Performance of the Year

A Street Like This: by Alison Carr & Unfolding Theatre Alison Carr’s community play.

A Street Like This, was commissioned by Unfolding Theatre and directed by its founding artistic director Annie Rigby. It premiered here at The Fire Station before embarking on a successful regional tour and was a hugely collaborative affair, involving professional actors and volunteers from Sunderland and the surrounding area. There was a band, too, led by musical director Ross Millard of The Futureheads. Conceived before Covid and delayed by lockdowns, it told how a neighbourhood reacts to a sudden shocking event, not a pandemic in this case but a massive sinkhole in the street, and of the unexpected friendships that arise.

I, Daniel Blake: a Northern Stage, tiny dragon Productions, Birmingham Rep, Oldham Coliseum and English Touring Theatre co-production, in association with Cardboard Citizens

Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake highlighted iniquities in the benefits system and had plaudits heaped upon it after its 2016 release. The play, which premiered at Newcastle’s Northern Stage, similarly moved people. Adapted by Dave Johns from Paul Laverty’s screenplay, it updated Dan’s story to encompass the cost-of-living crisis and proliferation of food banks. Directed by Mark Calvert and involving a wealth of North East talent, including a talented cast led by Davey Nellist as Dan, Bryony Corrigan as Katie, Kema Sikazwe as China, and Jodie Wild as Daisy, it earned rave reviews and standing ovations wherever it was performed around the country.

Lasagna: by Open Clasp Theatre Company

Open Clasp’s play Lasagna, about two women who seem at first to have nothing in common other than that they’re neighbours, began online. Its first performance for a live audience was in March at Newcastle’s Live Theatre when Beth Crame played a young woman whose children have been taken into care and Zoe Lambert, her concerned older neighbour, dismissed at first as a busybody. In Open Clasp style, the play, directed by Laura Lindow, emerged from real-life stories and was co-created by women helped by Pause, a charity which supports women at risk of losing their children to the care system.

Best Arts & Business Partnership

Kielder Observatory and Novus at HMP Northumberland

With funding from the Joicey Trust, Kielder Observatory, a small charity in Kielder Forest, was able to work with Novus, a not-for-profit social enterprise which provides learning opportunities in prisons and young offender institutions, to make astronomy available to people serving sentences in HMP Northumberland. In a notable first, astronomers from the observatory delivered workshops and made presentations to those who expressed an interest in the subject. Writer Bridget Hamilton was engaged to lead six sessions, helping participants to put what they had experienced into words which were included in an anthology of poems with each contributor receiving a copy.

Laing Art Gallery and Ad Gefrin Visitor Experience & Distillery

Ad Gefrin agreeing to be headline sponsor of the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery was a perfect synergy. The Ad Gefrin Visitor Experience and Distillery, which opened this year in Wooler, was designed to celebrate the Anglo-Saxon ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria which was to spawn the Lindisfarne Gospels, as well as being a whisky distillery and showcasing the area’s art, crafts and produce. A forthcoming visitor attraction was therefore able to help an existing one. Dr Chris Ferguson, Ad Gefrin director of experience, said the partnership had been “a privilege”. There were more than 56,000 visits to the Laing exhibition.

Tracks Darlington CIC and Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership

The Last Train Home is a music and comedy festival which has run in Darlington for six years. The original aim of the organisers, music collective Tracks Darlington, was to deliver gigs close to the station, finishing in time for the last train home. After Covid pushed the festival online, they wanted to make the 2023 edition bigger and more inclusive and eco-friendly. This they did, despite having to move one stage from the station to the Hippodrome because of a rail strike, with financial support from Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership. Among other things, this funded professional publicity which boosted ticket sales by 67%.

Best Museum or Cultural Venue

Alphabetti Theatre

Under dynamic founder Ali Pritchard, who is soon to hand over the reins, Alphabetti has established itself over 10 years as a crucial part of Newcastle’s cultural ecology. Located on its current site since 2017, after empty offices were turned into a welcoming space, it continues to be a launchpad for aspiring creatives. Its supportive atmosphere and ‘Pay what you feel’ policy have helped to build audiences, particularly among people who feel priced out of other theatres. One award shouldn’t guarantee another but this year Alphabetti was the first venue outside London to win Fringe Theatre of the Year at The Stage Awards.

Beamish: The Living Museum of the North

In keeping with its name, time doesn’t stand still at Beamish even though it might lag a bit. Having reached the 1950s, a decade remembered by many grandparents, it has endeavoured to recreate it. Five new exhibits opened this year, including 1950s council houses, a bowling club and aged miners’ homes, following six in 2022, including John’s Café and a recreation of the Spennymoor home of late artist Norman Cornish. The museum in County Durham attracted 788,000 visitors last year making it the region’s most visited attraction and the 15th nationally among attractions where you pay to get in.


Since it was founded in 2021 by Jamie Eastlake – proud possessor of the Olivier Award behind the bar – and comedy writer Steve Robertson, Laurels has become a place to go for entertainment and to meet interesting people. Its aims include promoting artistic expression and engaging with the community, with an emphasis on working class and local talent. In little time Laurels has punched above its weight, launching a lucrative playwriting award and having one production, Gerry and Sewell, adapted by Jamie from the film Purely Belter (itself based on Jonathan Tulloch’s novel, The Season Ticket), revived at Live Theatre.

Heritage Award

The Auckland Project

The achievements of The Auckland Project since philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer decided to invest in Bishop Auckland have been impressive and extraordinary. The charity was set up after his purchase of Auckland Castle, one-time seat of the Prince Bishops of Durham, and its famous Zurbaran paintings. It has since contributed to turning a County Durham town with a rich heritage into an increasingly popular tourist attraction. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Auckland Castle has been restored and its contents reinterpreted and October saw the opening of the country’s first Faith Museum, following The Spanish Gallery and the Mining Art Gallery.

People Powered: Stories from the River Tees at MIMA

What began as a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, which loaned photographs during its London closure, turned into a wide-ranging exploration of storytelling focused on the River Tees. After three years’ groundwork, the exhibition opened at MIMA in Middlesbrough in July and can be seen until January. It includes portraits taken at Navigation Lock by Gilmar Ribeiro, a soundscape by musical duo A Man Called Adam, 60 artworks from the Middlesbrough Collection, a mosaic wallpaper made by Diane Watson working with schoolchildren and artworks by teenagers who attend MIMA’s Saturday Club and elders who meet weekly at the gallery.

The Union Chain Bridge

The 203-year-old Union Chain Bridge spanning the River Tweed near Berwick reopened in July after a £10.5 million restoration. Money came from local authorities in England and Scotland, the National Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England. But it was the Friends of the Union Chain Bridge who campaigned to save the structure, rallying local people and groups after the bridge was put on the ‘heritage at risk’ register in 2013. There were projects in schools, a film shown at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, exhibitions and publications. The bridge is now an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark like the Eiffel Tower.

Visual Artist of the Year

Bobby Benjamin

Bobby Benjamin grew up in a large family in Redcar and found his own way into art, making things with stuff he found on the street. “All these years later and I’m still doing the same thing,” he says. “Except now I’m building art.” Moving to Middlesbrough, he tried photography but found it too expensive so focused on found materials. He has been involved in setting up several galleries in the town, the latest being Pineapple Black. His work featured in a recent Middlesbrough Art Week fringe show and through his lecturing at Teesside University he aims to make art widely accessible.

Lizzie Lovejoy

Since graduating from the Northern School of Art, Darlington-born multimedia artist Lizzie Lovejoy has been an Artist of Change at ARC, Stockton, artist-in-residence in South Tyneside and at Durham University and a busy freelance illustrator, writer and project leader. Recently Lizzie led on Queer Shores & Seas, engaging with hundreds of people from Tyne to Tees ahead of physical and digital exhibitions. Fascinated by history, Lizzie also initiated Trailways focused on the Bishop Line railway linking Bishop Auckland and Darlington. Interviews, workshops and extensive research resulted in station artworks, a publication, an exhibition at Darlington Hippodrome and a celebration event.

Janina Sabaliauskaitė

Originally from Lithuania but now based in Newcastle, Janina Sabaliauskaite is an artist specialising in photography. Also a curator, researcher and collaborator, her work looks at the history of feminism and LGBTQ+ visibility. In 2022 her first UK solo exhibition opened at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland. Sending Love, featuring photographic portraits of friends and loved ones from her personal archive, celebrated the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and encouraged dialogue about the fight for human rights in Eastern Europe and the UK. The exhibition was seen by 40,000 people and led to other exhibitions in Lithuania.

Arts Council Award

I, Daniel Blake: a Northern Stage, tiny dragon Productions, Birmingham Rep, Oldham Coliseum and English Touring Theatre co-production, in association with Cardboard Citizens

I, Daniel Blake was a landmark show for Tiny Dragon Productions, Northern Stage and the North East. Along with other co-producers from Oldham Coliseum, Birmingham Rep and English Touring Theatre in association with Cardboard Citizens, they delivered an authentic stage transfer of the Ken Loach film which toured nationally and was enjoyed by people new to theatre as well as regular theatregoers. Adapted by Dave Johns, I, Daniel Blake is described as one of the most important stories of a generation offering a glimpse behind the headlines and the stark reality of what happens when the political system is stacked against you.

Tall Ships Races Hartlepool 2023: by Hartlepool Borough Council

Hartlepool Borough Council put together a brilliantly diverse artistic programme which supported the arrival of the Tall Ships Races to Hartlepool in July 2023. Working with Hartlepool's performers, producers and artists, the Council created an immersive maritime experience during the Welcome Weekend, as well as a wider cultural programme exhibited across the town's artistic and heritage venues. A special mention goes to Jonny Hannah's colourful year long project and exhibition Shipbuilders and Fisherfolk which engaged many Hartlepudlians and local venues. The programme in its entirety brought to life Hartlepool's past and present, to shine a light on its bright, creative future.

Your Library Story: Darlington Library Creative Programme, led by Darlington Borough Council

Your Library Story by Darlington Library Creative Programme and led by Darlington Borough Council, was an exciting and varied reopening programme for Darlington Library in September 2023 which involved existing service users while encouraging additional engagement through free and ticketed events, drop in sessions, workshops, an exhibition with a new commission and training. Artists involved in the project included Lisette Auton, illustrator Lizzie Lovejoy, model-maker Steve Mayes, animator Sheryl Jenkins, Bigfoot Theatre in Education, Curious Arts, Tees Music Alliance and Tracks Darlington.

Newcomer of the Year

Hamzeh Al Hussien

Hamzeh Al Hussien came to the North East from Syria via a refugee camp in Jordan where he first realised his gift for entertaining despite a lifelong disability. He told his story in Penguin, an engaging solo show produced by Curious Monkey, the region’s first theatre of sanctuary, which worked with him since he arrived in the region keen to make his mark as a performer. He did that with Penguin, a tour de force of storytelling and physical theatre that earned standing ovations and was a credit to himself and Curious Monkey, soon to wind up after a decade’s good work.

Sofia Barton

Sofia Barton was one of four artists whose work was chosen to be displayed on the Tyne & Wear Metro and therefore seen by 35 million passengers a year. She had responded to the open call by Nexus, which owns the system, to create large scale artworks capturing what it means to live in the region today. Blazing Trails is a vibrant montage representing the diversity of modern North East society. Sofia, who grew up in Newcastle, reflects her Punjabi heritage in her art and champions ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT+ community.

Ben Gettins

Since graduating from the Project A acting course at the Theatre Royal, Ben Gettins has made a mark both as a performer and a writer. He appeared in Owen Saunders’ play Down the Lines at the Customs House last year and this year, as joint winner of the inaugural Peter Lathan Prize for New Writing, saw his own play, Wearmouth, loudly applauded at the same venue. Ben, from Sunderland, drew on his experience of growing up on the Pennywell estate to write his award-winning play about Sunderland fans Luke and Steven who meet regularly on the Wearmouth Bridge before home games.

Jack Robertson

With his name becoming increasingly familiar, Jack Robertson, from Whitley Bay, is definitely one to watch. He is probably still best known for establishing the online sketch troupe, Metroland Comedy, but he enjoyed further success this year with Where It Ends, his short comedy film chronicling the challenges of putting on a two-person panto in a care home. Featuring himself along with a top cast of Charlie Hardwick, Dave Johns and Lauren Pattison, it aired on BBC Three and is still viewable on BBC iPlayer. Outside the scope of these awards, Jack starred recently in Gerry and Sewell at Live Theatre.

Performing Artist of the Year

Audrey Cook

Audrey Cook is a Teesside-based contemporary theatre maker and creative practitioner who has worked for organisations including Curious Arts, Alphabetti and ARC in Stockton. The latter awarded a residency in 2022 which resulted in the solo show Ricky the Itch, commissioned for Stockton International Riverside Festival and then revived for this summer’s Stockton Pop Up Pride. As a “Queer modern folk tale told through surreal storytelling and theatrical cabaret”, its humour and ingenuity delighted audiences and introduced many to a person, as one admirer put it, seemingly destined to become more than a cult name on the indie theatre scene.

David Nellist

Wallsend-born David Nellist has had a busy spell on home turf, most recently bringing Dan in I, Daniel Blake to the stage under the eye of the man who played him on screen, Dave Johns. He did so brilliantly, captivating audiences with his portrayal of a good man struggling to negotiate the welfare system. Also, launching Live Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, he played salt-of-the earth Len in new play Love It If We Beat Them. And while it’s not strictly necessary to qualify for a Culture Award, he also raised more than £8,000 for West End Food Bank by cycling 350 miles.

Yamit Salazar

Yamit Salazar, born in Colombia and brought up in London, has won fans throughout the North East for his eye-catching performances over 10 years with Eliot Smith Dance for whom he is guest dancer and rehearsal director. This year saw him triumph in his greatest challenge for the company as the mesmerising lone performer in Human, a work choreographed by Eliot Smith and with music by Adam Johnson. Comprising a series of demanding solos inspired by what it means to be human, Yamit performed for audiences across the region on a tour that began with May’s premiere at Newbiggin Maritime Centre, Northumberland.

Best Event of Exhibition

BBC Proms at The Glasshouse International Centre for Music

In July, the BBC Proms staged its first weekend outside London in its 128-year history, taking over The Glasshouse International Centre for Music – then still called Sage Gateshead. It generated a special atmosphere and featured six very different concerts. Royal Northern Sinfonia accompanied Self Esteem and CBeebies Open Adventure and performed the main Saturday evening concert featuring music by Mozart, Brahms and Missy Mazzoli. Night Choir featured choirs swelled by volunteers and in the smaller hall jazz performers Yazz Ahmed and Arun Ghosh lit up the stage, followed by countertenor Reginald Mobley and pianist Baptiste Trotignon celebrating the African American spiritual.

Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival

Hadrian’s Wall 1900, celebrating the 1,900th anniversary of the beginning of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, took place throughout 2022. It featured a huge and varied programme of events along the 73-mile length of the UNESCO World Heritage Site between Wallsend and Ravenglass. One of the most eye-catching attractions was The Future Belongs To What Was As Much As What Is by artist Morag Myerscough who was commissioned by English Heritage to create a joyous reimagining of the gatehouse at Housesteads. The temporary artwork, comprising more than 300 panels and involving many volunteers, was visited by more than 42,000 people.

Image Credit:  Apertura by Ed Carter, Nicky Kirk, and Tony Broomhead. Photo by Jill Tate.

Lindisfarne Gospels at the Laing Art Gallery

Last autumn Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery played host to the Lindisfarne Gospels as one of our great treasures returned to the city for the first time since 2000. The book was the centrepiece of an exhibition spanning three galleries, providing context and also showing how artists have represented spirituality. It attracted over 56,000 visits to the Laing with the exhibition the catalyst for a year-long programme of events around the region. These Are Our Treasures, curated by artist Ruth Ewan and featuring people’s personal treasures, was shown at the Laing, as was The Deliverers, a new film by Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller.

Newcastle Puppetry Festival 2023: by Moving Parts Arts CIO

The Newcastle Puppetry Festival in April was the fourth produced by Moving Parts Arts and the biggest yet. It began with a spectacular parade along Northumberland Street and over nine days included shows, workshops, films and other attractions that were attended by some 12,000 people from the North East and beyond. Two community projects, Wor Seahorse Spectacle and Teeny Tiny Toon, involved 400 local residents. More than 140 artists and other freelancers were employed during the festival which took place across eight city venues. The programme featured six UK premieres by puppet companies from The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Canada and France.

Best Arts & Education Partnership

British Museum in your Classroom: by Middlesbrough Museums

If you can’t get to the British Museum, get the British Museum to come to you. That’s what a Middlesbrough Museums team did. Prolonged negotiation resulted in pupils from two primary schools being invited to choose an item from its collections as a catalyst for learning. A 3,500-year-old canopic jar used by the Ancient Egyptians in mummification duly travelled to Teesside. The children worked online with a British Museum curator and developed their own school exhibitions around the relic. Their work was later shown at the Dorman Museum. Seventy pupils then visited the British Museum on a first trip to London.

STAR: a North East and North Cumbria Child Health and Wellbeing Network collaboration led by TIN Arts

STAR saw more than 900 pupils aged four to 11 and 80 staff at three schools in Redcar & Cleveland working with dance artists from Durham-based TIN Arts from last September until July 2023. Northern Ballet provided workshops and talks and two of its productions, The Ugly Duckling and Merlin, were used as platforms to explore issues around exclusion and identity. The STAR project was designed to enhance physical and mental wellbeing and the outcomes were positive, showing how a collaborative approach involving education, arts and health can bring real benefits to young people and their families in less advantaged areas.

Town Moor Hoppings School: by Newcastle City Council School Effectiveness Team, Great North Museum: Hancock and Partners

While the famous Hoppings funfair takes place on Newcastle Town Moor each summer, the children in travelling families must attend school. But this year, as last, that temporary ‘school’ was Great North Museum: Hancock with the museum and its facilities becoming integral to their learning. An artist was engaged to enrich the experience, sessions were arranged with museum staff and there was a celebratory closing event. All were made to feel welcome and those involved, including the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, reported back on a positive experience for the children who embraced it with enthusiasm and an investigative spirit.

Writer of the Year

Lisette Auton and Richard Boggie

Lisette Auton and Richard Boggie co-wrote Chip Dissolve Burn which enjoyed a summer run at Newcastle’s Alphabetti. The black comedy tells of old university friends Peter and Rose, played by Steven George and Helen Fox whose disabilities mirror the writers’, who haven’t seen each other for 21 years until Peter turns up at Rose’s flat with a mysterious suitcase. The play highlighted inequalities faced by disabled people and satirised attitudes towards disability. Billed as an example of what can happen “when disabled and non-disabled worlds collide”, it also involved unseen actors Matt Jamie and Zoe Lambert and BSL interpreter Sue Lee.

Dave Johns

Dave Johns was best known as a stand-up comedian until he became a ‘filum’ star after taking the lead in I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s hit film about the iniquities of the welfare system. He then adapted the story for the stage, making the play, which premiered at Northern Stage, a worthy follow-up to the film and updating it to reflect the cost-of-living crisis. Dave, from Wallsend, has been a writer for years, producing his own stand-up material but also writing for radio and, with Owen O’Neill, adapting the Stephen King tale The Shawshank Redemption for the main house stage.

Dr Louise Marie Powell

In a busy year, Louise Marie Powell, from Middlesbrough, has had three plays performed, including Grown Up Writin’, joint winner of the inaugural Peter Lathan Prize for New Writing at the Customs House, and Impulse, staged in a programme of short dramas at Live Theatre. She has also seen the publication of Coal Face, commissioned by Redhills CIO, The Cultural Spring and University College London, which featured her interviews with 13 of the last men to work as miners in Washington and photos by Andy Martin. She also won New Writing North’s Sid Chaplin Award for her novel-in-progress, Underdogs.

Special Award for Young Achievement

B.O.P Fest: by Jack Drum Arts

The family-friendly BOP Fest was created by members of the youth board of Jack Drum Arts, based in Crook, County Durham, all aged from 14 to 18. It was designed to educate people about climate change and protecting the planet but in a fun way. This year’s festival, the second, featured a range of activities including a parade, live music, street theatre and workshops such as stilt walking, making musical instruments from ‘rubbish’ and designing costumes for the parade. There was a lot of drumming and a sensory tent where people could relax. It attracted around 2,000 people.

Young Musicians Project

Run by We Make Culture CIC, Young Musicians Project comprises weekly sessions for aspiring teenage musicians at the Field Music Studio in Sunderland where they receive guidance and encouragement and have the chance to make friends and collaborate. Founded and run by Laura Brewis, Young Musicians Project is seen as one of the driving forces behind Sunderland’s burgeoning music scene. One mother describes how her daughter loves to sing but suffered from severe anxiety. Since attending the sessions her confidence has grown remarkably so “she now performs in front of hundreds of people as the lead singer of a band”.

The Young Women’s Film Academy Saturday Club

Members of the Saturday Club, a diverse group aged 12 to 18, meet fortnightly at Newcastle Arts Centre, often travelling long distances to develop creative film-making skills and take part in other activities. In January the Saturday Club secured Community Foundation funding for a film exploring identity. Members formed a steering group to develop ideas and then recruited a writer to help them create a script. They then engaged a director and cinematographer and auditioned for roles. The film, called Mosaic, was shot during the summer holidays by Saturday Club members, supported by female mentors, and premiered in Newcastle on October 14.