What did you do in the pandemic, daddy?

On Tuesday, I’d planned to go to Leeds to meet Alan Lane of Slung Low, and learn at first hand about their work in one of the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Among other imaginative ideas, the company – which makes theatre in unusual places – has made an agreement with the members of a struggling social club to manage it with them, opening up a new relationship with local people. It has been a complicated journey, that I’ve observed from a distance, impressed by the integrity of the approach as much as the results. I was planning to write a blog post after my visit, looking at the continuities and differences between this work and the early days of community art.

That was before the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Slung Low, like everyone running a pub or a theatre, had to close their doors, and go through the complicated process of looking after staff and freelancers during the shutdown. And then, in late March, they were contacted by Leeds City Council with an unexpected request: would Slung Low coordinate the community care in the two wards where they work?

“Within about three hours a spreadsheet of thousands of volunteers arrived and two minutes after that a load of referrals for people who urgently needed food delivering or prescriptions collecting or laundry doing arrived. We’ve been doing that ever since.”

Alan Lane, The Stage, 16 April 2020

The interview by Alan Lane from which those words are taken tell the story of what’s happening better than I can from 700 miles away, and if you are interested in what community art means, I strongly recommend you read it: it won’t take a couple of minutes. Then read Lane’s account of Slung Low’s first year at the Holbeck, and you’ll see better why a theatre company was able to reorient itself to deliver community care. Manufacturing companies that have changed their production lines to make medical scrubs or ventilators rightly gain plaudits. A theatre company that takes on the same risks and effort as the key workers who are keeping us all alive deserves equal credit. The next time a wilfully-ignorant commentator spouts off about ‘luvvies’ and the self-indulgence of artists, maybe ask them what they were doing during the pandemic. I doubt it involved distributing 400kg of sliced cheese to anxious and hungry people.

Sliced cheese donated by the Real Junk Food Project for distribution, 16 April 2020

At the same time, Slung Low remains a company of artists, involved in the National Student Drama Festival, its own weekly event on Facebook Live and, on 1 May, releasing a film with Leeds People’s Theatre, The Good Book. It’s also important to say that many other arts organisations are supporting their communities during this crisis, donating to food banks, providing materials for home schooling and keeping people socially connected in whatever safe ways they can.

That is not easy, when your work is more than anything about bringing people together, but I hope that connections made and the skills learned during these hard days will be remembered in the long months during which we try to get back to a more normal life. They will be needed.