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‘Humanising our public spaces’ – part 2


Post by Jenny Hughes

This is a follow up to the ‘Humanising our public spaces’ and ‘A unique partnership’ blog posts – giving an overview of the Octagon Theatre’s partnership with Bolton at Home, and Bolton at Home’s wonderful Percent for Art scheme.

As noted on previous posts – the partnership between this major regional theatre and social housing provider is driven by a shared commitment to empowering communities, building capacity, community cohesion and economic regeneration, and practices of dialogue and social connection. What is also noticeable is the pragmatic, common-sense, caring and generous ethos of both organisations – which reflects strong relationships between key staff members between the two sites.

One of the things that is noticeable and is worth stressing in a target driven culture and age of evidence based practice – is that the partnership, as well as Percent for Art scheme more broadly, is driven by values rather than targets. This value-driven approach is core to the organic and responsive nature of the work, and it ensures that communities are central to the process of making things happen.

The other thing worth noting is the centrality of Bolton at Home’s UCAN centres to supporting activity. Urban Care and Renewal (UCAN) Centres  aim to ‘provide advice on everything from training and getting into work to knitting groups’. They offer spaces for meeting up and this in turn provides a material and social infrastructure that is long-lasting – that allows arts and community projects to unfold in their own time, and over the long-term. This means that community-focused arts provision can emerge in a ways that is very much distinct from the much criticised ‘flash and dash’ approach that short-term project-based funding encourages. This infrastructure is historic, open-ended, dynamic and flexible.

The design and management of the centres themselves is important – in an interview to be posted to the Poor theatres database soon, Glenys Campbell, former regeneration manager at Bolton at Home, stresses the importance of not having a front desk with a signing in sheet. Here, people enter into an atmosphere of a living room, and are welcomed as neighbours rather than people with problems.

An example of the value-driven common sense pragmatism of this approach can be seen via a series of photo-cards produced by Breightmet UCAN Centre (thanks to Gaynor Cox for passing these on). One of the cards reads – ‘How we work – top ten rules to work by’ –

  1. Follow your intuition
  2. Target your efforts thoughtfully, know specifically who you’re aiming at and do what it takes to reach them
  3. Invest in bringing in new voices, new skills, new perspectives
  4. Brutal honesty policy – don’t pretend it’s working when it’s not
  5. Don’t settle for engaging the ‘usual suspects’ – just keep trying again
  6. Flex, adapt, be responsive to the people you’re working with – they are the drivers
  7. Sometimes it’s as much about challenging your own organisation and structures as it is about challenging others
  8. Don’t expect quick results … but trust that results will come
  9. The true value is in the process, not necessarily in the product
  10. Stay on the bus – http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/feb/23/change-life-helsinki-bus-station-theory (read article available via the link – it sums it up nicely!)

For a real-life embodiment of this approach, have a look at a short film of the ‘not shop’ at Breightmet UCAN.

In an interview, Dawn Yates-Obe – Percent for Art Officer for Bolton at Home articulates well how this all adds up to outputs that are far more than the sum of their parts – beyond the cash input and beyond what it would be possible to ‘cost’ – because chance encounters that happen as part of carefully stage-managed initiatives have extraordinary spin offs that are impossible to predict at the outset: ‘sustainability is about people, and passion, and commitment and energy and drive and community and we find the financial resources that we need along the way to make things happen’ (the interview will be uploaded to the database soon).


One group that was missed off the ‘tour’ of the partnership offered in the ‘Humanising our public spaces’ post was the award winning group, Dramatic Action. Founded in 2011, Dramatic Action are one of Bolton at Home’s tenant drama groups, facilitated by Val Hulme, a Bolton at Home Customer Engagement officer. The group are not connected to a specific area, and instead bring together adults from a broad spectrum – with a range of age groups, abilities and experiences – to work on specific projects, all focused on performing ‘real life stories about real life issues’. Dramatic Action work in partnership with other agencies – anti-social behaviour support services, police, debt agencies – to raise awareness, educate and signpost audiences to sources of support.

Most recently, Dramatic Action worked weekly at the Octagon Theatre and in partnership with Greater Manchester Police to devise Poles Apart, a play about hate crime (and thanks to the group for allowing me to attend an early rehearsal). The play premiered at the Octagon in June 2015 and was also performed in Bolton high schools, in association with Greater Manchester police. Read about the play here:


And watch a short documentary about the play, featuring excerpts from the play itself and interviews with participants and partners here:

To get a sense of the richness and variety of Dramatic Action’s work since 2011, have a look through the following links:

‘Stranger Danger’ (2012) – watch the performance here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0zHRwoDDdA

Loan shark radio play (2012) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kztmTB5T-F4&feature=youtu.be

Sharkstoppers street performance (2013) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13vUo_5sLc0

Bedroom tax radio play (2014) – http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/11538172.Bolton_at_Home_tenants_produce_radio_play_about__bedroom_tax_/


And finally more from recent activities of Percent for Art:

Bolton at Home groups made giant puppets of Bolton’s sporting heroes and processed these at the Manchester Day parade in June 2015 – https://vimeo.com/131588513

Bolton at Home supports a very active music alliance in Kearsley, which includes a brass band, ukulele group, community choir, training band for beginners, all hosted by the Kearsley Mount Methodist Church (all welcome, regardless of belief system) – http://www.boltonathome.org.uk/-south/kearsley-music-alliance-1494/

These groups are organising their very first scarecrow festival, with the aim of fundraising to buy defibrillators for community settings (please support!)

Blog post by Jenny Hughes

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