“When you say beer, that’s not bitter is it?” a member of Slunglow Theatre asks her colleague as a queue of stony-faced punters builds up at the bar. It’s one of the company’s first nights managing the Holbeck, a working men’s club in the British city of Leeds, and things aren’t going well: the lager tastes funny, there’s no real ale until the end of the month, and the pints are being served with a head of foam that takes up a third of the glass.
This toe-curling scene features in Standing in the Rain, a short documentary by Brett Chapman that explores what happened when one of Arts Council England (ACE)’s ‘National Portfolio Organisations’ – arts entities that receive a regular public subsidy – took over the management of a member-owned, volunteer-led social club on a working-class estate.
Slunglow are known for large-scale productions performed outside traditional theatre spaces which aim to reach audiences who rarely cross the threshold of the auditorium - audiences that have been excluded from much mainstream arts culture because of their class, race or ability. They once spent a week camping outside the Royal Shakespeare Company attempting to ‘open the portal to the fairy world.’ Another production transformed the underground car park of the Barbican in London into a genuinely terrifying and immersive vampire experience.
In 2017, they staged an epic, year-long show as part of Hull’s year as ‘UK City of Culture’ that imagined a flooded planet, culminating in a huge production on a floating stage in the docks and performed by a cast of 80 volunteers. Last year, Slunglow’s artistic director Alan Lane was ranked by The Stage as the 43rd most influential person in British theatre. For context, Nicholas Serota and Darren Henley, chair and chief executive of ACE respectively, came in jointly at number 41.
Today though, you’re most likely to spot Lane at the Holbeck, switching beer barrels or vacuuming the carpet. This partnership between a theatre company and the oldest working men’s club in the UK is unusual. After all, as one of the club’s members points out in the documentary: “most of the people here won’t have seen anything like [the productions Slunglow makes]. If they’ve been to the theatre it will have been an organised trip like going to see Oliver! or The Blues Brothers, they won’t have experienced anything else.”
But it’s an arrangement that makes sense for both parties. After being run for the last few years by volunteers The Holbeck needed a better management infrastructure and more financial security, while Slunglow - who had been working nearby in a row of unheated railway arches that faced an uncertain future - needed a new home. Crucially, the company also wanted to be more closely involved with the life of the local community.
And that’s really the point of this story. It’s become a truism that those participating in subsidised culture - whether audiences, participants, artists or professionals - tend to reflect the most privileged groups in society. Statistics released by the Arts Council in February 2020 highlighted the lack of diversity in the sector’s workforce compared to national figures. This matters, not only because the arts can make our lives better by entertaining and uplifting us - and helping us to connect with one another - but also because at a more basic level, we pay for them with our taxes. The arts are a resource that belongs to all of us.
In order to tackle this issue, arts organisations are having to embrace new approaches to working. It isn’t enough to offer a few discounted tickets but otherwise continue business as usual. Groups like Slunglow - and others like Fun Palaces, Contact Theatre and Scottee & Friends - are eschewing a top down approach in favour of partnerships and models of co-creation with the people they want to reach.
Standing in the Rain charts Slunglow’s first year at The Holbeck, which Lane also wrote about in a recent blog. It’s an account of quiet, hard-won victories: rooms brought back into regular use as arts spaces, a professional performance each week, and regular pay-what-you-can cabarets. Much of what goes on doesn’t resemble the normal business of a theatre company at all, including dinners for caregivers, funerals and naming ceremonies.
But Lane describes a lovely kind of slippage between the two aspects of the Holbeck’s new-found identity as both a community hub and an arts centre. He writes about a local council-funded project in the summer working with children at risk of malnutrition which provided both creative activities and ensured that they were properly fed.
“Something else happened too. Those kids came into the building [and] became comfortable,” he writes. When Unlimited Theatre visited The Holbeck and presented a young people’s show, the children participating in the summer scheme went to see it. It was, Lane says, “their first ever theatre show. They wouldn’t have come otherwise.”
If you share Slunglow’s belief that “access to culture is a fundamental part of a happy life,” Lane’s pragmatic optimism has got to be heartening. It’s a good example of the kind of project the Arts Council committed to supporting in its recently published 2020-2030 strategy, where the emphasis is on tackling the “widespread socio-economic and geographical variances in levels of engagement with publicly funded culture.” ACE sees culture as playing a crucial role in building ‘socially cohesive communities’ in which ethnicity, class and disability no longer present a barrier to participation in creativity.
The good news is that change is underway, and not just through companies like Slunglow. Take, for example, the recent wave of people of colour taking up leadership roles at theatres like the Young Vic, Royal Exchange, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kiln, Battersea Arts Centre, The Bush and the Unicorn. But there’s still a long way to go.
The arts will find associations it has gathered over many years as the exclusive preserve of a narrow strata of society difficult to shake off, regardless of who’s now in charge. I was struck by that scene in the Holbeck’s bar because it seemed to capture a truth that’s rarely acknowledged in this conversation: that radically new approaches to subsidised arts inevitably lead to culture clashes.
Lane has spoken frankly about these challenges. During Slunglow’s first year at the Holbeck, fault lines emerged over who is welcome to use the club, and whether it’s appropriate, for example, to offer breakfasts to sex workers who are part of Leeds Council’s ‘Managed Approach’ to sex work. Lane writes of being confronted by senior members of The Holbeck who “have different political views to the ones they think I have” about whether they’d let The Brexit Party use the space. Given that 96% of creative industry leaders voted to remain in the European Union, this assumption is well founded.
Why is it unusual to hear honest accounts like this of socially engaged arts projects? Perhaps it’s because the urgent drive towards change tends to flatten out discussion of the complexities involved in breaking open a sector that has been inaccessible to so many people for so long. The collective shift the culture sector is gradually making seems so fragile that we are loath to acknowledge anything that might unsteady it. Of course there are socially led arts projects that struggle to achieve what they set out to do, but there are failed experiments in every other field too. So what makes the difference?
“We are uncompromising in our beliefs,” Slunglow’s website states, and that’s certainly true: the company’s employees all receive exactly the same wage of £28k, which is the average salary in Leeds; all of the performances and workshops they run are Pay What You Can; and wherever possible, they provide bedrooms, rehearsal space and equipment to groups that need them for free. No mainstream arts venue in Britain can claim to do the same.
It’s the integrity and commitment of Slunglow’s operations that makes it easier for them to discuss the true challenges of working in a different social context. After all, it’s harder to speak honestly about your successes and mistakes if you can’t speak honestly about where your funding comes from, who makes up your board, how much you pay your staff, and whether your internal work processes are inclusive and democratic.
Addressing these issues shouldn’t feel like a discussion of failure. Rather, as Lane writes, “many of them indicate that something is working.” Why should communities that have been shunned and excluded by mainstream arts institutions for decades be expected to welcome new overtures from the sector unequivocally?
Building trust takes time and commitment, and that’s where the real work gets done - in encounters in places that have rarely happened before; in people messing things up and getting the drinks orders wrong, but continuing to break the mould of accepted behavior and doing so humbly, learning as they go.
“The only way you ever win is by standing in the rain, and you just keep standing,” Lane says. “You make your promises, you live up to them, and at some point, they stop hating you.”