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Being at the heart of its community is the hallmark of Slung Low’s creative work. Its doors may be closed but its community engagement is greater than ever. Alan Lane tells how the team has stepped up to new challenges.

Audience sitting at tables with drinks
“It was our job, long long ago last week, to entertain, challenge and delight our community”

Simon K Allen

Slung Low shut our base, The Holbeck, a few days earlier than most. We run the oldest social club in the country and the majority of our members are people in the at risk category in this Coronavirus crisis. We’re a collective of artists and that allows us to make decisions in these sort of circumstances quickly – no board to convene.

Our immediate concern was to secure those who rely on us for income. Once that was done we sent out emails to all the local social care organisations. We printed letters to our 200 nearest neighbours and put them through letter boxes. We put posts on our social media.

They all said the same thing: we weren’t putting shows on anymore, there would be no classes at the Cultural Community College, the pub was shut. But Slung Low wouldn’t be leaving Holbeck – we were here to see this thing through, we were still healthy, we had vans, we had equipment, and we were keen and eager to pitch in wherever we could.

Rapid response

The local food bank was first to come back. Usually run by people who again were in the most at risk category, they needed some delivery drivers to drop food off now people couldn’t leave their house. Done.

A local organisation who did hot food delivery to the elderly got in touch. They too needed drivers and some help cooking the food in the morning. Done.

We sent the call out back to our bar staff: they pitched up.

After a week the council rang. Did we have any more capacity? We made a set that floated and sunk and set on fire once. Yeah we had some capacity. Could we be the ward lead on the social care referrals that came through the central city Covid-19 call centre? Organise all the people who had volunteered in the ward to help out others during the crisis? Sure.

Today we’ve collected a van full of food from a wholesaler and distributed in packets and boxes to families and the isolated and the vulnerable all over our part of the city; we scrounged a fridge for a woman recently out of hospital who rang this morning on the verge of tears; we’ve sourced a van full of free veg for the meals on wheels chef; and as I type this I’m sat waiting for a referral’s laundry to get finished so I can get it in the tumbler and get it back to her in the morning. Some people just need a conversation with someone and you quickly learn that whatever someone is shouting about is not normally the problem; they are mostly scared (which reminds me of many rehearsal rooms I’ve been in).

Relevance looks like this

I joked to someone this morning, as we discussed what to do with the 300 loaves of bread that we’d just been given, that “a week ago I ran a theatre company”. I’ve seen the work and commitment needed from my colleagues and friends to repoint every bit of our energy and focus on to organising food bags, laundry and companionship to those who are ill, isolated and scared. In 24 hours we built the organisation anew to do something different. Yes. But it can also be true that this is an extension of what we’ve always done, an inevitable end to one of our trajectories.

Be useful, be kind is the company’s touchstone. Gathering people to a shared task, organising, clarity, hard work, generosity. To make people feel connected. This has been our life’s work, 20 years a theatre company. Last week we did it with a show, or a class in bread baking, or a welcome at the oldest social club in Britain. Now we do it with a dozen eggs, two loaves of bread and a couple of bags of canned goods or a trip to the chemist for your prescription.

There was a lot of talk in the arts at the beginning of the year about ‘relevance’. If that is to mean anything at all, creative thinking must come with at least a smidgin of the idea of being in service. In service to a community. It was our job, long long ago last week, to entertain, challenge and delight our community. Now our service takes on a different form. It will be time to tell stories again, and when that is the most useful and kind thing to do we will do it. But until then this is what we do. Be useful, be kind and stay safe.

Alan Lane is Artistic Director of Slung Low

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