Ideas Test: the use of non-traditional art spaces to increase community engagement
A Creative People and Places case study for CultureHive. Ideas Test is a Creative People and Places funded project that aims to increase opportunities for people in Swale & Medway to take part in arts and creative activity in ways they choose.
© Simon Martin
Dante or Die’s Co-Director Terry O’Donovan spoke about their USP – to bring theatre to non-traditional theatre spaces where real life takes place such as a Lok N’ Store and hotels for a piece on weddings called I Do. They were looking for partners to bring Take On Me to leisure centres across the UK. The concept had been developed with Surrey Arts Partnership to bring a high quality performance to a community venue for people to join in as cast members, crew, front of house and audience.
Hearing about the way in which the show worked we felt inspired and saw a great match with our priorities and in the opportunity to present in familiar spaces that were not traditionally linked to the arts.
In this project we set out to
- Become better informed about the needs of people in our area and make deeper relationships for on-going links in this community
- Be accessible both in location and approach - 6 in 16 people has a life limiting disability in the area, locally delivered work is vital to change sense of access to art
- Overcome local public transport challenges. With no station in the ward and bus routes severely limited, we wanted to test bringing a nationally celebrated company to the area. A participant commented that she was really surprised and happy that we were "thinking about them"
- Work with Medway Council across departments. This could only be achieved by close collaboration and partnership. Arts and Sports teams supported us to bring the project to Hoo Sports Centre.
This project especially helped us to reach audiences and cast members:
In our 55+ target age group – the story featured a senior woman and this resonated with our participants and audiences. 30% of our audience were in this group and the locality has a higher than average number of 55+ residents.
In an area that has no arts infrastructure at all. The Hoo Peninsula, is the largest ward in Medway with the most rural landmass (1.8 people per hectare – average in Medway is 13.7 people per hectare)
The team at Dante or Die had a Grants for the Arts award for organisational development which was invaluable during their fundraising stage. They were able to visit us and find out more about our priorities and location.
Once their Strategic Touring funds were in place we were invited to a series of training days to share ideas about the elements required to make the event happen. We were asked to feed into the design for marketing both to recruit guest cast/crew and audience members and our suggestions were included on the final posters and fliers.
The company really won our emotional investment with this approach, making us feel confident to promote this with the general public from the outset.
Audiences and Participants
We interviewed for a Local Co-ordinator to be responsible for recruiting cast/crew. Once our fantastic field worker Emma was in place she researched the area before the company arrived for two residency weeks. During these weeks Emma worked closely with the Rehearsal Director Anna getting out and about to visit aerobics classes, amateur dramatics groups and community choirs.
They also held short classes to help them cast the piece in our base, the Squash Court at Hoo Sports Centre. The team at the Sports Centre liaised with Anna, Emma and our performing company to plan when rehearsals could take place in changing rooms, in the gym and pool.
Ideas Test used the marketing plan devised by Dante or Die to market the show to audiences. We were also able to add the opportunity of being included in two editions of Medway Council's What’s On magazine in both the Sports and Arts sections. This meant it hit over 120,000 doormats twice during the run up to the performances.
We invested £10K in Dante or Die as project match funding and spent a further £290 on marketing and mileage. We estimated our staff time on this project was 177 hours across the team valued at £3375.
The value in-kind for this project was £12954.23 given by Medway Council to ensure the project went ahead. This included time from Sports, Arts and Comms Team in brokering the Hoo Sports Centre as a venue with staff to ensure our access and safety on site across 3 weeks.
We saw a good return in terms of cash leverage specifically to our area – £20,790 was raised by Dante or Die from Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Funds (now absorbed into the Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants) and the Garfield Weston Foundation each for 6 partners (i.e. national programme of just under £125K).
In addition the Local Co-ordinator's’post was funded by Dante or Die through a Big Lottery Award (now the National Lottery Community Fund) and valued at £3,500 across a 6-month period.
- 61 people took part in 44 events with 8 artists
- There were 4 final performances for 164 audience members on a limited capacity show and 2625 online engagements
- 97% of the audience reported that seeing this performance made them want to get more involved with the arts
- 96% would recommend the performance to a friend
- 26% of audiences came to try something new
Medway Arts Officer Robyn noted that it was "an incredible achievement for Medway which is an area of low arts engagement and a tough nut to crack with anything new and different like this".
Participants gave feedback after each residency week and a clear message emerged that the core guest cast and the wider team felt “empowered” by the activity. Typical comments from those most engaged centred on the value of sharing time with “like minded” people, many that the process had helped them to “overcome anxiety”.
Everyone giving feedback said that being involved had met or exceeded their expectations.
To feel wanted, to be part of a team again and to take me out of my comfort zone. I absolutely loved it. Thank you so much for giving an old bird like me a chance to be in a production like this.
Female guest cast member, aged 65+
We hoped that the setting and themes would be welcoming for audiences who don’t typically attend theatres. There was evidence that we met this target:
I heard the cast singing a bit and wanted to come see…. (I’m now) a lot more interested (to be involved with more creative activities)
Female audience member 35-44
Feedback demonstrated that 45% of our audience considered themselves new to the arts. Half of the audience came to support their family and friends.
The artists gave some lovely personal feedback – the stand out comments for us were that we “got” their approach, that our action research model and outreach meant we really had aligned goals.
The ethos of the company was spot on, inclusivity was at the heart of everything they did but with an entirely light touch. A good example of this was their professional BSL communicator who sang with the musicians - having originally signed up as a community cast member in 2016. She was so charismatic that people wanted to watch her regardless of their ability to hear or sign.
With hindsight we could have used more volunteers to usher performances. We had focussed recruitment for volunteers to the cast and crew.
This work brought us closer to our council partners and refreshed our approach to shared marketing. Leisure centre staff moved from scepticism to outright enthusiasm in a short timeline.
It has also given us a new cohort of community champions in a poorly connected rural area.
Recommendations & Conclusions
Having the project field worker dedicated to the group was invaluable, and could be beneficial to future work.
Ideas Test is building its volunteer offer, with this and other projects and is attracting many more people.
This project felt like a huge success. One measurable social value output of the activity was that we were able to record the value of the voluntary hours given at well over £7,000.
We are aiming to support the participant group in 2019. We are signposting upcoming activities and acting as sounding boards and advisors for their ideas for their own work which we are developing.
I’ve always said “I can’t, I can’t!” and I’ve found it very frustrating for years saying “I can’t, I can’t!”. And thought “I’m fed up saying ‘I can’t’…I’m going to say ‘I can’”. And so this came up. And yeah…it’s been a really important experience.
Female Guest Cast Member 35-44
All photographs © Simon Martin