from local businesses, be guided by volunteer storytellers, and revel in the circus atmosphere when town centre businesses decorate their windows, taking inspiration from iconic circus posters.
No chance for a quiet drink during this fantastic night to remember in May 2018. Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) brought an array of circus performers to town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to enjoy along with an Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila…
Staff at the Newcastle-under-Lyme Library, the Brampton Museum and local Children’s Centres will worked with the New Vic Theatre’s Education Team to develop the storytelling skills and knowledge of Philip Astley’s story to be able to share this with children across the borough. Co-produced resources are available on the Philip Astley website, creating a lasting legacy for library, children centre and museum staff working in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and beyond.
During 2018 an unmissable media and marketing campaign raised Philip Astley’s profile in Newcastle-under-Lyme and promoted the project’s events and activities. Newcastle-under-Lyme College, the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University used traditional and social media to deliver campaign bursts that share key messages about Astley’s life and legacy.
After the anniversary year promotion continued with 2019 kicking off with Channel 4 program Extreme Cake Makers being commissioned by Andrew Van Buren to create a Philip Astley cake – made by The Frostery this was the perfect celebration cake for Philip Astley’s Legacy.
Since the anniversary year there have been further radio interviews, television news items, newspaper and magazine articles around the world that have maintained Philip Astley’s Legacy and kept the work of the Philip Astley Project team very much in the public eye.
Our evaluation reports summarise the development and delivery phases of the Philip Astley Project. The report for the development phase captures the learning, consultation and feedback gathered which was then used to develop the activities, events and outputs detailed in the report for the delivery phase (an independent evaluation undertaken by The Audience Agency).
The Philip Astley Project is managed by Staffordshire University on behalf of a steering group of local heritage, arts, education and statutory organisations and individuals:
The Philip Astley Project is managed by Staffordshire University.
Staffordshire University is a connected University, dedicated to our students’ and our communities’ success. This is achieved by:
Rob Marsden, Senior Lecturer and Award Leader for drama worked with the New Vic Theatre and the Brampton Museum to develop placement opportunities for Drama and Theatre Arts students, including students on Staffordshire University’s MA in Theatre Practice.
Dr Carmel Thomason, Senior Lecturer in Journalism from Staffordshire University’s School of Computing and Digital Technologies researched aspects of Philip Astley’s life story working alongside the Brampton Museum Research team and Andrew Van Buren, discovering new links to Newcastle-under-Lyme and expanding knowledge of Astley’s legacy in contemporary performing arts. This research supported the development of a Resource Pack for community groups and schools allowing them to continue learning about Astley beyond 2018. Students on Staffordshire University’s Journalism degree courses interviewed well-known performers and experts in circus history.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is a lively market town in North Staffordshire with a population of over 75,000. Home to the New Vic Theatre and the Brampton Museum, the town has a varied and exciting arts and cultural calendar. The Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District organises an annual Jazz and Blues festivals and since 2014 has collaborated with Appetite and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to bring circus to Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre during the Homecoming Festival.
Local citizens are engaged and active in promoting the town’s unique heritage. The Van Buren Organisation has worked tirelessly to celebrate Philip Astley’s heritage in Newcastle-under-Lyme and beyond for over three decades. Staffordshire Film Archive’s Ray Johnson MBE lends his skills and expertise to a range of heritage and arts activities across the county. In addition, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Civic Society has 70 members who meet regularly and plan activities to protect, conserve and improve the character of the historic North Staffordshire town. In recent years, Newcastle-under-Lyme has seen significant interest in its unique heritage. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently supported the St Giles Heritage Churchyard project and the development of the Belong Heritage Gallery, as well as the Philip Astley Project. Thanks to the collective campaigning of civic society, local councillors and officers from Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre now has a number of visual reminders of Astley’s contribution to circus and the broader performing arts traditions including a street art subway, Newcastle-under-Lyme children’s library and the recently renamed ‘Philip Astley walk’.
Astley is our ShakespeareAndrew Van Buren
“After all the years that our family has worked to gain Philip Astley greater recognition, it is fantastic to now see his achievements and legacy being celebrated, not only in his birthplace of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but also nationwide and worldwide. Little did we realise back in 1981 and 1992, the scale that the 2018 celebrations would become.
Astley’s innovative thinking, showmanship, adaptability and drive, are an inspiration that not only influences me, but also are the building blocks that so many other performers and shows are built upon today.
I hope that our plans for an extended heritage trail with the “king pole” centrepiece of a new permanent statue of Astley and a hub of Circus Arts Learning will take shape, bringing new visitors to the wonderful area of Newcastle-under-Lyme, creating tourism, greater footfall and increased spending in the town centre, cementing Astley’s story into the lives of generations to come.
When you consider what William Shakespeare has done for Stratford-upon-Avon, then what can Philip Astley do for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Philip Astley is our Shakespeare!”
The Philip Astley Project is supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund and generously sponsored by local businesses who recognise the benefits of the project for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
The Philip Astley Project is working closely with the V&A Museum and other members of the national Circus 250 Network.