Blogpost: Conference of Holbeck Moor summary

In September we hosted The Conference of Holbeck Moor.

The idea was to bring arts leaders and future arts leaders together to hear from (mostly) non-arts leaders about inspiring models of leadership, managing change and being values based.

We heard from chefs, teachers, pirates, football fans and much more. The talks were curated by Nima Taleghani, Pia Richards, Claire Graham, Keisha Thompson, John Battle along with members of the Slung Low team and with input from Arts Council staff too.

You can see a video by Brett Chapman to give you a sense of things

The talks are recorded and held here in archive here. There are a few missing because there was a biblical storm and we abandoned camp back to the club: the recording equipment didn’t make it as part of the evacuation.

The event was Pay What You Decide. There was a creche. Access issues were engaged with on a personal basis: e.g. if you requested a sign language interpreter then we would hire two interpreters to spend the conference with you personally so you could experience any part of the conference rather than having interpreters on stage centrally interpret the events.

There were ticket, transport and accommodation bursaries. Primarily these were done through partners Arts Emergency and Spark. Although some people got in touch with us directly. I don’t think we turned anyone down for help when asked.

The figures are below. I know there are arts people who are interested in it.

The two most noticeable differences from the previous events were;

The number of new access requests were noticeable. Not requests we had previously received e.g. wheelchair access or interpreters (they were noticeably down for a number of covid and non-covid related issues) but people requesting safe spaces, prior walk through of the event, quiet rooms etc. 

There were groups of people who were unwilling to attend; not only but noticeably colleagues from the disabled community were less well represented than previously. We spoke to the brilliant Mandy Colleran about that and I would recommend listening to that conversation here.

However those who did attend were much more enthusiastic than we expected: some of this is that the previous event had gone well and word had spread but a lot of it was to do with the fact that for many this represented the first real opportunity to be amongst friends and allies in real life for a long time. We took that Responsibility seriously and tried to take care of everyone the best we could.

Actual Attendees (350 capacity sold-out);
Thursday: 290
Friday: 248

The drop off was a similar percentage to last time but delegates were noticeably better at telling us than in the previous year. Life is chaotic at the moment, this was much better than we feared.

Total number of Delegates supported with travel / accommodation: 25

In total 343 people on site over the two days.

A number of local residents entered the conference during the two days as they were passing or because they’d heard about it at the club: this was one of the key reasons for hosting it in Holbeck so was particularly pleasing to see happen.

Pay What You Decide

Number of people PWYD £0 = 42 

Of course some people  just walked in and didn’t pay anything , they’re included in the total numbers attending but not the PWYD £0 allowance.

Average PWYD contribution was £58.21 

Of those that paid anything (so if you minus 42 PWYD £0), Average PWYD contribution was £69.23 (gross). This was pretty much the same as the previous event 2 years ago.

It was much harder to organise than previously: constantly bumping up against Covid and Brexit caused issues. But it felt like it was more useful to more people than the previous event: sign of the times and lets be honest for many people they were just happy to be out of the house. So were we.

Thanks to everyone who came.

Blogpost: We Are All Powerful

A T-shirt with Volunteer Hero written on it

We are all Powerful

There’s a great and pernicious story told in the last twenty, maybe even forty years, maybe it’s always been told, about the nature of power. Or what it is to be powerful.

We are full of stories of Ironman, mega-stars and extraordinary individuals doing extraordinary things in extraordinary moments. We don’t tell many stories about groups of people managing to make things together, working together, day in day out to have an impact but we’re full of tales of individuals throwing hail-marys to win the day.

A car boot with food parcels in it

The idea that it is only the special individual capable of provoking genuine change in the world, the superhero narrative, is one that keeps most everyone else in a state of not being arsed. 

It’s a lie.

We are all capable of extraordinary power. Each and every ordinary one of us. As a team of ordinaries we are capable of profound impact.

30 volunteers deliver at least 300 boxes of food a week in 2021 from the Slung Low foodbank. We know, we absolutely know, that one of those parcels will reach a house at the end of their capacity. A house that has no food. That feels it has no more options. That is scared of how the children are going to be fed in the morning. And that fear, that rising panic, will force out the ability to make good choices, the fog will come in. And, knowing we have unusually high levels of domestic violence in the ward, maybe, maybe, that panic becomes a closed fist. 

We can be absolutely certain that one of these parcels, maybe more than one but at least for certain one, will arrive at the right moment and that rising panic will dissipate. 

That maybe-fist unclench. Those tears not start. Full bellies go to sleep knowing that in the morning there is breakfast. 

A bounce in the step on the way to school. Who knows what happens then? 

What moment of learning or realisation happens because of all that set in motion by the arrival of a box of food. Or the parent coming home from school drop-off catches a leaflet for an adult education course and thinks, why not? Or anything else that might bring a moment of joy into someone’s life.

Maybe all that doesn’t happen this week. But next week there’s another 300 food boxes and we’ll take our chance again with those.

A letter with THANK YOU YOU HAVE HELPED ME SO MUCH PLEASE BE PROUD written on it

And we know, we don’t have to be statisticians to know, that it will happen. The numbers are large enough to ensure that it does.

So those 30 volunteers, all the team at Slung Low, all our partners, and food suppliers, and the gang at Voluntary Action Leeds and the City Council, and all those tens of thousands of donated pounds spent on food, and all that theatre made and funding applied to get that money, and the 150 years of the club being here and every single van of wholesale deliveries emptied box by back breaking box – all of this – made that moment. That moment of profound change. That moment of panic subsiding and there being just enough room in someone’s chest and mind for that glorious moment of realisation, or joy, or learning that might lead anywhere. And isn’t that worth it?  To be certain that you have given someone a moment’s peace, what would you give? What would you do?

Well, for that moment, we’d do all this. 16 months of it.

And they have the audacity to think we are not powerful. All of us. Powerful and capable of making real and extraordinary change in the world.

Will the kids sat on their bikes, literally in the gutter, watching the opera dress rehearsal in the car park of the club last summer be changed by that experience? Will one of them or all of them or some of them grow up with the great joy of putting on a recording of Hansel and Gretel and letting it transport them back to a happy sunny sweaty day when they were young and they sat in the road and listened transfixed. Will the music of that day bring them comfort as their heart is breaking sometime in the future? 

Yes all of that is capable of being true. Or something so similar to it that it’s the same thing.

But we don’t get to be there when it happens. That’s the rub. That’s why you have to carry your certainty with you. Makes speeches and write blogs to remind you of it. To have faith unconfirmed. Because we wont be there when it happens. When the fist unclenches because of some white bread you unloaded from a van 2 days before. Or the heart soars in twenty years time as they listen to an old opera and remember. Or any of the other things that are absolutely a result of the efforts and determination of all those who worked with us through the crisis and did their best. We wont be there. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. It doesn’t mean we didn’t help them to happen. That we are not powerful, that we are not capable of changing the world one person, one moment at a time.

It’s just there’ll be no curtain call for all of it, no round of applause. No moment when we look at each other and say “we did that” and feel our efforts are worth it. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t do it. Because we did. And our world changed.

It’s been 15 months of foodbank. 15,000 referrals. We are exhausted by it and must move on. But we are changed. Forever.

We launch our football club tonight- Holbeck Moor FC. A team for everyone. A new adventure. We go again tomorrow pals.

All Holbeck Aren’t We

Blogpost: medals for hunting pirates, time in uniform and a belief in service.

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My middle name is Kenneth.

It was my grandfather’s name. My dad’s dad.

He was in the RAF his whole adult life. Like my dad.

Grandad Ken received a BEM. The British Empire Medal.

The working class gong they call it. It’s given to lollipop men, dinner ladies, posties, scout leaders. And Ken.

I keep my grandfather’s BEM in a box, along with my father’s medals. I showed them to my son, David, the other day. Along with this picture of the boat my granddad served on. In which he hunted pirates.

You can imagine how Davidbaby likes that story. His dad’s dad’s dad got a medal for fighting pirates.

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It’s been a hell of a year. Not quite fighting pirates though.

For the last 8 months the Slung Low team, along with so many volunteers, has responded to requests from our ward of Holbeck and Beeston. 8000 referrals. We’ve done laundry, made befriending calls, walked dogs. And delivered thousands of food parcels. The team of volunteers who have done that with us are extraordinary. Hundreds of engaged brilliant citizens. I am so proud of them and everything they have done this year.

I’ve made dozens of speeches to conferences and groups about what we’ve done, why we did it and how. That’s my job, my best contribution to the team effort- the amplification of what we do widely to the arts sector and beyond- to provoke change in people’s mind as well as immediately in our community.

I’m asked a lot why we opened the food bank. I’m asked a lot how we did it.

And it takes lots of things. It takes those volunteers. And the Real Junk Food Project. A fab Voluntary Action Leeds handler. Great councillors and City Council staff. Thousands and thousands of donations. And a team of determined, practical, political, empowered artists driving a company that are willing to pay the price of their promises, the cost of their commitments.

And it really helps if one of the team is a Reserve Officer in the Royal Engineers.

I was meant to join the army twenty years ago until cancer made that impossible. I waited the length of time you have to wait after cancer then tried to join the British Army Reserve. I had to lose a third of my body weight to get in. I became vegan. It took a year to lose that much weight. I ran a mile and half every day until I was thin and fit enough. And six years ago I got in.

I joined as a soldier, not as an officer. Like my dad David and grandfather Ken before me. I spent four years as a sapper in the Royal Engineers’ Reserve. It’s a minimum 28 days a year commitment, but it tends to be a good deal more- it took some juggling. 
And then like Sharpe before me I rose from the ranks and became an officer. He was made an officer after he saved Lord Wellington’s life in battle. I didn’t do that. 
I did more running. Tests, exams and then success. Then two months training at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS). That’s some intense training in leadership, determination, communication, managing under pressure and team work. And sleep deprivation.

I am responsible for the careers and well-being of my troop of combat engineers. A brilliant group of men and women who are by day social workers and builders and firemen and engineers and, in what is laughably called their spare time, train to learn the skills needed to be useful combat engineers. The operation my regiment led on for the last few years was building hospitals for the UN in South Sudan: this was where my troops trained to go. I am proud of them. They are engaged citizens.

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The work Slung Low has made over the last six years has been influenced by my Reserve service: just as it had been by a childhood around the military. And as hard as it is to believe the same is also true the other way.  I’m not the only person from theatre to be in the Reserves: we’re useful people.

But the Reserve experience has never been more useful than this year. The time at Sandhurst was central in providing the structure, the strength and confidence to build that food bank in the way we did. 

Robust kindness. Organised reaction. Useful generosity. 

There are other ways of doing it of course and other influences, but this was my contribution.

I’ve never lied about my Reserve service. But I’ve never been in a hurry to let it be known beyond the small team at Slung Low. Some of that was at first a security concern. But also because I have always understood that for some in theatre it will inevitably be beyond the pale and it will generate scorn in others.

The Reserve now makes up nearly a third of our armed forces, it operates all over the world and the last serving British soldier to be killed by enemy attack was a reservist so the scorn doesn’t bother me. 

But I’m also responsible for the livelihood of the Slung Low team and we’ve always assessed that wider knowledge of it would impact our ability to get work in the industry: and that was something I wanted to avoid. But circumstances out of my control mean it was likely to become public knowledge soon enough so better on the front foot with it. Time to tell this story.

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I am proud of how my family, and my Slung Low family, have put up with the impact on their lives of this, finding ways to bring positives from it, supporting me through it, grabbing at the new learning.

It is not always easy to balance it with everything else.

I do it because I genuinely believe in service. This nation has decided that a large part of its armed forces will be a citizen reserve force and I think if I can serve in those circumstances I should. There is no organisation that is not without its challenges and its problems. I am clear-eyed about those in the British Army Reserve. But it is impressive in many ways, striving to be a better, fairer and more just version of itself all the time in a practical and rigorous way- and that can’t be said about all parts of every sector I work in.

I believe in service. This is my way of serving.

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I know for some on the left and in the arts this will seem like a betrayal. I am betraying no one. The values that I passionately speak about are the lived values rooted in everything Slung Low does, which in turn are the same values that drive my military reserve service. I am genuinely sorry that you may be angry I haven’t met your standard, but I can’t help that, I’m working too hard to meet my own.

A few weeks ago I received an email asking if I would accept a BEM. I thought of showing the medal to Davidbaby. I thought of him showing it to his children perhaps. The citation says “for services to the community in South Leeds during Covid 19”. I believe in service. I also believe in medals.

I wanted to accept. My only worry was that it would disturb the balance of Slung Low somehow. I need not have worried the gang were generous and pleasingly proud. It’s still a team sport.

I hope it makes the members of The Holbeck proud- their club has provided the basis of so much support and hope to Holbeck and Beeston this year. Along with the many other plaudits that recognise the club and the volunteers I hope this one makes them proud.

I remain in service. Now with a shiny medal to show my son. To put in a box and hopefully to come out one day along with an older one like it. With an old beer mat from a working men’s club, and a picture of a boat a man named Ken used to hunt pirates in.

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(This beer mat was designed by Heledd Rees: a stunning theatre designer who has an equally brilliant store of beautiful things at https://www.celfheleddart.co.uk)

Blog Post: bootprints in butter and failures of imagination- an update on the Food bank.

It felt like a good time to update on where we were with the food bank. There’s a lot of chat about food at the moment and whilst most of it is well meant some actual information, albeit from a specific and small outpost of it all, might be useful in the storm of bullshit.

We are a non means tested self referring food bank. If you ask for food you get it. We’ve done this for 8 months. We service 7500 houses, we’ve delivered over 6000 food parcels to date.

Within those figures are there some that abuse this? Yes. Are they the many of the 180 referrals we did this week? No they are the few.

Our society is in crisis. Children are hungry. We cannot fix the whole system from where we are. 

We cannot fix the system. But we can stop some people being hungry. This week. And next. And on.

That would have felt a small tawdry ambition last year. Now I understand that it takes an army of volunteers, amazing partners, so many funders, and so much energy and patience.

The vast majority of our food comes from The Real Junk Food Project: a radical programme led by Adam Smith to transform how we use waste food. He sorts us out. We do what we can for his project: Sending vans, volunteers, staff and when we have it, cash: Adam says it is a circular relationship. But we need him.

Of the rest of the food 20% is donations: especially from the local churches. And 20% of our food is from Leeds City Council/Fareshare programme of food bags.  This is the official programme of food bag provision from the city. We buy the rest (milk, fruit and veg, eggs).

In terms of cash the operation costs £8k a month (this obviously doesn’t include Slung Low staff, van, space etc). Leeds City Council grant is £8k a quarter. The rest is donations and Slung Low’s income from other activities (you pay us to make you a play, a lot of that money goes into the Foodbank). A lot of these donations are a result of people’s imagination: imaging how hard this is and wanting to help, imagining how much this is needed, imagining how it must feel to need this.

We are supported by Clipper and Leeds United with a large refrigerated container in our car park that is vital storage.

Image shows: tables covered in baskets full of food for the food bank

All of this is a creative act. We are telling the story that no one need go hungry in Holbeck and Beeston during this crisis. To tell this story the best way we can we have to make it true. We are making it true.

There is politics in food banks. There is politics in food. The politics is mostly wrapped up in the idea that you can become addicted to food parcels. You cannot become addicted to food. It is something that the various authorities worry about alot- “we mustn’t let people get reliant on free food.” It’s why they’ve just voted to not extend the free school meals even though it’s a comparatively small amount of money: it’s a political choice. It’s a failure of imagination, to imagine other people, other ways of living.

But it isn’t just about people who are actually in this moment hungry and will remain so for days: although we do have some of those needs in Holbeck & Beeston.

When the first lockdown happened my cupboards were full. Of course they were. I was able to support my family by having a mini fucking room full of food just waiting there- no being a Wally with pasta in Tescos for me. That wasn’t true of people who have, for their entire adult life, lived hand to mouth not because I am inherently better than them but because I am lucky (and male, white, straight, not yet disabled), and that luck has led to an almost unbelievable amount of privilege. That privilege filled my cupboards. Not my hard work. The woman who cleans the club doesn’t work any less hard than I do. You know this if you have an iota of imagination.

So when families this autumn started saying “it’s okay now we don’t need anymore food deliveries” we said, take another month load, fill your cupboards because lockdown is coming again and when it does those full cupboards will mean no panic. For a week, until you get hold of us, or find another solution. That lack of panic. That removal of that moment of fear, of WHAT THE FUCK AM I GOING TO DO. That isn’t something recognised by the current food bank system. That isn’t about starving. That’s about not feeling panic. Imagine that panic. Imagine that panic not being there.

We have been asked by Fareshare and the City Council to ask every one who gets a parcel from us five questions before giving them food and then report the answers back along with information about the person’s characteristics;

1. What is the reason for your crisis?

2. How long do you feel you might need some help for?

3. What support would help to alleviate your crisis?

4. Have you contacted any other services for help?

5. Have you been to any other food provider

We can’t do this.

The premise of the question assumes this is a passing temporary crisis. And one that can be solved by the proper usage of the current support system. That the DWP is our saviour.

The people who receive our food aren’t lazy. They aren’t stupid. They are born in a society where the inequalities of funding, of education, of health provision, of opportunity are so profound that the hill they have to climb is steeper than is reasonable. They live in a society that has encouraged zero hour contract working with the lie of freedom and choice and now believes that the reason so many children of these workers, who find themselves with unreliable incomes, irregular hours and an administrative cruel benefits system, are hungry is because of a temporary crisis. The crisis isn’t temporary. It isn’t a crisis. It’s a way of living. An enforced way of living.


Until recently we took food from Costco on a Wednesday. The rule was you had to take everything they laid out for you. There was often lots of exciting things- cakes, meat, all sort of good stuff. But there was also piles of shit. Mouldy stuff. Packs of butter with boot prints. And you had to take it all so we often had to pay to have it removed from the club by waste disposal. A cost that should have been Costcos- £300 a tonne. Except their charitable giving- charity that saw a footprint in a pack of butter if you like your metaphors to the point- saved them the cost. 

And the most extraordinary thing was every week the same shit. How do we have algorithms that can tell you what exam result someone not yet born will get but Costco didn’t understand that every Wednesday they would fail to sell 19 huge cheesecakes, 600 dinner rolls and 50 bags of mouldy lettuce? What always frustrated me was that all this stuff was dated the day we fetched it and we’d race around desperately trying to get rid of it or have to pay to have it removed. And yet I knew (after a few months it was obvious) that Costco knew the day before, the day before the day before that this stuff wasn’t needed.

They didn’t care enough to bother. The imagination just wasn’t there. They had found a way to pass their removal costs to food banks and look good doing it. 

And yet with this waste food I could feed many families. It was discarded, sitting in the sun in the Car park in trolleys waiting for us. This, this little thing makes a difference to a family between having enough and smiling at each other or being hungry, tired, angry. 

The gap between the disdain Costco showed that food and the impact it has on lives is the whole ball game. It’s why hunger is a moral issue. It is entirely unnecessary, it is cruel, and to pretend that it is the fault of those who experience it is to be wilfully lacking in imagination.

People keep asking “why is a theatre company running a food bank”. We live in a city of an opera company, a ballet company, a producing house and so many other great cultural offerings and there are children in our community without crayons. Until everyone has crayons no one should have fucking ballet. And what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

People keep asking “why is a theatre company running a food bank”. Because it is obscene to put on brilliant theatre in a car park and have people who can see that car park from their windows suffer hunger. Because if you live in holbeck you might not actually starve in front of me but you won’t have the choices to buy your kids some new shoes, some crayons, to go out together to the city centre and visit the library, or to treat yourself to a couple of beers on a Saturday night after making it through the week. And we are trying to create the best  arts centre slash community hub slash pub slash community college in the world. And it feels like the act of an actual prick if people who live within sight of the place are too weak from hunger, or too battered by the panic of food poverty to think about maybe coming.

And for months now we’ve answered patiently the question- why is a theatre company doing this- and the slightly sharper- you’re not suggesting that arts funding is used to help alleviate these problems that aren’t our responsibility, ARE YOU?! 

Well I heard Sonia Friedman on the radio that she was putting on a west end comedy to help the mental health of the nation so I think we’ve brought some of this on ourselves. I’ve seen millions be given to commercial and subsidised venues even as we can’t find enough for school meals extension and at some point I’ve stopped saying “well I don’t think every theatre should open a food bank no” and changed it to “well I don’t think every theatre should open a food bank no but this sector, which prides itself on its imagination should do something. Can do something. For months Foodbanks were desperate for vans and there were so many vans on the forecourts of arts organisations doing nothing and that is a failure of imagination. Of theatre with empty fridges and freezers and so many charitable organisations desperate for spaces in both and that is a failure of imagination. And CRF is here and the money is here to shore up organisations, and to support the making of many redundant which made me realise that maybe the money wasn’t rescuing who I thought it was and there is a choice to look for long term safety or immediate vitalness. And look at your communities. Look at the levels of unemployment, look at child hunger, look at the panic and weariness of your fellow citizens, in the communities your audiences comes from , and crucially those they don’t and no, you don’t have to open a food bank. But you do have to do something. Or they will remember what we all did as a sector, and all we did not. We have the power to reimagine our relationship, what we are for and what we can achieve. Or we cannot. But they’ll remember. They’ll all remember.”

AND I AM DOING FINE THANK YOU. I AM ABSOLUTELY COPING WITH THE SHEER CRUELTY OF ALL OF THIS. I AM FINE.

Imagine being hungry. And approaching a man for food. And him saying “I’ll give you this food, but first, tell me what has brought you to this crisis?” Well so many things that before I’m through with my list I’ll have withered away to nothing so friend, how about you give me the tin of tuna first and then we’ll get in to it.

Imagine. Imagine asking that.

I can’t. That is my failure. I can’t imagine asking that. So we won’t. And that means that we move forward without the support of FareShare and LCC’s food provision. We’ve done 6115 referrals so far.
This doesn’t mean that we will stop. We’ve promised to drive on with this action into 2021 and beyond. It does mean we will do it without this specific support. It won’t shake our commitment. It will make our life harder. But then our lives can afford that additional hardness. Not all can.

We have another 6115 referrals ahead of us. It will be impossible without a raft of support. Of our ward councillors and area officers, of The Real Junk Food Project, of the local churches and Holbeck Foodbank and of course of you. Thousands of acts of support small and large. That is what it will take. And I can imagine that. 

Some people have got in touch asking to be directed to where they can donate. There’s a paypal link at http://www.slunglow.org and anything given there will be spent on milk, fresh fruit, eggs and nappies. If you can, thanks.

Remembering the impossible Dave Toole.

There were two David Tooles in my life.

Dave Toole & Billydog.

There is ‘Dave’. Who was my friend. Who was quite grumpy. The man who had a taste for champagne and chips. Dave who had to climb out of his wheelchair to get through my kitchen door, which meant that by the time he sat down at the lunch table my old dog Billy had already snogged his face off. It was this Dave who tweeted the day before he performed in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony whilst sat in his hotel room drinking the mini bar’s Moet: “To think in 24 hours all this will be over,” That was Dave. Human sized, Leeds through and through. A grumpy bastard. And when he wasn’t in the mood to be otherwise, impossible.

Then there was ‘Dave Toole’. It was this Dave who flew in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony: mighty, beautiful and with a grace utterly beyond the ordinary human.  This Dave Toole flew high above the Olympic Stadium and onto the front pages of every newspaper in the country: a hero. And before that extraordinary moment performed in show after show all over the world, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Impossible.

A few years ago we all set out, with actual real life Dave, to make a show about these two Daves. The show in the end, amongst much else, was a love letter, a genuine heartfelt love letter to Dave. And he was in it, every night, whilst we professed our love to him.  He was so wonderfully grumpy about it, sending himself up with it, even as he rode a stunt horse that leapt through a ring of fire to conclude the show. It takes a special kind of Yorkshire attitude to be grumpy sitting on a stunt horse leaping through a ring of fire. Dave did it.

I was thinking after I heard the news of his death that I am so very glad we got to tell him how brilliant he was. How talented. How unique. Night after night. In front  of hundreds of people. 

He’d been adored by larger crowds of course, flying high, impossibly, on tele screens around the world. But I hope, I hope so hard, that in this last year as he was so sick, the months and months in hospital, that the warmth of those adoring theatre friends gathered around him in that show, all singing a hymn in praise of the extraordinary Dave Toole, still had a place in his mind, in his memory, in his heart. 

Because we did, we do, adore Dave Toole. The impossible Dave Toole. My friend who died this week. On well Dave, ever on.

©Richard Davenport 2013. Leeds, UK. The Dave toole & Johnny Eck Show. Dave Toole and Lucy Hind, dancing.
Like they often did.

Blogpost: Standing. Tents. Government roadmaps. And the every day work of being responsible.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0168.JPGEvery day we deliver hot meals from Mecca Bingo to 20 families in our local area. 65 children. We’ve seen them every day for the last 2 months. We’ve seen how they have coped with the time away from school, the weather, the impact of various legislation, the diet of sausage and chips 4 days a week and the endless tension in the air. And we’ve seen how their parents have managed with the same and the pressure they are under.

So we decided over a month ago we would do something that might help. A date in the diary to look forward to, a change of activity, a moment of respite. Yesterday we built an auditorium of sorts full of tents and bunting. And our dear friends Wrongsemble presented a show called Three on the back of a lorry.

This was not a reopening of our theatre. It is a continuation of the work we do as ward lead for social care referrals in Holbeck and Beeston.

Before this we had staged a live broadcast game show to keep club members connected and finished the series with a drive in version. Testing ways in which the space could be configured safely for public. Bringing our community together. Serving them.

We presented the show yesterday in a very specific way. Performers on a lorry distant from the audience who each were in 3.5m squares each with a tent pod for people to sit in. The sound was broadcast through our headphone system. We were broadcasting the performance from one space to another. These naunces are important in an age of daily changing legislation and briefings.

The risk assessments, method statements and plans that made up the Event Plan were based on our previous experience of managing outdoor events for over a decade, the 3 months we’ve spent daily running a large food bank operation with dozens of people, government advice around outdoor market in the age of coronavirus, school re-openings and the return to work material recently generated by the Ministry of Defence for a return to training by Reserve forces.

This event is Slung Low’s responsibility but the learning is shared as we are working as part of a consortium of children’s theatre makers in the city supported by Leeds 2023.

Naturally in this moment people are desperate for action and so they are demanding of others “why can’t you do this?”. I am never one to avoid being critical when justified but the details of this event cannot be replicated anywhere else. Is there a more robust approach to being of service to our communities that some arts organisations can take? Of course. But this specific approach we’ve taken is not a reasonable demand of anyone else, certainly not anyone who wants to keep their job.

There are some things you should know. 

I asked no one’s permission. 

-I told everyone it was happening, it was no secret. And I mean EVERYONE.  It was part of our submission to DCMS panels, MPs, councillors, civil servants, and any zoom meeting I’ve had for the last 2 weeks. None of that means those people gave permission, they aren’t in a position to. But this isn’t an illegal rave where we race into the night when the police arrive.

-Everyone got paid. We built an event staff from the city’s artists who were trained on site to deliver the event.

-This was a free event. No money was asked for, donations or otherwise. It isn’t about that. Large parts of the cost were met by Leeds 2023, large parts of the cost were met by Slung Low. It is exactly what we are for.

-Our audience was invited in person. Briefed by flyer, email and follow up phone call the day before the event.  It is a level of front of house management that could not possibly be used in any sustainable (let alone commercial) model. We aren’t modelling how you can make theatre profitable in a covid age, that’s not what we are for; we’re putting stories in front of kids in our community who are in various forms of mental distress.

-The invited audience could walk to the show, and crucially back to their toilets. The toilets at the club were not open to the audience. 

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0161.JPGA number of you have got in touch about the event in relation to the Culture Minister’s road map that was released in the Evening Standard last night around 10pm and somewhat embarrassingly five hours after the event. In it outdoor theatre is forbidden until a date in the future.

Clarity around the roadmap means that lots of what we’ve been doing the last few weeks is now ahead of the government timetable. This is what happens when you take pages of regulation that people have been carefully tiptoeing through and turn it into 5 sentences. The same is true of a number of pilots and tests that have been happening in some of the large venues in London: my mother is worried about me sharing a cell with the chief exec of the Royal Opera House and Wigmore Hall which quite frankly is the sitcom content we’ve all been waiting for.IMG_6476

What running, with the rest of the gang, this social care referral unit has taught me the last 3 months is that there is never anyone who can give you the permission needed to do the things necessary. We were out driving food bags and doing people’s shopping before the letters approving us to do so arrived from the Council’s chief exec. Nobody tells you to go to a supermarket and say to the manager “I have these hungry families, I’ve no funding yet, can you help me solve this problem?” And each and every day a problem comes that has no handrail, no risk free solution, no road map that gets you where people need you to be. That is always stressful, it’s sometimes exciting and I am working very hard for it to be empowering for as many people here as possible.

And during that pressure we’ve learnt some stuff we weren’t sure about before; It’s always up to you to do what is necessary: no one is coming to save us. And there will be doubts as to whether you’ve got each of those decisions right.  Balance between being humble enough to check every moment that you haven’t got it wrong and firm enough in heart to keep going when the responsibility becomes yours alone. In the end the responsibility is always yours alone. The duty of care for everyone around you is yours. Is mine. Is yours. 

And I don’t think that is any more or less true for me than it is for anyone else. The duty of care is ours. We are told endlessly that we can’t, that our betters are dealing with it: they aren’t, they won’t and we can. Not perhaps in some national programme but in the day to day, person to person actions that are within our grasp if we are willing to stand.

A daily returning subject here is that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is nowadays. Of how to protect those we are responsible for and how to decide who gets in that group. Of how far are any of us expected to go for the sake of strangers and in the moment how much of all this is ego and how much of it is care.

Every day. That’s the work now. To seek the answers to those questions.

Our resident dramaturg Kara this morning suggested what was needed was a manifesto; maybe. Lets start with; 

Be Useful Be Kind. Give it all away. Do what is necessary. Take responsibility. Be full of care.

And don’t give up. Because tomorrow we go again.IMG_6463

Blogpost: 10 weeks of social care referrals and keeping promises

1688A2D0-FFF1-422A-9EE7-5955904F518E“Do you have any capacity?”

The woman from the council had rang. I was stood on the stump of a silver birch whilst tying string around a circle of trees to make geometric shapes and trying to take a photo of it all from a drone for no earthly reason I could think of. I could hardly maintain I was busy.

“Yes we have capacity.” We’d been driving for a food bank and a meals on wheels charity for a week, the club was closed. I wasn’t up to much.

“Can you be the ward lead for social care referrals for Holbeck and Beeston?”
“Sure” I said. Say yes to everything you can. That’s a rule.

“Great.”
And then she was gone. She’s from the council. It will probably be 3 weeks before anything will happen, I thought as I turned my attention to the string once more.

The first referral arrived within 12 hours. We had a system up in running within 24 hours.

We passed 1000 referrals ten days ago.

We deliver food parcels, pick up prescriptions, put out bins, walk dogs, go shopping, teach people to zoom, top up electric meters and make calls to the lonely. On one occasion we arranged a cat to be spayed. 

We deliver 63 hot meals to children in the ward 4 days a week.

We manage around 100 amazing volunteers.

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[This is the contents of  a city council Fair Share bag. This is not a week’s food]

Mostly we deliver food parcels consisting of around 6 bags of food; a bag of dried food and tins, a bag of fruit, a bag of veg, cheese, eggs, milk, bread and then a bag of crisps, chocolate, pop and whatever else we can lay our hands on.

We get food from the Real Junk Food Project, the city council fair share system, Mosaic Church, Costco, the local Co-op, private donations and swop food with other local organisations in Holbeck and the brilliant St Vincent’s. And the company’s friends on the internet and locally often donate money and stuff; Jennifer Toksvig and Lisa Holdsworth are regular supporters amongst many others.

IMG_1758[This is the content’s of a Slung Low Food Bank bag. To this we add cheese, milk, salad and crisps. It is the minimum we send. It is not a week’s food.]

In addition to our volunteers from the local community we have artists and workers from many of the city’s arts organisations; Wrongsemble, Red Ladder, Opera North, Northern Ballet, and a whole host of freelancers. The local church charity, St Luke Cares, lent us their van for the duration.

If you ring the central Leeds City Council helpline and you live in Holbeck and Beeston your details are emailed to us. We ring you. Every one. To check what it is you need. What you tell the city council and what you tell the bloke ringing from the local working men’s club is different. And we promise that we will get you what you need. I actually say that. Please do not worry, I promise you will get food/money for your meter/nappies today. Sit tight.

We service every referral within 24 hours 7 days a week. We do 98% of them within 2 hours. We do not stop everyday until the board is clear and everyone has what they need. That’s our promise. And keeping our promise is why we do it. 

We talk about it in terms of storytelling. The story we’re telling is that no one in our community will have to go without food during this time and the only way to tell that story well is to make it true.

Alongside the Leeds City Council referrals we take referrals from the local charities and schools and leaders of our community. And people can self refer. By either ringing, turning up at the club or seeing a driver doing a delivery. 

There is no requirement at Slung Low to demonstrate your poverty or need. This is one of our rules. Our support is available to everyone: no matter who they are, what their job is, what they’ve done or their standing in society. That is another one of our rules. And that applies to the other local organisations we support- if you want our help you are welcome to it but you must offer the same to all who ask for it, no matter their religion, their occupation or whether you think their personal morality matches yours. We’re pretty militant about these rules.

There is no limit to the amount of support we will give someone.  This is important. It isn’t the case everywhere, some places there are some limits on the support you can receive.

We will not allow any rudeness or aggression towards our volunteers. We will turn a blind eye to some of that towards the Slung Low team. These are stressful times and people are not always at their best. We’re big boys and girls. Although I will probably come round your house for a chat about what we can change together in the future.

IMG_6139[Donated toilet roll arranged by Jen Toksvig.]

At the beginning of this whole thing the council put £5,000 in our account. It lasted 6 weeks. It was spent on petrol expenses (the only thing the volunteers get), meter payments for referrals and the food we can’t scrounge (soya milk, baby food and other dietary requirements.) We just got another £4500 from our local councillors to keep us going for another 6 weeks. I can’t tell you how the lack of money around all this clashes with the arts which likes to think of itself as (and often is) poorly funded; service social care referrals for a community of 7500 homes for 6 weeks with 4 and a half grand. I’ve spent more on a cabaret.

We regularly deliver for the Real Junk Food Project to Leeds charities. And undertake special projects; we gave away 9600 frozen burgers in a day: it was like being in a Richard Curtis movie, people coming out of their houses as we threw boxes and boxes of burgers out the back of a slowly moving van.

This is what we have done and with what. It’s getting so we can’t remember what happened last week and I was worried that this period would get lost in what is to come, so I’ve written it down. The what and some of the how.

It is easy to give food to people. There is a lot of food out there, it doesn’t take a lot of getting. It often is as easy as walking into a shop, explaining forcibly the situation and walking out with 24 bottles of milk. Giving it to hungry people is easy. It makes you feel nice. Useful. 

It is even quite easy to ignore the obvious fiddles. The ones that are quite blatantly gaming the system are how I know the ones who are in real need are getting what they need; we turn no one away so we never accidentally turn away anyone in need. The cost of that promise is giving stuff to people who are quite obviously lying. 

“You delivered me rotten food yesterday” (We did not)
“Oh I am so sorry.”
“I demand another food parcel today”
“Okay”
“What?”
“That’s fine. We’ll drop another one round this afternoon.”
Easy. There’s enough food. We’ve never run out. And if we did we’d find some more. 

As the week’s have gone on it has become harder and harder to be cheerful about it though. The 2% of those who have found in us, and particularly my mobile number, someone they feel has power and who they can vent their frustration and resentment at has started to grind us down.

The text at 8am this last Sunday morning- “What are you going to do for us today?”

The woman who rang demanding a new food parcel because although we delivered one yesterday she didn’t like any of the food so she had thrown it all in the bin. I didn’t care about the food, I cared because I had to get Matt out of bed on a Saturday morning to deliver again: but turn no one away, those rules again.

These small moments start to grind away. It’s not out of any personal animosity or hatred, the vast majority of people we are dealing with are stressed beyond any reasonable measure. But it makes you absolutely realise that this is just a sticking plaster on a problem, not of Covid’s making but deep seated in our society. There are people who were on the edge of desperation before all this started, when this is over things might go back to sort of normal but covid didn’t cause much of this need and it wont disappear when we get back to normalish. And they’re furious about it and that presents itself sometimes as talking to me like I’m a dickhead. 

This whole process has made me feel much more sympathetic towards the city council: seeing how no matter what they did, what we did, for a small group it was always going to be wrong; ill motive was assumed by a few regardless of the action; turning the other cheek is the only professional response to provocation but is personally very testing: standing so close to the council this last two months (the vast majority of referrals think I’m a council worker no matter what I say) has made me feel real empathy towards the people who try to manage the city. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s a broken system that doesn’t have enough resource or stretch to do many of the things that most reasonable people expect of their local government.

In recent weeks the number of people presenting with mental health problems has increased and become a recognisable pattern. A few have presented with real, violent and disturbing issues. The lack of depth in adult mental health provision has been a horrendous discovery. Twice in the last week I have had to call the police as days of phone calls to various service providers have left us with nowhere else to go. Ringing people to explain that we have no more layers of help left to offer and we are not going to be calling any more is the lowest moment I think I have ever had at work. 

“What am I meant to do?”
“You need to put the phone down to me and call the police.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I know but we’ve tried everything else mate and this is where we are.”

A horrendous version of “no you put the phone down” “No you put the phone down” as I had promised I wouldn’t hang up on her but there was nothing left I could do. But a promise is a promise. So I sat there gently asking her to put the phone down and call the police until she did.

The mental health system in this country is a horror show. It’s a shit system staffed by brilliant people with no where near enough resources to help these people. But we know this. They are collateral damage of our political, social, economic model: not accidents but waste products of a system that does not give a shit about these people: because if they did I wouldn’t be driving food waste from the local supermarket round their house whilst they threaten self harm.

That’s the toughest part of the gig. It’s easy giving food to people for free. Like Robin Hood in an episode of Brassic. It’s horrible telling people that all we can do is send them food, listen and call the police, and knowing that isn’t good enough.

Just over a week ago Leeds City Council sent us a communication update. It said that now the initial crisis moment had passed they were changing the rules of engagement with the city council helpline. From this point on if people could not afford their food then we were to send 4 food parcels over a number of weeks (suggested as 4 weeks of food but more realistically maximum 20 days) and then the referrals should have resolved their benefits with DWP and we were to stop assistance.

A note passed to us that day by a member of council staff said that there was concern about people becoming reliant on food parcels. 

It was such a kick in the pants. I sent out an email to our MP and ward councillors in a fit of pique “The political philosophy that the poor can become addicted to food bags is not one we support here at The Holbeck.” 

“Just crack on with what you were doing before, we accept that you will use your local knowledge to make different decisions when you need to” came the calm reply from our lovely council handler.

But it wasn’t the point. But I couldn’t work out what the point was if cracking on regardless wasn’t the answer.

And it’s only a week later I realise what it was that had so demoralised me. We’ve promised to continue with these responsibilities to our ward until they are no longer needed, and realistically that is likely to be much of this year. Could be more, a promise is a promise. We had readied ourselves to the task, told ourselves a story about what we were doing and then made that story real by doing it.

And with this announcement, LCC transformed what we had considered to be civic mutual aid, leveraging waste in the food industry to resolve a problem of food availability and hunger, a collective act of citizenship by all of us here into an unpaid extension of a welfare system already demonstrated clearly to anyone paying attention as not fit for purpose. That our volunteerism, the resources of Slung Low and our supporters that had been put to this work, was now co-opted to be a warm up act for the benefits systems with its administrations and morality. 

For a moment I felt a mug for not taking the furlough and sitting on my arse for a few months.

And staring at another 4 months of this that co-opting of our efforts for someone else’s agenda was as hard a bash as my motivation is capable of taking. We had thought we were a part of the civic resistance and instead we were special constables for the DWP. They’d switched the story on us.

Of course we will “use our local knowledge to provide different solutions on a case by case basis”, which in Slung Low language is do what we promised and dare anyone to stop us and we will rebuild our motivation and remind ourselves of all the relief we have brought to our neighbours. Of course we will. But it was fascinating how action can be shifted so quickly, so immediately by a change in intent.

Instead of being part of an energetic ground up movement trying to find new ways of being in a crisis we find ourselves part of holding up the old unjust broken system. 

And I wonder what this learning means for people’s theatre- which we will surely return to one day. And how the difference from being a valued citizen performer who donates their time as an act of philanthropy creating something that would be impossible without them and being a schmuck who is used as an unpaid actor by others being paid is about the intent equally of the participant and the producer, not just one or the other.

And in a society that seems to find it so hard to shake any world view that isn’t profit focussed, and huge corporations behave with seeming shamelessness as they demand bailouts and make whole work forces redundant how all acts of citizenship aren’t in danger of being co-opted. But what is the alternative? A race to the bottom of the shit pile where we all sit at home refusing to do anything lest someone takes the piss. 

We guard against resentment at Slung Low, it’s our biggest threat- resentment of others, of the difficulties we can sometimes make for ourselves. We watch for it at the edges of a long day, or a missed weekend, or the unfairness of our sector: drive it back in case it poisons the world we have created for ourselves with our commitment here at the club. These last two months feel like they have been full of people taking advantage, creating resentment; birthday trips to castles, Branson’s bailouts, furloughed accounts team so artists’ invoices can’t be paid, the woman who texted me that “it’s hot, bring pop round to my garden.” And it’s been hard to think of a positive response to all those collected advantage seekers close up and on the tele. But I know that a response to them that isn’t generous hearted, that doesn’t demand that promises are kept and doesn’t hold on to the rules you made when you weren’t angry and you weren’t tired isn’t going to get us anywhere we want to be. You tell the story and you do the work to make it true in the world: that’s the business we’re in at the moment. And until we’re not needed anymore.

There are other stories of our club at the edge of town where everybody’s welcome. Stories of lamp post galleries, interactive game shows, Matthew Kelly, rescued chicks and wood whittling classes. Stories of creativity in the lockdown and joy and silliness in the sadness. But those are for another time. This was the one that I wanted to make sure was recorded today. Ten weeks in, a thousand referrals, and tomorrow we go again.

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Blogpost: The Cost of Doing Business- a year at The Holbeck

We moved into The Holbeck in January 2019: in a glorious act of community leadership the club had been run by volunteers (who now make up the club committee- basically a board) for a number of years but they were growing tired and the club owed a good deal of money. You can read about the details of all that and the partnership we formed with the club here.

In the year we’ve been based at and managed The Holbeck we have renovated much of the building, bringing all the rooms back into regular use. We discovered how much money the club owed and settled all debts and returned the deeds to the members (it turns out metaphorically rather than literally because no one knows where they actually are but that doesn’t matter legally thankfully). We have hosted dozens of personal events; Ghanian funerals, naming ceremonies, first holy communion celebrations. And welcomed hundreds of participants in community events; fundraisers and gatherings, discussions and ceremonies. We have hosted a visiting public professional performance every week, produced new cabarets and children work and facilitated dozens of other artists with rehearsal space and dormitory rooms. We ran over 30 Cultural Community College courses out of the club. We are now the regular arts provision for large chunks of South Leeds who realistically cannot either physically or financially reach the majority of the city centre provision except by special invitation.  Our audience is diverse and representative of our immediate local community.

We host a care leaver dinner on a Thursday that is attended by 25 odd young people who literally have no where else to go. Kidz Klub weekly gathering that helps dozens of young kids be creative and safe. And Leeds Dads every month who are the most brilliant organisation at helping parents of pre-school children. We’re a polling station.

We’ve done all of this maintaining Pay What You Decide on all events and activities. (Except the beer, don’t be a smart arse). The club is thriving, open 3 sessions a day 7 days a week.

We’ve done all of this within the funding arrangements with the Arts Council and the city council and other funders that we had before we ever knew we wanted to run the oldest working men’s club as an arts, social and community space on a Pay What You Decide basis.

As a company we’ve never been more useful. We’ve never spent our funding more efficiently to reach as many people. We’ve never taught as many people, entertained as diverse an audience, welcomed as many people who would be welcome nowhere else.

We are connected. And- most of the time, on a good day- we are relevant.

We are now a part of and nourished by a network of local and micro charities and volunteer organisations all slogging away at being kind and useful in Holbeck. A group of people a million miles away from the Punch and Judy national political world but political nonetheless, grafting away at finding ways of making people’s lives survivable, hopeful and sometimes pleasant and glorious.

And, the same group of 5 Slung Low staff, have done all that whilst still making original work of scale on a national and international basis.

How we’ve done this is a mixture of graft, funding, good luck and the fact that we’ve operated under a clear, stated number of principles.

We guarantee the club against loss and commit our resources to ensure it thrives. At the end of the financial year we make the books back up to zero (and then pay £3,000 in additional rent so a programme of club social activity can continue to be funded) There is absolutely no commercial business model for a club/pub like this in this place to be profitable without changes to those things that the members hold dear (tone, price, opening hours). So this promise of guarantee against loss secures the financial future of the club, under member ownership. This is increasingly rare in our country: most members clubs aren’t member owned. Given the amount of money invested by Slung Low and the amount of management time it takes up there are other ways we could have proceeded: we explored them all (indeed the club board offered us a cut of any future profits which we rejected). But it wouldn’t have remained a purely members owned club, it would have been a take-over: which is not best practice in our work. But it is easier practice and would have simplified the variety and number of often opposing stake holders that we currently manage.

We work the building hard. We fill the place often. We sold 25% more beer than the previous year. But we pay people properly to work here. The annual cash deficit is substantial (£25k). But is still less than the rent we were paying at the HUB. It’s the definition of a win win as long as everyone assumes good faith. Of course the non-financial cost to us at Slung Low is substantial- the time it takes to manage the space, the cellar, the accounts, the committee, the community groups etc etc is 1.5 people a week. That’s the cost of our first principle.

We say yes to everything. If the space is available we will facilitate your event; fundraiser for the lad round the corner who got burgled and wasn’t insured, yes: jazz night, yes: LGBQT+ safe space cabaret, yes: Austrian Ghanian Leeds Society (absolutely is a thing), yes: public debate about the nature of sex work in the area, yes: and the most difficult, Majorette Award Ceremonies (THE HORROR OF THE CARPET AFTER!), yes. We say yes to anything unless it’s overtly commercial and dull (e.g. night club events we wouldn’t allow) but everything else we say yes to. The sheer diversity that the upstairs room gets to see on an average weekend from cooking classes, to political speeches, to African funerals, to experimental theatre is extraordinary.  Would we have let a Brexit party fundraiser have the room upstairs? I don’t know they never asked. This is something that is brought up a lot by senior members of the club who have different political views to the ones they think I have. The Brexit party should get themselves organised and test us: that would show us eh.

Regardless I do know that we’ve supported specific theatre shows requested by members that aren’t to our taste nor our world view and we have a Christian group regularly pray here (a number sit on the club board) whose reading of the bible and lived Christianity is not mine but I’d like to think we host them and service their needs with the same determined practicality that we do anyone else.

Everyone gets what they want but doesn’t get to stop anyone else getting what they want. Want the bar to be like it was ten years ago, the beer to basically be the same price and the carpet not to have changed? Done. Don’t want the care leavers to use the space when nothing else is happening? Can’t help you there, everyone is welcome. Members, non-members, drinkers, non-drinkers. Everyone gets what they want as long as the room is free in the diary.

“You shouldn’t let those African lads upstairs”
“It’s okay, I’m across it.”
“I’m not being racist.”
“Okay”
“It’s just that they don’t drink anything, we’ll not make any money from them.”
“I don’t care.”
“And they don’t clean up their food, they leave it on the carpet.”
“That room has every type of person, race and creed up there in any given month and what I know to be absolute true is that there isn’t a man jack of you in South Leeds who can get food from their plate to their mouth without throwing most of it on the bloody floor. If I only let people up there who didn’t leave sausage rolls, chicken wings, crisps and Bombay chuffing mix on the floor it would be permanently empty.”
“You’ll regret it.”
“Je ne regrette rien cupcake.”

Complete financial transparency. Everyone who works behind the bar gets the living wage (£9.30 as of 1st Jan) everyone who works for Slung Low gets the average wage of the nation (£28,080). What we spend on events from either our Arts Council or Paul Hamlyn grants we are open about. Art in this country is subsidised and despite their increasingly expensive tickets that might make you think otherwise if you didn’t know the work at your big local theatre is subsidised- often to the tune of millions. I see no reason why the art and culture of Holbeck isn’t subsidised to the same extent as the art and culture of those who can afford £35 tickets to watch Twelfth Night in the city centre. When we put on a cabaret the artists are the finest we can find, we put on a proper show for our audience. It isn’t a chancer with a karaoke machine, it’s Jamie Fletcher and her band with Divina De Campo, or Eggs Collective, or House of Ghetto or School of Night. We don’t have artists we ask to do our gig at the RSC and artists we ask to do the club, or teach at the college. They are all the same. And they all get (worked out per day) the same as the rest of us- £108 a day.

Most people at the club think we’re paid too much and pay too much to others: it comes up a lot. They still enjoy the shows and the classes and the cabarets but still, they think they cost too much to put on. We are very lucky with our local councillors who are good people very supportive of what we are doing here. One of them turned to me recently and said- you are loaded you lot. And of course in comparison to the local volunteer organisations in Holbeck we absolutely are well funded. In comparison to the cultural portfolio, to our impact on the national arts scene we are not. But you rightly don’t care about that when you are working out where your little pot of local money goes. This is important: the disconnect between the theatre industry values and costs and the communities we serve (and those that we want more of our arts organisations to serve) grows larger and a lack of clarity and transparency about money is one of the contributing factors.

Useful and Kind.  When we moved in this become our cry. Everything we have is yours if you have need of it, from a wood to a van, to our bar to the kit. And when in doubt, when caught in the cross fire between two opposing forces, we choose the kindest path. And we are as hard in then holding course as we have to be. We’ve discovered that kindness needs protecting- sometimes literally by standing in the doorway- and those are the days you put your big boys pants on.

By any of our hopes and ambition, by any measure (one of our Arts Council KPI was to increase the number of people voting in The Holbeck- we’re a polling station- a target we absolutely smashed setting a record for the venue) we have succeeded. People learnt stuff. Culture was shared. Space was held. Communities were served.

So far so traditional blog bragging.We’ve also never been so tired. And so lacking in generosity at times. And so in need of support from funders. And feel so perilous in our position within the industry.

And if the likes of Slung Low can’t find the confidence to unpick the failings and successes to try and find a lesson to be learnt then no one can- we are privileged in our combination of security and independence in this incredibly disjointed sector. After one year and having spent that year making the very difficult work, now is the time to honestly evaluate whether continuing to make it work is where we put our energy over the coming years. Is the price of doing business too high?

In the summer there was a group of kids who had been identified by the council as at risk of returning to school after the summer holiday suffering from malnutrition. There was the money to feed them. And to provide a health activity and arts programme. But no where for it be hosted. Of course we said yes. For five weeks kids got fed. Kids that would not have got fed did. The kids got fed.

Now those of you who do this for a living know that actually something else happened too. Those kids came into the building, became comfortable, over five weeks got really comfortable. We programmed some brilliant kids work (thanks Unlimited Theatre)- you know who came to see it? Their first ever theatre show. They wouldn’t have come otherwise.

And the parents of those kids had to come and pick their kids up from the club and then they were across the threshold and waiting for them were some of the team with a cup of tea and a brochure for the cultural community college and a quiet, Can I Show You Something?

And people who you would never ever be able to reach were there, in the room, being told about something that it turned out they really wanted. We found a way to be relevant to those that we would never have been able to reach otherwise.

And in the most unpleasant parts of this job, in the hours of hoovering and bullshit, of meetings with board members who wear England I Want My Country Back badges like it’s a winning argument, of standing in the middle of a community that is angry and divided and aggressive I often think, sometimes I even say, the kids got fed. Because we’re here. The kids got fed. Whatever else I say here in this blog, the kids got fed.

But it comes at a cost.

In the last 12 months I have seen my team and dear friends bullied to the point of considering quitting by so many whose club membership affords them seeming authority but no responsibility; dealt with a dozen or more annoying petty crimes and vandalism sometimes by those using the space in one way or another; unravelled inherited accounts that revealed hidden debts and thefts; firmly escorted angry red faced cocaine fuelled topless idiots out of the club; had abuse screamed in my face in front of my audience in response to a local council initiative around sex workers, and on at least two occasions reached in fear and need for the 10lb sledge hammer I call Bertha. These moments are horrible, there is no glory or satisfaction in them. But they are the cost of doing the thing we promised to do in the place and in the way we promised to do it. I don’t believe they are, we’ve questioned this as honestly as we can, the symptoms of failure or a failure of strategy: indeed many of them indicate that some thing is working- the stranglehold of gate keepers always breaks with a scream and gate keepers come in all shapes and sizes, and some even with their tops off.

In the face of all that, saying The Kids Got Fed is a part of my resilience. A necessary motto in the moments when a different job, more time at home, more pay for less shit (or at least a different type of shit), a different place in life seems attractive.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m in any way special, or no more than we all are. Most folk reading this are doing something difficult with their lives: Fun Palacing, CPPs, theatre companies working in the edges of things, and so on. These doubts and questionings are normal in any one who is determined to do that which is difficult, to ignore the easier and less interesting path that is available to us all. And emotional and moral resilience isn’t a magic trick- it’s understanding how to manage yourself and the situation to achieve what you must. And The Kids Got Fed is part of my resilience.

One of our funders (and a really good one who I have a lot of time for so don’t be at it) said to me not so long ago- when you talk about feeding kids before anything else we don’t really know what to do with you. And at first I want to scream because a. THE KIDS GOT FED and b. We all know what feeding the kids mean in terms of our developing relevance.And of course we don’t all know that.  We still exist in a system evaluated by the number of stars, the increase in box office, the amount of additional beers or £9 fish finger sandwiches you can sell. And there’s only so much money to go round, so- whatever our artistic breeding would wish otherwise- we are in competition: with each other, with other regions, with other art forms, with an ever increasing demand and an ever decreasing pot.

When we moved into the Holbeck the upstairs rooms weren’t accessible. This is unacceptable. We spent what was left of our savings after bailing out the club on a stair lift. It isn’t a solution but it was helpful with some of our participants. We knew we would have to raise the money (the lift was originally £30k but the total costs are over £100k) to make it accessible at its most basic level.

It is one of the wonders of the modern world how no one in a position of authority hadn’t noticed the lack of a lift or ramps in the ten years since the legislation was brought in that stated that social clubs had to be accessible but there it is and now it is our responsibility not because we have the money but because we have the energy to care about this: and some days it feels like we’re the only ones who do.

In 2019 we didn’t get a small capital funding from the arts council that we spent several thousand pounds having experts work on with us on (money very kindly donated by internet friends of the company earlier in the year): too many bids not enough money. Which is fair enough and I like the Arts Council even when they don’t give me money because I’ve spent some energy imagining the alternative to the Arts Council. I like the Arts Council plenty.

But when we dug in deeper to the failure it was also, in part, because the application failed to demonstrate how this additional capital funding would allow us to increase our income, or our financial security. How a lift to the first floor of the event’s room in the oldest working men’s club in Britain which operates a Pay What You Decide cultural programme in one of the poorest communities in the city, in the country, how that lift would increase our revenue. It won’t. It can’t.

And whilst I know that Producer Joanna will beaver away and find something to make it all make sense and we’ll resubmit and the evidence will be there we all know its utter nonsense.

Here is what it will do though.

Gaynor is a regular participant in our performance programme. She has a degenerative illness that currently sees her entirely reliant on her large electric wheelchair, and personal care. Speech is possible still but difficult at times. She’s brilliant. She comes to all the performance sessions our James ran. She’s going to be in our short film that we film in January.

She can’t go upstairs. She couldn’t see the cabarets we programmed or the performances we invited to the club. Whilst we moved large sections of our participatory programme to a nearby, not ideal but accessible, room we can’t always do that if we have more than 50 people and so she misses out.

She misses out.

We’ll apply again, we’ll find the money, we’ll get the lift in a year or two.

Gaynor will miss out.

I have members of the Slung Low theatre professional board who can’t come to board meetings if we have them in the most important parts of the building. Not to mention having a stage which is inaccessible to performers in wheelchairs. I don’t think that is anyone’s responsibility but mine. Before I say anything else be absolutely clear that this is my responsibility first and foremost. You are what you do, and currently I fail to welcome those with access issues to the performance programme at the club. And there isn’t a week when that isn’t clear and when we don’t renew our efforts to resolve it. It is the thing amongst all else that I think on.

And it undermines our campaign here in Holbeck of belligerent generosity and sharing to all parts of our society. It makes us hypocrites in the eyes of those who hope we don’t succeed.

If we are serious about relevance, If we are serious about shifting the nature of culture in our nation, about transforming the connections between all our nation and our culture well then there are some hard decisions to be had. Because basing our sector around quasi commercial outfits with pump priming attitudes to public subsidy and boards full of people who have done incredibly well out of the current political, financial and cultural systems in our society is not the strategy we need to  bring about the change we hope for. And have no doubt, we are in competition, if not always for funds, then always for the definition in the public discourse of what arts and the culture are for, who they are for, what they are at their core.

If our collective mission is for better relevance in every part of society then we must accept we are asking people to go and do what we have failed as a sector to do before and that this will be difficult- we haven’t done it before because it was more difficult than the things we were doing- that evaluating these new projects and missions will require new criteria- the market has failed those projects in the past and using the market’s values of income and financial resilience to evaluate them is an act of philosophical stupidity- and we are going to need new ways of supporting those that do this work, and continue to do this work for lets be honest there are some heroes who have been hard at it for decades long before me and mine came along: and we’re all stood on the shoulders of giants. Relevance comes at a cost and long before the financial cost is the cost it must have on our long held values and assumptions about what is ‘good’, what is important, what is to be treasured, and what success looks like. And what we are going to fund, and by how much.
I went on some pretty hefty leadership training this year and, amongst much else, it highlighted the importance of responsibility. You are what you do and if you are a leader you are what your team does, and the responsibility for that team is yours. That in striving for relevance, in placing ourselves in direct service to a large group of people not used to that level of attention a number of leadership challenges arose that I never thought I would have to face.

How do you properly and appropriately manage and develop your young asian Muslim assistant producer when you’ve a board member who wears a badge that says “England! I want my country back”? How do you support your young female business partner in an environment where the sense of members ownership allows behaviour and aggression that would absolutely not be allowed in a normal work-place? What is an appropriate response? How much listening is care and how much is cowardice? At what point is puffing yourself up to your full height putting on your big boy voice and telling everyone, enough, is leadership in a difficult environment and how much is machismo that has beset nearly every white straight middle aged arts leader I’ve ever met?

After nearly 20 years of making work in difficult environments (I started with youth offenders so I’ve not wandered in from the mainstream) and listening and caring and gently manouvering people through difficult things to find myself telling people that they will absolutely be quiet now is a failure I had hoped to escape. But then being the person who stands silently in a room he’s responsible for whilst men talk out-loud and unchecked about murdering sex workers is a greater failure. There is no morally pure road to walk, only the choice between two far from ideal options. But failure to make a decision is the worst of all routes.

I understand, have come to understand, that calling a place home is a moral responsibility. A promise writ large, beyond the details of the contract we made with the club’s management committee. We are of this place, we are in service to it. We are Holbeck’s very own theatre company.

I think a lot less about financial resilience of publicly subsidised organisations and lot more about Gaynor. We’re going to have spend a lot less time trying to come up with a model that can be rolled out at scale and find the courage to imagine what the spine of our arts sector looks like if we base it not on century old institutions slowly evolving into relevance but the understanding that a Stella, or a Javaad, or a Jo, or a Tobi, or a David, or a Joanna in a community, really connected, working with, saying yes, given enough money to get something done, fighting hand to hand responding in the moment with kindness, creativity, and energy has the potential to transform that community’s relationship with culture more profoundly than a dozen well pamphleted national programmes of bleurgh. And change enough communities you can change the nation: that’s the prize here, changing how the nation sees culture and the arts, what is it, who is it for, how does it work.

But it’s so much harder work than what we were doing before. And the courage it takes from all of us is greater.

This year I’ve thought about quitting my job before in a way that I never have before. In the face of the demands of actually being attentive to a huge array of people and communities, of attempting to hold a space for all and not just what we’re interested in, of being relevant in a real, day to day, can you do this now kind of a way.

This isn’t a complaint. It is the cost of doing the thing we said we’d do. The cost not only of keeping our promise, but also of fulfilling our potential. You demonstrate your commitment by standing in the rain and you will get wet. No one ever promised that it would be easy, just that doing anything else wasn’t worthy of our energy.

Doing this has made us harder. I can see it in my Slung Low team: they all didn’t make it to the end of the year (it sounds like we killed someone, we didn’t, James moved on) and that’s something that I have to take seriously- this isn’t an easy job but we’re helping no one if we all quit.

Any Artistic Director of a building- even the most rarified one- will tell you that the negative voices are always the loudest. So, recognising we were spending a majority of our time on the minority of people complaining, we started to collate the testimonials that people send you not realising that they are some days the very thing you need to keep trucking.

One said “Thank God you came to The Holbeck”

Well the big man can take the credit but really thank ProducerJoanna, thank the Arts Council of England, thank a company wage policy, thank the inspiration of Joan Littlewood, and the support of our theatre community on the internet and thank a team of 4 determinedly smashing away at making new things grow in an old place. It’s them and those that got us here. That got us to the end of the first year. And it will be a cherishing of them and those that see us to another one. And another one. And another one. And another.

Because remember friends, the kids got fed.

 

Brett Chapman’s documentary Standing in the Rain which follows the first 3 months of us moving into the club is here. https://vimeo.com/340400303

It was shown at this year’s Leeds International film Festival to great acclaim. We think Brett has made a great and honest film. Many thanks to him and the members who took part.

 

 

 

Blogpost: Pay What You Decide info Wild Conference

_MJ44722Here is a quick snap shot of the Pay What You Decide and attendees of Wild Conference.

Information about Wild Conference can be found here.
There will be various other bits of evaluation and information coming out in the next few weeks but I know that some people are waiting on this so we’ve rushed it to the front. Any questions holler at me alanATslunglow.org

Total cost: £119,400

ACE Income: £100,000
– Pay What You Decide from delegates: £20,830.66
– British Council Ticket Income (paid £80 a day per person): £6,800
Total Ticket Income (including VAT and Paypal fees): £27,430.66
Total Income: 127,430.66

Attendees.
Contributing artists (speakers, curators, cabaret artists), BSL Interpreters): 80
British Council Visiting artists: 30
British Council staff: 25
Guests (free ticket, hotel and travel costs): 15
Arts Council staff: 24
Bea & Co creatives: 8
Children: 13

Other delegates: 326

Total delegates, artists and guests booked as of 3rd July: 521
Slung Low event crew: 15

No shows (cancelled on 3rd July or simply didn’t attend): 101.

PWYD Contributors (Paid or replied ZERO): 326
PWYD Average: £63.90

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Notes.

Contributors were paid £216 for their task. All Slung Low event crew were on £108 a day. Core Slung Low staff (Joanna, Matt, Sally, James and Alan) are not included in these figures.

The free childcare would have been impossible to cover financially at the standard it was except for a very generous and kind partnership from Bea & Co that allowed us to offer absolutely outstanding child-care to everyone who asked for it. It was just brilliant of them.

There is never a “right” figure for PYWD. That’s not what it’s about. It’s an act of politics to allow people the room to take on a role beyond customer. It has a huge impact on people’s ability to attend and that is clear in the range of people attending Wild Conference, and by the testimonials from people who emailed to say that PWYD allowed them to attend.
The amount of money paid for an event is not a reliable signifier of how much people valued it. In this instance the average is surprisingly high and well beyond our estimates.

These figures don’t include the public walk-up; specifically council workers at both breakfasts, staff coming down from Temple Newsam to listen to speeches, a handful of dog walkers and a number of people who stumbled on the cabaret and stayed with us until the fire lit end.

The non-show drop-off (approx. 25%) of attendees is slightly lower than the PWYD drop-off at The Holbeck or with Cultural Community College (35%). We had been assuming an even lower drop-off given the make-up of the audience and the extended communication we had had with delegates. We were wrong. We couldn’t widely over-sell like we do at the club because of capacity and food considerations.

An additional approx. 500 people had, at some point in the last 6 months, a ticket on reserve but did not confirm it by either paying money or emailing ZERO to the relevant email. The vast majority of the waiting list was contacted with about a week to go and offered a ticket. Most took us up on it, for some there wasn’t enough notice.

There is a profit, that is basically the “Slung Low fee.” It’s quite a lot. It could easily have been nothing and we prepared for that. The money made from this job, like all the profit the company makes, goes back into the pot to do work in Holbeck- we are currently focused on fundraising to make our new home The Holbeck accessible to all members of our community and environmentally sustainable. We need a lift. And this will help us get it.

Thanks to everyone who came. We had a lot of fun doing it. We hope it was useful for you all.

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The black and white photographs above are from James Phillips and the colour from Malcolm Johnson. There was also a video team led by Brett Chapman. And an online dramaturg, Kara McKechnie who tweeted throughout. We’ll share it all as it comes in.

Blog post: Standing in the rain, 3 majorette prize givings and deciding when the weekend is. Ten weeks in The Holbeck.

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. 

TKE100612_118.JPGGod 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. 

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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.)

IMG_8906We’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.

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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.

IMG_9037.jpgFirstly 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.

IMG_9875.jpgIf 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.

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