Slung Low – A theatre company working with its community to bring people together and change lives.
Before lockdown struck, I was studying an urban planning degree in London. Life in London was great, I had made loads of friends and I was loving my course. However, it seemed right to move back to Leeds to spend lockdown with my family and to write my dissertation on a local subject. While brainstorming ideas for my dissertation, I came across Slung Low, an award-winning theatre company specialising in making epic productions in non-theatre spaces, often with large community performance companies at their heart. The company is based at The Holbeck in Leeds: the oldest working men’s club in Britain. They run the bar as a traditional members’ bar and the rest of the building as an open development space for artists and a place where Slung Low invite other companies to present their work. All work presented at The Holbeck is Pay What You Decide.
Slung Low believes that culture can change our world for the better, and access to culture is a fundamental part of a happy life. Holbeck is one of the most deprived areas of Leeds. Slung Low works with the local community to have a positive impact on people’s lives. This includes a Cultural Community College based in Holbeck where adults come to learn new cultural skills. All the workshops are provided on a Pay What You Decide basis.
I watched a short documentary by brettinthecity.com about how Slung Low supports its local community as the lead for social care referrals. My dissertation was about a building in Holbeck, so I contacted Alan Lane, Slung Low’s Artistic Director, to see if we could collaborate on research for my dissertation, and to do my bit to help as a volunteer.
I started work the next day. Most of the time I deliver food parcels to households, consisting of items such as, milk, pasta, fruit, vegetables and essentials like nappies and wipes. On other shifts I pack up food parcels in the pool room, making me now an expert in nappy sizes and spotting mouldy feta cheese in a Greek salad.
The team at Slung Low is able to take care of its community really well because they are so welcoming and attentive. A lot of the households are known on a personal level, and their wellbeing is monitored closely. As I became familiar with Slung Low’s operation, I was surprised to see just how well households are kept track of, including the special attention and care given to those struggling the most. This is even more impressive bearing in mind that the funding they receive does not cover the full costs of their food bank.
Despite the financial obstacles, Slung Low manages to go above and beyond the call of duty, through determination, hard work and generosity. The positivity and dedication shown by the volunteers and the staff has helped me personally through the Covid health crisis. Like many others during the pandemic, I have been anxious about what the future holds for jobs, industries, healthcare, education, and communities. I have been concerned about my own health, and the wellbeing of my family and friends. However, after witnessing the work of Slung Low, it gives me confidence that, no matter what the challenge, if community stewardship like this exists, the future can be bright.
Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign reminded me of this again recently. Seeing local businesses, cafes, pubs, community groups and councils collaborating to provide free school meals has been inspiring. It hit home when Rashford tweeted, saying – “The superstars of this nation lie in local communities” – which instantly reminded me of Slung Low, and made me feel proud that I have been part of feeding the nation.
For some people, however, our delivery service is not just about food, it is also about social contact. A lot of the people I deliver to love to have a chat. Some people have confessed to me that they feel lonely, which has resulted in a lot of doorstep conversations about the future, about family, and about the past. Some people have told me about things they have not been proud of, whilst others have told me how valuable life is, and to make the most of it. The honesty, and the seriousness of these conversations seems to be therapeutic for people; to be able to speak with a stranger about life may, at times, be just as helpful as the food.
Naturally, when delivering to lots of different houses in an area as diverse as Holbeck, you are bound to bump into some characters. One woman who lives alone always appreciates a chat at the door about her plans to visit Blackpool with her mates, once it is safe to do so. She also told me about the only time she has been abroad – to Tenerife – and how much she loved it and wants to go back. She talks to me about her family and her grandchildren, and that she is at the stage of her life where it’s “me time” after having her children at a young age.
There is also an elderly gentleman who lives in sheltered housing who loves to speak about his career as a first aider and as a train guard. He has told me stories about his past, including the lives he has saved. He has also talked to me about his illness, how difficult it is for him to move around, and the difficulties he has had finding suitable accommodation. Usually he only wants a few things: milk, a few tins of food, and to do the bins. I think he likes the company the most.
Sadly, I have also met people who feel ashamed about using a food bank. A lot of people apologise to me, or they say they ‘feel cheeky’. It is upsetting to hear this, but it is also totally understandable. There is stigma, fear, and embarrassment at having to use a foodbank. These feelings have been amplified by ideological myths of ‘shirkers and scroungers’ and ‘poverty porn’ television shows like ‘Benefits Street’ and ‘Benefits Britain’. It is remarkable that these attitudes are still prevalent during a global health crisis, and it highlights a mindset in British society that welfare, poverty, and deprivation should be met with disgust, rather than by universal entitlements.
However, the fact that Slung Low operate a ‘no questions asked’ policy when people request a food parcel is refreshing, and a far cry from the usual model of welfare littered with sanctions, restrictions, and characterised by conditions to be satisfied. It is common for people on the street to approach you asking for some food and for it to be delivered to their door half an hour later.
Slung Low’s work has not gone unnoticed across Leeds. When I was conducting interviews at the City Council’s planning department for my dissertation, the planning officers there knew of Slung Low’s work within the city. Residents, councillors, planners, family, and friends have become familiar with their food parcel project, their fantastic events (which have continued, safely, during the pandemic), and community stewardship. The community have really appreciated their positivity and imagination. My own family have been involved in their LS11 Art Gallery project; a gallery of artwork created by local people displayed on lampposts across Holbeck. My auntie produced a sketch of my Nana and Grandad from a photograph when they were a young couple in Ireland. The drawing on the lamppost was shared around the family during lockdown, it was a lovely moment seeing them both together again on the streets of Leeds.
The staff and the volunteers have also helped me massively with my dissertation. As part of my dissertation I conducted surveys and interviews to assess the impact of tall buildings and large developments on the residents of low-rise Holbeck and Beeston. The eagerness and enthusiasm of staff and volunteers to help me with my research was magnificent. It has been a pleasure to work with Slung Low to produce my dissertation – their insight on community attitudes and experiences has been invaluable.
This year has been tough for everyone. Food, especially, has become uniquely emotive in the UK. People had tolerated the existence of food poverty and the need for foodbanks for over a decade, but issues like free school meals, food bank use and holiday hunger have caught the public’s imagination because of the Covid crisis. Slung Low have understood the public mood and have used their creativity, imagination, and vitality to help their community, in stark contrast to the government. The staff and volunteers at Slung Low have just two rules – Be Kind and Be Useful. They have provided incredibly valuable support for children and families. It should not be forgotten.
Slung Low Volunteer