D&D 14

‘Local Stories, Local Communities’

Session 1: Penguin.
(Session held by Susanna, Hannah, Amy & Sarah of the ‘Change Of Art’ collective: www.changeofart.org.uk)

Our session quickly became a discussion about inclusivity, class, and how to engage typically non theatre-going audiences (especially those from minority communities) into the theatre.

We all shared ideas and strategies which had worked, and which had not worked for welcoming more diversity into the audience, or welcoming people who did not usually go to the theatre.

There was also a sharing of ways to build theatre OF and FOR a community, how to build relationships, be respectful and thus avoid parachuting in. We discovered some very beautiful, inspiring ways to bring local stories to life.

Local stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things is something that many can relate to beyond the community they originate from. It has such value in the current climate, as it brings about hope.

We also covered reach. Meaningful focused work with a deep impact on a small number of people i.e. one artist going into different communities and figuring out how to get to know people, vs making work to inspire a much wider range of people e.g. making 1000 short films in one project.

Some bulleted notes:

Always asking oneself: Who is this piece of work for?
Building relationships within a community takes a long time.
How can we make theatre feel more welcoming? Theatres can intimidate. Can we make changes to the building itself? E.g. Stop selling posh crisps and expensive drinks. Could we change the location of the work to a more familiar space?
Free tickets are never free enough, as it costs people time too.
How can we debunk the idea that theatre is boring?
How can our written publicity copy work to help this inclusivity? Should we remove words like “community’ and ‘theatre’ and ‘art’ all together? Choose clearer language?
What is the hook? Under the umbrella of community theatre, what will make people want to come and take a chance?
How do we find the gatekeepers of local communities?
Does a community arts project really need to have a public performance outcome? How do we avoid exploiting local community members/stories for an audience of ‘chinstrokers,’ theatre people on a ‘cultural safari’? Always asking, who is the project for?

Some of the challenges that were explored / mentioned included:

- Many people have experienced difficulties with getting ACE funding for projects that will be developed with local people / commissioned artists. This has particularly been the case when running festivals or events that need funding before you can confirm exactly who will be involved and what the work will be. Examples of this have included Coventry City of Culture, DARE Festival, and others. Many people have found they have needed to take a risk and confirm commissions for artists or local people before applying for funding. However, Big Lottery and local councils were referenced as funders that are more open to providing funding for projects like this.

- The Playhouse in Nottingham is managing to increase the diversity of their audience, but still struggling with the diversity of artists involved. A suggestion was made that involving local people and a more diverse range of people at an earlier stage in the programming of the work might help this.

- Overcoming the perception of what theatre is and the expectations of the audience is a challenge when getting local “non-arts” communities to take part. Made in Corby found that one person they’d been speaking to didn’t come to a show because they felt that they had nothing suitable to wear to the theatre. We need to break down perceptions that you need to be posh or dressed up to attend the theatre.

- Similarly, an example from a previous D&D was raised where some people felt that the crisps in the theatre were too posh and therefore made the environment feel alienating. Making theatres feel inclusive and accessible to local people and communities involves considering the small details such as the food offered so that it feels like a space for everyone.

- An example of family members who have come to shows and have put games on their phone in case they are bored. How do we demonstrate to local communities that theatre isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, boring?

- Involving young people on boards is a great initiative to increase diversity. However, the rest of the board needs to be trained in how to engage with them properly so that they feel integrated and can have their voices heard, rather than tokenistic.

- There is a misconception that there is a large group of people who don’t go to the theatre. However, a lot of people DO go, but they go to a big West End show once a year as a treat, and not their local, or subsidised theatres. How can we help this transition from big shows to smaller ones in their local communities? Similarly, many people do know that their local theatre exists and use it for other things such as toilets, but don’t engage with the creative programme e.g. at The Albany.

- Copy and images often don’t speak to local people and communities. Edinburgh Fringe is a great place to see examples of bad copy.

- What do we call community theatre? We don’t want rules and labels, but we do want people to understand what it is i.e. built with and for communities, rather than work that has been parachuted in.

- Shorthand terminology for theatre can be problematic when trying to engage local people or groups who don’t know it. We should consider how we speak about theatre - do we even call it theatre?

Some examples of projects that were referenced in the session which have worked with local stories / communities:

- Lewisham Festival of Creative Ageing

- The Albany’s ‘Bed on Tour’ - an outdoor touring project with older people lying in bed sharing stories.

- Made in Corby - a process that took a lot of time. They have been working in the community for 6 years and are still chipping away and building trust up slowly between them and local people. They ran a community arts festival that involved local people in programming by giving them the “bigger picture” - a variety of options of what could be chosen and was affordable. A key takeaway from this was that it takes longer to programme when you are including the local community, and that if you do open it up to them, you must be willing to take on board their suggestions and consider them seriously.

- Living Legends (also by Made in Corby) - an arts project to feature local legends in Corby. They were nominated through a Facebook poll and a community panel decided which people to feature. It was about local people putting other local people forward. The outcome was a photo and poetry exhibition featuring each person. A lot of people came to the gallery to see this because they wanted to see people that they know and recognise in it.

- A local choir in Northampton (?) who learnt Polish Christmas songs and then performed them in a Polish church.

- A short film project 1000 Londoners, attempting to make 1000 short films, each focusing on a local person. To gather stories they went out onto the streets and chatted to local people.

- London Bubble - Charting the Mayflower - a show being made with cities across the UK (Plymouth and others). R&D took place with the local community, local historians etc…

- Playhouse in Northampton - have a festival of one act plays each year. They accept submissions from anyone and will programme all of the plays, extending the length of the festival if need be to fit all of them in. There are no other rules for entry.

- Local papers sharing positive stories of local people: Peckham Peculiar, Lewisham Ledger and Dulwich Diverter.

- Slung Low’s Knowledge Emporium was an Airstream trailer set up as a sweet shop. To receive sweets, you had to share a story. Sweets as a leveller between people in the community and artists.

- A project where Turkish cafe owners shared stories over a greasy fry up in their local cafes with audiences.