Mapping the first year of Above & Beyond

We’re coming up to the end of the first year of our new four-year Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) funded project Above & Beyond. The ultimate aim of this project is to build the capacity of communities in Bootle, Birkenhead & Knowsley to use theatre as a tool for positive personal and social change. Collective Encounters has worked across Merseyside for 15 years, building a solid base of active, talented, loyal participants and supporters. We work with people who ‘wouldn’t have thought theatre was ‘for them’ and use it as a tool to explore social and political themes, learn skills, develop their own networks, perform and, very importantly, have a good time.

In its current form Above & Beyond is a series of Theatre for Social Change residencies in different places and spaces. Through these residencies local social and political issues and themes are explored. This acts as a research and development process for a new play that will tour in Autumn of this year.

The first six months were about building our community connections and mapping the two areas: Bootle & Birkenhead. Abi (our brilliant Outreach Director leading on the project) has been relentless and tenacious meeting everyone who plays a role at a grass roots or strategic level. As well as instigating meetings with Councillors, community leaders, and civil servants in culture, public health, children services and adults social care, Abi has said yes to everything. She’s delivered workshops in libraries, GP surgeries, Bootle Music Festival, The Strand Shopping Centre, Birkenhead Market, The Life Rooms Treatment Centre, Cafes, Community Hubs, Spider Project and The Orrell Trust to name a few. She’s set up an informal network for artists living in Bootle & Birkenhead who meet regularly to talk about practice and opportunities. There are literally hundreds of small voluntary sector groups delivering a myriad of activities in these areas and she’s joined the board of a few.

On occasion Abi has encountered suspicion initially as to her motives. The Liverpool City Region has experienced severe economic and population decline for decades, and local people have failed to experience the positive impact of numerous regeneration initiatives and various government schemes. Ten years ago culture played an important role in the regeneration of Liverpool City Centre but those living on the outskirts of the city seldom felt the benefit. Arts projects and companies have been and gone. We received this response from a community worker to an initial request by email for a meeting, “Working in this area for the last 17 years we have had lots of companies do things on ‘knife crime’, ‘domestic violence’ ‘hate crime’ ‘ mental health’ etc. in order to raise awareness – but people here don’t need to raise awareness – they live it – they need to be built up, told they have power and given the opportunity to exercise it – unless there is an audience to hear their voice they are just shouting in the dark and it does more damage. Is there an outlet for voice to be heard?” And she’s right. Voices do need to be heard by those who have influence, authority needs to be challenged and power exercised.

Her response alone told us our approach to Above & Beyond was the right one. For Above & Beyond empowerment and agency are centre stage. The success of Above & Beyond (for Collective Encounters) will be measured by whether more people in Bootle, Birkenhead & Knowsley see theatre as a tool to have their voice heard. Success for the people taking part in Above & Beyond will be measured by whatever outcomes and means they wish.

However this lack of detailed objectives, outcomes and indicators obviously presents a challenge for both funder and evaluator, and we’ve been on a learning curve, rethinking our whole approach to delivering and managing Theatre for Social Change projects. It’s also worth crediting the huge trust the Paul Hamlyn Foundation has put in us which is enabling us to test these new ideas as we go.

Initially, we reached out to Gasworks (who are delivering a PHF Explore & Test project), to talk about their approach to involving participants in setting outcomes and giving up data to measure this. From this we learned we not only had to re-think our approach to evaluation but also how the project was to be managed. That if we were serious about handing over power (and we are) then those most benefiting from the project needed to be involved in the project delivery decisions that affect them the most.

Another great help and resource has been Chrissie Tiller’s, Power Up. Her report draws on learning from Arts Council’s England’s fantastic Creative People & Places funding programme and explores co-creation and power sharing, and operates alongside MB Associates’ Shared Decision Making Toolkit – a useful and more practical guide.

In response to all of this learning we’ve mapped out the project ‘decision points’ which are vital for participants to have a strong influence on. Project ‘decision points’ include project outcomes, data collection, artist recruitment, writer’s brief, sign off of final script draft, NGO & voluntary sector partners, the rehearsal venue, marketing and audience development and touring locations.

Sharing power has led us to set up a new Project Advisory Group. This group is made up of two Collective Encounters’ staff, a project evaluator (the brilliant Claire Sharples) and four or five project participants depending on who turns up. Recruitment to the group has been open; whoever wants to come can come.

It’s important that we have been honest with the group about the expertise (or power) Collective Encounters brings to the table in terms of theatre making and community engagement, and also that there are finite resources.

It’s also been very important that everyone in the group is equally valued and that all contributions carry equal wait, so everyone who attends the meetings including participants is paid the same hourly rate for the meetings.

So far the Project Advisory Group has been introduced to the Theory of Change, traditional and creative data collection methods, the challenges unconscious bias and subjectivity. Claire Sharples has led these sessions with a remarkable ability to give complex academic language and ideas everyday meaning.

The group have now agreed the project objectives, and the Evaluation Plan and moving forward will be involved in how, where, when and by whom information will be collected. In April they’ll be discussing the themes, stories and messages their new play will explore, and where and who it will tour to so watch this space!