"Slung Low responded rapidly to the crisis facing the local community. They provided a vital lifeline to residents of Holbeck and Beeston."
Leeds City Council
Slung Low Theatre Company believes that everyone should have access to the best cultural life possible. A few years ago Slung Low became committed and focused on one area: Holbeck, an area of deprivation in South Leeds. The company is based in a local working men’s club and had worked to secure a financial future while simultaneously encouraging greater community usage. It is supported by by Leeds City Council, by the Arts Council England as a national portfolio organisation, and by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
In response to lockdown they recognised their obligation to the local area and stepped in to ensure no one in the local area would go hungry. Alongside running a food bank they continued to operate an outdoor theatre and provided people with a creative outlet through lamppost art.
As Slung Low received core funding from a range of funders and are not reliant on income generation to the same extent as some other organisations in the performing arts, the challenge to Slung Low wasn’t a financial one but rather how to continue its central mission of serving the community of Holbeck. Thecompany felt a need to live up to the responsibility of being a theatre space for the local community.
‘If nothing else (and it was many other things) this was a test of our principles.’ Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low
200 letters were printed and delivered to their immediate neighbours saying that although the theatre was shut, the company was continuing to work. They offered to go shopping for shielders or help in any other way. The council got in touch to ask if they could become the social care referral lead for the ward of Holbeck and Beeston and Slung Low agreed. They were given a list of 100 volunteers and started the process of finding sources of food and delivering to food banks, going shopping and walking dogs.
"At that point we realised that we were doing what we should be, but we weren’t sure why. Or how it was connected to being a theatre company. And then we realised it wasn’t new activity, it was an evolution of the old."
Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low
As a theatre company they tell stories: they identified that their story was that no one in Holbeck and Beeston should go hungry during the pandemic. They opened a non-means tested, self-referral food bank. That meant moving large volumes of food with little funding and working as a part of a web of micro charities in the area, ensuring that everyone knew they could call Slung Low if they needed food.
They also wanted to tell the story that everyone in Holbeck and Beeston were still creative, interesting people, in spite of the lockdown and the anxieties it caused. They put a flyer through every door in the area announcing the LS11 Art Gallery.
Anyone who created a piece of art could have it printed on a waterproof board by Slung Low and displayed on a lamppost in the area. The team were inundated with pictures and the project inspired similar ones throughout the country.
Another of the tasks undertaken by the company was the delivery of hot meals to 65 children every lunchtime. As the team saw each family every day, they noticed the decline in the children and parents as lockdown took its toll. They began to work with partners and apply their in-house expertise to bring back outdoor, distanced performances.
In large part thanks to experience of using headphones in performances, they were able to present work to local families and began a programme of work that continues now, in the form of a new show every two weeks. This work tells the story that theatre has not abandoned the public, that people were applying their creativity to the problems at hand and that they were ready to do everything they could for their communities.
‘It is our belief here that this is a moment to prove the arts importance to the public- that our style of large-scale storytelling as detailed above is the sort of everyday application of creativity and determination that can change the relationship subsidised art has with the public. In this place if no other.’ Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low
The local authority has recognised the impact Slung Low’s work on their local area.
"Slung Low responded rapidly to the crisis facing the local community. They provided a vital lifeline to residents of Holbeck and Beeston. They have worked extremely hard providing help to whoever asked. We as local councillors appreciate all these endeavours. With their intervention we have ensured that no one will go hungry.”
Angela Gabriel, Labour Councillor for Beeston & Holbeck, Chair of the Inner South Community Committee.
This work has cost Slung Low money and huge amounts of staff time. Through a social media campaign, donations increased by about £15,000. The cost of the food bank is substantial (£60,000 to date) and council funding has increased in light of this.
In terms of negative impact, they found a very small but vocal group of members of their club who are unhappy about how the food bank affects the perception of the club. This will have a impact on how Slung Low progresses, and has raised the question about whether the club is the best home for the theatre.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The approach hasn’t changed. The foodbank will shut in mid-December and the lamp-post gallery has already been closed. But the impact on the community will continue.
‘Because our belief that everyone has the access to the best cultural life as possible, our belief that stories can be told in the real world and change reality, and our belief in service to our community will continue to express itself in whatever way is useful and kind in the moment.’ Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low
‘There is often no one to give you permission to do what is necessary but you will find plenty who feel they are empowered to say no: sometimes you fill the gap without permission.
“We thought we were relevant and vital to our community and we had no idea how much more we could do until we started doing all this.’ Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low