I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to interview the inspiring and indefatigable Charlotte Cunningham, whose over-26-years of work with her company Turtle Key Arts has done untold good in advancing accessibility in theatre for the disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded.
Below is an edited transcript:
I guess let’s start at the beginning, for those who don’t know what Turtle Key Arts is, how would you describe it?
We’re a production company that works in two different ways. One is working with young theatre, dance and circus companies to helping them at the start of their careers, and linked to that, the other one is also setting up new and innovative ways of working with different groups in the community. We work with people with dementia, with younger people and children with autism, with HIV, people with dyslexia, people of interfaith workshops. But all of those using the arts, music as well, and a lot of partnership working with other organisations. The nutshell is a bit of a difficult one since we do a lot of different kinds of work.
What’s been really astounding researching you guys, is the scale – I don’t think there’s a disability group or a disadvantaged voiced which you don’t cover. Which is amazing!
Yes, well we’ve been around a long time, we do try!
So, what was the thought when you started? Did you ever think you’d reach this scale?
No, I don’t think when we started we had any idea. In the early days – we’re talking nearly 28 years ago now – there was very little going on in the fields of access and disability arts particularly. Particularly most small theatres, the places where most people would start their careers were completely inaccessible. Rooms above pubs and staircases – I mean physically inaccessible – but also say you were trying to work as a designer with hearing impairment it was very difficult. In those days you weren’t able to – you had to write things down if you wanted to make things understood. I f you think about it now you can’t quite imagine it.
A lot of the work we did in those early days was trying to overcome those physical hurdles. And that’s now changed, you know, into gazing towards over types of hurdles. Whether it’s problems like the one’s I’ve described in terms of communication, or access because you feel different in terms of being on the autistic spectrum. Or later on in life – dementia and the stigma around that, or just the fear of being able to find ways where you can get to – so setting up ways of getting people to art spaces so they can take part.
So, access has taken on a very different aspect 28 years on from when we started. And you know, we have to keep questioning what it is, how we can find other groups or other things that might not have access to the arts, and were we can be helpful and be useful.
There’re a few things we’d love to go back to doing. The interfaith stuff for obvious reasons. It works really well and there’s a huge need for it. One of the other thing’s we’ve talked about – and talked about a little bit – is mental health in young people, which seems to be not just with autistic young people, but just generally is a runaway thing that we see not just in our organisations, but with people we’ve worked, with and students we’ve come across.
At the moment our capacity is well and truly at its zenith – so we couldn’t do much more at the moment! But it is something we’re interested in because there is a need.
“The transformation that happened with some of those kids was incredible. Very emotional. They come from all parts of the country and quite often wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to”
How do you go about curating your season? You work with a lot of theatre companies and existing partnerships. Do you approach the companies? Do they approach you?
A bit of both, a lot of people will often come to us. Mostly if they know someone who’s worked with us, or these days have heard one of us speak at a conference or at a university setting. There’s lots of different ways when we’re starting. And is really nice to find people at the point in their careers where we can help. Yes, we do charge and put fees into the applications that we put in for companies, but we are set up as a charity so we’re not making money of these charities. It’s about finding the companies where we can make the most impact.
We like working with people who are like minded with us. So, what often we do is insist that they agree to do outreach as well. We’d like them to think about how they can use their piece of work to do other things, however they see their work helping to open things up a bit.
Do you have any themes in how you put together the season?
All the shows are very different. Tipping Point is this weekend at Stratford Circus. It’s a great family weekend show. It’s a very feel-good show as well, and a show that’s been seen by massive numbers; it’s been to Australia and all over the world. Some of our other companies perform in smaller spaces, but they’ve all been very successful in their own right. But as I say, Tipping Point has been all around the world, and is even going to the Avignon Festival this summer. I think it’s Ockham’s Razor’s strongest show to date; they’re an amazing company. This particular show is extremely thought provoking and beautiful, with a real a narrative, which is probably why it’s been touring the world for two years! This is the last chance to see it in London, so people should come see it this weekend! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
Stratford Circus Arts Centre
Thu 23 & Fri 24 Nov 7pm
Sat 25 Nov 2pm & 7pm
020 8279 1080
What makes access in the arts so important?
In terms of live performance and working with the performance skills that you can get from a lot of the workshops we run… I went to a talk at Chatham House – a think tank – and it was talking about 2040 and where we might be. It was all about cyber security and it was all slightly depressing, but one of the big messages from the speakers was that we’d still need creativity and communication, and those are things you get from our sector in a very wide way.
And I also see from our dementia projects for example, getting people out of their houses and back together as a group and how incredibly important that is with all the isolation at the moment.
We have our two Key Clubs which are club for over-16-year olds with autism. One of them has been running for 12 years. And we know some of those kids that we’ve been working with for years and they have no other ways of getting out of their homes sometimes. And even the ones that do don’t have many friendships or ways of connecting with other people. So coming here they’ll be doing some spoken word poetry, they’ll do two hours, and they’ll feel like they’ve achieved something, and they’ll then have a social time for an hour where they’ll then have something to communicate with each other about. They have a great morning, they have a really positive time. And that, I know is something that’s going to become more and more important as people become more isolated at all ages.
You must have had so many moments of being able to see the positive change you’re making, have there been any big moments like that?
Well as you said there’ve been so many. There’s constant moments, there’ll been some tomorrow – every time we do one of these workshops. Even the young people with HIV, our last big project (Art is Key) we did last year, at the end of it some of the transformation that happened with some of those kids was incredible. Very emotional. They come from all parts of the country and quite often wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to. So you’re stuck in Northern Ireland with nobody who knows your condition, and you come to the Lyric Hammersmith for a week and… the stories they told at the end of their week….
And so, every single thing we do, the pride of the dyslexic kids when they’re given their book of their play at the end of a whole session, or they see their plays put on by professional actors on the stage at the Lyric or Royal court, we’ve run it in both places. Those moments, there are hundreds. Every single session there is something.
All of our projects are free. We do want to be able to have anyone who wants to come along, be able to come along. We do really enjoy what we do.
“Believe in what you’ve doing, and take advantage of people like us.”
What are the other show’s coming up at Turtle Key?
We do also have some new writing pieces, we’ve recently been working with an Iraqi playwright called Hussan Abdulrazzak with a play called Love, Bombs & Apples which was up at Edinburgh this summer, is going to the States this year, and coming back to tour a bit in the Spring.
Ockhams are going to be developing a new show, an indoor show AND an outdoor show so some big shows coming out from them.
We have a company called Open Sky based in the Midlands which is developing a new big show.
Joli Vyann is going to be touring again, they’ve just come back from South Korea and are creating a new show.
And a lot of our younger companies, Redcape Theatre doing a new show as well next year.
There’s a lot going on on the creative front!
Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Love, Bombs & Apples
To finish up, do you have any advice for up and coming theatre companies and producers?
It takes time but that’s what’s exciting. Getting ideas out there, carrying on and not being discouraged by how impossible it seems these days to get in. There are ways.
If you have a strong message keep pushing it. Take advantage of some of the support that’s out there, like the Independent Theatre Council that supports young companies, and they’re trying to make it a lot more accessible to young companies. And they also have a lot of information and help for the hoops you have to jump through to get on the road. How to pay people properly, how to write the right pieces of paper, all that stuff. The annoying but important stuff.
And then just ask for help. If you write emails and no one answers call them, call them, and if they still don’t do anything turn up! Make connections and don’t let people get away with saying no to you.
I always have a whole smoke and mirrors thing. Impressing people. Whatever you can use – “I’m in discussion with so-and-so” – you can be in discussion if you just left them a message!
People are so annoyingly obvious and think: “Oh wow, if they’re talking with so-and-so maybe we should talk to them!”
All those kinds of things.
Believe in what you’ve doing, and take advantage of people like us, and there are other people out there who are very passionate about it and want to help you succeed.
For more information on Charlotte and Turtle Key Arts visit their website:
See their shows, they are doing incredible work. And a massive thank you to Charlotte for your time!