Restoke is an arts organisation that puts the people of Stoke-on-Trent at the heart of creative adventures. We make performances and plan events that tackle social issues and bring people together. Throughout the pandemic we’ve delivered activities online to keep people connected and active, and have hosted creative opportunities to process the challenges we’ve all faced. But, we always knew that our most useful role would be in our community’s recovery. From our 12-years of creating performances and programmes focused on creativity and togetherness, we’ve seen and heard the transformative impact of arts projects on people’s lives. One of the biggest barriers to our work has always been fit-for-purpose venues for working with large community groups, particularly as we work in dance and performance. In 2020 as we anticipated activities restarting but without our own venue, we lacked the agency to be able to bring people together safely and begin to rebuild a sense of togetherness and trust.
In 2020 we approached the owner of a former Town Hall, and the community around it, to explore the potential of taking on the building’s disused and partitioned Ballroom, and to ensure our work there could fit with the collective hopes for the town and the Town Hall. The grand Victorian building had been used by the Ministry of Justice from the 1960’s until 2014, when local community activism saved it from being sold on the open market.
The building had been saved, but there was no money to restore the Ballroom back to a usable condition and to reinstate the building as a civic place that everyone could enjoy. Since October 2020 we have raised almost £200,000 to restore and reopen the Ballroom as a community arts centre.
Alongside this restoration work we received this ‘Growth and Replication’ commission to unpick our current approach to co-creating shows and deepen our understanding of the processes and power dynamics in our methodology. We could then apply these insights to the earliest stages of consultation and community activity in the Ballroom.
This is a step-change for Restoke as it means we are applying our approach to a geographic community for the first time, rather than the communities of interest and shared lived experience that we usually work with. It involves engaging people we haven’t met before, and who aren’t familiar with our work. It is also the first time we have initiated an open-ended process of co-creation, having previously worked on a project basis.
What we did
From January to May 2021 we spent time with our associate evaluator picking apart our working methods, using past evaluation reports and reflective conversations to pin down specific characteristics in our approach and how they affected the outcomes.
We decided to use our performance making methodology to guide the development of the Ballroom because we want to create the kind of culture there that we see emerge in our performance projects; An atmosphere of collective joy, friendship and sharing; a place where you can lose yourself in all manner of artforms and find yourself as a part of a community.
From this in-depth work we were able to name our guiding principles, reflect on dynamic fluctuations in power and leadership, and understand what authenticity means to us and how it is maintained. With these insights it became possible for us to purposefully apply our approach and principles to the task of planning engagement at The Ballroom.
We identified seven distinct stages in our performance making methodology, and several milestones to strive towards for each stage. This gave us a clear guide to the common characteristics of co-creation culture that we see emerge in our performance projects, which we could look for to monitor our success. (See Figure One)
With the risk for groups of adults gathering indoors still high because of Covid 19, particularly while dancing and singing, our formal invitation stage began cautiously with an online survey and a small number of in-person one-to-one conversations with residents and users of Fenton Town Hall. While unable to invite groups of people into the Ballroom we were careful to maintain an open dialogue with the community. We kept our doors open, allowing people to come see the renovations in progress, and keep abreast of developments through updates on local social media groups and an informative, interactive exhibition at the Town Hall cafe.
We began our second phase of invitation with children, who were at lower risk from Covid 19. We hosted a series of workshops in local schools and a summer programme of creative dance for local children in The Ballroom. This programme culminated in ‘Kids Fentonia’, a three day party-planning event held over the August Bank Holiday, in which local children planned, produced and hosted the first party in the Ballroom for over 60 years. This was the first in a series of celebrations we plan to host in collaboration with the people of Fenton, to welcome them in and find out who’s interested in joining us in the next stage of co-creation ‘Exploration’.
Figure One: The Holding Lightly Approach
The process of documenting our performance making methodology also meant that we were able to create a public resource, Holding Lightly, so that we can share how we approach co-creation more widely. The resource contains a concise overview of the approaches we use and the principles that guide us, including links to more in-depth information and advice. Consolidating our approach in this way has helped us to better articulate our processes and will help us to speak more confidently about our work, particularly outside the arts sector.
You can download the full Holding Lightly resource here.
The Growth and Replication commission offered an opportunity to approach what could have been traditional consultation work in a much more systematic way. One that draws on our experience and skills as performance makers, and utilises the approach which has led us to produce meaningful experiences with communities for 12 years. Without this commission this is something we may not have imagined doing and formalising in this way, but it has given us the gift of a guiding resource we aim to continue to apply over the coming years and which will hopefully be useful to others too.
The potential of where this will take us is exciting, but one of the key challenges has been trying to do this alongside the physical slog of a capital restoration project. It feels like building many things from the ground up, practically, theoretically, and creatively, and for such a small team, has stretched us in many ways.
We’ve found that we need to allow more time than usual for informal relationships with the community to grow, and to explore potential partnerships. Throughout the restoration process we have kept the doors open, pausing work with paintbrush in hand to prioritise these conversations. We have formed relationships with the people who use, volunteer and work at the Town Hall. However, there are many more relationships that we need to build in the community before we can move forward. Building relationships is important to our invitation stage, as advocates and partnerships have always played crucial roles in encouraging a diverse range of people to join our projects as co-creators. The scale of this project means that this will inevitably take more time to ensure we have been genuinely inclusive with our invitation.
We have always considered Restoke to be a process driven company, but we have found that engaging in an open-ended process required a significant change in mindset for us. In previous projects the felt urgency of the time sensitive product galvanised us and co-creators in achieving particular goals. With the ends undefined, we have found it much more challenging to build the same kind of momentum.
Overall, we have learned that we can’t rush the process if we want a culture of co-creation to emerge at the Ballroom. Building trust, confidence and commitment in the community will take time, openness and a lot of listening, and we think these qualities are key to extending an invitation that genuinely seeks to welcome people who might not usually speak out or take part in group creativity. Reflecting on past projects confirmed to us that time spent being creative and expressive together is foundational to our co-creation methodology. Without the bonds forged in this process we can’t move on and expect to arrive at outcomes that genuinely belong to the community. We envision the Ballroom’s culture as a continuous, evolving, productive relationship with and between the people of Fenton. For Restoke, this work has increased our understanding of the funding and capacity we will need to achieve this vision. Further growth and development into long-term co-creation means we will have to sustain high quality engagement over a long period of time at The Ballroom. For this we will need a funding and support infrastructure that recognises, and is sympathetic to, the durational and open-ended nature of this work.
The reflective work and the creation of the Holding Lightly resource has provided us with our own evaluation framework and guide to developing co-creation culture, which we will continue to adapt and use to measure our successes. This will help us to assess long-term impacts, hone our practice and expand our methodology to encompass a more diverse range of outputs in the future. As our experience grows we will continue to share our learning. We recognise that long-term research and evaluation will be beneficial to building co-creation culture at The Ballroom, and we will continue to invest in the relationship with our associate evaluator to help us tell the story of transforming The Ballroom into a community arts venue.
We have been in the unique position over the past year restoring a civic space into a venue for creativity and connection- Creating a place that is truly rooted in its local community and serves the people here, whilst reaching out to new people as audiences and creators from across the city and beyond. A venue that expands our guiding principles into social infrastructure that everyone can enjoy. We’re in the earliest stages of this work, we have lots to say about restoring a Victorian Ballroom, and balancing an artistic vision with a community purpose…. But the rest we will keep sharing as we go along!