Hannah Utley: What a drama! How conversation starters can build real connections

5 Soldiers by the Rosie Kay Dance Company, pictured at Edinburgh Castle by Colin Hattersley
5 Soldiers by the Rosie Kay Dance Company, pictured at Edinburgh Castle by Colin Hattersley
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I spent my first day as ­creative learning officer at Macrobert Arts Centre in Sauchie Hall, where members of the ­community were exploring the theme of protest with artist Philip Gurrey and drama practitioner Lucy Wild – all inspired by a production called Coal (Gary Clarke Company).

It was fantastic to see members of the community, both young and old, coming together to engage with these activities and inspiring to see the ­genuine interest and passion they felt.

Hannah Uttley, Creative Learning Officer at MacRoberts Arts Centre

Hannah Uttley, Creative Learning Officer at MacRoberts Arts Centre

This was my introduction to the ‘conversation starter’ approach that Macrobert Arts Centre has been using since Julie Ellen took up ­leadership in 2015. Each season, a production is placed at the heart of a programme of activities that has real relevance for different people and communities across the Forth Valley.

We don’t want the engagement with these communities to be a one-off event. We want the conversations to continue to develop over time and to grow into real connections and ­relationships. In the case of Coal, a chorus of local women played the miners’ wives in the production, real roles not just bit parts; and recorded voices and artwork from local ­people formed part of a specially-commissioned exhibition by artist Philip Gurrey.

As part of this project, I also had the chance to visit the Cowie ­Miner’s ­Welfare Club with Gary Clarke, ­witnessing at first-hand the pride this community held in their mining tradition and the excitement they felt at seeing their stories on stage. Those few hours in Cowie have stayed with me and continue to remind me of the importance of this kind of work.

I’m about to start a project that will reinvigorate some of the relationships started by the very first ‘conversation starter’ focused around Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, in 2016. Working in partnership with the Armed Services Advice Project (ASAP), Stand Easy Productions and the Royal Caledonian Education Trust, we’re creating education resources for schools and delivering a practical and intensive drama project with local veterans.

Through this project we will engage with those veterans who are most isolated and disconnected with their local community, and wouldn’t ­otherwise even consider getting involved with the arts.

5 Soldiers asked the questions ‘How much physical risk would I take to do what I care most about?’ and ‘Who am I if I can’t do that thing?’. These questions are at the heart of what we will be exploring with the participants. We hope to enable them to take the first steps towards finding their place as a ‘civvie’ and making sense of their lives and community through this new lens.

I hope that through this project we’ll be able to give something back to ­people who have made huge personal and physical sacrifices for their local community and the nation. We’ll be working to build relationships with these veterans that open up other opportunities for them.

We are not being idealistic, we realise that engaging with such a hard to reach group will pose huge challenges. However, by working with experienced partners such as ASAP and Stand Easy, I hope we will be able to build something special which has a tangible and lasting impact on the lives of the participants. I believe the true power of participatory arts is in the way that it not only enriches our lives but also enables us to undergo a transformation – broadening our horizons and allowing us to become more confident, self-assured individuals with a strong sense of our own worth and importance.

The combination of drama with practical skills aims to help the ­veterans engage with the support available to them. Our key objective for this project is to enhance participants’ understanding of their place as civilians, within society, and to build positive, lasting relationships.

Hannah Uttley is creative learning officer at Macrobert Arts Centre.