The summer riots are in the headlines again as people still try and piece together what happened across the country back in August.
In the aftermath, I met Sarah Lovell, who heads the education and community outreach team at the Everyman & Playhouse theatres. I wanted to find out more about why theatres engage with the wider community and what difference their work there can make. Does theatre really play a role in social regeneration?
“One of the difficulties with arts-led activities is that you can’t just open the doors and expect people to come,” Sarah says. “Part of our role is to go out and work with young people where they are.”
From creating original verbatim plays touring the city outskirts to visual arts projects and a variety of initiatives aimed at introducing young people to work in all areas of theatre, the education and outreach arm has never been busier. Ultimately, the goal is to make as many people as possible feel they have “ownership” of the theatres. Since the Everyman & Playhouse gained charitable status, it has been a massive part of its raison d’etre.
Sarah says: “Our mission statement is art is for everybody, and we have to put our money where our mouth is. It’s getting harder with cuts and changes to funding applications, so we have to think more strategically and be committed to sustained engagement to build those relationships. But it’s really exciting – to break down barriers people sometimes feel about cultural institutions.”
It might bring to mind a League of Gentlemen-esque vision of a camper van full of cheerful thesps trying to get hoodies to pretend to be a tree. But the Everyman & Playhouse aims at building up lasting relationships in deprived communities using a network of locals who understand the issues affecting people living there and help to get a dialogue started.
The results have spanned a variety of artistic endeavours and secured the support of organisations like local PCTs, housing organisations and the Home Office, as well as collaborations with other arts venues.
Endz, staged earlier this year at community centres across Liverpool, was the result of hours of interviews with everyday people. From there, characters’ stories were formed as an amalgamation of the findings. Through people’s own words, it told the story of teenagers facing a future of guns and drugs, and the struggles of the older people living in a very changed landscape.
Last year’s AfroReggae was a residency and series of public showings led by nine artists from a cultural movement based in Rio de Janeiro, taking daily workshops to outdoor areas in Liverpool where drug taking and gang violence are most prevalent to offer young people a positive alternative.
The theatres were also involved in a number of creative projects with the young people in the Everton area where cadet Joseph Lappin was stabbed to death outside a youth club in 2008.
And in an area blighted by bad press, an unlikely thing has happened; there will even be a Christmas grotto in Norris Green next week (WednesdayDecember 14). Their project The Pad is an empty shop unit on Scargreen Avenue that has been used as a creative hub for young people since May this year. The unit is run by ART Valley, a partnership project between the Everyman & Playhouse and the Bluecoat, together with Liverpool Youth Services.
“It’s about building trust and providing options and opportunity. It’s very much done at their pace and in response to their needs, rather than imposing a project on them,” said Sarah.
“In so many cases with young people, it is a confidence and self-esteem issue. They might be not in school or education. You’re providing the opportunity to have a go at something. It’s about helping to break down those barriers and give young people other opportunities.”
Back at the ranch, the Young Everyman and Playhouse Initiative for 11 to 22 year olds gives people the chance to not just sample life treading the boards, but take a look at all aspects of theatre, from writing and directing to tech and communications. If they do their jobs right out in the community, young people who never would have dreamed of setting foot in a theatre may end up starting off on a whole new career in one.
Sarah said: “One of the difficulties about this area of work, particularly with young people, is that lack of confidence coming from a background where theatre and the arts are not a normal thing to do. It’s about developing that confidence and encouraging them to contribute and participate. You can’t expect people to put their hand up and ask for help.
“Young people are very locked in for all sorts of reasons. There is a lack of job opportunities out there. But the arts can be a gateway, a way of highlighting potential.
“It is really important not to demonise young people. Everybody wants to feel valued and everybody has value. Sometimes you need to find different ways to express their ideas and creativity. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it can work for some. A simple project can be the inspiration for a whole career or to change a person’s life.”