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A welcome surprise of five-year funding provided the opportunity for Cardiff's Sherman Theatre to diversify its audiences, boost volunteering and develop a relationship with a time credit network. Julia Barry tells the story.

Photo of four people helping pack mailouts
Sherman 5 reps helping with mailouts

© Chris Lloyd

In 2013, Sherman Theatre was one of five arts organisations across the UK to receive an unsolicited gift over a five-year period as part of Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s celebrations for its 25-year anniversary. The gift resulted in the launch of the Sherman 5 initiative.

Sherman 5 has been a story of organic change – from diversity to inclusion, dependence to independence, and loose links to established partnerships

Sherman 5 has given people across Cardiff and south east Wales who face barriers, disadvantages (or perhaps both), and who have never attended a performance at the theatre before, the chance to do so. Over the past five years it has transformed the theatre, and is at the heart of everything we do.

Five years of funding gave us a substantial period of time to research the project and develop our own way of working. As the project evolved, we were able to explore, experiment with and alter activities to achieve our objectives. Central to Sherman 5 is a commitment to opening up the theatre to a broad range of individuals and groups and increase the diversity of our audiences.

We built relationships with a wide range of community partners to tackle barriers preventing disadvantaged groups and individuals from engaging with our work, breaking down the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality and ensuring that disadvantaged audience members feel valued, welcome and included.

By the end of the five years, we wanted a legacy in the form of new audiences, a portfolio of successful initiatives, a network of community contacts and a company-wide approach to engaging with disadvantaged people.

Knocking down barriers

Research undertaken at the outset identified a number of barriers to attendance: cost of tickets and transport, lack of confidence, and the perception that theatre was for wealthy, privileged people.

Membership provided new members with their first ticket free and subsequent visits for £5 per ticket (£2.50 for under 25s). Individuals qualified for Sherman 5 membership if they were first-time attenders and residents of a Communities First area, or members of one of Sherman 5’s partner groups.

Assistance with transport to and from the theatre was also made available, along with a discount at the café bar. Importantly, there was additional support offered at specified performances, particularly on members’ first visits, as we recognised that the act of going to the theatre may have been alien to many. This included informal introductory sessions to demystify theatre and to familiarise members with what to expect, along with pre-show activities.

Volunteers and time credits

Beyond widening access to productions and events, we have also provided further opportunities for members by establishing the Sherman 5 Reps volunteering programme. The Reps volunteer in the theatre, promote productions in their communities, help with mailings and provide buddy services for Sherman 5 members requiring additional assistance when visiting the theatre.

This meant that Reps could earn and spend time credits at the Sherman. (Our collaborative relationship with the Tempo Time Credit network has been intrinsic to Sherman 5.) Time credits work very simply: for each hour that an individual contributes to their community or service, they can earn a time credit. This can then be spent accessing an hour of activity provided by Tempo’s corporate and community partners, including attending a show at Sherman Theatre.

Broad reach

We have also developed strands of work to support specific groups - including Deaf Theatre Club, an Older People’s Network, work with refugees and asylum seekers, and activities with blind and visually impaired members. We have been able to provide support and training for staff members, volunteers and our Reps in the areas of basic BSL, dementia-friendly training, and in supporting touch tours.

At the end of the five-year period, Sherman 5 had nearly 4,000 members, over 100 partner groups and nearly 100 Sherman Reps. Over the course of the project, we received close to 10,000 time credits, the equivalent of almost 5,000 tickets, and over 1,000 time credits were earned by our Reps.

Sherman 5 has been a story of organic change – from diversity to inclusion, dependence to independence, and loose links to established partnerships. It has also been a story of effective communication and shared learning, within the theatre and beyond.

We have been able to evolve a project that meets the requirements of members, achieved due to the time taken to research, consult with members, try new ideas, learn and develop. Thanks to additional funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Sherman 5 will continue and develop for a further four years. The programme will support diverse communities to access and engage with many more elements of our work, including the introduction of training and career opportunities.

Julia Barry is Executive Director of Sherman Theatre.

Films telling members’ stories can be viewed here.

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Photo of Julia Barry