Who tells the tale?

Post written by: Erin Walcon

This weekend, Torbay is teeming with cultural activity. On top of our usual weekly, consistent, grassroots Doorstep work with children, the bay is hosting the International Agatha Christie Festival, the wonderful team of Mark & Sarah Bell have opened their new speakeasy venue the Lucky 7 Club, the White Rock Festival hosted loads of local talent & traders, and we are also being presented with a one-off special event called The Tale, which has been created by Bristol-based Situations. It’s all happening.

I’ve written in the past (several times) (plus a few more) (and in a journal article) about the challenges of working in an area of deprivation. And one of these challenges is that Torbay can sometimes be seen as a likely spot for arts organisations to get funding – because it’s a high priority area with fragmented infrastructure. So the Doorstep email regularly gets barraged with young up-and-coming theatre-makers who’ve heard from a friend of a friend that their first Grant for the Arts will scrape through approval if they list a few ‘deprived regions’ in their tour… and they come a-knocking to see if they can bring their work here, or at least list us as partners.

On the surface, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes (often) we say yes with enthusiasm. It can be really hard for young people growing up in Torbay to see outstanding theatre year-round, and anything we can do increase the high quality opportunities seems like a good thing, right? Plus, we really like to learn – we’re curious about new work and new ways of making work, and we love the chance to expand our own aesthetic palette and skill sets. It’s fascinating to see new work, and to learn new things from amazing visiting artists. All good, right?

It’s complex, though.

The work that’s visiting has to have relevance to the local community.

And organisations leading that work need to have respect in their engagement practices.

Otherwise, the ‘bringing of good art’ to a place like Torbay starts to become ethically precarious, in my view. Like a big red bulls-eye exists over the poverty here, which makes artists feel like they can get paid to work here, at times when work can be scarce in more affluent areas (like Bristol).

(I’m aware I’m poking some sensitive material here. Please feel free to disagree – we need to have dialogue about this stuff.)

Art? It’s subjective. Different strokes for different folks, as we’d say in the USA. Your cup of tea might not be mine. This weekend’s activity is a great example of that. On Saturday, I went from dropping my 8-year old off at Little Doorstep drop-in drama club in a church hall in Torquay, to driving over to Paignton, where I chatted with other local mums at the White Rock Festival (which was heaving with local families rain-dodging and buying plastic key-rings). And then last evening, Jade and I took a group of 22 young people down to perform at the Agatha Christie Festival, where they did a youth exchange with Beyond Face, another young company from Plymouth. When I woke up this morning, my Facebook feed was full of young singer-songwriters buzzing with excitement who had performed at White Rock Festival,  and it was clear from friends’ joyfully exuberant photos that the Bell’s Lucky Seven Club Launch had been a huge glittery success.

Each of these cultural events drew a different crowd – and each has its place in providing a unique cultural experience for local people, who have diverse and disparate tastes.

So generally, I tend toward an enthusiastic puppy-dog-like enthusiasm for everything – a hearty yes-nod toward any new artistic work coming into Torbay, and a wholehearted handshake of support for any organisations wanting to do work here. The more the merrier – welcome all. The need is huge here. We need as much wonderfulness as we can get.

Except.

Occasionally, projects or events are parachuted in without adequate local engagement, buy-in or support. And if you live and work in an area of deprivation, sometimes the power imbalance is quite problematic between a big, robust, well-funded arts organisation based in a city (like Bristol), and Torbay with its socio-economic challenges, fragmented history of territoriality and short-term fixes.

Two years ago, the Doorstep team first started having conversations with the team from Situations about local engagement for The Tale. And I won’t go into the specific details, but in summary, after a period of research/development and consultation, we decided that this was not a project we wanted to be involved in.

The Doorstep ethos is about embedded working – long-term sustainable work which builds trust through consistent quality, warm open-armed invitation and good partnership collaborations.

One-off, parachuted projects which are ‘done to us’ without respect for local voices and local expertise are not part of this ethos.

We decided, two years ago, that the best thing we could do was just stand aside and hope that the project would be a success. And then we watched, as a number of other local SW organisations that we love and respect made the same decision… had initial conversations with Situations, and then stepped away, feeling that the project was not set up for real local engagement. In essence, that local expertise was not being listened to or respected. That the large amount of public money (A £300,000 Ambition for Excellence award) from Arts Council England which was funding this project would not meaningfully impact or enrich local people or organisations.

To put this financial figure in context, the same amount would fund ALL Doorstep core activity for the next 3 years. At the time, the decision to pull away from the project meant that we were saying no to a promise of some financial support – a major decision for a small, precarious, fledgling organisation which could barely afford to pay ourselves. (We sometimes didn’t pay ourselves at all, if the funds weren’t there.)

I don’t think this is me being precious? (Just sitting with inward tensions and frictions about that – trying to decide…)

I’m trying to weigh up how it feels, this weekend, to watch colleagues who have never engaged with Torbay before, suddenly descend on the region to see international visiting artists perform here – and then leave again.

I suppose this brings in money, and casts a spotlight on Torbay in a positive light. Which is a good thing. But we’ve been slogging away here for four years, working in small-scale and grassroots mediums to slowly, gently, support the arts infrastructure here. And we are only being visited by the Great and the Good, the Academic and the Artistic Elite, because of a visiting project, which is rated as ‘Good Art’.

A visiting project, which in my view, has profoundly problematic ethical framework with regard to community engagement.

I guess I’m sitting with my own aesthetic taste – my own subjective response to art.

And I know this… I would much rather watch a group of young people from a small, under-funded youth arts organisation in Plymouth, who got here in a van because their facilitator Alix drove them over.

Beyond Face, who visited us last night, drove for an hour to share their monologue work which the young people had written themselves. The pieces were gentle and beautiful – about how to be a good neighbour. And the writing was thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent. In a tent, on the beautiful grounds of Torre Abbey, two youth companies shared work and chatted and got to know each other. We’re excited for future collaborations and exchanges next year – making the boundaries around Plymouth and Torbay more permeable, enabling them to see work in each other’s regions, and to share work they are making themselves.

The artists who work with these two young companies are embedded in their communities. Often they’ve grown up there – and they know first-hand how difficult it can be to access high quality arts opportunities when you’re growing up in rural Devon. They know that those young people have to catch two buses, or hitch a lift with their facilitator, or another parent, in order to get to an event at all.

The visiting folks, who have descended here for the weekend, on their ‘Wanderer’ tickets, are loving the the ‘novelty’ of seeing The Tale, navigating Torbay through ferry and bus.  But they don’t have to deal with local infrastucture and access issues on a daily or weekly basis. For them, this weekend is a tourist jolly… a chance to have a place shown to them through (visiting) artists’ eyes.

In contrast, the local Torbay people who are engaging with The Tale this weekend are paying for a ticket to have streets that they grew up on, that they know like the back of their hand, ‘shown’ to them by visiting artists who have done several weekends of research. And if this is done in an artistically beautiful way, in a way that changes how we see our local place, that is of course a very good thing.

But many of the young people we know we engaged with this project felt frustrated, unheard, disrespected in the artistic development process. That their participation and engagement was tokenistic at best, and exploitative at worst. Many have left the project, or half-heartedly seen it out, feeling limply impotent to change anything – like their contributions have been taken, used, and exploited, to make art for the Great and the Good to come and see. In the name of ‘participation’.

And that makes me angry.

I’m sitting with my frustration – but ultimately, deep down, I’m at peace. Because I know that after next weekend, the Tale will be over, and our Doorstep work will continue long-term. That we will keep on walking our talk, providing regular consistent offerings for local families. That parachuted projects may continue, but Torbay’s core infrastructure is strengthening… its growing. And so is our power to speak up, speak back, and stand up for ourselves. To receive wonderful visiting work… but on our terms, and with strong voices of local engagement.

I would like to think that the story – the tale, if you like – of this place – this Torbay, is much longer, more vivid, more inspired than a single parachuted project.

A story of change that is genuinely authored from a sense of embedded integrity, with an unshakable belief that social justice is possible here, on our doorstep, for the children who are growing up here and who deserve better.

That’s the tale I want to contribute to.

 

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