Many years ago we did a project on Portbello Market. The Knowledge Emporium. A sweetshop in a shiny caravan that refused to take money and swopped sweets for people’s knowledge before reading the area’s contribution back to them at the end of the residency. Simple enough.
God they hated us in Portobello Market. First two days I don’t think anyone approached us. Apart from two or three angry people who raged against Richard Curtis and the various ill-fated projects that had attempted to engage in this area of clashing levels of posterity.
The rules of Knowledge Emporium were always really clear. We didn’t try to sell it to folk, when people approached, intrigued we would explain as charmingly as we could but convincing people to come in was the wrong attitude for the thing. We stood. The high street is full enough of people who aggressively want things without adding to it. We would, in our reasonably silly costumes stand outside the caravan for 8 hours a day gently smiling and looking friendly. It was one of the founding rules of the project but in the face of such animosity in Portobello market I didn’t quite know what to do.
And then it rained. Rained for the whole day. That hard rain that bounces off your face. Rain no idiot goes out in.
We stood outside that caravan the whole day in the piss pouring rain. Drenched through to the skin. Stood in bowling shoes and bowties like very daft palace guardsmen.
Next morning the woman who ran the laundrette across the square was the first to stroll over. “You’re mad you lot.” “We promised we would do this. Didn’t say we’d stop if it started raining.” We’d broken the back of it, they started coming in, the thing worked, and by the end of the fortnight the book was filled with their knowledge.
Stand in the rain. It’s our short hand at Slung Low for doing the thing that shows you’re serious in your endeavour, that you are willing to pay the cost of keeping your word. It’s still only one of two ways I know of overcoming the sort of quite reasonable suspicion from communities who have been consistently let down or disappointed by cultural or civic projects. (I met the brilliant Rob Trimble at Bromley by Bow the other day who calls this sort of thing “turning up”- that’s how you get it done. I like that. You turn up when no one else will.)
We’re at the end of week 10 at The Holbeck. We’ve taken over the running of what was the oldest working men’s club and set about turning it into a community club and arts centre. (Previously on The Holbeck here).
For the first four weeks we said yes to every practical request from the members: outside tap, new glass washing machine, re-varnish the bar and on. A month of grafting: we replastered, repapered and painted rooms for toddlers, bedrooms, offices for other theatre companies.
The last of the things that had been mentioned was a vertical allotment- a resident had tweeted us about it and we hadn’t got around to it in January. We got that done this week. The vast majority of club members are positive about our arrival and the collaboration between a theatre company and a members club. But just as when we moved into the area (transforming 5 railway arches in to The HUB) ten years ago and there were some who declared we were “rich playing at poor and we won’t last 3 months” so there have been people who write to us to tell us we are “just hipsters, for people who want to come to the rough side of town.” The person who said we wouldn’t last 3 months is, a decade on, part of our Cultural Community College choir now and so I know we will, eventually after standing in the rain some more, win over those who are suspicious of our move to The Holbeck- by actions not by statements- which seems fair enough. But making The Holbeck a space vital to every part of our community is no easy mission- it’s a task worth our best and every effort.
So we decided that we would accept all bookings for the rooms of the club (unless they were commercial ventures without redeeming features towards whom I feel we have no obligation). The Concert Room upstairs is a really lovely event room- we use it for college classes, teaching cooking and t’ai chi up there last week, and it’s also a 250 cabaret style performance space, we host our visiting shows there and our cabaret nights. But it’s clearly useful for other things, other types of events. And for a while it’s not been available so we set about making that right.
Firstly in order to book it you don’t need to know any of us or have an ”in”- you fill in a simple form online or in person at the club. They’re on the walls by the front door. It’s as transparent as we can make it.
And we say yes. As long as we are available and you are willing to accept the rules (no drugs, you can’t bring your own drinks, we’ve a zero tolerance policy on underage drinking, last orders is 2300, that sort of stuff) then you’re in.
And we ask that you make a contribution to the club. Whatever that may be. You don’t need to leave a deposit.
The least interesting way to look at the people who use the club is customer.
The club is not financially viable in the non-subsidised market place purely as a pub. Trust me. Ask the brewery if you don’t. If you want to pay all the people who work here then it will make a loss. No matter how much you charge people to use the space. The financial limitations of the area, the change in society’s drinking behaviour and leisure activity as well as the physical obstructions of Holbeck all create a perfect storm.
But thanks to our partners and public funding and our position in the industry that allows us to leverage various cultural benefits to the club we don’t have to worry about that. As a base for our operations The Holbeck is an unbelievable bargain. And equally, Slung Low as management team is a set of skills and energy that the club couldn’t afford on their own.
We aren’t obliged to see the people who come into the club as customers, we can see everyone as participants, as partners. So saying yes to everyone who wants the space upstairs is the most useful thing we can do as we work to make The Holbeck vital to all. So far; a couple of Ghanian funerals, 3 different Majorette troop prize givings, couple of birthday parties, an LGBTQ+ safe space cabaret night, a first holy communion, a meeting of the Leeds Ghanian Austrian Society and fundraiser for a local charity. Saturday is pretty wild and varied at The Holbeck.
And Sundays we have shows and workshops in the afternoon and so you can find one of the team on the morning after hoovering up food from the Concert Room floor which somehow attendees couldn’t quite manage to find a way to get in to their gobs.
“Hire a cleaner Al” someone tweeted when I was narrating my hoovering adventures on Twitter last Sunday (I’ve got to keep myself entertained somehow). We’ve got a cleaner but she isn’t going to come in on a Sunday morning without a shed load more money than I can justify. And if we charge that to the groups that list of events wouldn’t be quite so gleefully diverse and unlikely. And whilst I absolutely think arts subsidy should be used for a wide range of liberally defined cultural activity (and part of the whole The Holbeck project is about allowing a much wider group of people define what they think is cultural activity worthy of support) I think paying for a cleaning up after a first holy communion is stretching even my acts of determined persuasion.
So there it is. We hoover the floor on a Sunday morning. But we’ve been here before. It’s just standing in the rain. With a hoover. Doing what is necessary to make the offer we made a reality. Paying the price of your promise.
If you come to a cultural community college class or a show at The Holbeck you are greeted by someone from the Slung Low team. If you’ve ever been to one of our shows you will have been met and briefed by a member of the team. It’s been really important that we are theatre making artists first and foremost and the same group who run a college, run a studio theatre and making space, run a conference now with Wild Conference. The gesture of that, the meaning of that feels important. And for lots of different reasons. For me a main one is seeing artists reduced in recent years in authority and importance by a managerial system that consistently implies that artists can’t be trusted to get real things done, that the creative skills we have aren’t appropriately applied to the logistical challenges of making an arts organisation relevant, useful and kind, the impact of which we see in the growing gap and distinction between the salaried and the freelance. But in any case it’s important: it means something to all of us and it has an impact on our practice and our participants and audience. We know in the arts that who does a thing is important.
And so the 5 of us run a theatre company that makes those outdoor pieces, and that’s a week day kind of affair mostly, and our college classes are mostly on week nights and sometimes weekends, and then the visiting show programme, our family festivals, cabarets and the prize giving of 3 different majorette troops is a weekend thing. And after 10 weeks we’ve realised that maybe that is not quite sustainable. 7 days a week 3 sessions a day is too much grizzing it out.
Maintaining a direct connection across the team with everything that we do, and how we do it feels vital as we expand, as we become more useful to our community, as our impact grows. And maintaining our core identity as theatre artists who strive to be useful, operating beyond the market and with a clear set of principles and values that sustain the company has never been more important with changes in society and the industry, and our community in Holbeck.
So from the 8th April we’re going to shut on a Monday. The club is always shut on a Monday so that makes no odds, artists can continue to use the space as a rehearsal space as we have a key system, and we never programme shows or classes on a Monday. But we need a day Slung Low stops every week. And it’s going to be Monday.
There’ll be times when it’s impossible and rehearsals and meetings still might have to happen occasionally but then we’ve worked plenty of Sundays in our time.
The Holbeck has already had such an impact on what we do and how we do it. The opportunities it offers are huge in our mission to be a useful and kind theatre company. But it requires that we look again how we manage our work within the values we use to guide us- this Monday off might not be the answer, we’ll see but it’s one of the privileges of public subsidy that we get to scrutinise every aspect of what we do and how we do it. Even when the weekend is.