I recently went online to book some tickets for a theatre performance at another venue. It is a new venture in another part of the country, and in a town with about half the population of Havant. I think it is paid for by a private donor. The venue produces its own performances (rather than hosting touring work) and has a restaurant with a head chef with Michelin star credentials. The tickets were going to be over £27 each. They were a present for my parents, so I did gulp and reach for my credit card, but I also decided that I would not buy a ticket for myself as I couldn’t justify the cost.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a private venture, funded by some generous individuals, creating new theatre shows for a particular affluent audience. Nevertheless, it made me think carefully about our offer at The Spring, and why I think it’s important we are not that venue.
I believe there is something inherently important about making sure our work is as open and available to anyone who wants to access it. This isn’t just about ticket price (although that is very important), but it’s about making sure that every part of our offer is inclusive, and that everyone feels welcome and respected both in our building and at the numerous events we put on across the borough.
We don’t always get it right. It is embarrassing that in 2020 some people with physical disabilities will have trouble accessing some rooms in our building. It’s restricting that our workforce of over 100 staff and volunteers is predominantly able-bodied, middle-aged and white, and it’s ethically challenging that our tickets are unaffordable to some.
I promise we are thinking about these things and trying to improve. In the last six months we’ve put up some new signs to let visitors know about our gender-neutral toilet; we’ve held a BSL interpreted and relaxed performances of our Christmas show; and we’re now working on making sure all the short films in our museum are subtitled. We’ve installed our new family role play area – which is completely free to use – and welcomed a breastfeeding support group who now meet in our café every month. We’ve made sure our new Patrons scheme raises funds that directly enable us to offer £5 tickets to people age 25 and under. And there’s more to come.
We’ve also tried to make sure that our work feels relevant, and for our audiences and community to be represented in the shows, films and exhibitions we present. This is not just about enabling audiences to get to take part in our activities, but about making sure that when they do, they recognise their stories and can be inspired and excited by what they see. It’s about representation.
There is nothing new here. Hundreds of venues across the country are working hard all the time to identify and break down barriers so people can enjoy creative and cultural activities (for a particularly inspiring example, check out Slung Low in Leeds). It’s a priority for Arts Council England and as a venue in receipt of National Portfolio Funding from them, we are required to demonstrate all that we are doing to actively support the Creative Case for Diversity.
But we’re working on it too. Here in Havant - for our community. At every stage of every project, exhibition, workshop or event we plan we are thinking about our audiences and making sure that everything we do is, as far as possible, as accessible for as many people as possible.
In Havant, this often comes down to thinking about price and the make-up of our local population. Our area is particularly diverse in terms of social-economic background and levels of disposable income. Some areas of wealth sit alongside wards recognised for high levels of deprivation. The Borough currently has 18 areas within the 20% most deprived in England, with six of those in the 10% most deprived. 20% of children live in poverty. When you’re struggling to pay the bills, it stands to reason that visiting The Spring won't be high on your to-do list.
We know that not everyone within these groups would consider themselves to be working-class, and we know that “working-class” isn’t a term appreciated by everyone. But, in this context, it’s the best I’ve got, so please bear with me.
Research shows that many people from working class backgrounds often feel excluded from theatres, galleries, museums and other traditional cultural spaces. Even performers such as Maxine Peake have spoken publicly about the prejudice she has received in the industry because of her working class roots – and she’s one of the UK’s most revered actresses! This isn’t just about cost, but about culture: how theatres and arts centres make people feel, and if they are perceived as being a space that is open to, inviting of and welcoming towards working-class people.
So, what can we do at The Spring to make sure that working-class people know they are welcome?
On Thursday 23 January, we will be hosting an event called COMMON: GROUND, with the ambition that the discussions during this event will help us understand the barriers that stop people who are working-class or experiencing socio-economic barriers from taking part in our activities. Starting at 7pm, it will be an informal discussion in our theatre led by COMMON, an arts organisation whose mission is to make arts and culture more widely accessible to both artists and communities who would identify themselves as working-class.
Our event will be the first one of its kind, which looks particularly at the accessibility of arts centres to working-class audiences. I will be here, alongside some of our management team and trustees, to listen. The findings will be shared publicly, and our learning will inform our future plans and the way we approach what we do.
This event is open to anyone who considers themselves to be from a working-class background – whether they’re a regular visitor and supporter of The Spring, or have never been before.
So, if you consider yourself working-class and are interested in talking to us about your experience of attending cultural events at The Spring or elsewhere, please do come along. Spaces are free and can be reserved through the box office or online. If you require any additional services or support to make your attendance possible (e.g. a sign language interpreter or childcare) please do let us know and we will do our best to make sure you can join us.
It’s my hope that COMMON: GROUND will give us some new ideas and be the start of a conversation about how we can really live up to our values. After all, it’s what we’re here for.