Since 2016 we have been running our Equalities Workshops in schools, prisons and workplaces – holding open discussions on inequality, equity, the justice system, the difference between law and society, and collective and individual action towards change. It was not only our experience in the world that spurred the workshops into creation, but also working in the arts; seeing and experiencing the lack of society reflected in buildings, in performances, in conferences, in offices. The arts has been pushing to be more inclusive for decades now with numerous strategies calling for change; there is clearly a problem in the arts*. We know it, we feel it, and we want it to be better.
For a decade we’ve been trying to convince people that theatres can be home. Theatre for us has been a place of creativity, exploration, comfort, vulnerability, connection and understanding. A place of safety.
But now, in the middle of a pandemic, there are very few places that feel ‘safe’ at all. For the same decade, Slung Low theatre company have been connecting and convincing their local community in Holbeck to take a chance on art and culture too. So when the pandemic hit, their venue, like most venues across the country, was forced to close its doors.
Slung Low worked with their local council to turn their venue into a hub for Food Bank collections to run alongside their lamp post exhibitions, short films and online game shows. Now, Slung Low are seeing new people through their doors and Artistic Director Alan Lane said that “the pandemic has made the group feel part of the community like never before, even meeting people who live 12 doors down who we’ve never seen before”.
People new to their building are collecting their prescription from the Artistic Director, getting familiar in the space and feeling comfortable in it. Slung Low have hopefully opened an opportunity for future connections; the people who have crossed their threshold will feel more comfortable to do so again, especially for something they may feel uncertain about, like a theatre experience.
Last week, The Lowry Theatre began operating as a temporary court of law, one of several ‘Nightingale’ courts as part of a strategy to help secure the future of its building and the livelihood of its staff. The news has been welcomed by some, because as a mainly commercial venue, about 95% of the venue’s income fell off a cliff’s edge in March.
We too don’t want to see The Lowry’s lights turn out – we’ve had so many joyous moments in that building. For many of the extended Art with Heart family: community collaborators, audiences, artist peers, community and voluntary partner organisations, our work has been synonymous with The Lowry because we were Associate Artists there for 4 years up until graduating in March.
Over those 4 years, we held workshop discussions about equality and LGBTQ+ rights with local year 9 students in their studio, hosted a pop-up wellbeing room in an art classroom, shared personal experiences of mental ill-health and medical diagnosis on their stages, posted social media and blogs and held coffee and culture chats with local elders in their meeting rooms.
We have held performances on the eve of general elections and the day after the EU referendum in that building. We’ve navigated difficult experiences with audiences on both sides of the political divide and welcomed people into the building for creative conversations who had previously never stepped foot inside before. For many, their initial association with both Slung Low and The Lowry buildings will not be of art, theatre or cultural activity.
As humans, we imprint memories on places. Some are more flippant than others – like describing a place by noting an experience like ‘where we went for Megan’s birthday’. Others are markers in time, like describing where you were and what you were doing when the millennium turned, when the twin towers fell, or when Prince died. Others are personal, etched inside us as huge events in our lives. Sarah can tell you the exact bench where she fell in love, the doorway she clung to when she came out, and the seat in her friends’ living room where she told her Mum that her Dad had died. Rachel can stand in the exact spot on Canal Street where a man threatened to ‘beat the gay’ out of her and her girlfriend, and recall the exact way a fluorescent light shone on the ceiling in Salford Royal A&E as she was given a diagnosis. Often when we return to these places, walk past them, they’re not conscious memories, but a subconscious reminder in our gut as our body remembers the event.
We are firm believers that our job is not simply to hold a mirror to the world. We are active citizens, as well as artists. While it is important that we ask difficult questions of society, we must do so with sensitivity, safety and support. Our acts of creativity come with a commitment to care. We care about people and the issues facing our communities.
We are currently working on a children’s production that explores parental separation; feeling torn through the middle as your parents create two separate worlds for you, not being certain of where you fit – and parents who have to come to terms with a huge change in circumstances.
Family courts see many different cases and for some, like adoptive parents, it can be a place of relief as an adoption order passes. For many, it can be a place of anxiety and fear; with hearings about custody, contact time or the decision to forcibly remove their children. These ‘Nightingale Courts’ will hear civil, family and work tribunals as well as non-custodial crime cases, including debts and evictions.
We understand that there is a backlog of cases in the system, we have friends and family members counted among those statistics- that isn’t something anybody wants. But holding court sessions in a theatre means that for some, it will be synonymous with the place where life changed.
And as those involved with and affected by the criminal justice system are disproportionally people of African and Caribbean heritage and working class people**, this decision will inevitably cause pain now, as well as have the potential to damage the accessibility of the venue to those people after the pandemic.
Last year at a performance of Scottee’s ‘Class’, working-class people in the audience were asked what their childhood sounded like – the overwhelming response was ‘bailiffs knocking’. With more and more people tipping over the poverty line, including freelance artists, evictions are an anxiety-fuelled reality for many. In July, the charity Shelter warned that when the pandemic eviction ban was lifted over 230,000 renters were at risk of eviction.
In their announcement, The Lowry told the public that becoming a ‘Nightingale’ court was a new ‘starring role’, which was followed by journalist comments joking about the news bringing a new meaning to ‘courtroom drama’, alongside distasteful comments from people on social media requesting tickets to see the court in action. We, on the other hand, are extremely concerned about the long-term impact of this decision.
Huge life changing moments happen in courts, and those will be etched into the minds of the people who are working hard to feel confident enough to walk through an art venues’ doors and feel like they belong.
Of course, venues need to repurpose to secure their future, but these short-term solutions can either create positive connections, or build long-term mountains to climb. Post-pandemic, The Lowry will need to encourage people to feel safe enough to re-cross the threshold of a place they felt most uncomfortable, and reframe it as a place where they can feel at home with art. And that will be a mammoth task.
At Art with Heart, we believe that theatres should be civic spaces: places of sanctuary, safety and community. So we’re finding it hard to corroborate a place we have called home as one where many will experience fear, disruption, and pain.
We have experienced first-hand The Lowry as a force for good, they have invested time and money in us at an early stage in our career, connected us to local communities and helped us to develop creative projects that tackled social justice and equality. Over the years, we have been active advocates for their work, particularly their learning and engagement initiatives and Artist Development programme.
We want The Lowry to survive. We care about people working in the building and the people who benefit from their programmes. However, in the fight for the industry’s survival, we must stay true to our values and decide who are we saving our seats for? Those who can afford them or those who have been standing for far too long.
Rachel and Sarah
* In 2019 The Stage reported that only 10% of theatre directors are working class, and when talking about class, we can’t ignore race as part of that conversation. The IRR reports that “throughout the UK, people from BAME groups are much more likely to be in poverty (ie an income of less than 60 per cent of the median household income) than white British people”. In 2016 The Independent reported that 90% of Artistic Directors are white, and in the same year The Stage reported that 92% of theatre audiences are white people. In 2018 The Guardian reports “In London, where 41% of the population is BAME, some theatres had a BAME workforce as low as 5%.” and that “research for UK trade bodies revealed 93% of people working in theatres were white”.
** In 2017 a review led by the MP David Lammy concluded that the justice system was biased against this group, and required reform. The report said that ‘People from black, asian and minority ethnic backgrounds constitute only 14% of the general population in England and Wales, but make up 25% of its prison population.’ In 2019 Lammy expressed deep concern at the ‘extremely high proportion of black, asian and minority ethnic males in young offender institutions (they made up 51% of this prisoner population)’. The Lammy Review found a clear direct association between ethnic group and the odds of receiving a custodial sentence: ‘with Black people 53%, Asian 55%, and other ethnic groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates’. ‘Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. They are also nearly 60% more likely to plead not guilty’.