Though Theatr Clwyd remains closed like other UK venues, executive director Liam Evans-Ford explains how it is promoting the well-being of local communities while supporting the NHS through the lockdown
Theatr Clwyd has been treading two paths in recent times. The first has stemmed from a demand from funding partners to become ‘more commercial’, which has come as our local authority funding has been cut by 40% over the past five years. The second path is one we have been determined to take – and what has interested me most about working in theatre and theatre buildings for the past nine years: to help people. This has directly informed how we are working during the current pandemic, working to support others wherever we can.
With artistic director Tamara Harvey, our first business plan as a newly formed leadership team in 2016 stated our mission (which becomes ever more important to us): “To make the world a happier place, one moment at a time.”
Our time at Theatr Clwyd has coincided with the growth in understanding around health and well-being in the UK, backed up by an extraordinary piece of legislation in Wales called the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which is the first of its kind worldwide, so I’m told.
The act aims to drive decisions, and actions, for the benefit of all, not the few. It doesn’t just focus on present day, but the communities of the future, the people who will be affected by our actions and who will inherit the consequences of our decisions.
It includes seven well-being goals with one specifically mentioning culture. Others include equality, resilience, health and prosperity and the aim is to ensure that every individual and business with influence takes responsibility for the well-being of communities and the world around us.
Culture is not just good for people’s general health – it is vital for supporting people with specific health conditions
Well-being isn’t just medical – it is much wider-ranging than that. We all know that arts, culture or sport can keep us buoyant, help us relax, allow us to socialise and find common ground. It is also clear that they are not used anywhere near enough by policymakers – despite the well-being act.
Culture is not just good for people’s general health, it is increasingly vital for supporting people with specific health conditions. So, we have developed a referral programme, in partnership with the North Wales Health Board (Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board) to work in specialised areas.
Why work so closely with the NHS? Because we found a common ground – our health board, having a ‘Creative Well’ department, was looking to shift some of the pressures on its services over the long term – we were looking at how to harness the skills of our trained arts practitioners to truly make a difference in our communities. Four years on, it is still early days. It is still hard work: two more operationally different sectors than health and arts would be hard to find, but nothing worthwhile is easy to achieve.
Our singing teachers have received medical training and deliver weekly workshops for patients with chronic lung disease. We run groups where the NHS refers those dealing with onset memory loss to weekly creative sessions where they and their carers create new memories – one week gilding with our scenic artists, the next getting an exclusive rehearsal sharing from the company of Milky Peaks (Seiriol Davies’ new musical, which we will open as soon as we can after lockdown).
There is a mental health referral group, Singing for the Soul, Dance for Parkinson’s, referral projects with Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and a host of other strands. Then there is everything in between the ‘general’ and the ‘medical’ well-being that the NHS partnership has led to: work with local refugees, with families eligible for free school meals, with social services, police and law courts, and drug and alcohol support teams. Many of these help frontline workers as part of preventative action, easing the pressure on already strained services.
We’ve been building this work and these partnerships for the past four years alongside financial ‘resilience’ – our other main public funder, the Arts Council of Wales, has not mentioned the term ‘commercial viability’, instead ‘resilience’ is the key word. But now, with the UK and much of the rest of the world in lockdown and our theatres dark, what remains?
We can’t sell tickets or food, wine, beer, ice creams or programmes. Indeed, as a colleague at the Arts Council of Wales noted, it is the organisations that have become most ‘financially resilient’ that are now most at risk as their business models are collapsing under lockdown. It turns out that financial resilience isn’t so resilient after all.
What remains is our sense of duty to support our communities – and we wouldn’t be able to do it as we are in this moment, were it not for the past four years of work.
Our theatre building is now the major centre in north-east Wales for blood donations as the NHS changes the way it keeps donor levels up (there was not one spare slot during the first week) and we are on standby to be a training facility should it need to train admin staff for emergency ward support.
Members of our wardrobe team are ready to help make scrubs when needed, while our scenic construction and floor electrician teams are on standby to fit up one of the field hospitals at the local leisure centre ahead of the predicted peak in North Wales in four to five weeks’ time. We couldn’t easily have offered this support if we weren’t in partnership with the NHS already.
All our regular weekly sessions have moved online, but the most vulnerable of our groups (many elderly, with no access to online platforms) also get weekly phone calls and ‘creative packages’ dropped at their doors. Alongside this, our freelance artists who are still on payroll have delivered content for Theatr Clwyd Together/Theatr Clwyd Ynghyd, our creative digital response during lockdown.
We have been working with food charities to distribute food from our cafe’s stores to those most in need as well as creative packs to keep the young people in those families occupied and active.
And it isn’t just Theatr Clwyd of course – many others are doing similar things. Venue Cymru down the road has become a field hospital – it is now the front line.
Slung Low has been delivering community work at a different level from many of us for years. It is now the main food distribution centre for its area of Leeds, which has 20,000 residents and is one of the most financially deprived areas of the city.
In this moment, when our stages are dark and our income is terrifyingly low or non-existent, we are somehow more relevant, even more community focused. We aren’t speaking to people at all about financial transactions right now – we are simply talking to people, making sure they are okay.
And while we need to be telling stories on our stages, bringing people together for whatever their cultural well-being needs might be and the income that comes with that, there is something we all need to consider here: what makes us truly resilient? How vital are we and how vital can we become? How can we continue to help people? What can we do to make the world a happier place, one moment at a time?