Theatre company Slung Low have never taken the conventional route and before the pandemic they took a big risk in taking over a struggling South Leeds working men’s club to better engage with their local community.
The Holbeck has become a place where Slung Low produce their own work, run a free community college and as the virus struck they staged outdoor events in their car park. But as Leeds battles COVID their artistic director Alan Lane decided his team needed to do more.
They have pledged to give every child in the area a free copy of a picture book ‘Emergency Story Penguin’ which they created based on one of their touring shows. Kids at those shows were told that every theatre had an emergency story unit in it, and they needed to join Slung Low on a journey to save stories.
“I’m a governor of the local primary school and I was talking to the headteacher who was telling me that some kids come to school without a book – they do not own a book in the home,” explains Alan. “I just found that extraordinary we’re here in the city with opera, ballet, a producing theatre, Red Ladder. Slung Low and there are still children living amongst us who don’t have books, I just couldn’t quite get my head round this.
“There is a campaign online where you buy a copy of the book, and we post it you, but your money also buys a second copy, which been really popular. All the kids of that primary school will get a copy of the book which is just the best feeling.”
As well feeding children’s imaginations Slung Low have feeding whole families across Holbeck after being asked to become the local social care referral unit for the council. Lane thought his team might be doing this for three months, but they have realised they will be using their skills to source and distribute food for at least a year.
“There is food poverty in this country, it isn’t an accident and it isn’t because of individual failings in individual households. It’s built into our system that there are some people who are just paid not enough for their lives to be as complete as we would expect.
“The system we were taking over that was looking after them before we came on board was Victorian. It implied a morality to it, that people were lazy and implied certain types of people were more likely to need help. So, what we did was say we are now a non means tested self-referral foodbank, which means if you need help, and you ask, then we will provide it.”
The rooms of the Holbeck are now packed with fresh food, and a veritable mountain of pasta, donated by individuals or companies who would prefer that their waste food can help people rather than just be dumped in landfill.
“The majority of the food that we are giving away is food waste that the economic system cannot find a worth for so is willing to just give us, or in this instance the Real Junk Good project, in colossal amounts,” notes Lane. “The idea all this food is going into landfill whilst there are children who don’t have enough to eat is a moral thing, and it’s a consequence of the system we’re in. We’re in an unbelievably privileged position that we can do something about it for a little while.”
No-one can doubt delivering food to people struggling to survive is a good thing, so a question that Lane has answered many times has to be asked once again – is that really a role for a theatre company?
“Our commitment is to Holbeck and we believe everybody who lives here should have the best cultural lives that living in the fifth wealthiest country in the world should allow,” counters Lane.
“There’s no point in me putting on the best cabaret in the world, making it pay what you decide and marketing it in ways that everybody in our community gets to hear about it if you’re so hungry you can’t leave the house. There’s no point putting on the best family festival, or doing loads of kids work this summer, if the kids are inattentive because they are actually malnourished
“That’s not happening in Somalia, that’s not happening in parts of London that we don’t understand. It’s happening in Leeds, happening in Yorkshire, is happening in the places that either we live in or work in, or the places we drive by or drive through. This is happening to our neighbours and brothers and sisters”
Lane is clear that artists aren’t just court jesters, but another role of artists is to imagine other ways to be, or other directions lives might take. He argues passionately artists are morally bound to do something about it.
“We spent five hundred million pounds a year of public funding on culture and for that money we should assume that everyone in society can have access to the best cultural life they could possibly want. Yet at the same time we have kids that don’t have any books. How can that be true? We need to fix this and need to get this right.”
One of the most impressive changes in the cultural life of Leeds has been the commitment of all the different companies working in the city to really reach out to new audiences, and people who just think the performing arts isn’t for them. That resulted in an unexpected audience for the cast of an Opera North production performing in the club’s open car park.
“During the rehearsal a gang of about 15 young kids we know came up and started watching. They were just mesmerised, and they sat silently for the whole thing, 45 minutes of singing is quite the discipline.”
One other little vignette came as the team took a break from packing food parcels to read their picture book in the local school showing how Lane and his team have genuinely become part of the community’s daily life and struggles.
“Running a foodbank is hard work, it isn’t fun, and it isn’t always interesting. It’s often quite painful and having a little treat of going and reading a story to the kids is really nice.
“As part of that the guys talk to the kids beforehand and asked who has heard of Slung Low? Some people said yes because I’d seen a show and one person said yes, you deliver our food.”
That response is the perfect riposte to anyone who think artists should just stick to slapping greasepaint on and taking curtain calls.
To order Emergency Story Penguin https://www.slunglow.org/espbook/