Sarah Balfour: Turning a crisis into drama – how an arts centre set me on a new path

Taking the arts out into the community can show young people that creativity can be an opportunity for confidence and positivity
Taking the arts out into the community can show young people that creativity can be an opportunity for confidence and positivity
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I first bit Macrobert’s hand off approximately nine years ago. At school I was given a taste of how liberating drama could be. In a way it was the proverbial lifeboat in a raging sea of awkwardness. I was still me, yet, amazingly, I found that I could articulate. I could be ­anything and anyone. Give me a script or a scenario and I could be someone confident and bubbly who could act and dance and si... – well actually no, still couldn’t sing. One step at a time, right?

Beforehand, the arts had always been somewhat out of reach. An hour a week at school just wasn’t enough, yet with one terminally ill parent and the other just keeping our heads above water, youth ­theatre just wasn’t an option, financially or ­geographically. Yet, through the mist sailed ­Macrobert Arts Centre.

Sarah Balfour, Macrobert In Project Co-ordinator

Sarah Balfour, Macrobert In Project Co-ordinator

Mfest, an arts festival created ­solely by young people, sounded like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered a position as a drama intern. The idea that an arts organisation could care enough to spend time, money and energy ensuring my participation was a ­confidence boost for this regular fish out of water.

I have bitten Macrobert’s hand off several times since, while their ­outreach work has gone from strength to strength. Last year, the hugely popular New Creative ­Voices project was given a multi-artform extension called Macrobert In; a project I now coordinate.

This is a project that’s going ­places – literally. Fallin, Killin, Alloa and Alva, Doune and Deanston to name just a few. It is building bridges to ­disadvantaged and young people (10-24) at risk throughout Forth Valley. It is a project that asks questions, and raises them.

Art centres are not insular. We can’t be. Good ones build ­lasting relationships with communities around them, they reflect the needs and mindsets of these communities, they listen and deliver, they rely on communities to make them the best they can be. ­Macrobert In allows us to reach young people who could ­benefit from the arts in ways they ­perhaps don’t yet understand.

I wanted this project to be the life raft to others that Macrobert was for me, while also including those who don’t feel ownership over their local arts centre, or simply don’t think the arts are for them. With groups of young people and a crew of stellar freelance artists on board, we could get underway. As well as the hugely popular and effective drama and dance, in terms of art forms, Macrobert In pushes the boat out. If one particular art form appears to be a good fit for the expectations of a group, or if they have ­something in mind, we make it ­happen as best we can.

The results of the project continue to surprise. A craft stall amongst busy Christmas shops can result in unbridled joy for some disinterested young shoppers but simultaneously ­provide refuge for overwhelmed young ­people with an autism ­spectrum disorder.

There’s often a surprise for family and guardians too when the boy who “isn’t usually into this sort of thing”, suddenly is. A drawing workshop for students with autism has given them a relaxed opportunity to quietly get to know one another, and us.

A clay-modelling workshop has drawn a group of teens away from technology for a few hours and asked them to focus on making something for someone; because as well as introducing us to new partners ­outwith Macrobert’s walls, Macrobert In is designed to strengthen the bonds within communities themselves.

We know already how the arts can draw people together in a way more powerful than anything else. Throughout the project we have strengthened the communities around us and created active and lasting connections with them, as the feedback they give us will inform our future work indefinitely.

The results of the project serve as a reminder of the importance of these bridges we build as an arts organisation and of the young person I was, hungry for just that. That painfully awkward girl is ­certainly – and often – still me.

As a young person, the arts gave me the confidence to be her. This project teaches me ­every day that it is still capable of this and so much more. It is through projects like this that we strengthen those around us and strengthen ourselves. After all, to quote poet John Donne, “no man is an island” – nor is an arts centre.

This project was made possible thanks to the CashBack for Creativity Open Fund, administered by YouthLink Scotland and funded by Creative Scotland.

Sarah Balfour, Macrobert In project co-ordinator.