Spotlight on Our Voice, The Duke’s Theatre Lancaster

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 Our Voice, is a creative learning project with young female members of the Gypsy, Roma & Traveller (GRT) community. Made in association with The Dukes Theatre and Lancaster University, this autobiographical digital drama project – which was designed to develop writing-for-performance skills and celebrate the experiences and communities of the young female travellers – was led by the award-winning Bryony Kimmings, reality star Amy Hart, choreographer Sarah Blanc and Lancaster-based freelance creative Emma Rucastle. 

I spoke to Carl Woodward about this project and challenges and advantages of working with young people during lockdown.

Hi Carl, tell us about Duke’s Theatre and your role?

Hi! I am the creative learning manager at The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster.

The Dukes is the county’s producing theatre and only independent cinema in Lancaster, and is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.

I plan, produce and oversee wide-ranging participatory projects with communities across Lancaster and Morecambe. Alongside that, our mission is to present live art and challenge the way people see theatre, and the world around them.

My department’s work has an emphasis on learning, nurturing and nourishing.

How did this project come about?

‘Our Voice’ is a blended autobiographical theatre project for young women from Gypsy, Roma & Traveller (GRT) communities across Lancaster and Morecambe. Sessions take place in-person at the Dukes (when possible) and / or online via Zoom.

This targeted participatory work is designed to understand those different to ourselves. It is a celebration of the culture and traditions of GRT stories, whilst exploding negative stereotypes. 

The project is led by Dukes participation practitioner Emma Rucastle, Bryony Kimmings (Opera Mums) who is a remarkable performance artist and has a background in exploring emotional storytelling through live art. Reality star Amy Hart (who is from a Traveller background) is a theatre lover and someone that speaks directly to the young travellers– they love fashion, social media, make-up and aspire to be entrepreneurial. It is a curious artistic team and I understand that some people thought I was crazy assembling this group of individuals to lead an outreach project – but it worked.

What has been so exciting has been observing work created with and by these young women; seeing them find their voice, empowering participants to tell stories that matter and seeing individuals emerging as layered, complex and fully fledged artists.

GRT groups are a marginalised and often forgotten about group. Why did the project come about and what challenges have you faced?

It is true that Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities are one of the most demonised ethnic groups in society. I have always been passionate about working with people who are traditionally underrepresented in theatre.

I suppose that the pandemic has been the biggest challenge among a number of other obstacles that are entrenched in the perception that theatres are scary places or not somewhere for a particular group. We have a civic duty to break down those barriers and preconceptions.  

British theatre has made many positive strides on diversity in recent years; arts organisations have woken up to the need for greater diversity in terms of disability, race, gender and those from working class backgrounds. But the industry still has some way to go.

We are looking forward to the Dukes’ 50th Birthday later this year with a renewed commitment to tell stories that matter, being there for our community and delivering societal change – ensuring that participatory initiatives are welcoming to those from many different backgrounds; it is an essential component now and in the future.

You mentioned how Zoom seemed to see no inhibitions from participants. Do you this age group are more comfortable online or does it still have the same challenges if everyone was in the room.

As we all know too well, Zoom has its limitations – worst at allowing any kind of free-flowing discussion. However, it is a different learning experience and I do think some education changes will outlast the pandemic.

Working virtually with this particular community during lockdown 2.0 enabled us to realise a unique and safe space where participants could share what they really feel and think, and where adults really listened – from the comfort of their own caravans and mobile homes – wherever they were in the country. Incidentally, one family relocated to Coventry for the duration of that lockdown and were still able to participate.

Most of the families had never used Zoom before – it wasn’t something that their communities have had to use before. But the engagement was significant and it offered us a unique insight into their worlds.

The experience of producing and managing this kind of work in a pandemic truly highlighted to me how gaps in remote learning need to be closed urgently. In my opinion, the government should provide laptops to every child whose parents cannot afford them. 

How easy is it to find participants if you cannot go out into those communities ?

Nothing about this kind of work is easy.

The young people who take part in ‘Our Voice’ are referred by youth workers, teachers, and community contacts. So they are a very diverse group.

Our participatory work is artist-led and collaborative; as is always the way with successful participatory work, the key to success is funding, collaboration and fund management. In that regard, this project is only possible because of the financial support of Lancaster University and our long-standing partnership.

We also work closely with Lancashire County Council’s Ethnic Minority/GRT Achievement Service, as well as active members of local Traveller Communities to ensure that we are being as representative as possible. All these relationships require trust, team work and dedication.

How do you see the future of community collaboration, not only at Duke’s but elsewhere. 

While COVID-19 still stalks this earth, we need to remain cautious, patient and realistic: 2020 saw the biggest downturn in the global economy in recent memory. 

All arts organisations are going to have to look out, not in and widen digital access if they want to ensure a vibrant future generation and survive this crisis.

Second, I think prioritising the development of the next generation of talent and having a meaningful relationship with communities that surround our theatre buildings is crucial, it need to be an ongoing dialogue.

Third, theatres absolutely must offer inclusive opportunities for everyone that celebrates and reflects the diversity of our nation. Now, more than ever, we need to be there for our communities.

We have to stay hopeful. The very good news about vaccines offers hope of a sustainable way out of this crisis.

Let us hope, anyway.

You can find out more about the project here https://dukeslancaster.org/news/our-voice-grt-project-blog

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