Suffolk Archives

Summary of activity

Witchfinder is an immersive music theatre performance, developed by Cohere Arts CIC. It is inspired by the infamous witch-finding activities of Matthew Hopkins in East Anglia during the 1600s. In 2021 funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund enabled Cohere Arts to develop a range of activities related to the performance with partners including Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service and Suffolk Archives at The Hold, a new archive building in Ipswich.

The activities included community workshops, recorded performances, a Witchfinder Day and an immersive history evening held at The Hold. The event included an audio performance of Witchfinder and was attended by 30 teachers from primary and secondary schools across Suffolk. They were introduced to the new archive facility and the extensive resources available to support the history curriculum.

Poster of the WitchFinder music theatre performance containing a black and photo of a house and yellow text

Image credit: Cohere Arts CIC

Challenges and opportunities

Witchfinder was a flagship project for Cohere Arts and Suffolk Archives; they had not worked in partnership before. The Hold had just recently opened following a major capital development. This project provided an opportunity for staff at Suffolk Archives to showcase the new building and introduce audiences, specifically schools and teachers to the new history resources available to them.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented a number of challenges to this project and the immersive history event. Visitor restrictions were easing at the time of the event but some people were still wary about attending public events. There was a limited lead time for marketing and uncertainty around what was possible in relation to evolving restrictions. This included working out how many visitors and staff could be in the building for the performance and what contact details needed to be collected. Added to this there was a traffic incident on the evening of the event which led to a bridge being closed which disrupted people’s travel plans.

Despite these challenges 30 teachers attended. Upon their arrival, audiences were greeted by actors in costume and character, allowing for a gradual immersion in the world of 17th century rural Suffolk life. After sharing a drink with the judge, a chat with the reverend, and brushing shoulders with Matthew Hopkins, the audience settled in the venue’s auditorium space for a special audio performance of the show in semi-darkness. Hearing a recording of Witchfinder made within a 16th century Puritan chapel transported listeners through time whilst they sat within a brand-new building.

Following the audio performance, staff from Suffolk Archives presented examples of artefacts and documents relating to the real-life historical accounts of Hopkins and his colleagues, including parish records. This enabled staff to show off the building and rich archival resources available. Teachers who joined the event were so engaged that they have been keen to return and discover more about the history of Suffolk.

“This was so different and engaging – I learned some new ideas about how to present history differently.”

History teacher

Outcomes for service users

The evaluation of the Witchfinder project identified three themes which emerged in feedback: confidence, different ways of exploring heritage and community.

Confidence included:

  • Participant and artist confidence, which was boosted via the project, from learning new skills, to participating in an event as Covid-19 restrictions lifted.
  • Heritage organisations showed confidence in taking risks and trying new methods of engagement.
  • Partner organisations gained confidence in each other.

Exploring Heritage included:

  • Recognising the creative potential in using a heritage building or particular story as a starting point.
  • The power of audio which provides a ‘way in’ to both heritage and arts for audiences with access needs.
  • The possibility of developing specific technology for use in heritage sites beyond the traditional audio tour.
  • Audio is a powerful tool that inspires people to use their imagination to fill in gaps, humanise stories and make local connections.

Community included:

  • Art as an experience you take part in rather than just observe.

The list below highlights the engagement of all activities across the Witchfinder project:

  • 18 Community Workshops between June – July 2021 (38 participants)
  • A recorded performance of Witchfinder at Walpole Old Chapel in July 2021 (50 participants)
  • Witchfinder Day public event at Christchurch Mansion in August 2021 (278 participants)
  • Immersive history CPD event for teachers and Interactive Art Exhibition at The Hold in Sept 2021 (40 participants)
  • The development of a range of online educational resources around Suffolk’s witch-finding history (launched Sept 2021) (88 views, 26 downloads (to date)
  • Digital engagement via blog posts and social media updates between Jun – Sept 2021Website Twitter Facebook (1081 views
    3128 profile visits 9051 reach)

Teacher attendees were very positive about the immersive history event at The Hold. Of the 30 attendees, 16 completed written feedback questionnaires. 87% rated the event as very good or excellent. Some project participants were new to the heritage venue, and it was Witchfinder that brought them there. 40% of the teachers who completed feedback forms said that they had not visited Suffolk Archives before.

Comments included:

‘Loved the place – a really great resource right on our doorstep!’

‘Original approaches that will really appeal to children.’

 ‘New ways of engaging audiences.’

At least four of the teachers have since returned with school groups to explore other elements of history at the archive. Others who attended the session have expressed an interest in returning with their schools.

At the event a new range of teaching resources informed by Suffolk Archives and inspired by Witchfinder was launched. This selection is hosted on the TES website.

What was learned from the process?

The key thing learned by Suffolk Archives and Cohere Arts was the importance of being flexible, adaptable and resourceful. Having to work with what you’ve got in the challenging circumstances of Covid-19 often constrained the project, but it also provided an opportunity to think differently and emphasised the need to be flexible and responsive. This was seen particularly in relation to marketing the event and encouraging teachers to come into the venue when restrictions were just lifting.

In addition, it was not clear how actors and staff would feel about having in person audiences. In response to this a staggered entry was organised. It took some time to work out the logistics but it worked when put into practice. Guidance on venue re-opening, social distancing and visitor numbers was rapidly evolving, presenting additional complexities for the event organisers. It was not possible to write a risk assessment until just before the event and it took a lot of time to work out which staff could be in the building at the time.

The cast who took part in the performance learned about heritage and history, about the story of the Witchfinder and the real people impacted by local witch-hunting. They took the stories off the pages of the archives and brought them to life in new and interesting ways, telling the stories of real people.

Key advice

The key piece of advice Suffolk Archives and Cohere Arts would give to anyone thinking of taking on a similar project is to approach the project with an open mind, focus on co-creation and collaboration. It won’t work if you go into it with any fixed ideas.

Taking an open approach will allow you to find the stories and see where they can be taken through a creative process. By keeping an open mind and approach it was possible to create more interesting performances.

The immersive event went well because of the freedom offered to the artists. The event itself was not what attendees expected and allowed the artists to be creative really paid off.

How will this work be developed in the future?

Cohere Arts plans to take the show into more heritage venues, using spaces which are not traditional performance venues. They see these performances as a way to engage more people in their local heritage. Cohere Arts are interested in exploring how to build on the use of audio in performances and in heritage spaces as this is something they have developed expertise in from the Witchfinder project.

The project was exciting, affirming and stimulating for Suffolk Archives and they are keen to continue working with artists to bring the stories of the archives alive. Projects in consideration at the moment include working class histories, using the archives as a stimulus to share some of the more unknown and overlooked stories of working-class people who lived in the area. Suffolk Archives wants to give these people a platform through drama and musical interpretation.

Since its opening The Hold has become a cultural hub in the town. It is a place where people come to view different exhibitions, participate in singing, dancing and other creative activities. They are planning on running another teachers event on local history but will have to wait until schools are ready, when CPD for teachers becomes a priority again.

Find out more about the case study by contacting Many Rawlins, Community Learning Officers, Suffolk Archives