Mandy Precious considers herself lucky to have discovered the arts, but are the next generation getting the same chances she did?

Photo of children playing with paper models

Dom Moore

It’s 1972 and there’s a gaggle of children outside Hull New Theatre waiting for the panto. I’m there, gathered in a group labelled BP (Blundell Permaglaze), which is the factory my dad works in. It’s an annual event paid for by the company, a piece of charity at the grassroots. In fact, I’m looking forward to the ice cream at half-time. “It’s called an interval,” my sister says snottily. I don’t care what it’s called as long as I get the ice cream. Max Bygraves sings about mice dancing on the stairs (with clogs on) and the ice cream does not disappoint.

Not hit and runs, not parachuting in and lip service, but real, tangible, engaged back and forward relationships and dialogue

1979, and my Guides captain says I really should go to see the theatre group. I’m her star turn, talent-spotted against my sister who she threw out of the company for wrecking the exhaust on her car (I haven’t the heart to tell her it was me). So, because the captain believes in me and sees something I don’t see in myself, I feel obligated to rock up. It’s Saturday and I’d rather be watching wrestling. There are four of us in the audience, witness to the earnest endeavours of five people in black t-shirts. “What do you think?” the vicar asks. I think it’s rubbish but instead smile. “Energetic,” I finally say.

1982 and I’m in love with my English teacher. He’s probably worked that out because I walk past his classroom at least 600 times a day. He’s Liverpudlian and because I always liked the Liver Birds, that’s enough for me to dedicate every waking hour to him. Plus, he’s got this sort of faith in me and believes I have potential, and even though I only have two proper O levels, he lets me do A level English. He arranges a trip to Stratford for us all to see Macbeth. A modern version and not well-received (though this means nothing to me). I am amazed by it, the first ‘proper’ theatre I’ve seen.

Access to art

So, the reason why I’m sitting here at Theatre Royal Plymouth in a senior position is in part down to those three episodes: free tickets, a talent spotted and nurtured potential. Plus, my parents sent me to a school out of catchment – a comp, but a comp with ideas above its station. I’ve been lucky: I had access to art, however flimsy, and was able to access activities, including school activities, that enabled me to fulfil my potential, and there were people who acted as gatekeepers.

Was I lucky though? Did my dad’s reading and his commitment to night school change my trajectory? Or was it the presence of his better-off stepdad? Was it different in the 1970s and 1980s in that opportunity was available? I do know that while I’ve often felt out of place in the arts – circumnavigating the Royal Exchange Manchester six times before going through the stage door – I know that the arts have been an integral, critical and vital part of my wellbeing. They have moved me, challenged me, let me tell my story and listened to me banging on about pathways and access.

An open door

Could someone now from some of the most deprived communities in Plymouth (and not dissimilar to the community I grew up in) take the path I took?

There are no factories to hand out free tickets in Plymouth, but we must continue to find ways to ensure free access, an opportunity to taste and engage in the arts, an open door. We must reach out with genuine commitment to build relationships and networks of connectivity with those unaccustomed to participation. Not hit and runs, not parachuting in and lip service, but real, tangible, engaged back and forward relationships and dialogue.

Institute a sense of belonging for everyone. Personally, I hate words like ‘under-represented’ or some such terminology attached to enabling, empowering and talent-spotting. Genuine reaching out needs to be carefully re-thought. What does social mobility actually mean? Is it the assumption that you must move from one place to another and that one – the place you’re headed to – is better?

I know that you can have your passport stamped on the way out, in this scenario, but you never really get back in. In which case, it behoves us as artists and arts organisations to engage with people where they are, in a spirit of commonality, at the grassroots (not cold spots) from the ground up. If we genuinely mean to ensure that art is for everyone, then it should be. Best not to start that relationship by implying that what we’re bringing is better.

At Theatre Royal Plymouth, we’re working to do just that, placing engagement at the centre: re-connecting. Slowly we’re building relationships, we’re asking our neighbours what it is that they want from us. We’re not talking to people who’ll give us the answers we’ve already got, but to those whose opinions haven’t always been heard. What might this mean? A different way to pay for a ticket at the grassroots, access to our buildings and work, participation in the youth theatre in a neutral or familiar space, new stories told in new ways, old stories told innovatively, things we haven’t thought of yet.

And ice cream of course. Never underestimate the power of ice cream.

Mandy Precious is Director of Engagement and Learning at Theatre Royal Plymouth.

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