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Bringing People Together through Opera

James Redwood (centre, in orange) leading the sharing event

Award-winning composer James Redwood (centre, in orange) leading The Albany Street Opera sharing event, 21 June

After a successful sharing event on Saturday 21 June, The Albany Street Opera is progressing well. The day offered the chance for all of the participants, from Meet Me at the Albany, Uncover Theatre Company and Lewisham A Capella Singing Group, to meet for the first time with composer James Redwood and devise a new opera, to be performed Saturday 19 July, 5pm.

Participants of the project range in age from 6 – 90 and come from a variety of backgrounds, many facing access challenges such as disability or language barriers. The sharing session saw twenty-five people come together to solidify their vision for the opera. Participants spent time getting to know one another, sang some simple rounds and worked in groups to make up song lyrics.They then shared the progress they had made on the opera itself since the project started in May.

The opera is inspired by John Bird’s book ‘The Necessity of Poverty’, which explores how the rich exploit poverty. Dramaturg Hazel Gould has been working with the groups on the development of the story around this theme and its ideas of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. The resulting plot is a dystopian future where the environment is so ruined that the most precious thing in the world is a spring of fresh water, protected fiercely by guards for the benefit of the ‘haves’. The Meet Me at the Albany participants have created the central character, Jean, who is on the run and  has her own theme song, created by the young singers of Lewisham Music Hub.

Clearly, the day was immensely valuable to the development of this new opera, and enabled a diverse group of people to meet, socialise and devise new music, irrespective of musical background, and sometimes with little to no music education. The project is in its first stage of development, with hopes to develop the work further into a full-scale opera production by the autumn of 2015/2016.

The Albany Street Opera has its first public performance Saturday 19 July, 5pm. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Have a look at some more pictures from the day (by photographer Charlotte E. Groves) below:

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This project is proudly supported by the Merry Trust, Arts Council England and the PRS for Music Foundation.

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Allison Gold, Marketing Assistant, The Albany

 

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Why We’re Proud to be the Home of Fun Palaces

Fun Palace medium, Emily Medley

Today we’re pleased to announce that we are the recipients of an Arts Council Exceptional Award, to bring to life the national Fun Palaces project, taking place across 80+ venues on Saturday 4 & Sunday 5 October 2014 and beyond. Gavin Barlow, CEO of the Albany, explains how our relationship with Fun Palaces came about.

In 2013, Stella Duffy started something rather magical. At Improbable’s annual Devoted and Disgruntled event, she posed a simple question: Who wants to do something for Joan Littlewood’s centenary in 2014, that isn’t another revival?

Joan was one of the Twentieth Century’s most significant theatre directors and cultural pioneers, and that question led to a discussion about bringing to life the vision Joan created with Cedric Price for the Fun Palace: one space linking arts and sciences, entertainment and education. Perhaps, the group thought, a Fun Palace could exist anywhere. They began to conceive a vision of Pop-Up Fun Palaces across the country, appearing for a glorious, weekend-long celebration of culture.

Stella teamed up with Co-Director Sarah-Jane Rawlings, the brilliant creative producer who helped to launch Meet Me at the Albany, the Albany’s artist led day club for the over 60s.

In many ways, Meet Me at the Albany has become the coalescence point for how we think about our work as an organisation. What we’re interested in is finding ways for communities – and often those who find it harder to access culture – to meet with artists and practitioners in a genuinely democratic, accessible space, for exchanges that are equally enriching for all parties. Meet Me at the Albany is, for us, the perfect example of that.

Five key principles underpin the Fun Palace:

• Fun Palaces are FREE
• Fun Palaces are LOCAL, with community involvement, engagement and participation at heart
• Fun Palaces are INNOVATIVE, finding new ways to bring the arts, culture and sciences together
• Fun Palaces are TRANSFORMATIVE, intending to transform the place/spaces they take place in: they transform the makers, and they transform the participants
• Fun Palaces are ENGAGING: Fun Palaces are about full participation. Sitting and listening is fine, as long as they also include opportunities to have a go

It was clear in discussions with Sarah-Jane that there were countless ways in which the thinking underpinning our work at the Albany married with (and is of course, directly or indirectly, inspired by) Joan and Cedric’s vision.

We host many free or extremely low cost events – it is possible to buy a ticket for £1 for any show in our season. We’re driven by our community: those £1 tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to punters on Deptford Market, the beating heart of our local high street that adjoins our building and spills over into our café. And we present a diverse array of arts and cultural forms (you are often as likely to encounter a cooking demonstration, a gardening club, a creative writing workshop or a yoga session at the Albany as you are a theatre show).

But it is the idea of arts and culture as a level playing field, a space for free exchange between all participants, that resonates with us most. So it made perfect sense to us to work with Stella and Sarah-Jane – as well as a streamline but quite exceptional team – to bring Fun Palaces to life.

Now, a year and a bit on, over 80 partners have signed up to create their own version of a Fun Palace on Saturday 4 & Sunday 5 October 2014. Ultimately, everyone involved shares a belief that arts and culture transform lives. Joan believed that, too.

So in many ways, Fun Palaces is more than just a celebration of an extraordinary individual. It’s a national campaign that shouts, sings, shimmies, stomps from the rooftops: arts and culture are a crucial part of human life, and they are truly, truly glorious. Let’s make sure they belong to everyone.

 

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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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Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number?

Raidene Carter, Head of Creative Programmes at the Albany, on why teenagers and retirees hold a special place in the Albany’s artistic vision. Find out more about Meet Me At The Albany, our artist led day club for the over 60s, and UNCOVER, our creative programme for 13 – 19 year olds. 

Age ain’t nothing but a number… So sang 90s R&B songstress Aaliyah (R.I.P). As much as I’ve always loved Aaliyah, my recent experiences working at the Albany have given me another perspective.  Age is much more than a number, as we’re learning through our creative programmes for young people, who are using arts as a means of self discovery, and mature people who are channeling their life experience through their artistic engagement. So why don’t we more often celebrate age as a creative catalyst?

I was 14 when Aaliyah released that tune, the same age as many of the Albany’s current Uncover Youth Theatre members. It came around in my shuffle on Friday, by chance, on a walk after two meetings – one with Roisin Feeny, Co-Director of the youth theatre group which caters for 13-19 year olds, and the other about Meet Me at the Albany, our artist led day club for the over 60s. It prompted me to notice that I had deduced the same broad idea out of both meetings: that age (or, strictly speaking, life experience in years) is a defining characteristic of the work artists make, especially when a number of the same age collaborate to create. Our industry, has spent the last couple of decades promoting the importance of youth arts, and, more recently, been seriously investing in older people’s arts so that proves there’s more to age than acne and wrinkles.

Two things…

1. Youth Is Wasted On The Young.

No. No, it isn’t.  If you came to see Uncover Youth Theatre’s response to Yam Yam! Festival, The Big Food Fight, you’d agree. They wasted a fair bit of jelly and spaghetti, but not an ounce of their youth, and, for that messy 55minutes I wanted to be them: sliding around, being outrageous, clever, cheeky and FUN. I admit, I envied their recklessness but laughed so much forgot I was an adult at work. The attitude on show was the same that is prevalent in the best work with young people – shows like Ontroerend Goed’s Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen and Junction 25’s I Hope My Heart Goes First – it was energetic, and it was exuberant, and crucially, it was YOUNG.

2. You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks.

Er. Yes. Yes, you can. If you pop into the Albany on a Tuesday you’ll struggle to get a table in the Café because 30 of our Meet Me at the Albany regulars will be (over a cup of tea and biscuits) trying out something for the first time. The week before last they had a session in the theatre with our Associate Artist Vicki Amedume of Upswing, who led a workshop on circus skills. Possibly one of the most unlikely skill sets to teach a group of the over 60s, but they enjoyed it enormously and  a few even ended up suspended above the floor in silks.They were fully aware of the physical challenges but went for it anyway, working with Vicki to adapt the experience to their own needs.

My point is: that young people are inherently wet behind the ears and older people have probably seen it all before and once we accept these sorts of stereotypes- and perhaps even allow ourselves to play with them- that’s when creativity can really begin.  Vicki’s silks session prompted a vivid debate about body image amongst attendees, which is now having a dynamic in the artistic planning for next season’s activities. The collective and unadulterated joy of Uncover Youth Theatre members has morphed into their trademark performance style – absurd, loud and uncomfortably honest.

We’re not the only organisation recognizing and playing on the strengths that come with the age of artists – 20 Stories High in Liverpool has thrived on the energy of young people, using its regular youth theatre as the beating heart for professional productions and artistic vision. Clod Ensemble’s The Amazings has been quietly radicalising arts in residential care homes to prove that in such places do you get an unparalleled abundance of life experience and professional know-how.

So, sorry to say it, but Aaliyah was wrong. I guess only a naïve 15 year-old, railing against public disapproval of her alleged marriage to an R&B warbler 12 years her senior, would announce such a silly thing, but then get away with it for being beautiful, laissez-faire and full of promise. Bet her nan had something to say about it, though.

Raidene Carter, Head of Creative Programmes, the Albany

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