IF you suspect the arts are little more than a leisure time activity for the comfortable middle classes, a conference in Newcastle today paints a different picture.
Representatives of The Cyrenians; Freedom from Torture, and the West End Refugee Service will be at Northumbria University for the conference.
So will Teya Sepinuck, artistic director of Theatre of Witness, which is based in Northern Ireland and has been putting real-life stories on stage since the 1980s.
Theatre of Witness has worked with survivors and perpetrators of violence and has earned acclaim for drama reflecting on the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Also addressing delegates today will be Toby Lowe, chief executive of Newcastle-based Helix Arts, which creates opportunities for people to take part in high-quality arts activities.
“Our vision is based on our belief that participation in creative activity is fundamental to the well-being of individuals and communities, and therefore should be accessible to all,” state Helix Arts on their website.
In a typical year, the Arts Council-funded charity engages up to 50 artists – specialists in a wide range of media – who are accustomed to working with groups of people.
Through Helix Arts they are set to work on projects involving, say, children and young people at risk, unemployed adults, people with special educational needs and the elderly or those in poor health.
Today’s Northumbria University conference has been organised by Alan Lyddiard, who was once artistic director of Northern Stage, rescuing the Newcastle theatre company from the doldrums in the 1990s. That he is now artistic director of The Cyrenians’ arts and media programme demonstrates how enthusiastically the charity has bought into the vision articulated by Helix Arts.
Who would have thought a charity best known for working with the homeless would have an arts and media programme?
Cyrenians chief executive Stephen Bell, who was awarded the OBE last year, will open today’s conference before Alan takes the stage.
The conference is called Searching for a City of Sanctuary.
Newcastle has recently signed up to the City of Sanctuary movement, which is encouraging cities around the country to develop a culture of hospitality for people seeking safety in the UK.
Why a conference now? “It’s pretty simple,” says Alan. “I believe that the arts are useful.
“I’m working with people who are going through difficulties in their lives and I sincerely believe that the arts can help them.
“I think, recently, the arts have been treated as if they’re irrelevant. But across the country there’s a need, a desire, to show how the arts are helping people to develop and progress their lives.
“They’re not just about economics – they’re about a caring and healing process.”
Yesterday, Alan wrote his pre-festival thoughts on communityartsinternational.com, a website committed to the idea of community arts as a vehicle for change...
“I am currently working for a group of people who are living pretty chaotic lives. I am based in a homeless hostel in Newcastle’s West End. Sometimes it can be depressing.
“I work to try and take people’s minds off the things that trouble them – which can lead them into taking an excess of drugs or alcohol to dampen the pain that I imagine they feel.
“I hope that by introducing some creative projects into their lives that, maybe for a time, they will see an alternative to the deadening of their minds, their emotions and their creative spirits.
“I have worked here for two years now and I know it has been useful for some people that I have been around.
“Many people have told me that their relationship with the arts has given them something extra, something that their support workers, the probation service and the health workers cannot give them.
“It is a privilege to see the progression that some people make with their lives, and working with them teaches me about resilience and determination and the joy of the simplest thing.
“Sometimes I see people make incredible progress, only to then see them fall back into their old ways. That makes me really sad.
“But I also know the arts have helped some of them to grow: helped them in their battles with addiction; helped them feel better about themselves; helped them to live healthier lives; helped them to progress to independent living; helped them look at the world differently with more optimism; helped them to see a brighter future for themselves; helped them to lift their spirits when they have felt depressed; and helped them in more ways than I can imagine.
“I believe the work will also have saved money for local authorities across the country and national governments.
“In the age of austerity, governments and local authorities have a duty to consider what the arts are able to do. They should accept the findings of many reports that tell them that the arts are extremely good value for money, that they are helpful in creating better lives for all citizens.
“We must change the attitudes of the people in positions of power that believe the arts are irrelevant – because they are simply wrong.”
One of the ironies of the current situation is highlighted by the list of today’s conference speakers.
While local authorities have been forced to squeeze arts budgets, a new Arts Council scheme called Creative People, Creative Places will see £2m invested in South East Northumberland to enhance the prospects and wellbeing of its citizens through the arts.
Kate Parkin, of Arts Council England, and Rachel Adam, the scheme’s programme director in South East Northumberland, will tell delegates about the scheme.
But this is only the first element of Art as Action 2, a Lyddiard-inspired campaign which began last year – as you might guess – as Art in Action.
On June 27, there will be an ambitious performance at St John’s Church, Grainger Street, Newcastle, involving more than 100 people who have benefited from the activities of the charities attending the conference.
It will be a devised piece, explains Alan, who has been working on it for several months.
He plans to draw on the work of two writers in particular – the late Julia Darling and Drew Foster.
Cancer claimed Julia in 2005 and she was deeply and widely mourned. Alan directed her last piece for the stage, Manifesto for a New City, expressing her thoughts about her adopted Newcastle.
Alan says: “She talks about her first journey through the city and her years spent working and living here. There are some beautiful poetry sections I’ll probably use in the piece, but I’ll also use writing by the people I’ve been working with more recently. Drew Foster has been through the whole process of alcoholism through to independent living, thanks to The Cyrenians, and is now writing a substantial amount of stuff.
“Julia Darling was very much loved and wrote beautiful poetry. You think about her on the one hand and then you think of Drew Foster on the other hand. Our piece of theatre will be about the relationship between those two people in a way, but involving many other people, too.
“It will be a big performance in which a lot of people will get the opportunity to say something about themselves and their lives.”
The performance will be part of the all-embracing Festival of the North East, taking place throughout June. Tickets are free but must be booked from firstname.lastname@example.org