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It’s 25 years since Ian Kerry founded Arts Alive, an organisation bringing film and events to rural communities. As he contemplates stepping down from the role, he reflects on a rich journey.

Ian Kerry

In the quiet embrace of a rural upbringing, my early years were devoid of films or theatre. Little did I know then that their absence fuelled a passion to make a difference in the very communities that nurtured my roots.

An early intervention

Going to my local rural youth club was a life changer. There were the usual pool tables and table tennis but a new youth leader, fresh from the cultural vibes of America, started to run some drama workshops. I’d never heard of these before.  

He invited me to join the local Youth Theatre and at 17, I was touring Suffolk with a totally improvised show. The year was 1977 when this format was yet to become mainstream. 

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Martin (now Martine) Shackerley-Bennet, who gave me confidence I never knew I had.

Drama school

It was Martine who encouraged me to apply to drama school - Rose Bruford College - on a new community theatre arts course. It was a transformative experience that introduced me to a whole new world of community theatre, emotions and communication. 

It equipped me to go on to work for organisations like Tyne Wear Theatre in Education and Theatr Powys. 

Transition to administration 

With the arrival of children in my life, touring became unattractive – just too much time away from home. So, I decided to make the change to the administrative side of touring theatre. 

It started with a little box called an Amstrad, a new gadget that was hitting the desks of administrators at the time. I seemed to have a knack for making them work. This shift – and that knack - set the stage for a new career of making things happen.

Rural touring scheme

The desire to ‘make things happen’ sparked the founding 25 years ago of a rural touring scheme with my then wife Sian Allen. The initiative became a driving force, bringing people together in their local venues. 

The joy of witnessing a village hall full of locals, sharing laughter, tears and a cup of tea remains etched in my memory as a testament to the scheme's impact.

Flicks in the Sticks 

Inspired by that success, the next chapter unfolded with the creation of Flicks in the Sticks. The vision was simple yet powerful: bring cinema to village halls. 

The pilot back in 1998 involving 20 screenings and six venues paved the way for a remarkable journey. Today, with more than a thousand screenings a year across 100 venues, Flicks in the Sticks continues to enrich rural communities with the magic of cinema. 

Arts Alive

My involvement with Arts Alive, bringing film and live events to rural communities, gave rise to a multitude of projects, each year offering a new canvas to paint with creativity. Engaging new audiences became a constant pursuit, an ever-evolving challenge that fuelled the dynamism of the projects. 

It was these experiences shaped my understanding of the arts as a catalyst for social connection and community vitality.

Impact and challenges

While my journey in the arts has been rewarding, it has not been without its challenges. Balancing the demands of work and home life became increasingly difficult, especially during the pandemic and the subsequent recovery period. 

Trying to ensure staff kept their jobs in a tough environment for the events industry, trying to meet increasing demands of funders and the sheer weight of these challenges culminated in a mental health breakdown, from which I am slowly recovering. It was and is a stark reminder of the importance of self-care in a demanding industry.

A friendly reminder

In sharing my story, I hope to raise awareness of the pressures the arts community faces. The signs of burnout—constant thoughts about work, poor sleep, lack of motivation—are crucial indicators that should not be ignored. Let my experience serve as a reminder to prioritise mental health and seek support before reaching a breaking point.

My journey in the arts, from rural roots to cultural catalyst, has been a tapestry of experiences, challenges and triumphs. As I continue to recover, I remain committed to the belief that the arts have the power to transform lives and communities. Let this journey be a beacon for those who aspire to make a difference in the places they call home.

Ian Kerry is the former Executive Director of Arts Alive.

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