Arts and Older Audiences


Originally written for The Stage.

When attempting to improve engagement with theatre, focus often falls on the young. It is of course vital for the survival and reinvigoration of the art form that new generations come into our theatres, both as artists and audiences, and are inspired to keep coming back. But what are theatres doing at the other end of the scale?

Over the last few years, the problems raised by an ageing population have been firmly on the political agenda, raising questions about how this growing group of older people can be catered for in society. In a report commissioned for Parliament in 2010, it was found that over 10 million people in the UK were over 65 years old, a figure that was expected to have nearly doubled by the middle of the century.

This age shift is reflected in cultural attendance. According to the latest statistical release from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there has been a significant increase in arts engagement among adults aged 65 and over since 2005/06, but adults aged 75 and over still have lower engagement rates than other age groups – arguably due to barriers that limit their access.

In recognition of this demographic movement, the Arts Council has now begun implementing strategic measures to boost engagement among older people, in line with its promise of “great art for everyone”. Last year, it launched a £1 million grant jointly funded with the Baring Foundation, intended to widen access to the arts for older people in residential care.

One of the successful recipients of funds from this initiative was The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford, which in recent years has been firmly committed to working with older people and those with dementia. Penny Allen, the Arts and Older People project manager at The Courtyard, explains that their programme involves a mixture of long and short term projects, ranging from a poetry project for people with dementia to a regular over 60s choir. The arts centre is also committed to becoming a “dementia friendly” venue and is the first organisation of its type to join the Dementia Action Alliance.

“Art has the power to reach people who may no longer be able to communicate as they once did,” says Allen. “By making arts accessible to all older people, be it in our venue, or in community venues or even residential settings, we are helping improve the quality of people’s lives and that is a powerful, wonderful thing.”

Inspired by the work being done at the Courtyard, Farnham Maltings in Surrey is taking similar steps to make its building welcoming for people with dementia, as well as offering events such as relaxed cinema screenings and tea dances aimed at older audiences. Director Gavin Stride insists that “if we are serious about audience development then we need to respond to the changing shape of our communities”. He hopes that in time “it will be an everyday occurrence to have elders and those with dementia accessing and contributing to our building and programme”.

Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, similarly sees the venue’s work with older people as part of its aim to connect with the whole community. “That’s the key thing,” Turpin stresses, “we want to connect people.” ARC’s Silver programme now regularly welcomes around 160 older people, who get involved with everything from ukulele lessons to iPad workshops. Crucially, the programme has been shaped in response to what its participants want.

The Albany in South London has equally built its Meet Me at the Albany programme around the older people it hopes to reach, as well as in collaboration with its resident artists, such as participatory arts company Entelechy. Activities in the programme range from poetry to circus skills, interspersed with board games and refreshments. Artistic director Gavin Barlow hopes that the work they are doing can pose “a real challenge to the way we think of things like social care for the elderly”, as well as creating a long-term programme that involves true artistic risk.

Both ARC and The Albany are involved in a new collaboration with Entelechy and Freedom Studios in Bradford, culminating in a joint touring show. Home Sweet Home, written by Emma Adams, draws on the experiences of over 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton, and explores the transition that many experience from home to care home. It demonstrates just one way in which this participatory work intersects creatively with the work of professional artists.

As well as connecting artists and participants, many of those working with older people emphasise the importance of intergenerational engagement. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Heydays programme, which has been running for 24 years, is currently the largest regularly run project of its kind. Community development officer Nicky Taylor says that the work they do with older people “feeds back into the fabric of Playhouse, ensuring it’s a diverse, multi-generational creative space where people feel valued”.

Intergenerational work has also been an integral component of the work done by London Bubble Theatre Company, based in South London. Elders are often central to the process of gathering and shaping material for London Bubble’s intergenerational shows, working closely with participants of all ages. More recently, the Creative Homes project has taken London Bubble’s workshops to those who might not otherwise be able to attend, running groups in local sheltered housing schemes.

Creative Homes, like many of these projects, is still at a relatively early stage in its development. What it does, however, is pave the way for others. Taylor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has the message that “you can make real and significant change in your venues with only a few small steps”. Barlow, meanwhile, claims that Meet Me at the Albany has demonstrated “massive potential” for work of this kind.

For all of these projects, the aim is ultimately about opening out the arts to the whole community – young and old. As London Bubble’s creative director Jonathan Petherbridge puts it, “Our aim is to open up the joys of theatre making to all-comers. We want to weave it into the every day – a creative action, like whistling and doodling.”

Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse.

“We’ve a responsibility to widen the net”

NSA_ 0071 Image provided by Creative & Cultural Skills © Briony Campbell

Originally written for The Stage.

In 2011, following years of debate around the growing culture of internships in the arts sector, Arts Council England issued a set of guidelines for employers taking on interns. This document outlined the Arts Council’s determination “to open employment opportunities in the arts to all” and made it clear that interns should be paid the national minimum wage. But has anything actually changed?

On the one hand, it would appear that little has shifted. Once again it is that time of year when those hoping to break into the arts look to the Edinburgh Fringe, which promises a cornucopia of opportunities but little by way of payment. While the Festival Fringe Society does pay its staff, as do a number of the commercial venues such as Underbelly and the Assembly Rooms, many more rely on voluntary or poorly paid labour. C Venues, for instance, hires staff on a “semi-voluntary” basis, offering accommodation and an unspecified “minimal freelance fee”, while even the Traverse Theatre has advertised for unpaid festival placements.

Of course, it is not just on the Fringe that interns receive a raw deal. Many theatres across the country operate unpaid internships the whole year round, often for understandable reasons. For some organisations it is the only economically viable model available to them if they want to stay open, and for interns it can provide opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them. Internships also remain something of a grey area, with the Arts Council’s guidelines admitting that “there is no formal, legal definition of an internship”.

There is, however, a new scheme that seeks to address some of these difficulties. The Creative Employment Programme, funded by a £15 million grant from the Arts Council and delivered by Creative & Cultural Skills, hopes to widen access to careers in the arts by supporting paid opportunities for unemployed people aged between 16 and 24. The programme is offering internships and apprenticeships for both graduates and non-graduates over the next two years.

“The aims are to address youth unemployment as best we can, encourage people into the arts through different and fair access routes, and hopefully to change some of the recruitment practices that are in our sector,” explains Paul Marijetic, head of apprenticeships at Creative & Cultural Skills. He recognises that those who currently enter the industry tend to come from a “small demographic”, so one of the key goals is to widen this pool of recruits.

Through this new initiative, organisations looking to establish paid internships or apprenticeships can apply to the Creative Employment Programme for part wage grants, either as individual institutions or as consortia. In keeping with the aim of widening access, successful employers must then sign up to a Fair Access Principle and advertise the positions through the Job Centre Plus.

“With this programme we wanted to meet people who we don’t normally meet when we recruit,” says Emma Rees of the London Theatre Consortium (LTC), one of the first networks to benefit from the scheme. This group of 13 theatres, including the Royal Court, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Donmar Warehouse, is offering 38 apprenticeships across the two years. “We didn’t advertise through the normal channels,” Rees continues. “We thought about how to find people.”

Another early bid to successfully receive funding was from House, a consortium of theatres across South East and Eastern England which will be offering 16 internships in 11 venues. Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings and one of the key figures behind the consortium, stresses that “we have got a responsibility to try and widen the net in terms of the ways people engage in the sector”, adding that “sometimes you need to be ambitious to make things different”.

Marijetic is keen for others to follow the lead of LTC and House, making it clear that the Creative Employment Programme is welcoming consortium bids. By working together in this way, groups of theatres can offer much more valuable opportunities for interns and apprentices, as well as providing them with a broader overview of the industry. The LTC, for example, will offer apprentices a glimpse at the inner workings of all 13 theatres, leaving them with “a really strong grasp of the broader ecology of London theatre”, while Stride says that he can see interns moving between the different House venues depending on their skills and interests.

There is also the possibility that consortia could offer a sustainable model to take forward after this two-year programme concludes. As Marijetic explains, there is other funding available from government agencies to support these opportunities, but the money is often closed off to smaller organisations. He recognises that funding is going to be vital in sustaining these kinds of initiatives in the long term, describing the Creative Employment Programme as “the catalyst, the financial push to enable [organisations] to make that change”.

The organisations themselves seem equally committed to creating long term change. “We’re really, really keen for this scheme to develop into a viable alternative to university,” explains Rees, “not just reaching those people who might otherwise go to university, but reaching those people who most certainly wouldn’t.” Once again, however, money is the stumbling block. “The will is usually really strong, but this kind of work does need financial investment,” she admits.

If such opportunities are able to continue, there is even the suggestion that they could spark more widespread change. Stride argues that perhaps the most important thing about the Creative Employment Programme is that it will bring in “people who think differently” and who might be able to breathe fresh air into theatre organisations. “We need to be looking outwards, not inwards,” Stride insists. “We’ve got to take down the barricades, because actually they’re not defending us, they’re killing us.”

Photo: Briony Campbell for Creative & Cultural Skills.