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

0043_Wild Conference-38

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.

0007_Wild Conference-21

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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Blog Post: We need a little help.

So we’re moving in to The Holbeck. Hooray!  We move in in January 2019. All our 2019 activity will be there. It’s such an exciting opportunity for us, the artists in our community that we support, our participants and audiences. You can read all about it here if this is the first you are hearing about it.

But there are some challenges. These challenges are absolutely our responsibility but we need some help overcoming them. And so we’re asking if you can please lend a hand. There are two bits of help we really need, one is about money, when is it ever not, but we know that in these times not many people have much of that spare and there are lots of people who want to help who can do so in practical, lending a hand way. So here it is.

IMG_5498Access and a lift.

The top floor of the Holbeck isn’t accessible to those who use wheelchairs. Obviously we aren’t going to be moving in in January without having resolved that situation. 

To put in a lift we’ve been quoted around £30k. This is a responsibility that of course we are going to meet. Of course. But we’ve just agreed to give all the money we had ‘spare’ to Carlsberg Brewery to clear the Holbeck’s debts to them and make it possible for us to move in. So the cupboard is bare.

In the first instance, before we move in in January 2019, we will have a stair lift put in at the Holbeck as a temporary measure. This will resolve some of the access issues but not all and we are really aware of that. Those people who cannot get out of their wheelchair and into the stair lift will still be excluded from the upstairs performance space and so we are committed to raising the £30k for a full lift by the middle of 2019. 

This is the bit that we are asking help with. If you can spare anything to help us put a full lift in to the Holbeck then we would be very grateful. 

I thought long and hard about whether we should offer rewards for donations and in the end decided against it. Everything we have is all of yours: it alwa. Need the space for a private event? Yours, Pay What You Decide by way of payment. Want to borrow the van, some equipment, host your mum’s birthday party here? Yours, Pay What you Decide by way of contribution. All tickets to our events, Pay What You Decide. Our college classes, PWYD.

So it felt strange to put financial figures to fundraising “rewards” when we already share those things with anyone who have need of them.

So if you can spare some money we would be super grateful. And if you think we can do something to help you, or we have something that you need, know that you can simply ask for it. But that asking doesn’t require you to give us anything- that isn’t really how it’s meant to work. If we can we’re going to say yes regardless.

You can make donations via our PayPal link here (This link isn’t working for everyone so you can always pay the email slung.low@mac.com through your Paypal account and that will sort it out or email us on same if you want bank details)

Every penny we raise from any source is going towards that lift until it’s complete. It’s our responsibility and we will meet it. With a little help from those of you who can.

IMG_4420_HDR-3420917336-OBarn Raising Days.

And we know that many want to help but simply don’t have any cash- we know how you feel. There are two bedrooms upstairs at the club that have been seriously damaged by a leaking roof over the years. We’re going to renovate them and put them to use supporting local, visiting and emerging artists. And we’re going to need some help doing that.

So on the 19th and 20th January and 26 and 27 January we’re going to have barn raising days. Days where everyone rallies around, strips wall papers, cleans walls, paints stuff, and gets it all done.

If you feel like you could contribute- come along and muck in- then we would welcome you with open arms. And give you lunch.

We’ll be starting at 10.30 every day and going through to 3. If you would like to volunteer then please just let us know you are coming, drop an email to me at alan@slunglow.org saying which days you’d like to do, if you’re bringing anyone with you, and if you have any dietary requirements. We’ll sort the rest, provided tools, safety kit, all that good stuff. You don’t need any experience or knowledge of DIY.

And if neither of those work for you but you’d still like to help then please just bang the drum. Any help you can give spreading the word is really appreciated.

And if there is anything you ever need, say the word and if we can we will. 

The Holbeck is a really exciting adventure for us. And we hope that you will love coming here to see us. Any help you can give us to get ready for that will be most gratefully received.

Our Christmas Fayre is our last event at The HUB. 8th December 12-4. Come down, drink mulled wine, eat roast hog (or vegan alternative), sing carols, visit stalls and hear Christmas tales read aloud. Come say goodbye to the HUB with us.

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Blog Post: The Times They Are A’changing. The story of The Holbeck, a social club.

The Holbeck is a social club in the heart of a housing estate in Holbeck. It is the oldest working men’s club in the country. But it changed its name to a social club  for very obvious and very good reasons. Ernie Wise played there. There’s a plaque. That’s not even one of the top 5 best stories about The Holbeck.

IMG_5498A few years ago it was in financial difficulty (like 95% of WMCs and many pubs) and some excellent volunteers moved to maintain it and start paying back the debt to the brewery. They ran the members’ club as volunteers for a number of years and started to pay down the debt. It continues to survive today- the volunteers are glorious but by their own admission tired.

We have loved The Holbeck for a long time- we’ve done shows there, attended community meetings, we’re members. It is a glorious place. 

And I rehearsed Tabby McTat for Freckle Productions there a few weeks ago. During which Slung Low Producer Joanna realised that there was here an opportunity for both organisations.

We’ve come to accept that we needed to make substantial improvements to the HUB in order to continue to support artists and welcome audiences the way we would like. But a perfect storm of uncertainty around the Network Rail sale of all the arches, gentrification plans of the Holbeck urban village area that never felt like they would include an outfit like ours and difficulty in engaging productively with the landowners around the HUB area who have made cultural partnerships with organisations elsewhere in the city meant we were loathed to spend energy on raising money to invest in a property that we had no security in.

And there was the added issue that no matter how welcoming we made the HUB (and our audience told us repeatedly that welcoming we were) we would never overcome the larger geographical issues of being on Bath Road and having the sex worker managed area between us and the one of communities  we are keen to engage with. My position has been for a long time that whatever best secures the safety of all the women of Holbeck, including Slung Low staff, sex workers, residents, visitors and audience members is what I’ll support and my admiration for our friends at Basis charity is boundless but there is still no denying that I was regularly being told that one of the main obstacles to attending events at the HUB (especially evening classes at the College) was the walk from the houses in Holbeck to the HUB on Bath Road. We looked at putting on cabs, driving people home, walking buses: all good temporary solutions but harder to maintain with the scale of impact we are hoping that the Cultural Community College and later Leeds Peoples Theatre will have.

So change was needed.

We approached the Holbeck Management Committee (an elected volunteer group made up of club members) with a proposal.

And the proposal was this;

We’ll pay the debt to brewery off so they can secure (and keep) the deeds.

We will pay an amount of rent each year to secure our sole occupancy.

We will manage and run the bar for the club, giving all profits back to the club. The current opening hours, member privileges, and activities in the main bar areas (including lounge, snooker room and bar) will be protected and maintained.

From now on everyone working at the club (primarily cleaners and bar staff) will receive Living Wage payment. All current volunteers will be honoured and offered their current position on the new paid terms.  Slung Low staff members can’t be double paid (we’re all on buy-out company wages so if we do a bar shift we don’t get paid twice).

We will guarantee the club each year against loss: it will become a thriving business.

We will move Slung Low’s entire operation (specifically but not exclusively administrative HQ, shared artist rehearsal space, Cultural Community College classes, visiting performances and How To Festivals) to the Holbeck. The non-bar spaces (250 seater stage events room, flat with living quarters, dressing rooms and office space) will be where appropriate renovated and all put to use homing artists, classes and performance.

We’ll commit to being in The Holbeck and honouring these terms until end of 2023.

And ten minutes ago, on a Sunday morning in the main bar, the members of The Holbeck voted on this proposal and approved the plan. The opportunity this presents to Slung Low are huge; in terms of developing audience, participation and hosting artists making work this is a real step forward for us.

Slung Low’s base will sit physically in the heart of a community.

The future of The Holbeck will be secured and an important, and rare in Holbeck, community asset will be secured for the community in the face of market pressures.

If you are a HUB audience member then everything will stay the same, it will just get warmer and 600 m to the south of where it used to be.

This is the most useful thing we can do. So we’re doing it.

The last event at the HUB is our Christmas Fayre on 8th December. From midday we mull wine, roast a hog (eat vegan alternatives where appropriate), browse stalls, sing carols, hear Yuletide stories and have a merry time of it. Then at 3 we’re going to walk over to The Holbeck where the cast of Tabby McTat will give a special Pay What You Decide performance of the show to raise funds for the outstanding homeless charity Simon on the Streets. 

That’s the perfect end to our time in the HUB I think. It has been a good home, a free place, a useful place. I can only imagine what we’ll all manage together in the new home. The Holbeck. Now with added Slung Low.

IMG_5499And a few quick FAQ so we all know where we stand.

It’s not a take over. From the start we were keen to reiterate that the members of the Holbeck continue to hold the deeds. We don’t want them. We’re not buying them out. We’re entering into a partnership.The club and its value is still theirs to collective own.

We’re keeping the bus classroom. It is a great piece of work by the team. It will be really useful, there’s room for it at the Holbeck and we’ll continue to use it.

We intend to start moving in to the Holbeck early January 2019 and be gone from the HUB end of January 2019. All activity in 2019 will be hosted at the Holbeck.

All the equipment that we can’t take with us (85 theatre seats, two shipping containers, various furniture, a golf buggy etc) will be offered to other community and arts groups for free. If no one wants them we’ll sell them.

No we can’t take the Hickling Wing with us. God guys, let it go, it was years ago and he isn’t even the theatre critic for the Guardian anymore and he liked the last thing of ours he saw and when are you going to let it go even? Okay, fine we’ll take the sign and put it over one of the cubicles. Are you satisfied now you monsters!

Yes we will continue to be a Pay What You Decide company for all our hosted performances, meals, classes, festivals. The beer you’ll have to pay market value for from now on- this does mean the end of the £1 bar. But it’s a social club in South Leeds so I think you’ll like our prices just fine.

We will continue to lend all our equipment, our van and rehearsal space to whoever have need of it. Nothing changes. Our mission remains to be useful. What is ours is yours.

Where are you finding the money to pay off the club’s debt? Well. There’s a tale. Do you remember when we did that massive show Flood? It was so big it qualified for Theatre Tax Relief (the what? See https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2016/alan-lane-theatre-tax-relief-is-the-graceful-assault-of-an-ideological-ninja/). And I was in two minds because obviously I think TTR is not progressive at all and fundamentally a way to make Andrew Lloyd Webber richer and you are what you do and if we take this money then that’s a bit isn’t it but then on the other hand it’s an act of idiocy to not take it when we work so hard to raise money to do useful things but what could we do with this money that would be useful, secure a home for the company that we could grow in and also help secure a really vital community asset. Ah. Yes. Good. If you think that makes me a hypocrite I understand but i’ve got some news about where the Arts Council get their money from which is going to break your heart.

Everything we do will continue. Including being a home to Yorkshire Aid who are a really important local charity helping refugees in Europe who we are committed to supporting in all the ways we can. That will continue at the Holbeck if Yorkshire Aid want to come with us.

Does this have anything to do with that time Network Rail sent literally a bouncer to do a fire inspection? Yes. We were not intimidated. We were angered. We do not run away. We fight through the opposition and re-organise on the other side. We upgrade. Thanks for the motivation.

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Blog Post: Culture can be dangerous in the right hands and the hope of confident citizens

Fairy Portal Slung Low 3-099-Edit

Tonight we have a ceilidh at the HUB. If you don’t know what a ceilidh is it’s a collective community dance, led by a team of brilliant exceptional artists, in which all levels of experience and talent can participate and the more involved the better it is. It’s also much fun.

The ceilidh is to mark the opening of Slung Low’s Cultural Community College. 

The ceilidh is a metaphor innit. A metaphor with a £1 bar and some free sandwiches. You’d be very welcome.

Recently I’ve been doing press interviews for the college: a Pay What You Decide programme of cultural activity from star-gazing to documentary making, cooking to blacksmything. It’s been different from doing press for a show. Partly because nearly everything at the college is sold out so it stops being about urgently telling people to book tickets. But also because the journalists and me know how we’re meant to talk about an upcoming show- there’s a rhythm to the conversation- and normally it’s hard to break out of the pattern set for both of us.

But there’s no pattern for talking about a theatre company creating a cultural community college and that freedom for both parties has led to some really interesting chats: about education, the arts, the market, the value of things and caring less about your legacy and more on your impact on people tomorrow. And as is natural if you spend that long explaining what you’re up to to people you come to a much better understanding of what it is you’re up to and crucially why.

We’ve spoken a lot about the training the company undertook to prepare for Flood last year. Training in boats, abseiling, pyrotechnics and forklifts made us confident about undertaking those tasks of course but more importantly made us more confident generally- the act of learning new things building an internal confidence. The whole company went on 3 days of first aid training with some trainers from the mountain rescue. It was intense. A few days later one of the gang called to tell me that since the training they were just feeling so much more confident and as a result a bit happier. Asked why that was they said that after the training there was one less thing to be scared of, one more thing that they didn’t feel intimidated by, one less thing to be scared of in the wide world. Specific knowledge brought general confidence.

Fairy Portal Slung Low 4-156-Edit

I remember the first time I went to see an orchestra. It was at the Barbican. I was directing a show in their studio at the time so hardly an outsider, packing plenty of cultural capital. I went to see the ENO. It was excruciating. There were all these people who knew the rules, I was wearing the wrong clothes, I was certain they were looking down their noses at me, I clapped at the wrong time, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. By the end of that performance- which was extraordinary I recognise now- I was about as antagonistic about orchestras as is possible. And ungenerous. So ungenerous in my opinion of the art, the form, their funding- everything. Partly that was a response to being made to feel unwelcome sure, but it was also a lot to do with not knowing- feeling lost- unconfident. And the antagonism was a response to that unconfidence. I mean I know all you lot know that but it took me years to realise it. 

The more confident we are the kinder we can be, the more generous we can be. When we feel threatened we are less outward looking, less confident. And less kind.

We need kindness right now.

Knowledge brings confidence. Confidence allows kindness.

I’ve been reading the autobiography of Joe Papp. He is an American producer who founded the Public Theatre.  He was in the Navy, worked at the Actors Lab and then was a stage manager at CBS. Then he starts putting on Shakespeare in downbeat outdoor parks. It was a revolutionary idea. He didn’t charge for tickets- passing a hat around some of the poorest communities of New York at the end of the show. He decides to build a stage on an old lorry and tours New York’s poorest boroughs until he finally ends up parking the stage permanently in Central Park because the bus is too knackered to carry on.  The shows are profoundly successful, full, critically acclaimed, free.

And that’s when the chief city official decides that unless Joe Papp is willing to charge people tickets to come and see the shows then he’s throwing them out of the park. He’s a powerful man this official, everyone is scared of him. Papp isn’t. It’s a really simple threat: charge people to see the show and you can stay, keep giving it away for free and you’re done- if it is any good people will pay for it, right?  Papp pulls in every favour, every trick he can and holds his nerve. He wins. Of course he does. It’s daft to bet against people like Papp: there are some people who can bring a reality in to being with sheer force of will. 

Papp was investigated, just before the city official comes for him, by the House Un-American Activity Committee: the McCarthyite loons who investigated left-wing American artists, blacklisting whole swathes of the industry and ruining lives. Joe Papp refused to name names and was one of the few who wasn’t crushed by the refusal.

Joe Papp got it. He understood on a fundamental level that asking people to pay what they decide at the end of a performance is not an act of social charity. It is an act of politics.

And in 1950’s New York it was a dangerous act of politics.

IMG_5476We’ve been working with the brilliant Sam Scott-Wood on how Slung Low talks to the public and about itself now it’s simultaneously a maker of epic peoples’ theatre around the country, runs a studio theatre and a rehearsal space in Leeds and operates a Community Cultural College in a converted double decker bus. That needs a bit of clarity and thinking about: Sam led us on that process. We spent a long time talking about the distinction between reckless and danger, risk and hazard. Finding a way to express the determination and boldness and wildness which we work hard to maintain in everything we do in a way that might not appear unhelpfully combative. Amongst much else Sam came up with the tagline 

Culture can be dangerous in the right hands

I’ll be eternally gratefully to Sam for giving me the language to be bold and not overly combative. And to Joe Papp for reassuring me that there are times when combative is what the day demands. Extraordinary things require extraordinary effort. Some days.

Camelot Selects 2 (1)

The Slung Low Cultural Community College is being made possible because of money and support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council, England.

Funders quite rightly want solid outcomes they can measure: it’s important to help make the argument about where the money should be spent: not everyone agrees with the world view that culture should be accessible and shared so the argument must be made and remade. 

In many places the received wisdom has been for too long that outreach in theatres can be measured best by how many new customers is generated for the “core” work of the main stage. Participation driving people to the core business of a playhouse.

I’m not interested in creating more customers for work that wasn’t designed to excite those people in the first place. What cultural education can do at its best is to make people more confident. It surely sells us all short to imagine the best thing that can be done with that confidence is to buy tickets to another production of Twelfth Night. Much more exciting is the idea that with that confidence can come the realisation that the most powerful role available to our participants is not that of customer but that of confident (and one dreams kind) Citizen*.

That’s what I am hoping for. That’s the goal for the college. That in four years what we know to be true is that the college helped a load of people, including us, be better citizens. 

Camelot youth riot

*when I’ve spoken about citizens before people have expressed disquiet about the phrase because of the distinction between UK Citizens and foreigners. I just want to take a moment to explain I am talking about something different: Citizen as empowered decision making individual, connected to its community and confident in taking responsibility from corporation and state to ensure that where and how they live is good enough for all of us. As someone married to a non-UK citizen I am well aware of the inherent inequalities in the distinction between UK Citizen and other and reject that as the best we can be entirely.

**That’s right we bought a double decker bus and David Farley designed it into 2 classrooms and Matt Angove has been leading a team of artists in the work to make it a reality. It’ll be finished this evening then I promise photos.

The photos above are from Fairy Portal Camp and Camelot and taken by James Phillips.

Blog Post: Slung Low are opening a Cultural Community College. Why and What?

Slung Low_ Fairy Portal Camp_ 20 June 2016_2016_Photo by Sam Allard _c_ RSC_196078We’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about education. Learning. In various different forms.

Over the years Slung Low have taught at dozens of universities, we were in residence at the University of Huddersfield for 8 years or so, and this year are spending a lot of time at LIPA. We all went to school.

And in preparation for last year’s Flood most members of the team went on a variety of training courses; the writer and composer on a 3 day first aid course; the designer getting a MEWP ticket, sound engineer an all terrain fork lift licence, producer food hygiene certificate and I did a rope access course with a bunch of recently demobbed marines looking to get a gig on the oil rigs. Learning.

And it struck me how much education, not just the industry of it but the philosophy of learning had changed over the last 30 years.

There’s a solid looking coffee table in my house. It’s moved house with me a dozen times, it is sturdy thing. Handsome, practical. My mother made it. Probably 35 years ago. In a wood working class the WI ran one autumn. Taught her to make a table. Proper joinery. Took a while. It is a good table. Skills. Learnt.

You see less of that now. The WI- and a whole hosts of other organisations that might have been interested in the general cultural well-being and education of their members and the wider population now pressed into service as a third sector, volunteer army of social fire fighters in the battle against the worst ravages of free-market crony capitalism that blights many of the communities that not so long ago didn’t consider themselves in desperate need. Soup kitchens, food banks. That’s what is needed now from the WI and their like. Not so much joinery.

In their place the market has done its thing, you can take your hen do on butchery weekends, learn how to bake French pastries at private cooking schools in evening sessions. There are craft classes that follow a similar pattern. My wife sent me on a Thai cooking day for a birthday but with prices north of £100 a day these are no longer the community adult education of before and well beyond the pockets of many.

And then there’s training. Skills. I work for you and you want me to learn how to use a forklift. So you send me on a course. And the parameters of that learning are carefully framed so it takes up the least amount of time away from work as possible. The hard edges of what will be taught is entirely in relation to what is immediately useful. But you get a certificate. Which is good. Because you pass a test. I should know I did at least a dozen of them last year. They all go a bit like this: The pass rate is 80%. 20% of the questions require actual knowledge. 80% of the questions are structured like this-

What should you always do before preparing food? A. Wash your hands. B. Sing two verses of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer C. No dogs are allowed in the smoking compartment. D. Lick a picture of Delia Smith.

Because the companies supplying the certificates are being assessed by the employer paying on how many can you get through how quickly. Yes you can throw the odd dickhead out of class who won’t take it seriously but fundamentally the bar of knowledge is set at what the existing work force can manage. The market has dictated how much knowledge you are ever going to be offered, then give you a piece of paper to cover your bosses’ asses.

And the universities have changed beyond recognition but we all know that. The wheeze to make students customers has sucked the soul out of the university experience in many ways; just look at how profoundly unhappy so many lecturers are, how changed and reduced their relationship with the students is. The language of the market has done nothing to make students more engaged with their education, let alone more in control. And the customer/service relationship is now being pushed to its natural conclusion- the proposal of rating courses according to the earning power of its graduates is a wonderful idea because it will surely lay bare the inequalities of both our education and employment markets as we all scratch our heads wondering why for the 12th year running PPE graduates of two universities earn more money than graduates of engineering courses anywhere. The drive to the market place is seen in how the students behave, how the lecturers are treated, how the institutions present themselves to the world and in the borrowing of the worst elements of free enterprise in obscene pay at the top and prolonged industrial action at the bottom.

We as a society no longer (in any great number) have many affordable opportunities to learn for the sake of learning. The Liverpool mosque of Quilliam in astronomy, chemistry and maths. The craft courses of the church of England and the WI I remember from my childhood. Lecturer programmes of working men’s clubs and libraries. Ha! Libraries.

Over the last few years we’ve run a very modest, and reasonably traditional, cultural learning programme, a writers’ group run by Mark Catley and Aisha Khan, a choir and a programme of How To Festivals (combining with the mighty Fun Palaces once a year).  A small test bed of activity over time, supported by our local councillors and community funding, that has allowed us to hear about the impact from our community that a cultural learning for cultural learning’s sake can have. The self-declared outcomes in our participants, on their well-being, on their imagination, on their cultural capital and confidence has been incredibly bolstering to hear and inspired much thinking. As modest as it was the impact is clear, what impact could a more ambitious project have?

My father left school for the RAF at 15 with a wood work O-level. The RAF taught him everything he needed to know. And then in later life, still in the forces, he did an Open University degree. In humanities, social sciences. Utterly pointless to any job he would ever have, any career development available to him at GCHQ. He’s been dead a long time now but one of the clearest memories I have is of him turning to me and my mum at tea one day and with complete horror and genuine surprise detailing how he’d just learnt how appallingly homosexuals had been treated in our country by the law.  Genuine revelation of knowledge. A man’s mind transformed simply by coming to know more. Learning. Learning undertaken just because he’d reached an age where he wanted to know about things he didn’t know anything about. To know of a different world. And because the forces-whatever their many failings and problems- are still one of the few employers who will fund the educational improvement of their employees even though it may have no immediate bearing on the work they are doing.

His horizon shifted. What a gift to give someone in their middle age. A shifting horizon.

Learning.

Slung Low have started preparations for a Cultural Community College. A place to come and learn, free at the point of use, a whole array of cultural activity; from Irish dancing to South Indian cooking, from poetry writing to carpentry, digital photography to singing in a choir. If I have my way (reader I will) the first course will be star gazing; profound knowledge, awe inspiring, practically useless. I can’t think of anything more changing of horizons than to understand the skies above us. And I can’t think of anything less useful to the market place. In the first wave of classes (different times of the week, different levels of commitment, varied levels of regularity) I have my heart set on welding and how to make the perfect pakora, CPR classes and sign language.

I’ll have to be quick because after the first instalment of classes the curriculum will be chosen by the members of the college, a co-op. If you have attended any class you automatically become a member, you propose classes and vote for your choice; we’ll do what the people decide.

We’ll hire the best teachers we can find and afford.

Someone asked me a few weeks back, why? We make big theatre shows, with a degree of success that would probably ensure we need not do anything else but that. The running of the HUB as a rehearsal space and erstwhile performance space for younger artists takes up more than enough time- why do something else?

Partly it’s our continued core mission to attempt to be as useful as possible with public money in as many imaginative ways as we can.

But mostly it’s because, as Lorne Campbell’s The Last Ship recently reminded in glorious style, you are what you do. That’s as true for organisations as it is for individuals. And I want Slung Low to be a thing that tries to imagine better versions of reality than this current shit show.

I was in an interview a long time ago and I proposed hosting the soon to be closed nearby library in the large and almost constantly empty foyer of the theatre. The chair of the board fell about laughing in a manner that made it clear I wouldn’t need to move house any time soon. “That’s not what we are for” he chuckled. What are you for then? That’s exactly what you should be for actually. That’s exactly what the privilege and opportunity of public funding is for. As I have written here before the need to imagine and explore new ways of being, of valuing things are urgent. And if it’s not the job of subsidised arts organisations then I don’t know whose it might be. If not us then who? Whilst we’ve spent ten years scrapping to keep the status quo, fighting off cuts and disrespect from our conservative governmental paymasters, other sectors, driven by the profit imperative and with scant regard for the majority of society, have been busy imagining new worlds in which technology plays a greater and greater role requiring a smaller, highly educated workforce but little use for anyone who might find themselves on the wrong end of the technological revolution.  Slung Low are going to create a place, a school, where people come to learn news things of wonder and beauty simply for the sake of the joy that such things might bring them. Because I think the people attending deserve that level of attention and provision. And because I think, I hope, it might help. Them, maybe. Society, hopefully. Me, definitely.

There are have been various calls from the theatre scene for arts education to be better respected by the government and they are all absolutely correct. Most can be more or less summarised by these lines from something Rufus Norris wrote a couple of months ago; “We need an education system fit for the 21st century, one that champions this country’s creativity as the foundation of its economic health.” 

He’s quite correct but we’ve done this before. It’s the same argument we made for public subsidy for the arts.

The argument was won, funding stabilised, but not before the nature, purpose and logic of arts funding and many of our organisations were transformed. We need an education system fit for the 21st century that champions the country’s creativity as a foundation of its collective mental health, as a foundation of its collective sense of worth, as a foundation of its ability to take a moral leadership role in the world, to imagine better futures for our children, for other people’s children, fuck it for ourselves man.

You don’t wonder why you should bother spending time and money on teaching a factory worker how to paint, or understand geometry, or sing, or to code a raspberry pi, carve a candle stick when that is going to add nothing to the efficiency of the factory they work in, you wonder when it was you came to have such a low opinion of people who work in factories that a full, rich, accessible and varied creative, cultural life might not be something that every single person of the nation deserves. Jesus lads, this is Victorian logic. We are literally less humane and enlightened than owners of Victorian chocolate factories, can we get a grip please.

You are what you do. And so, in our little part of the world in Holbeck, we are going to make a varied, high quality creative education available to everyone who wants it regardless of financial status. Because that’s what we want to be- people who think that is important- so that’s what we’ll do. Hold the space to create the opportunity of a cultural education beyond the market place. We’re going to open a school. It’s going to be an adventure. The first classes will be in autumn 2018 and it will run for four years, forever or until the revolution and/or nuclear war makes it unnecessary. It is possible entirely thanks to the considerable support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and our long suffering but much appreciated partners at the Arts Council, England. The college will be supported by an advisory board of educators taken from a range of educational worlds, universities, theatre education departments, the private sector. The excellent Dr Rachel Perry will be coming with us on the journey to research our impact, success and misfires along the way which will allow us to learn what we learn wider than our immediate Holbeck community.

It’s what we’ll be spending a large part of the next few months on, creating the framework of the college. If you have any interest in it, want to argue about it, want to offer help in some way please do get in touch. It takes a village eh.

The picture at the top is of the mighty Rash Dash running a Fairy Rave at the RSC when we tried to learn how to open a portal to the fairy world. Experts and academics are still in disagreement as to whether the operation was successful. The photo was taken by Sam Allard.