In the latest North West End interview with artistic directors our West Yorkshire editor Paul Clarke catches up with Slung Low’s Alan Lane to find out more their new Cultural Community College and what they are doing next.
There’s no doubt Slung Low’s site-specific show Flood that they daringly staged in a Hull dock as part of the Humberside’s city of culture was a huge hit so you might expect them to be hard at work planning another spectacular event.
But Slung Low are a company who think and act very differently under the leadership of artistic director Alan Lane, so it’s no huge surprise their next big project is masterminding a Cultural Community College in their Holbeck base just off Leeds city centre.
“It’s a programme of a full range of cultural activity from a choir, Boff Whalley teaching people how to be an artist as an activist, blacksmithing and there’s a Ceilidh. They’re all provided on a Pay What You Decide basis,” says Alan.
“The idea is to create a place where adults come to learn things that are no use to them in employment, but they learn them for the sheer joy of learning new things and doing new cultural activities.”
As you might image you can’t run events like Flood without a huge amount of detailed preparation, so you know what you’re doing to make sure an ambitious open air show runs safely and to plan. The intensive training the Slung Low team had to complete was the inspiration for creating the college which has attracted funding from the Arts Council and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
“What we discovered over the last couple of years all of us in the company had to go on quite extensive training programmes for various projects we were doing, and we grew more confident with everything we learnt. When we were learning the sheer act of doing it gives you confidence.
“You realise everything you learn is just one less thing to be scared of and you’re walking down the street taller. That’s an incredibly powerful feeling, and we felt it, so we thought hang on minute we are in an incredibly privileged position here to learn new things, but is that available to everybody?
“If the answer is no then can Slung Low do anything about that? Then answer was yeah, we could thanks to Paul Hamlyn and the Arts Council we are able to create this space that exists beyond the market. If you did this in the private market you’d need thousands of pounds to do all the courses, whereas there are people who are coming who don’t.”
According to official government figures our creative industries contribute £92 billion to the UK economy yet the emphasis on subjects that would prepare young people to join those industries has been declining in recent years. That decline in encouraging creativity in our school led Arts Council chief executive Darren Henley to write a piece arguing ‘a creative greatest education is the greatest gift we can give’ our children.
“It’s fair to say you don’t have to be a rabid communist to believe that this current government doesn’t have a very rigorous intellectual framework for what they are doing, either economically or educationally,” reflects Alan. “One of the things that has been incredibly problematic is the denigration of arts and culture within academic learning. The insistence on what is incredibly an old-fashioned view of education coupled with this new really rabid market orientation where we value education depending on how much you will earn in the future.
“That’s not how our society works, so if you look at the most powerful people in our government they didn’t study how to be in government. They all went and read classics and economics in very few universities. This belief we are a meritocratic market driven, lean society isn’t true, but what we tend to do is use that logic to create an education system for the masses that is very different from the system you get if you have £26,000 a year to send your kids to the best public schools. The gap between those two things is where we can find real hypocrisy.”
The new college is designed to help that fill that cultural gap and even better the courses are being offered on a Pay What You Decide deal. That means you can do a course for nothing, a quid or whatever you can afford.
Slung Low have been doing this for some time, even giving away tickets for their The White Whale production in Leeds, and Alan is confident it has brought a different mix of punter in to see what they do.
“When we started doing Pay What You Decide about six years ago I remember we were laughed at, and people said what a hippy thing to do. Now Pay What You Decide is incredibly prevalent around the industry and being use to broaden the types of people in our audience. Much more importantly it just gives people the option.
“There is an awful lot of risk doing something new so if you are time poor, but financially not rich, it takes a lot to go I’ve got one evening off this fortnight, and I’ve only got £20 in my pocket. Am I really going to spend it on an opera when I might not like it?
“Whereas if we can remove some barriers we can make that risk taking slightly easier. We have to because if we are not speaking to the majority of our community then it is very hard to justify why we are being subsidised.”
When the idea was first mooted some people probably thought that paying a quid for show would mean the shows themselves were not worth a significant investment. The reality is that people often pay much more because they enjoy high quality shows risk free, and to prove that point the college has attracted some of the UK’s best practitioners as tutors.
“Boff Whalley is teaching art as activism, Oliver Fenton is coming to give a speech and he was the hype man for KLF on their last project. Manjit from Manjit’s Kitchen just won the BBC Good Food farming award. These guys are brilliant, and you spend a couple of hours where you get to learn what they know.
“The college is going to be a co-op so the idea if you come to a class then you are a member of the college therefore you will get to nominate the courses you would like to see. So if wanted to learn a certain thing then you can say come on guys I want to learn this, and then our job is to make that happen.
“The current programme is chosen by us, and some of our partners, and by talking to people who live in Holbeck, but in the future it will be just made up by the people to come to class.”
Some of the new college’s course have already sold out so there is clearly an appetite for the curriculum, but Slung Low’s day job is being a theatre company, albeit an unconventional one. So, what next for Alan and his team?
“We’re just going into planning for a load of radio plays for children that we are doing next year, which we are really excited about. We have a programme called 15 Minutes that are radio plays recorded in front of live audiences which we are doing early next year.
“I’m about to start on a stage adaptation of Julia’s Donaldson’s Tabby McTat which will tour. Slung Low’s next project is hopefully concentrating on Leeds, we’re said for a long time it is our ambition to set up Leeds People’s Theatre. We’re just talking to Leeds City Council about ensuring we have their support to that properly, and then hopefully be able to talk about a big outdoor show in Leeds.”
For further information on the Cultural Community College visit www.slunglow.org