This year sees a shift in how Brighton Festival brings work to its audiences. While improvement work on two of the Dome’s spaces means exploring alternative venues, there’s also a renewed desire to take art out into the community. As guest director for 2017, Kate Tempest’s belief that the arts ‘should be part of our everyday life’ flows through much of the festival’s programme. “I wanted to bring a bit of what was happening in the Brighton Festival out to a bit more of Brighton.,” she said. “I thought it was important that as well as having this very exciting, cosmopolitan festival happening in the city centre, with all this buzz and hype and all this energy that gets built up from people seeing something spilling out onto the street, I wanted it to also represent the wider population of Brighton.” Subsequently this year sees the launch of Your Place, a diverse line-up of music, dance, theatre and spoken word at the heart of the Hangleton and Whitehawk communities.
Developed with Brighton People’s Theatre, Your Place aims to truly reflect what locals want from the arts. “The festival has historically placed work in different areas,” says Naomi Alexander, BPT’s Artistic Director. “The difference this time is that they are actively building relationships with communities across the city. It’s a completely different conversation.” With a background in community development and already working with Brighton Dome on the Tighten Our Belts project, Alexander is now facilitating the festival’s vision to take high quality art and world-class artists out to the people.
The first step was to discover what the people living in these outlying neighbourhoods were interested in before deciding what shows, workshops and creative experiences would be invited in. In partnership with The Hangleton & Knoll Project and Whitehawk’s Due East, steering groups were formed to identify the needs amongst these communities. Residents were asked to describe one of their favourite cultural encounters. “These ranged from WWE to contemporary dance. We also asked why they liked these particular experiences. This list of reasons read like a manifesto from the Live Art Development Agency, which was really exciting.” By taking needs into account, the resulting programme should address an imbalance in the arts, which was highlighted by the Warwick Commission’s 2015 analysis of cultural value.
This report revealed publicly-subsidised art is disproportionately consumed by a wealthy, well-educated, and ethnically-uniform 8% of society. “How can you turn that around? If that’s public money being spent on the arts, shouldn’t they be available to everybody. That’s what the festival is saying.” BPT itself came about because of Alexander’s frustration over how elitist the theatre world had become. “It didn’t start off like that – it was an art-form for the people to gather together and express themselves, and figure out what it was to be human.” The hope is BPT can continue to work with these communities on a long-term basis, further encouraging interaction and participation.
BPT addresses the engagement issue by starting with the people themselves, establishing what their interests and preoccupations are, then making relevant and free work which is performed near to where they live. “There’s a sense that what is offered is ‘not for people like me.’ So how can the arts bridge that social divide and speak to people as human beings?” The idea is that people see relevant and compelling work, talk about it afterwards and feel encouraged to create something of their own. “Life at the moment is really hard for most people. Austerity is affecting people in a terrible way, so the thought of engaging in the arts is so far away from most people’s realities.” It seems obvious to make artwork which most people can identify with, but this happens rarely. The cultural values report identified that commissioners tend to programme work which appeals to people like them, instead of involving other people in those decisions and addressing a broader audience. This underrepresentation mirrors growing inequalities in our wider society. Perhaps it is time to intervene and do things differently. The sharing of art can play an important role in your life, no matter where you come from. “We can access parts of ourselves, and parts of our emotional world, in a different way by expressing them creatively,” Alexander tells me. “Theatre, and the arts in general, enable us to communicate experiences in a way that conversation alone can’t.”
Your Place comes to Hangleton on Sat 13 – Sun 14 May and Whitehawk on Sat 20 – Sun 21 May as part of Brighton Festival.