Kathryn Welch: Let’s find our voices and engage in a Conversation

Liz Lochhead is taking part in the Conversation programme
Liz Lochhead is taking part in the Conversation programme
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The end of the year always marks a time for reflection; looking back as well as forward, and setting resolutions and goals for the coming year. Whilst many of us do this personally, it’s also useful at an organisational level. Here at Macrobert Arts Centre we’ve been taking a moment to catch our collective breath and reflect on what has been – and can be – achieved.

In particular, we were keen to reflect on our Conversations programming, which, three times a year, brings together a cross-artform programme of work to explore issues of importance to our lives and times.

Conversations launched four years ago at Macrobert, over which time we’ve used live performance, film, visual art and participatory opportunities to explore issues such as ­mental health, environmentalism, young people’s activism and the end of the local coal mining industry.

We were hugely fortunate in this reflection in being granted the ­opportunity to work with a PhD ­student – Abigail Menzies – under the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities’ doctoral internship programme.

Abigail worked with us for three months this year to explore our track record of hosting Conversations. We’d seen anecdotally how Conversations encourages us to discuss, debate and connect more deeply with the people around us, but were keen to know more. What worked well, and less well? Why did some Conversations seem more effective than ­others? How could we harness the best of what we’d developed to shape our future plans?

The subsequent report gave us much to celebrate. Abigail’s research found that Conversations demonstrates Macrobert’s commitment to including diverse voices in our programming choices, and provide access to the arts to those who might otherwise be less likely to participate. They are effective at building connections across staff, our local community, charities and University Of Stirling students, and provide a space for sensitive and nuanced discussion of important topics.

Importantly, the research also provided us with some recommendations for maximising the impact of future Conversations. We were encouraged to work on the visibility of Conversations, so that more people are aware of what we’re doing, and can choose to participate. A framework was developed to ­enable us to be more rigorous in planning ­Conversations to apply learning and build on the successful elements of our experience to date. We were challenged to develop a Conversations archive to enhance the legacy and long term engagement with the topics we’ve explored.

So, we head into a new year with renewed confidence that an arts ­centre can play a role in strengthening communities and connections, and with a clear remit for doing more of this going forward. We will use our building, our creative programme and our glorious collection of people to explore issues that matter to our lives and times, and play an active role – not just in reflecting the world we live in, but in challenging us all to make that world a little kinder, more empathetic, more understanding.

Spring sees our next Conversation, when we’ll be inviting all-comers to contribute Yer Ain Voice and join a conversation about the language we use – the different sayings, slang words and dialects – and the part they play in our individual and collective identities.

We’ll be celebrating language on stage with Oor Wullie, who’s bringing his stage show to Stirling from Auchenshoogle. We’re hosting an evening of conversation with another of Scotland’s most famous voices – Liz Lochhead – who will be presenting a very special evening of poetry and prose. And Thick Skin, Elastic Heart by Company Many and Sonnet Youth presents a kaleidoscope of diverse voices via contemporary spoken word monologues and group poems woven together in an athletic, physical delivery.

The walls of our venue will be full of artworks to enjoy, including a ­selection of poems from the Scottish Poetry Library, and from Stirling’s Gossip Collective artists there’s an engaging exploration of Scots dialect and identity – including some opportunities to contribute your own words. There’ll be much more too – relaxed events with live Scottish music for people living with dementia and their loved ones, as well as explorations of Scottish voices on screen via our film programme.

Throughout, we’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned through the past four years of Conversations, and challenging ourselves – as well as those who come to be part of our Conversations – to engage more deeply, discuss more widely, and bring as many people as possible along on this journey.

We do hope you’ll join us. Find out more about all of these events on our website at macrobertartscentre.org/conversation

Kathryn Welch, operations director, Macrobert Arts Centre.