Theatres Trust seminar highlights ingenuity of UK theatre groups

One of the things about theatre practitioners and groups is that they are often so focused on their work and its delivery that they don’t really have the time or energy to spare to make their accomplishments more widely known.

What has been heartwarming has been the swell of appreciation across the country for theatre groups as they figured out a whole new way of working during our pandemic-restricted times.

The Theatres Trust has done much work during this time to support and champion theatres and companies up and down the UK, through funding, publicity and also webinars which have given companies a chance to come together, listen and learn from each other’s efforts and successes in making a difference in their local communities. What is great is that you and I and anyone who shares our interest in how theatre groups work, can watch and listen to these inspiring conversations too. They are well worth your time, I can say.

On 3rd February, Tom Stickland of the Theatres Trust chaired an illuminating online seminar about how theatres and theatre companies across the UK have been approaching the pandemic as it affected their communities.

Entitled “Theatres with communities in 2021”, the session illustrated eloquently and in detail how arts organisations had been jolted into thinking differently about their remit and how they interact with their communities, in some cases almost reinventing themselves entirely in order to serve their locality

The wide selection of contributors came from across the country.

Sarah Brigham CEO and AD of Derby Theatre described their outreach programs PLUS ONE which works with people in care or leaving care, and DERBY RISES, which brings in otherwise excluded or marginalised communities to participate in the communal act of making bread and then baking it. “We started from what the group wanted, not what we thought they wanted. We tried to put the community in the driving seat” said Brigham.

From Slough, Home Slough’s Director Saad Eddine Said and collaborator Christina Brooks-Abraham talked about the challenges and successes of creatively engaging their communities during a pandemic and in an area where creative engagement was very limited. After listening to their users, they invested in coaching to help individuals become initiators of change. They also created Global Cooking Theatre, recognising the universal language of food which has the potential to break down barriers and preconceptions, which was received warmly by the community.

In Leeds, Slung Low’s Alan Lane and Graziela McIntyre described their challenges to help their local square mile of community, creating partnerships with companies and Leeds FC who all brought different things to help the local community. The cultural community college they ran has transformed into a social care refrerral unit and foodbank, offering arts activities on a pay what you can basis. As Alan said, the pandemic has “made us realise that we weren’t as close to our community as we thought we were.”

From Theatr Clywd in Mold, Wales, Director of Creative Engagement Gwennan Mair talked about community outreach including 12-hour hubs to give respite to families, online help for dementia sufferers and fostering a feeling of connection and involvement with teenagers and younger people, ensuring that they feel they have a voice.

Jonny Davenport, co-founder and AD of The Old Court in Wigan talked about working with the local council to build new relationships, creating a call handling system for those seeking help, working with a local food charity to compile and deliver food parcels to those most in need. Delivering packed lunches to schoolkids in half-term, they worked with youngsters to engage them in online activities and even managed to create a touring mobile panto on the back of a beer lorry! As Jonny says, “The fact that we were relied upon in a crisis is really humbling.”

The enormous learning opportunities thrown up by this sudden shift in activity was fascinatingly uncovered in this hour-long online discussion.

I do urge you to take a look at it when you have time. It is truly inspiring, in a way that is rarely – if ever – reported in mainstream media.

Thanks to Theatres Trust for putting these seminars together and for all the participants for their amazing work. Proof, if any were needed that the arts matter now even more than they were before.

The seminar programme is supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation.

You can watch the seminar via the Theatres Trust website here

For other seminars in the series, please visit the Theatres Trust website here

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