April 03, 2019
Slung Low are an award-winning theatre company based in Holbeck, their artistic director is Alan Lane; a man with an infectious energy and a visionary determination to drive change. A selfless ambition to empower people they’ve often never met with better skills and information is the ethos behind Slung Low’s current masterplan, which has evolved from staging spectacular stage shows all over the world, in the most unusual places, to creating a community college in Holbeck.
“We’re a theatre company,” Alan begins, with words and ideas so eager to flow out of his brain that he often can’t talk fast enough “and mostly for the last six or seven years we’ve made major, large-scale, mainly outdoor, political theatre with large groups of people, sometimes up to 150 in the cast. We’ve done that reasonably well for a while now, at least ten years, the company has been around for 20 years but for the first ten years we were just rubbish…...and irrelevant.”
It took some time, but a somewhat bohemian approach slowly grew some roots and a philosophy. “We needed a base,” Alan continues “so we took five railway arches in Bath Road and called it ‘The Hub’. And it was far too big for us, so we went through how we could use this resource for other people, and we decided we’d just lend it to people. So the idea was that all the locks were numbered locks so if you needed it, if you were a theatre artist or a group, we’d say ‘the number’s 6771, help yourself’, and they’d just come in, same with the vans and the equipment. That worked for quite a while and then we realised that after you spend 18 months somewhere you start to look in the other direction and think ‘well the community is right there, it’s just there’s a railway arch in the way’ so we started to put on shows and family festivals, Christmas fairs and, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the weather and depending on where things were with the managed area, people from Holbeck came.”
(Artistic Director Alan Lane. Photo Credit: Slung Low)
The success of the theatre company was swift and dramatic and evolved into a nationwide arts crusade, also taking in BBC commissions and a festival in Singapore in 2012. But in direct contrast to what was happening in Holbeck itself, things had to change.
“We started doing the cultural community college which is a place where people can learn to do everything from South Indian cooking to stargazing. We did a term at the Hub and we asked the people who came ‘what would convince you to bring a friend?’ and they all said ‘don’t be on Bath Road’.”
The Holbeck Disconnect strikes again, and the confusion of road networks, disparate intentions and physical and psychological barriers created a sparsity of community spirit, and Slung Low faced their day of reckoning. “The location was a profound thing. So we realised that we had to move. At the same time we were rehearsing here at the Holbeck (the oldest Working Men’s Club in the UK, established in 1877 and situated in the heart of traditional Holbeck), upstairs and we were talking to the volunteers and they were saying how exhausted they were and that they were in debt to the brewery, and that meant they couldn’t get their deeds back.”
“So we did a really big show in Hull in 2017 (a year-long production commissioned for the Hull City of Culture in 2017 and part-broadcast on the BBC) and on the back of that there was quite a big tax rebate, basically a big chunk of money came through. We operate a company wage here where everyone gets paid the same, when any of us go to work for other people all that money goes back to the company, so there’s no way of giving ourselves a bonus, that doesn’t exist. So we decided that we would give that money to the club to pay off its debts.”
(The Holbeck: established 1877)
So they did, and in return they agreed two things with The Holbeck members and volunteers who had worked so hard to keep the club running: “One of which was to move in here (The Holbeck) and manage the place as a bar. So there are bar staff who are paid now, but every penny of the profits goes back to the club. The money goes through the bank accounts but we manage all that for them to take that burden off the volunteers. And the other thing is that all the other parts of the building that aren’t the bar, we would turn it into an arts centre. So we have shows, we have rehearsals, we have a lot of community groups using the bar now, and we put on shows and college classes.”
“We’ve been here ten weeks and so far it’s going alright, the business model is just about standing up. The important thing is that we don’t make any money from the bar, we don’t get paid for running the bar, that’s our contribution. There’s a way of looking at it that you can put a value to that management fee and then that would be rent. In reality what it means is that there is no way that this could be a profitable business as a pub. But we don’t have to run it at a profit. We guarantee the club against a loss, so at the end of the year if they haven’t made money, we’ll pay them back up to zero. And that’s really important.”
And herewith comes an exercise in convincing people that arts funding is not just some spurious and unquantifiable, unicorn-chasing pipe dream, and can actually bring change to communities and the lives of ordinary people.
“The arts council subsidy that subsidises us is subsidising the bar, and when the arts council go ‘hang on a minute’ we go ‘it’s just rent’. We were paying Network Rail £20,000 a year for using the Bath Road railway arches. We’re likely to make a £20,000 loss on the bar. So we’re just paying rent, it’s OK. But in the meantime, there’s a bar, everyone gets paid, everyone gets their beer. There’s absolutely no change to the pub. We open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, three hours before every Leeds United home match. Prices haven’t gone up. If this was a business and I was a businessman, you just wouldn’t open on a Saturday. I think we took £84 on the bar last Saturday, I paid the bar staff more than that. But for the five people who were in here, that’s important. And it’s our job to get more people in.”
Which brings us to Slung Low’s non-conformist ‘Pay What You Decide’ policy for college classes and events and how the local community can reward Slung Low for their efforts in trying to instil some heart and soul back into Holbeck, particularly at a time when funding for adult education has been cut dramatically.
“We’re putting poetry nights on and upstairs there’s a lot of events and classes, we’ve had two funerals, First Holy Communion events, majorette award ceremonies, just the variety of events upstairs is huge, and partly because it’s one of the few big rooms around here still. And also when people ask ‘can I have it?’ I go ‘yeah, can you make a donation?’ and they go ‘oh….’. I can tell you what the market price is so I just say ‘pay what you can afford’ and that means it’s possible for people to come here and do things. We had an 80-minute speech by someone and most people on average put £5 in, but I know that some people put £40 in and some people put nothing in. It kind of evens out and the market rate for a speech like that isn’t £5, but that’s because the market rate is broken, it’s a theatres thing, it’s just broken. It’s ridiculous, you might go and see something in a studio theatre and pay £20. It’s insane.”
(Cabaret Night at The Holbeck - Photo Credit: Slung Low)
But in essence, Slung Low are making events and event space more accessible, and particularly so to people who have lived a life full of having doors shut in their face and chasing forlornly after things they can’t afford. Effectively, the people of Holbeck are being trusted to demonstrate how much THEY value having this accessibility.
“We decide as a nation that there are some things that are important to subsidise. But there’s been a shift in the arts and we’re trying our very hardest to make it really clear to the local community that this is arts funding that has kept this place alive. ‘It’s arts funding and our ability as artists that allows you to have your grandmother’s 80th birthday upstairs, because if we were charging you a market rate for that we’d need £400 and you haven’t got £400, so shall we call it £40, and when people say ‘what do you think about arts funding?’, you can go ‘well actually I quite like it, we had a good birthday party on it the other day’. The volunteers would have kept this place open, but they were knackered and they were very honest about that.”
While Slung Low’s intentions have been sincere and transparent from the start, that doesn’t absolve them from the deeply-entrenched seam of cynicism prevalent in most communities like Holbeck.
“Before we moved in, for the members, we insisted that they voted about it and that it was unanimous. And that happened and it was good. Since then, I think there are a lot of community members who have been ‘oh wow I didn’t think it was going to be this fun.’ But I still get emails from people who think we are just hipsters who are only here for rich people who want to come to the poor side of town. So there’s still work to be done to convince people we are of good faith.”
And part of that is because people are naturally suspicious. In any community there are some rogue elements, but also, in Holbeck there is a long history of failed projects and wayward fantasies.
“They’ve heard every bullshit story. This place is terrible for rumours about ‘we’re going to change this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’. And at the club we get ‘oh the urban village spent this much on flowers and we don’t get that much’ and a lot of it is true, and yeah, you are just treated like shit. But in this instance, the award-winning theatre company who have worked all over the world have decided that they’re going to come here and spend some money to keep this club alive and we’re not changing it. We’re not selling Olive Tapenade behind the bar; it’s a bag of pork scratchings and a pint of Tetleys Smooth, just like six months ago and that isn’t going to change.”
That cynicism is not completely lost on Slung Low, however, and Alan himself has fresh memories of hearing about ‘South Bank Leeds’ and Burberry’s abortive plans to restore Temple Works, move into the area and transform it. Situated as they were on Bath Road and isolated from the former Holbeck Urban Village development, the investment into regeneration of the wider area stopped as soon as Slung Low moved in, and despite their efforts, no one in the city talked to them thereafter. In the past, former developers bought land and obtained planning permissions, but nothing happened. New on the block, CEG are now on-site with their South Bank development on Water Lane/Globe Road, having been granted planning permission at the end of last year.
“What’s really interesting is that since we’ve moved to ‘The Holbeck’ we’ve had some really good conversations with CEG, really positive and really interesting conversations, and we can help them and they can help us, and we had the Forging Futures stuff here (CEG’s vocational skills and training centre for young people based at Kirkstall Forge but with a commitment to Holbeck to accompany their South Bank project). I was really aware when we were at Bath Road that we couldn’t talk to any developers there, and as a result that development always signalled our eventual demise. It might have been over 20 years, but we knew that when Burberry got their shit together, and as it turned out nothing has happened yet, but when they did, the next thing that was going to happen was someone was going to come and go ‘come on, you can’t stay here….’ And that’s interesting, so I have absolute sympathy for the residents here because Burberry have, to their credit, made contacts with a number of arts organisations in the city and a number of cultural organisations and educational organisations, but not the one they were staring at in Holbeck. So when the people of Holbeck complain ‘hang on a minute, there’s all this regeneration and stuff happening over there and it feels like we’re trapped behind the glass’ I can say ‘yeah, I know exactly how that felt’ because The Hub was incredibly successful and used as a model of how theatre companies can do things differently by a number of national organisations, but in reality, and in the city, we were trying to talk to Burberry and various other people, so I absolutely understand the physical and mental barrier.”
Alan certainly believes that there is a lot more community engagement surrounding the current development plans. The CEG Forging Futures involvement with Slung Low, and perhaps the very fact that I’m writing this, is testament to that. Meanwhile, despite all the obstacles that organisations such as Slung Low are attempting to remove, Holbeck is still a brilliant place to live and work.
“The thing I really like about Holbeck is that people think it’s shit,” Alan laughs “but the minute you spend any time here the variety and depth of achievement is huge. Even with the members, on a Sunday morning there’s like 14 old blokes who sit in their chairs and shout at each other across the room, but you get talking to them and the things they’ve done with their lives is extraordinary, but on the outside they’re just 14 silly old sods who get the same drinks every week, have a few pints and fall over, and that feels like a metaphor for Holbeck.”
“When we moved in there wasn’t a supermarket, Venus wasn’t here, and you walked along for somewhere to get a sandwich and you would bump into something that marked the achievement of the industrial revolution or something, and you’re like ‘what’s going on here?’ and it feels like Holbeck is capable of that sort of thing again. And I’m always aware that there’s not many layers to it. Most places have things in the way but here you can look back 150 years and be in the moment 150 years ago. In Holbeck it’s the same narrative, and that’s partly because there is a sparsity of narrative. It doesn’t have a million good news stories to talk about, so the ones that there are, are right at the top.”
(The Slung Low team - Photo Credit: Slung Low)
And like anywhere, it is the people that make a place. Holbeck certainly has its problems “it still wears its hate on its sleeve and it thinks that that’s pride and it isn’t”, but there is a resolve that tells you a lot about the underlying spirit of the place and gives you a lot of hope for the future.
“The people are really, really, really dogged. We negotiated the deal for the club, it took longer than the deal we did with the BBC to make a piece of prime time television. They would not give up, and after six weeks I was like ‘we’re saying yes to everything, how are you still arguing with us?’…..‘It’s the principle’….‘The principle is that you’re getting everything’. But you go to other places where that’s not true and it’s because people don’t care. And the people who are left in Holbeck, who are running things in Holbeck, and there aren’t enough of them, care so passionately that it’s killing them. But that’s a really exciting place to be.”
Exciting, mostly, because Slung Low are at the very centre of it, literally and figuratively; a magnet to draw traditional Holbeck a little closer to the lustre and sheen of the city centre, and to blur the edges of a physical divide and a steadfast mind-set that believes regeneration is just something that happens to other people.
“It (the South Bank Leeds project) makes me hopeful in the sense that there is a massive mental and geographical block between here and town, and if that was connected up in a physical way and a spiritual way and a cultural way, that would be a benefit to Holbeck. Because it’s actually a city centre community, it should be able to access all those things. The cultural life of the city feels like a million miles away, but it’s a 20 minute stroll and obviously there’s the manged area which we could talk about for hours, but with the South Bank development it feels like it’s going to shake it up and I also genuinely like how ‘South Bank’ is spoken about. It’s strange that having moved much further away from it (the city centre) we’re now included far more in it than when we were on Bath Road. I am hopeful, but as always with these things, the proof is in the pudding, but every time I speak to somebody and hear the narrative and the way it’s being told, I’m really hopeful and it’s a very grown up way of doing it. And at odds with how these things are sometimes done.”
“Forging Futures did a couple of days’ classroom here last month and this month,” Alan concludes “and hopefully that will become a regular thing and we’ve talked about using the bus in a couple of places at South Bank. We have a double decker bus to use as a classroom so we can go anywhere with it, and the Forging Futures team brilliantly came for a couple of days to build a vertical allotment in the car park outside, which isn’t finished yet, but it will be nice for the young people to be involved in something from start to finish.”
But of course, there is no start or finish to a neighbourhood or community. Places evolve and change, but they can also become stuck in a rut. It’s a slow process, but it needs people and organisations to trigger life, enthusiasm and inspiration; to be there, to steer direction and to embolden people. Thankfully there are a few organisations now rising to that challenge. An area like Holbeck needs confidence to allow it to thrive, and skills, knowledge and enlightenment can give you that. Ultimately, Slung Low changed their direction to help Holbeck, and maybe now there is an opportunity for Holbeck to change direction too?