“Community engagement should be the main course, not the dessert, not the side dish,” Jenny Hunt, one half of the artist duo Hunt & Darton, tells me over Zoom. “It’s often an underfunded department, compared to other areas, but it is what will bring the heart into the theatre. And until people actually understand that – which they’re starting to during Covid, because they’re having to get creative and find different ways to raise money or awareness to their venue – then there’s no fucking theatre, because it’s unsustainable anyway.”
Hunt & Darton have been working on one of the several community-led projects that form part of Battersea Arts Centre’s MAKE/LOVE season. Introducing this line-up, Artistic Director Tarek Iskander stated that, “we must use our collective artistic creativity to reimagine our communities.” It’s a statement that stems from the belief that theatres’ involvement in their local communities can and should extend beyond providing limited ‘access to the arts’, and towards empowering them to change the society they live in.
It’s an approach that chimes with Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy for 2020-30: “In future, we will judge organisations for the way in which they reflect and build a relationship with their communities, as well as for the quality and ambition of their work.”
However, just two months after this strategy was launched at the start of this year, the coronavirus lockdown forced theatres to close their doors. The possibility of building a relationship with local community members through some traditional methods – after-school drama classes, reduced ticket prices for postcode residents – was lost. The question of what community engagement can and should look like was brought into sharper focus.
Leeds-based theatre company SlungLow has responded to the crisis by operating a foodbank out of their premises, for people in their local council ward of Holbeck and Beeston, for eight months. In a recent blogpost, SlungLow’s artistic director Alan Lane wrote that “People keep asking, ‘why is a theatre running a foodbank [?]’ … and the slightly sharper [question]: ‘you’re not suggesting that arts funding is used to help alleviate these problems that aren’t our responsibility, ARE YOU?!’” But his response collapses the distinction between running a foodbank and running a theatre: “All this is a creative act. We are telling the story that no one need go hungry in Holbeck and Beeston during this crisis.”
Battersea Arts Centre’s approach has been to bring their existing community engagement programmes to the forefront. Since 2018, BAC have facilitated the Co-Creating Change network, helping arts organisations to share methods of co-creation, a collaborative way of working with communities that reverses the more traditional and potentially patronising ‘top down’ approach. The MAKE/LOVE season showcases some of the projects that are being co-created with local people in Battersea this year. Because they have been guided by community members’ needs, interests and ideas, their outcomes are not necessarily theatre- or arts-related. As well as beatboxing classes, they include spreading the message of a local food charity, running inspirational workshops for young black women, and organising residential retreats for girls from BAME backgrounds – but they all demonstrate how socially engaged work can be a creative and imaginative act.
BAC’s The Agency (run in collaboration with Contact MCR and the People’s Palace Project) gives 15-25 year olds from Battersea or Clapham Junction advice, professional training and £2000 funding to develop social enterprises that benefit their local communities, whether or not they’re related to the arts.
Danielle Honger, one of the 2020 Agents, is developing a project called Unrestricted LDN, which “aims to uplift young black girls’ self-confidence while challenging the ‘angry black girl narrative’.” She says that working with BAC and the Agency has both “helped me see things from a different perspective,” and “helped me mould my brand to be what it is today, to find who my target audience is and what it stands for.” Dulcie Usher, another Agent, tells me about her long-term plans for her project Horizon Retreats. One day she’d like to be able to give young people from inner-city London “the opportunity to do the things they see as ‘not for people like them’, like doing yoga in Thailand, or surfing in St Lucia!” These results – a brand identity, a Caribbean holiday – aren’t common goals of theatres’ participatory programmes, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: they enable the Agents to tell new, imaginative stories about their own communities.
The Agency allows BAC to listen more effectively to what young people in Battersea want to do and say and make, because, as an engagement programme, it doesn’t impose an agenda or predetermine an outcome. Danielle has produced a zine, Respect Me, showcasing some of the workshops she has been running as part of Unrestricted LDN. (These will resume when it is safe to do so.) Respect Me was featured in BAC’s online event We Will Still Breathe, which addresses this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. The zine’s centrefold is a few photographs of a group of young black women wearing goggles, bright pink masks, blue latex gloves and yellow hard hats. They are at a ‘rage workshop’. In one photograph, they’re all posing. In another they’re smashing up old white goods with baseball bats. “Enough of black people coming forward and people doing nothing but turn their heads, no more brushing things under the rug,” she says. “Respect Me means you need to hear us, to get a better understanding of the things we go through.”
Over Zoom, I meet Hadas Hagos, the CEO of local charity Waste Not Want Not Battersea; performance-maker Jenny Hunt; and Lorra Videv, emerging producer and previous member of the BAC Young Producers programme. They are co-creating What If…?, ‘a live reality show experience’. The project has been commissioned and funded by BAC, but since its inception has been led by the team of creatives without further input from the theatre. Jenny is keen to point out that, although she and Hadas had met earlier in the year, when Lorra joined them, “it wasn’t an interruption or like, ‘oh the institution has arrived!’” Every Thursday, they post a short video update of the project’s progress. Waste Not Want Not Battersea, Hadas says, is about “finding creative ways to prevent food waste from New Covent Garden Market [in nearby Nine Elms]”; they run cooking sessions, food preservation workshops, food sharings, film nights, and, during the pandemic, a food delivery service. What If…?, the team tell me, will showcase the charity’s message and mission, but exactly how it will do that is up to Hadas, Lorra, and Hunt & Darton.
“Basically, the reason that What If…? as a project attracted me is because it didn’t have a recipe!” Hadas tells me, laughing at the ba-dum-tish! joke. “Very good!” Jenny says. Lorra shouts, “Fuck the recipes!” Throughout the call, they all chime in on each other’s answers, and crack up at little in-jokes. It’s clearly a really successful working collaboration. In Episode 3 of their updates, the team sit round a table and discuss their early ideas and resources. They write them on pink post-it notes: HALL, GARDEN, SEXY KITCHEN. They decide that participants will be given “ingredients-led challenges, not recipes.” When we meet, I ask them to explain why. “Waste Not Want Not Battersea is anti- hardcore recipes,” Hadas says. “Recipes are good to guide you, but they stop you exercising your creativity when you’re making meals. They tell you to use a pinch of this, a pinch of that, and you don’t use that big 1kg bag of lentils. But if you start from ingredients, rather than recipes, you can make meals every day from the things that you already have. And waste doesn’t happen.”
Jenny joins in. “It’s funny because in [Hunt & Darton’s] practice, we’ve worked a lot with food. We would give people the ingredients to a Victoria sponge, and then not the recipe, because we’re all about embracing failure and challenging automated behaviour. We’ve both arrived at the same understanding from a different way round. Hunt & Darton are coming from a psychological perspective, and Hadas is coming from, like, well otherwise the turnips will go off!” She adds, “we do it in very different ways, but creativity is part of both our organisations.” There can be an assumption, in community-focused work, that artists have something to ‘offer’ or ‘provide’ that the local community is fundamentally lacking. Challenging this implied hierarchy, as BAC’s community projects do, allows professional artists and creative community members to approach projects as equal collaborators and co-creators.
The BAC Beatbox Academy focuses on making music with young people, but it shares a similar emphasis on co-creation to What If…? and The Agency. The project encourages – without dictating – its members’ authentic and idiosyncratic creative expression. It’s been running since 2008, but during the lockdown, it moved online, offering free weekly sessions over Zoom for 8 to 29 year-olds, and producing a series of ‘how to’ YouTube videos.
Nate Forder-Staple, aka Native The CR8ive, explains, “It’s just about your passion and vibes. Beatboxing is a way for us to express ourselves without feeling that we have to fit into the ‘traditional theatre experience’.” In this sense, it differs from many other participatory activities and workshops run by theatres for young people, which can tend to be more directed or prescriptive. Nadine Rose Johnson, aka Glitch, adds, “The Beatbox Academy has no entry criteria. There’s no pressure to come, no pressure to stay. People try to picture it and assume it’s a weird dynamic but once you’re a part of it, you wonder how you ever lived without it and why it seems so difficult for other initiatives to follow suit.”
Although productions aren’t the Academy’s main aim, its full-length beatbox theatre show Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster was a hugely successful main-stage production for BAC. A film version was released as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine season in October this year. Both Nate and Nadine are cast members. Nate has been a member of the Academy since 2014, Nadine for even longer. The Academy’s success is clearly related to its longevity: it has taken time to build trust, and to learn what participants want to make and how they want to make it. “[It took] years of writing, and reworking, and performing, and rewriting to create this piece that we love and are so proud of, that truly represents us,” Nadine says.
The What If…? team also praise the benefits of allowing co-created projects to take their time. In keeping with co-creating principles, BAC’s upfront investment came without the requirement to produce a final event or production within the timeframe. Jenny says that this has been both productive and liberating: “sometimes we go off on a huge tangent because it’s important to one of us around the table at that point to invest time in that, over just the outcome.” Allowing for tangents and reworking – prioritising process over outcome or profit – seems, to producer Lorra, particularly vital for community-led projects. “Every level of thinking that leads to the end result is very important. The people you meet along the way, questions like ‘why are we going to have it here and not somewhere else’, are very important.”
A project like What If…? enables BAC, as a producing theatre, to meet the participants it is looking for, and to find the most appropriate venue for its community-engaged work, because it is co-created with Hadas, who lives in Battersea and runs an active community centre on Doddington Estate. Similarly, working with the Agents on their own ideas has allowed the theatre to direct its resources towards addressing specific, local issues that have been identified by young people embedded in their communities. Fostering these kinds of productive, co-creative relationships takes time, flexibility and financial investment. The Agency, the Beatbox Academy and What If…? are projections, looking to the future beyond this season. As Hadas tells me, “The hope is, in the end, to have a lot of Hadases around! So that they fix the problems that they see in their surroundings, in their backyard, in their community, in their school.”
During the pandemic, the question of how theatres should engage with local community members has felt particularly urgent, because both theatres and local communities are in acute crisis. As Paul Smith of Middle Child Theatre asked in an Exeunt dialogue on theatre and community in June, “We can’t gather people in a room to watch a play, so how do we find ways to maintain and build communities in a way that best uses the skills we have?” Not being able to rely on income from main stage shows has meant that theatres have had to struggle to prove their worth in the fight for government funding, and in many cases this has led to an attendant refocus on community-centred work. In the longer-term, though, underfunded theatres can’t just take on the welfare responsibilities of the state in order to justify their continued existence: the industry needs to be able to build a sustainable, effective model of community engagement that best uses its skills. The co-created projects in BAC’s MAKE/LOVE season offer some possible ideas about what that might require: recognition of the inherent value of creative process, negotiation between pragmatism and imagination, the ability to invest resources, orientation towards a future beyond the short-term, and shared creative input from artists and community members.
During our Zoom call, Hadas jaunts along the streets of Battersea, pulling her face mask on and off to answer my questions. She starts at a table outside a cafe that works closely with the charity, Corelli’s on Battersea Park Road, then gets up and goes for a walk. We can sometimes overhear her chatting to the people she bumps into, borrowing a cigarette. Occasionally, her internet cuts out. When she comes back, she asks what she’s missed. “Everything!” Jenny jokes. “Everything’s solved now!”