June 25, 2012

Slung Low’s base sits proudly in a semi-derelict part of Holbeck; a post industrial suburb of Leeds where unemployment is high and from which many people have vacated in preparation for a regeneration project yet to show its face.

Behind high steel gates, and in front of three enclosed railway arches (which form the main part of their home), sits a portacabin office, a red van, and a shiny vintage caravan ‘The Knowledge Emporium’.

Slung Low

The Knowledge Emporium

Alan Lane, the Artistic Director of Slung Low, gives me tea and generously answers my questions with such thought provoking aplomb, I wish I had longer than an hour in his company.

Slung Low make adventures for audiences that don’t happen in theatre spaces. Whilst their reputation means they are called on to work all over the UK and beyond, their ambition for now, is to be genuinely rooted in Holbeck. Involving both trained and untrained performers, they make work for audiences of one, or on moving buses or trains, in multi-story car-parks, huge wastelands and in city centres. All of their work happens amidst and with a community, which Alan says, makes them a ‘community theatre’ company at their heart. Alan has shaken the hand of every member of every audience their work has ever had. ‘It’s all about saying hello.’

A couple of years back, working alongside writer Mark Catley, they wrote 100 tiny stories about Holbeck; each between 10 – 250 words long. These were printed on ‘for sale’ type signs and under darkness of night, placed on lamp-posts around the area. Whether the stories were made up or not (Alan is clear that they were, Mark says they weren’t) is almost irrelevant now, as they have become part of the local consciousness. People started talking about them, refuted them, added to and changed them, and asked for more to be placed in their own gardens. After three weeks, people were bussed around the area, and witness – behind every corner – these very stories brought to life. There were explosions, fights, lovers, cowboys, and a disorientated WW2 pilot whose Spitfire had just crashed landed. ‘In the end it was about how Holbeck had been let down by the Council’s failure to keep their promise of regeneration.’

The Knowledge Emporium – a 1950s sweet shop in a vintage caravan – travels to festivals, venues, and city centres trading sweets for nuggets of information. In celebration of the collective knowledge of our communities, passers by are asked to write secrets, facts or family recipes in the Big Book of Everything We Know, the best bits of which are later presented to audiences, and served up with cocktails.

Slung Low

‘The thing that combines all of our work, is that we pitch high-end art installations whilst making community theatre simultaneously. And we do that, by listening.’

Slung Low are generous and resourceful in the way they operate. Their ‘hub’ which comprises of a spacious (but very cold) rehearsal space, kitchen, and red van is available free to graduates or emerging artists making progressive performance. In return they ask for their old sets to be chopped up as firewood to keep the log burner going. ‘We’ve learnt that we can best support artists by handing over the keys and getting out of the way’.

They also lucratively hire out the hub rehearsal space to night club promoters, pay their team no more than the average UK wage (£24k a year), grow ‘allotments on wheels’ (so they can be safely tucked away from the night clubbers), with which they aim to their feed themselves and their production teams.

I ask about the role Slung Low’s work might play in social change, beyond the value of the creative work alone. ‘I’m not entirely convinced that the arts is powerful enough to create direct change, but just by us being here, in Holbeck, will make a difference if we do it right.’  They buy their petrol from the local garage, eat their lunch in the local café, and plant bee attracting flowers. They are currently awaiting news of a Gulbenkian Participatory Award, which if successful will finance the development of a community theatre company in Holbeck, culminating in a massive production about WW1. The process will require a café to feed a crew of 40 people for months, so they’ve hooked up with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen team, who will train people up and potentially result in ongoing eatery providing jobs and a food hub for Holbeck.

‘If artists must make theatre, they can do it at the Almeida, or they can do it in places like Holbeck. If it’s got to happen anyway, why not do it in places where there is very little else. Being here has changed what we do because it means we have to work in partnership, and we encourage those partners to come and make the stuff right here in Holbeck’.

I ask about the wider theatre ecology and what needs to change if it to become more ‘socially engaged’. Alan’s answer: EVERYTHING. You can read about his thoughts on this issue here.

Alan’s top tips for community based work:

  • Don’t take the mickey. ‘The arts can sometimes feel like a joke you don’t get. Be clear, tell people in five sentences what it is so they can play along. Tell them the rules of the game, and remember that most people you approach to get involved are probably scared.’
  • Cherish your audience.  Work with where they’re at. ‘For example, we realised that the social media based campaign for a play we were producing locally wouldn’t be picked up by the significant numbers of local people who don’t have access to computers. So we wrote our information down on posters and papers and stuck them on trees.’

Slung Low website: http://web.me.com/slung.low/Slung_Low/slung_low_home.html

Sara Robinson

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