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What Next for Arts and Culture in South East London?

whatnext_mainWe believe that arts and culture are the thread that binds humanity together, what shapes us as people, and what makes life that much more enjoyable. Imagine a life without arts and culture. There would be no television shows, no music, no theatre and nothing to fill art galleries and museums. The world would certainly be bland and uninspired. So, we ask: Does creative stuff matter in South East London? We want to hear from you – anyone working or living in South East London – if arts and culture are important to the area.

What Next? Lewisham and What Next? Southwark are hosting a free Open Space meeting on Wednesday 12 November, 6.30pm at our sister venue Canada Water Culture Space. We’re inviting anyone who lives or works in South East London to join in the conversation about the role of culture.

What Next? is a national movement that has sprouted up all over the country, asking arts and cultural organisations to come together and strengthen the role of culture in our society, working with individual volunteers who are passionate about the role culture plays in our everyday lives and want to ensure its prominence in society for future generations.

The conversation will be a facilitated Open Space event. The essence of Open Space is to bring people together around a shared question and to discover priorities which can be taken forward into action. As to the outcome, that will be up to you!

We’ll begin with the basic question: How can we (individually and together) ensure decision-makers know that creative stuff matters in South East London?

All participants then create an agenda by calling breakout sessions on topics they feel are important to this theme. In Open Space, everyone is encouraged to suggest a subject for discussion and to contribute in whatever way they feel comfortable.

So, does creative stuff matter in South East London? If you think it does, join us for What Next South East London: Does creative stuff matter in South East London? to explore how we can ensure decision-makers know that creativity matters to local people.

For more information and to book your place, please click here.

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Why We Call the Albany an Arts Centre

‘ In 2014, we need to turn theatres into secular churches.’

This was the provocation of Honour Bayes in a recent blog for The Stage. She was writing about ‘events that bring the outside world into theatre – not just artistically-led platforms, but socially-led ones too’. She kindly mentioned Meet Me at the Albany, our artist led day club for the over 60s.

Her article chimed with many of the conversations that are taking place at the Albany on pretty much a daily basis about what we stand for, and, for the communications team, how we talk about the work we do. It provides an interesting context for a live discussion about how we define ourselves.

The Albany describes itself not as a ‘theatre’, but as an ‘arts centre’, and increasingly, as a ‘community arts centre’. This isn’t just semantics. It is significant for us because it reflects the fact that we operate in a very different way to most theatres – and we are funded to do so. While we have a strong programme of professional theatre (this season you can catch work from the likes of Kate Tempest, Jonzi D, Polarbear and Bryony Lavery on our stages), we are, first and foremost, driven by a consideration of the needs of our community. This is the principal reason we’re supported by our main funder, Lewisham Council, and their recognition of the role the arts and organisations like ours can play in fulfilling their community agenda means that the range of ways we are working with them is growing significantly, at a time when many local authorities are cutting arts and culture budgets entirely.

For example, within the last couple of years we’ve been contracted to take on the management of two libraries, both in Lewisham (Deptford Lounge) and over the border in Southwark (Canada Water Culture Space). Meet Me at the Albany forms a core aspect of the council’s programme of activity to tackle the issue of isolation in older people. We provide office space for twenty seven small charities, arts organisations and social enterprises, and we are working with the council and others on various enterprises to increase networking amongst businesses and the creative industries in the borough.

There’s a queasiness about the term ‘community’ in the arts: it hints at cringy ‘Legs Akimbo’ style outreach projects where artistic quality is compromised in the fulfilment of social agendas. Historically, we’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with it here. But today, we find it useful to embrace it as a prompt that drives us to, quite radically, interrogate the notion of community spaces: the role they play in people’s lives, and how they can serve the needs of the contemporary community.

Bayes writes about theatres fulfilling the role churches have played historically. At the Albany, we’re drawn to the idea of the ‘third place’. Originally defined by Ray Oldenburg, the ‘third place’ is a social environment distinct from the ‘first place’ (the home) and the ‘second place’ (the work environment). ‘Third places’ are the informal meeting places that anchor community life and facilitate broader, more creative interaction. The qualities of a third place are, according to Oldenburg:

–       Free or inexpensive

–       Offer food and drink

–       Highly accessible

–       Involve regulars

–       Welcoming and comfortable

–       A location for meeting new and old friends

Examples of third places might be a general store, a barber shop or a sports centre and of course, it’s a role that has historically been played principally by churches. The secret of Starbucks’ success was in part the fact that its founders capitalised on the need for third places at a time when churches were no longer playing this role in people’s lives.

The qualities of a third place go above and beyond what most theatres typically deliver. They are public places where people linger for substantial periods of time, throughout the day, a role certainly not fulfilled by West End theatres that may only open their doors an hour before a show starts, and offer only a restricted bar space with prohibitively expensive drinks.

The Albany is open throughout the day, offering a stimulating environment with affordable, nourishing food options and ease of engagement with others. On Tuesdays, visit our café and you might find yourself caught up in a Meet Me at the Albany sing-a-long, or an impromptu spoken word performance. On Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays the building will be buzzing with people spilling over from the adjacent market, nipping in to use our toilets or discussing their latest purchase over a cup of coffee. And for many local children, the relationship they have with our garden – whether through our Growing Up Club or helping out on our allotments with their class – is just as important as the shows they see in our theatre.

In short, the socially-led activities that Bayes refers to are the heart of what we do, and have been for a long time. But the crucial thing in all of this is that this foundation to our work enriches our ability to deliver great art. Artistic excellence is not a side issue – for us artistic innovation is driven by the need to access and engage with our wide and diverse audiences. For example our leadership on the Circulate project, a three year programme of large scale outdoor productions developed specifically to tour to outer London boroughs, was motivated by the need to access audiences for whom crossing the threshold of arts buildings is a huge barrier. Similarly our work in libraries is underpinning a major strand of our thinking about creating outstanding art that responds to the particular needs of audiences in this setting. Furthermore, by adopting an increasingly dynamic business model, we are securing new opportunities and resources to support the creation of new artistic output that truly resonates with the people of Deptford.

Amber Massie-Blomfield, Head of Communications, the Albany

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Welcome to our Blog

The Albany is a different kind of arts organisation. Like many arts venues, we have a cracking programme of live events to sink your teeth into: from the best spoken word artists appearing at regular nights, a diverse theatre programme of work from some of Britain’s best theatre companies, regular events for families and kids, music, comedy and club nights – the building is never quiet for very long!

But that’s only a small part of what we do. We are truly, and quite radically, driven by the idea of being a community arts centre, and that means so many of the activities that go on within the walls of the Albany, at our sister venues Canada Water Culture Space and Deptford Lounge, and indeed out and about in Deptford and further afield, are rather more ‘below the radar’. But we think they are an extremely important part of who we are and what we do, and we think it’s vital that they make up a part of the picture of what the Albany is all about.

Many won’t know, for example, about the rich array of resident companies that we have within the Albany building- like performance poetry maestros Apples and Snakes, Heart ‘n’ Soul, an arts organisation with learning disability culture at its heart, and the Independent Theatre Council. Or that we have a (semi) regular market stall in Deptford Market, the incredibly bustling, diverse market that pops up on our doorstep every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (where shoes are ‘three pound each; two for a fiver’). Or that we have chickens in residence in our beautiful garden (OK, we’re pretty obsessive about telling people about those already…).

The blog will play a part in building this richer picture of what we do. We’ll peek behind the scenes, and chat to actors, artists and other company members about what they’re working on. We’ll share videos and photographs of what we’re getting up to. Most importantly we’ll give a voice to the people that engage with our work – like the participant in Meet me at the Albanyour day club for over 60s, who wrote a wonderful poem about her experiences here, or our Uncover Youth Theatre’s hilarious video spoofs of cookery shows.

We also plan to use the blog to share some of the expertise and experiences of those working in the Albany building, and to comment on wider issues relevant to the arts and to the local community.

Most importantly, though, we want our blog to be a forum for discussion, to help us learn more about our audiences and communities. Please do leave your comments and questions, and let us know what the Albany means to you.

And remember you can tweet us or connect with us on Facebook.

Gavin Barlow, CEO, The Albany

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