The opportunities for very young children to experience the arts in rural Devon are few, as well as inconvenient and expensive. How can less culturally engaged families enjoy live performances, asks Amy Bere.

Photo of an actress portraying a child, crying out
Bedtime Stories by Upswing Circus Theatre
Photo: 

Mark Robson

When I moved from Leeds three years ago to work in rural Devon, the benefits for me and my family were manifest. Devon is beautiful. We live close to the sea, the air is fresh and the children are growing up in a small community. There are some minor downsides, as the shops shut early and the roads are narrow and busy in the summer, but these really are first-world problems.

Add in the time and cost of travel and suddenly a 50-mile trip to see a performance becomes a significant barrier

Leeds was a culturally rich and vibrant city full of diverse artistic opportunities for my three children to experience. What is thin on the ground in this rural community is access to high-quality, contemporary performances for families. Great cultural experiences for families in rural communities are not completely absent, but they are not on the doorstep and are often hard to hear about unless you actively seek them out.

How can young children and their families and carers access the transformative experiences and rich cultural programming concentrated in our towns and cities? How are the next generation going to develop a lifelong relationship with live performance and participate in creativity in their communities?

Onus on the family

School trips to the theatre, or theatre companies going into schools and other educational settings, seem to have become a thing of the past. In 2017, along with many other of the regions, South Devon was devastated by funding cuts in most state schools, which has meant an inevitable reduction of emphasis on creative subjects in the core curriculum and extra-curricular activities. The cost of any extra-curricular activity is then passed directly on to parents, with the PTFA associations contributing where possible.

Travel in and around rural areas is expensive. The cumulative effect of the ticket price, the time out of the school day and the travel is making it harder than ever for our schools to facilitate access to performance for children.

The onus now falls on the parents and carers of young children to introduce them to cultural experiences. And venues need to find ways to entice the ticket buyer. There will always be parents who recognise the intrinsic benefit to their families of accessing culture – primarily because they have an established relationship with the arts. There are those who are looking for interesting things to do together, especially as the outdoors becomes wetter (another small price to pay for living in verdant Devon). There are also families who don’t naturally gravitate to cultural events unless they are very accessible, if at all.

Arts in rural areas

As a rural venue, our job at Dartington Hall is to welcome artists and companies to share their work with audiences. We are not a publicly funded organisation, but despite the challenges that presents we are committed to building on our long history of experimental, contemporary performance by creating opportunities for artists and audiences to make and share work.

Any article relating to arts in rural areas would not be complete without a mention of the lack of investment in the organisations that deliver arts to these communities. The picture in Devon is that there are three NPO organisations outside the cities in the fourth largest county in England, with a population of nearly 1.2m people.

Areas of particularly low engagement, like Torbay, have benefitted from recent Great Place Scheme funding, but more dispersed, rural communities are still significantly under-resourced. Apply this reduction narrative to work for young children and their families, and opportunity becomes even rarer.

The continued focus of cultural funding in the cities and towns can make it difficult for all but the very culturally engaged to access these opportunities. Rural locations make travelling to nearby towns and cities a challenge. Add in the time and cost of travel and suddenly a 50-mile trip to see a performance becomes a significant barrier.

Early experiences

Why is performance for young children in their early years and their families important, apart from something to do? Earlyarts quotes seven tangible benefits to arts engagement in the very young, but I’m particularly drawn to a survey into parents’ views on creative and cultural education: “Early childhood arts and cultural activities can significantly strengthen parent–child bonds and engage families in their children’s learning, providing a positive focus for shared experience and communication.”

There are many good examples of participatory activity in early years settings in the south west, particularly in rural arts engagement through Take Art in Dorset. Carn to Cove in Cornwall in partnership with Villages in Action are bringing a range of performances to rural community venues in Devon. Here at Dartington, Upswing Circus Theatre is taking over the winter programme with the show ‘Bedtime Stories’ for ages three and upwards, creating a world of imagination and dreams through circus, theatre, dance and projections.

The Family Arts Campaign is a fantastic resource for audiences and has a large member network aimed at better promoting cultural activity across the UK. The National Rural Touring Forum is another good place to find opportunities, as well as strengthening communities to bring work to rural audiences.

So, there are opportunities for rural communities to experience great performances and for companies to reach very young audiences. However, there is a real possibility that only those children with culturally engaged parents or carers will be able to access them unless networks, venues and funders can work together to change the story.

Amy Bere is Director of Arts at Dartington Hall Trust.
www.dartington.org

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Photo of Amy Bere