Sharing learning: Back to Ours – Learning through meaningful dialogue with people and places

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Sharing learning: Back to Ours – Learning through meaningful dialogue with people and places



Children watching outdoor performance through railings
© Back to Ours – Back to Bransholme. Photo: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
SUMMARY

Louise Yates, Director of the Creative People and Places project Back to Ours, shares her experience of delivering a large-scale production with and for people in the local community. Louise reflects on the need to understand audiences, and explains why dialogue, engagement and listening became key.

You can read the full case study below or download (PDF document) by clicking the button at the top of the page.

This is part of a series of learning case studies in which cultural practitioners share their reflections and learning honestly so others can learn from and build on their experiences.

 

“You might think ‘oh I embrace change, I enjoy change’ but it takes some effort doesn’t it? I guess what we’re doing across the board is getting people, including ourselves, used to experiencing and learning new things, which isn’t that comfortable for anybody.”

Louise Yates, Director, Back to Ours

What’s the story?

North Point Shopping Centre sits in the middle of what was once the largest council estate in Europe – Bransholme, Hull. We’ve been working on various projects there since 2016 and in April 2018, we took on a unit in the shopping centre as a community space and called it The Living Room: its primary function being a ‘chat shop’, a space for people to have a cuppa and a chat. The first Bransholme homes were built in the late 1960s and it is not uncommon to come across people who have lived in the same house since they got the keys in 1967. The people of Bransholme are proud of their history and were more than happy to chat to us about the history of the area and their memories. We gathered stories and legends from locals over a period of several years, such as the ghost of an airman who walks around the shopping centre after closing time. The site was once home to the RAF base Sutton-upon-Hull and close by, barrage balloons were made during the war. In 2017 we worked with a large team of local artists, choirs and actors to realise our free outdoor show which took place in the North Point car park: a 1940s punk-pop circus opera called Back to Bransholme which was based on these stories.

This production became something of a family affair. On show nights, we had 80 members of the community cast in the same backstage area as the circus performers, hair and make-up artists, directors and producers, choirs, opera singers and professional actors. It was important to us that everyone felt equally important and as valued as each other: each performer and backstage person was vital to the piece. This lack of hierarchy really helped to bring everyone together.

This was the first show of its kind: a production in a shopping centre car park in the middle of a housing estate. We were lucky that the shopping centre’s management team liked the idea of the show from the start, agreeing that it would be good for the centre and the businesses within. Of course, along with some of the businesses and local people in the area they had some worries about how it might affect their everyday comings and goings. So in the months running up to the show, we held an open day for businesses in the centre to find out more about the project and how it might impact them. In doing so, we discovered that their concerns were often not about the show itself, but rather resulted from a lack of communication from the centre’s management team.

We met with the centre’s management team regularly: the more we communicated, the better the relationship became. We found that meeting in person was much more successful at addressing and solving concerns than emails or calls, as it gave all parties the opportunity to air their concerns, explain things in more detail, and it also meant that we could move about the site together. On points where we agreed, we found that the centre management team began to offer us solutions, which meant we could move forward together and we were able to make good progress.

But it wasn’t easy. We had to constantly bear in mind that we were working with people from a non-arts or events background and that we had different ways of thinking. On one occasion, the centre’s team were ready to pull the plug on the show as they had not received a health and safety plan. They had in fact received it, but it was in the form of an event management plan. They needed a document which would satisfy their management, but we needed something to be able to work to, and their health and safety plan was much too simple. While this caused much misunderstanding and stress, we had to recognise that their main priority was always to continue the day-to-day running of the shopping centre. Unfortunately, the management team who were most concerned about certain aspects did not attend any of the show nights. We felt that they would have learned a great deal about the community had they attended, but this opportunity was missed.

We carried out hyper-local marketing, talking about the show with people shopping and working in the centre, dropping leaflets through doors and chatting to people living in the neighbouring estate and within a 2km radius of the shopping centre. During the show run, word got out about the show, but the vast majority of audiences were hyper-local to the show site (see heat map below).

Heatmap showing Back to Ours audience spread in local area

Heatmap of all audience postcodes, with red areas showing highest concentration of postcodes. Site of show circled in black.

While Back to Bransholme was very much about the place, it was created with and for the people. The story was about them and the area they grew up or old in, told over a period of time - from WWII right up to the present day - so that it would resonate with all ages. From conversations we had with people on show nights, we learnt that our audiences all got something different from watching the performance. Some of them could identify with specific lines in the show, reminding them of times 20 years ago, whereas some of the younger audiences enjoyed the show purely for the spectacle. We were lucky to overhear a member of the audience explaining it to someone in her group,

“It’s all about Bransholme – it’s just like a love story from the war and all the different times and that. Just bear with it Paul, it’s gonna be a bit arty but you will get it mate…”

What’s the learning?

We learned to ask questions and not make any assumptions. This project was about people, and people’s lives. Establishing good working relationships with our audiences, collaborators and the centre management team was critical. Most of these stakeholders would fall into the category of what may be known in arts policy as people who are ‘disengaged’ from the arts. We needed to bear that in mind at all times. For instance, we learned a lot about how a shopping centre is operated, which is useful for our team who are still running our chat shop in the centre. It was important for us all to reach a mutual understanding about each other’s decision-making processes.

People will only be comfortable with you coming in and working in their space if they understand where you are coming from and trust that you will listen to their worries or concerns. This applies even to the smaller details or changes that can cause problems and ripples within the community. People didn’t even like simple things like moving a table in the shopping centre, they didn’t want the change. So we made it our priority to get people used to change, which is a different mind set. As one of our Back to Ours team members pointed out, success would be people feeling like the work we do belongs to those that are involved, that they have a role to play in making things happen and they can use it for the things they want to do. Similarly in our programming, we mix a lot of different types of arts and entertainment together – both popular culture and ‘high art’. I’ve found that mix works well for us. It’s tricky because you’re taking people out of their comfort zones, away from what they might initially be familiar with. You’re saying: ‘this is going to be great’, not because they’re lacking something in their lives, but because they might like it or get something extra from it.

If you want people to engage with what you’re doing, then you need to get out there and speak to people. You need to develop a true understanding of the people living in the places you are working. At the beginning, you might find that people are not interested in your ideas, or what you assume they’re interested in. If you’re asking people what they want, then you need to consider if you are prepared to give it to them. This might mean programming something with a broader appeal that will interest people more quickly, to start building much needed mutual trust. Otherwise you are saying: ‘this is how we perceive art, and how you see art isn’t good enough for us’. That’s why we don’t offer a lot of workshops. I think going into an area and saying to people: ‘I’m going to teach you something’ is not a good basis for the start of a good working relationship.

Get to know and work with people in the places that they feel comfortable with, especially when working with them for the first time. Of course as a Creative People and Places project, the venues we use are community assets based in the heart of these areas, but our ingredients are the same: mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar. This might mean using the place in a different way, so it might be the community centre that they’re used to but when they step in, there’s a bar that wasn’t there before. Or they’ve come in a different entrance, or the space is set out or dressed differently. We’ve now got some regular audiences that come to events we put on, so that’s got them thinking and talking differently about place.

We have to recognise that every community is completely different. What might work well in one project is not going to work well in other places. In fact, in our team, we’ve banned the words ‘community’ or ‘community arts’ altogether. What are we talking about when we say community? Either you mean a place or a neighbourhood, or you’re referring to a specific group of people. These are two different things we are talking about and it needs unpicking every time we use it, to work out what we mean in different contexts.

The story is definitely not over: we’re still learning. It will take a long time to see the benefits of this kind of work at a broader level. We continue to work with people in this area through our chat shop unit: The Living Room, which is funded by the National Lottery for three years. I still ask the hub members to challenge me – and some of them really do challenge me on every decision I make, which I’m used to. We need to be challenged because we have public money that we are spending. As one of them quite rightly pointed out ‘we play the lottery, so the lottery needs to give back to us!’ While it doesn’t make my life easy, I’m glad we’re not just saying: ‘oh that’s done, we’ve engaged everybody now’ because we haven’t. It’s not just going to happen overnight. To become stale, just moving the same people around – that’s not what it’s about.

Additional resources and information

Back to Ours is one of the 30 Arts Council-funded CPPs (Creative People and Places projects) across the UK. At the very core of Back to Ours is people. We want YOU to take the lead in choosing, creating and taking part in amazing art experiences, as participants, decision-makers, artists, volunteers and, of course, audiences. We know that cultural experiences have a big impact on local areas, on people and their families. We aim to make a lasting change, increasing the number of people inspired by the arts, as well as supporting skills development and growing ambition and creativity in neighbourhoods.

For more information on Back to Ours and the Back to Bransholme project, visit backtoours.co.uk/back-to-bransholme

You might also find the following resources on CultureHive on Creative People and Places (CPP) useful:

For more information about Creative People and Places, visit creativepeopleplaces.org.uk

Case study written and provided by: Louise Yates, Back to Ours

(Edited by: Emma McDowell, University of Leeds on behalf of the Centre for Cultural Value)

Published: 2021
Resource type: Case studies