Arts and Older Audiences

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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.

Home is Where the Art Is

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Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

What value do you attach to a community art exhibition? How do you assess a conversation on a funding application? Is it possible to put a price tag on a space that allows young people to feel that the art inside belongs to them?

Responding to Arts Council England’s recent report on arts funding,Towards Plan A, some commentators suggested that arts organisations might be better off formulating a funding plan B. It’s clear that pleading the economic case for the arts is failing to have the desired impact with the government, while equally failing to take into account the many other, less tangible ways in which the arts produce value.

The alternative proposed by a recent article on the Guardian is to transform cultural organisations into vital, cherished hubs of their local community, making their disappearance unthinkable. This is not a new idea; many organisations are already buzzing hives of community activity – think of the local classes and workshops at Battersea Arts Centre, or the Albany’s commitment to open its doors to the people of south east London.

But it’s beyond London, where the funding climate is harsher, that such initiatives might have the greatest impact. This is certainly the hope of Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, who insists that “arts centres have a much bigger part to play in the lives of local people”.

It’s her aim to open up the organisation as much as possible to its community: “giving people permission to come in and use the building.” Alongside its artistic programme, the ARC hosts activities that cover all demographics, from children’s dance classes to an extensive programme for older people. “It’s a very broad spectrum, and that allows us to attract people from right across the community,” Turpin explains.

The same discovery has been made by mac Birmingham, which can boast high levels of engagement with its local community. “What’s important is the range of what we do because we are a multi-artform centre,” stresses artistic director and chief executive Dorothy Wilson. The centre aims to take visitors on a journey, offering various points of entry and leading them to unexpected destinations, be that a contemporary theatre show or a craft workshop. Its mantra is that the community are all artists. As Wilson puts it: “We encourage people to feel that this is a place for them.”

One of the greatest assets held by arts centres is their space. This is something that has been recognised by Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and Farnham Maltings in Surrey, the latter of which has offered much of its space over to its local community. “For us to thrive – to be truly popular – we needed to become relevant to more people and improve our usefulness,” says director Gavin Stride.

The difficulty, however, can be getting people over the threshold. “I don’t think we make enough of the fact that it’s free to come into an arts centre,” suggests Turpin. As public space shrinks, arts centres remain some of the only places that can be enjoyed without necessarily having to buy anything, a fact of which local people are not always aware. It is for this reason that mac Birmingham, for example, invests heavily in “free at the point of access opportunities” for those who might just stumble across the venue.

As well as throwing their doors open, some venues have gone further in their attempts to hand ownership over to local people. Matt Fenton is a passionate advocate for involving audiences in programming, an idea that he first tried out at the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster and has now taken to Contact, Manchester, where a group of young people from the area have a key role in how the venue is run. He argues that audiences today expect more of a “two way conversation” and that the best way to target new, more diverse audiences is to represent their voice from within an organisation’s decision making structures.

“If arts organisations are genuine about a desire not just to reach more people but more broadly across the spectrum of their communities, then they’re going to need to think about how open they are, how engaged they are, as organisations,” Fenton insists.

The anecdotal support for these approaches is backed up by some compelling statistics. Contact’s commitment to young people has resulted in audiences that are 70% under 35, while mac Birmingham achieves 30-65% crossover audiences across its arts programme. Chapter boasted 800,000 visits in 2013, two-thirds of whom attended non-core activities and, as all of these organisations are keen to emphasise, none of this is at the expense of making great art.

Convincing as this model may be, however, the organisations that have committed to it all stress that such changes cannot be made purely in the service of self-preservation during difficult times. As Fenton puts it: “Arts organisations, especially publicly funded ones, should be doing this anyway.”

Photo: Chapter Arts Centre.

Little Bulb

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Originally written for The Stage.

Novelty has become something of a raison d’être for Little Bulb. Since forming at the University of Kent and making their name with Crocosmia, a sweetly ingenious tale of three orphaned siblings, the theatre company have pursued fresh challenges for each successive production. Be it mounting a gypsy jazz opera from scratch in Orpheus or learning to dance for Squally Showers, they are always seeking new skills.

“Each show should be different,” insists director Alex Scott, “either thematically or stylistically.” Their quest for new challenges has led them down unexpected avenues, hopping from intimate character pieces to physical work to musical epics. Scott suggests that while some companies are happy to hone their expertise in one genre, Little Bulb’s members “tend to be a bit flighty”. As founder member Clare Beresford adds, “why should you shut something down just because you’ve become accidentally known for one thing?”

Discovery is embedded in the company’s way of working. “Normally we start with a name,” explains Scott, “and then part of our process is to work out why the show’s got that name and what the plot is. We like having processes where you will find out as the process is developing what’s happening to the characters.”

If any connecting strand has emerged throughout their work, it is music. But even this, it transpires, was something of an accident. While all the founder members were passionate about music, it was only through working together over time that this became a vital ingredient of their productions. “It’s just grown and grown through something almost irresistible,” says company member Dominic Conway, whose instrument of choice is the guitar. “There was never a grand plan and early on music wasn’t really in our mission statement.”

Crocosmia, which was first created as Scott’s end of year project at university before making waves at the Edinburgh Fringe, used a record player as a central prop in the narrative. From there, the company began incorporating live music into their shows, first in sprawling folk opera Sporadical and then in Operation Greenfield, which explored the awkwardness of adolescence through the story of a Christian folk band.

“Music is very powerful,” says Scott. “It’s a way of accessing emotion and portraying emotion in a way that sometimes naturalism struggles to.” In more recent work, this investigation of music as a theatrical tool has been taken even further. Since 2011, the company has taken their music into new territory by performing as a band under the name Goose Party, while Orpheus demanded them to master a completely new genre: gypsy jazz.

The show was born from a “really open” commission from David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre. “His brief was ‘we’d like you to create a show on a bigger canvas’ and it literally could have been anything,” Scott recalls. Little Bulb hit on the mythical narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice, which they paired with legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to craft an intricate show within a show. The company recruited additional members, learned new instruments and upgraded to the imposing space of BAC’s Grand Hall.

The show, which is being revived for a second run this spring, offered an opportunity for the company to stretch their ambition beyond the intimate work that had gained them their reputation. They explain that the support of BAC was essential in this jump from small-scale to mid-scale. “Sometimes you do something that you would never do because somebody else has trust in you,” says Beresford. “If somebody has faith in you taking the risk, there’s something very freeing about that. It adds extra pressure, because you don’t want to let people down, but it also gives you the impetus to do something.”

Little Bulb admit that they have been lucky to have this kind of support throughout their career so far, both from BAC and from their producers Farnham Maltings, who “actively support our sort of contrary genre-shifting”. Perhaps their greatest genre shift to date was the one they embarked upon for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show Squally Showers, which saw them ditch the instruments and put on their dancing shoes.

“We wanted to do something completely without live music,” says Scott, acknowledging the abrupt departure from the style that had won them a faithful following. “Although we never like to disappoint an audience, we just thought this is a challenge that we need to do for ourselves. We wanted to do something that was accessing a physical language rather than a musical language and see where that would take us.”

The resulting show uses dance, movement and a series of long, wordless montage sequences to tell the madcap story of a television news studio in the 1980s, mixing politics and pirouettes. Scott admits that “some audiences were completely confused by it”, but stands by the show as an important creative exploration for the company. Scott intends to take elements of what they have learned forward into future projects, adding, “I don’t think we’d be intimidated by a dance sequence in a show now”.

What has endured through all of Little Bulb’s shows, albeit in varying ways, is their fascination with character. Scott is interested in placing the company’s carefully drawn characters in a world “where it is naturalistic but also anything else is possible, so you’ve got all that potential for dreams and metaphor and all of those things, but they feel like real people”. Beresford agrees: “I find it really freeing that you can use something so solid but in a structure that’s so free”.

In developing the compelling character dynamics that drive their narratives, it helps that Little Bulb are extraordinarily close-knit as an ensemble. The group all live together while making their work, an arrangement which, as Conway explains, allows the creative process to be as flexible as possible. “Sometimes you really crack an element of the show lying in bed at night having a bit of a chat, or you hit upon a really good idea over breakfast,” he says. “It’s great if you can just turn up at 10, do the work, have a lunch break and come back, but in practice you never know when the good ideas are going to come.”

“We like working as a group of friends,” Scott adds. “Even if you’re just chatting and becoming closer as people, then that shows on stage that the ensemble is very close.” But this practice of spending every minute of the day together does also have its drawbacks. “On the flipside, it’s hard to turn off, which has its own dangers as well,” Beresford warns. “Where does work end and life begin?”

For now, work and life are once again blurring, as the company’s hobby of playing gigs as a band is about to become even more central to their work. Little Bulb are just starting work on their first album, rekindling some of the ambitions that inspired Goose Party. “We’re just doing it for the love of experimentation and to see what comes out of it,” says Conway, while Scott laughs, “it may not reach the higher end of the charts”. If nothing else, it’s a new challenge.

Photo: James Allan.