Earthed © James Atherton
Earthed © James Atherton

Hearts for the Arts Shortlist: Oldham Borough Council, Earthed

Shortlisted in the inaugural National Campaign for the Arts/What Next? Hearts for the Arts Awards 2017 for Best Local Authority Arts Project encouraging community cohesion.

Oldham Theatre Workshop is Oldham Council’s in-house theatre resource, working with young people and in communities on bespoke projects. Over the past 5 years it has been heavily involved in an on-going research project led by Professor Sally Mackey and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, looking at how theatre practices can be used to help people form or strengthen positive connections with places they live in or frequent.

Following on from the success of earlier projects with refugees and asylum seekers and a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Oldham Council identified the need to engage existing communities who struggle with different cultural understandings of mutual dwelling. This has been identified as a particular problem within the Greater Manchester area.

Earthed took place over one week from 6th-10th September 2016 in the Clarksfield neighbourhood. The brief was to ease potential community frictions between existing residents and more recent groups, in particular Roma communities, settling in the area. Developed with the Council’s Communities teams and Roma community workers the concept was to make use of, expand and develop ‘performing place’ practices where physical spaces are given profile and reframed through a range of different kinds of ‘performance-related’ events.

A fictional narrative developed to frame the week’s intensive project saw two visitors and their baby – beings from another planet – teleported down from their spacecraft into Clarksfield as part of a scheduled stop in their space journeying. Tourists, seeking knowledge and experience of Clarksfield, they sourced fuel for their spacecraft from positive energy found in people and the area. At the end of the week, they returned to their spacecraft to travel home.

The narrative served several functions, including inviting positive responses to the area; seeing Clarksfield afresh through ‘alien’ eyes; offering a focus – a spectacle – for families and neighbours to talk about and engage with; and a source for arts and creative work within outreach workshops in schools and community halls.

Arts and music workshops took place throughout the week in two local primary schools, with mother and baby groups, an over 60s group and most visibly, out on the street and local green spaces with an estimate of 500 people involved. A final outdoor celebration event attracted 400 people.

Following on from the intensive project, ongoing work is taking place to increase opportunities for participation in arts within Clarksfield to ensure that the benefits of the project are sustained.

Research from the project will be brought together with a sister project run with Camden Council, examining how these types of approaches can contribute to cross-cutting Council priorities. A seminar will take place in Oldham in March 2017 to continue discussion and disseminate the findings.

What the judges had to say:

Deborah Bull, former Royal Ballet Principal Dancer: “An inspiring approach to the potential of creativity in helping us to see the world through other people’s eyes, which is so important in the many-cultured societies we jointly inhabit. The embedded research project will help to ensure the findings from this project inform future thinking.”