Chelsea Theatre’s Community Development Manager Michelle Abbey discusses her career engaging audiences and promoting diversity.
Community Development Manager, Chelsea Theatre (2011 - present)
When I was first approached about this role I saw it as an exciting opportunity to build a community hub in the heart of London’s World’s End. The building was mainly known for its contemporary theatre performances and the community side of the organisation was underdeveloped. Five years later and Chelsea Theatre has a great relationship with the World’s End estate and surrounding areas.
As well as a strong artistic programme, we host community events and provide educational courses from singing, yoga and language classes to dance and arts and crafts. We have developed relationships with the NHS and Public Health England to further local knowledge on health and wellbeing. Chelsea Theatre is now much more than a performance space, it’s a community hub that receives upwards of 1,200 people through the door each week.
We’re about to embark on a capital project, which will make the building more welcoming and accessible. As the building steps into the 21st century, I’ll be focused on events that express the diverse community of the World’s End Estate, with a special interest in events and programming for those with disabilities. I am passionate about the continued development of our educational and community programmes, which support all within the local community, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and help to break down cultural and social barriers.
Community Engagement Consultant (2009 - 2011)
Before joining Chelsea Theatre, I worked as a freelance consultant, helping to transform my client’s organisations. Although some were resistant to change at first, after my input they became open to doing things differently and able to bring about lasting and sustainable change.
I had the privilege of working both in the UK and throughout Europe with the likes of Arts Council England, the City of London Sinfonia, Intercult in Stockholm, Sweden, and Bluecoat in Liverpool.
My job was to build the framework to help organisations. I established shared theories of change and standards to underpin their programmes. I designed planning and reporting systems, and transparent sharing of resources. I developed branding strategies and ensured organisations had strong finance, HR and grant management systems behind their shared programme delivery. I also built governance and organisational structures when needed.
Project Manager, London Music Masters (2008 - 2009)
I was one of the founders of London Music Masters. We were committed to raising the profile of high-quality music education and furthering the debate on diversity in classical music. I regularly took part in symposia, conferences and debates as well as promoting our message with other music programmes at a local and national level. London Music Masters were runners up in the DSC Social Change Awards 2012 and were nominated in the inaugural Music Teacher Awards for Excellence in 2013.
We worked with primary schools in Lambeth and Southwark, providing violin and cello tuition to more than 500 children. By teaching the children to play musical instruments, the aim was to reduce the impact of inequality and help boost achievement in schools.
Audience Development Manager, London Philharmonic Orchestra (2003 - 2008)
At the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), I led the organisation through a period of change. I supported the organisation to achieve its objectives through collaborations with community organisations, which brought together colleagues from across the organisation to establish common approaches. These included cultural change, developing audience development programmes and education projects with the aim of addressing the lack of diversity among UK professional orchestral musicians.
My aim was to get the LPO to look at the under-representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) communities among musicians. They now believe that it is their duty to provide pathways for BME professionals and talented young players from all backgrounds.
Audience Development & Outreach Co-ordinator (1993 - 1999)
I started my career at Brouhaha International in 1993, working with Executive Director Polly Thomas and Jan Hinde, who worked for Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. They gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in implementing strategies for outreach, diversity and participation for both arts organisations. Polly and Jan enabled me to promote and develop the idea that diversity is linked to creativity.
In the coming years, Theatre Royal Stratford East headhunted me to work in their marketing department to deliver new community outreach initiatives and projects. Working alongside Philip Hedley and Anne Torreggiani of Audiences London, this role provided me with the professional platforms and opportunities to provide community groups with artistic and cultural excellence.
Michelle Abbey is Community Development Manager for Chelsea Theatre.