Tangled Feet have just returned from 9 days in Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria where we co-created a new piece of site-specific theatre with 5 local schools (150 young people) and the local community. It was a gruelling, fairly stressful and completely uplifting experience.
Since returning home I’ve been thinking about what it means to make work in and alongside a community and how powerful the effect can be when that community has less opportunity to access artistic experiences than others. I’ve also been thinking of where love fits into community theatre.
We set out to make a show that was created by the young performers (and one of their teachers) and whilst responding to and inspired by local realities, we hoped it would stretch everyone in terms of style and content.
The story was developed using the local Loki Stone (a carving of the Norse God of Chaos found nearby) as a starting point. The show started with the discovery of a large box, dug up from underneath the school playing field (local farmer Monty provided the large hole.) By opening the box the spirit of Loki was released and mayhem ensued. We imagined a world where Loki was messing with the elements; water, earth, wind and heat and turning the weather on its head (not hard to imagine recently). What followed was a site responsive, indoors and outdoors promenade performance with live music as we attempted to tame the weather and get Loki back under control.
Reflecting on the experience I wanted to share some thoughts:
1) “Heroes don’t always wear capes”
The arts are held up, celebrated and shared by key individuals in local communities and they are the ones that are sustaining creativity in young people. Tangled Feet were merely visitors to this community and the ambition, free labour and tenacity of Kate Lynch and Vicki Betram who run Kirkby Stephen Community Arts was the reason it happened. They were and are completely professional but did most of this gig unpaid – I wonder if funders, the local community and artists know their extraordinary value.
It seems completely simple to a devising ensemble and probably to many theatre makers reading this but the simple act of giving up creative power and putting the authorship of the art into the hands local young people leads to some astounding results. Yes the dramaturgy may be patchy, the work under rehearsed and design only filtered through a few days of creative thinking but the outcomes on this project were of a different value (that word again). The students and community feel creatively powerful. One student will now start their own drama club in a local school with no drama provision, the school ‘jam’ band is keen to revive, the local amateur dramatic group has new younger performers, the drama teacher had intense CPD, the school witnessed problematic Year 7 boys become men, students from 5 schools bonded through creative thinking. But most importantly the students saw themselves as the artists - they made the creative decisions- they made the art, they were not pawns in the art. Einstein said something like “If you teach a child merely knowledge they will create what they know. If you teach them creativity, they will create things no one has ever thought of.” I feel like this is something we all need reminding of.
3) Work rurally
I loved being in Cumbria. The community and landscape are things of beauty but the rural communities have huge challenges accessing cultural experiences. Tangled Feet have recently worked in the most rural parts of Somerset and Cumbria. I have been struck during those experiences of how isolated young people can be from the arts unless they have a parent ‘to take them’. There is very basic (if any) public transport, a handful of venues if you can get to them and a circuit of under resourced rural touring shows or theatre in education shows that schools can hardly afford. What are we all doing about this or are we just going to continue to have larger playhouses and events and expect people to pitch up to us? I have often suggested that all regular funded arts organisations should make one piece of free to access outdoor art every year, I’ll now add to that list they should all work rurally (at their own expense) or in areas with little public transport infrastructure.
4) Work site specifically/outdoors in schools
Whilst the weather it not always going to be as kind as it has been this summer, going outside (especially with young people) to make art changes the rules with incredible results. Everything becomes more democratic, limitless and the dynamic between collaborators is re-imagined. The walls of a building where art may be hung, the rows of chairs facing a stage and narratives set in rooms are all blown out of the water and replaced by a canvas that has no rules. It also changes how the audience move and talk with each other – the space becomes less formal and less intimidating.
5) The Silo
The experience also highlights the power of gatekeepers and the dangerous attitude of putting creative thinking into a silo of ‘the arty fartys’. We faced some suspicion about why we had come, some key people needed more convincing than others and because the event didn’t include winning anything the value we offered (confidence, team work, creative thinking, friendship, leadership, artistic skill, catering, marketing, lighting, health & safety, negotiation, development ideas.. I could go on…) wasn’t immediately obvious. There was lots of ‘we don’t do that’, ‘it’s not for me’ and I am sure there were some people who tried their best to ignore our presence. I have to ask myself why is that? Their fear? Our attitudes? Our work? Perhaps it’s all tied up in the poisonous thought that theatre is only for a few and you either can or can’t do it. Everyone can be creative and everyone is welcome but its up to both sides to break down barriers.
Love was very present in Kirkby Stephen and the surrounding communities. You could tell the young people really cared for each other and the way the families engaged with the project and their neighbours was a thing of beauty. When I was on one of my site visits in the snow (remember that?) back in March local people took in stranded motorists and gave them a bed and food. On this summer visit I noticed the Police Station is only open two afternoons a week. In this part of the world the community is the emergency service. Never have I worked on a project where every request was met with a cheery ‘I’ve know someone who can do that” and the next day they appeared ready to offer their services. They took responsibility for each other, for the success of the project and for their visitor’s happiness. How often do you take responsibility for your community (however you define it)?
We feel like we started a beautiful new relationship with Kirkby Stephen and the surrounding area and we can’t wait to go back. I’ll leave you with the thoughts of a parent below. Nathan
“What an amazing experience for the audience but more importantly for the students. Such immersive experiences are vital for a small rural school where geography and funds limit access to mainstream art and culture. It may sound unlikely that eight days can make such a difference to children’s lives but such a unique experience which takes them out of their comfort zone and plunges them into a different world alongside other students they may not have socialised with or thought they had anything in common with can be truly transformative.“
Photos by Ben Holmes