Hi, I’m Ryan.
For the first twenty years of my life I grew up in Spalding, Lincolnshire. I used to have a chip on my shoulder about that, but now I’m working on loving that chip. A lot of my personal experience about growing up in a rural area was about comparison: to other places and other people.
So I originally I applied to Boundless with this question:
“Is there a link between living somewhere isolated and feeling it mentally?”
I literally pressed send on the application with a couple seconds till the deadline.
Fast forward, Boundless interview me and my collaborator, dramaturg James Monaghan (on board for his experience working with non-performers and his practice that’s based around questioning) and we’re very grateful to get the bursary.
James suggests this project has all the potential and requirements to make my first Arts Council bid. We do it. I’m getting on the phone ringing up local arts organisations (Lincolnshire One Venues, Transported Arts, South Holland Centre) they’re all excited and agree to be a partner on the bid.
So far so bosh. Then it comes to actually finding young people to connect and co-create this piece with:
Considering my connection & links in the community I felt I had good starting point. I’d assumed reaching young people in Spalding would be like reaching them in Manchester – posts on Twitter, a few posts on relevant Facebook pages and do a status myself, just to cover all bases.
Reading through the responses to my status it was clear that almost all the young people I knew in Spalding had all moved away.
I discovered there were no specific Facebook groups or pages for young people in Spalding. They all relied on the town’s “Spotted: Spalding” page for information.
Transport is a huge issue here too. Most people live an hour away or so from anything and anyone; and the area is far away from making public transport the solution. So James & I built a plan based around DIY guerrilla tactics: we took the London Tube map and re-designed it adding local places instead. Then left these maps on business cards at cash machines, traffic lights and cafes around the town. We also became obsessed with getting mentioned on Spotted Spalding.
We joined Young Farmer groups, hung around the often described “stabby” skate park and most successfully our project thrived in Wetherspoons. It’s not what it sounds like. It started out of necessity : where do young people in Spalding go? Where is a safe place for them?
Then it became an inventive way of engaging with people outside the arts. We’d offer people between 18-25 a free drink in exchange for a conversation. We worked off a series of questions we wrote about ambition, community and isolation. Yet carefully let the conversation go organically in whatever direction the participants wanted to take it.
James took on the role of interviewer – he has a way of making the participants feel totally relaxed, open and valued. He brings a sense of importance. My role was to be the insider – often sharing or comparing the experiences the participants described about growing up in Spalding. Bringing familiarity and a sense of being on their side. After each conversation we would ask the participants to give us one question to pass onto the next person in Spalding we’d interview. This way the themes, topics and conversation were always evolving by the participants.
The town was talking to itself.
This tactic’s strongest moment allowed two young men who perform drag to ask the question: What do you think about a LGBTQ+ event in Spalding? They never heard the response, yet we did. It wasn’t positive yet, I noticed the group who were being provoked (even triggered) with this question go through a journey contemplating how their town (and my town) is changing. Ending at a point where they resigned to the idea that they need to accept the change. It’s not a “we’re all going to be friends” outcome but it was a real, honest conversation about a serious issue with young people who don’t go to cultural spaces where such conversations regularly take place. We left that group with a provocation provided by other young people in their town.
This whole experience – coming home and running a creative project here for the first time has been really scary but ultimately character building. Scary because I wanted to do what was right for my town rather than just drop in and then clear off, I wanted to do it properly.
The process has helped me reflect and be kinder to my younger self. Earlier this year I delivered a project working with thirteen- and fourteen-year olds in Wythenshawe for Manchester International Festival and also worked with Sheffield Crucible’s Young Company. Both groups of young people were confident, opinionated, hopeful and full of energy. Naturally I expected young people in Spalding to be the same.
I felt the young people we spoke to were brow beaten and lack that spark of confidence and politicised energy the young people I’d met in cities had. One of our participants said no one here will try for change. They just accept things as they are. So I discovered the lack of confidence and frequent comparisons I made when I was younger was less about me, but more of a result of growing up in a rural area.
Challenges of the project
This project had a unique in-built challenge. A challenge that made me want to apply in the first place. The goal was for this project to be co-created with young people. For us, not having a pre-existing group to tap into, it was a chicken-egg scenario.
We’d meet young people, get them excited about the themes of the project but when it came to explaining the offer for them, it was hard to be ambiguous about the project. We wanted the outcome to be dictated by the participants, yet potential participants wanted a clear offer of what they were being asked to do. Especially when this is an area where alternative forms of performance that aren’t plays or musicals (no shade on either of them) are quite unfamiliar.
There is no easy solution round that.
Momentum has grown and people are talking about the project. We named this outreach part of the project “This Is Not London” as we knew it would grab attention. Most young people are already planning their escape to bigger cities. We have been invited to two schools and a college and will run a workshop where the conversation will go from Wetherspoons to classrooms.
I love reading something with easy to apply takeaways. So here’s yours:
The moment you step out your door you’re selling your project.
You never know if you’ll meet your next participant, gatekeeper or organisation who could partner with you.
Running a project for your own community is a cathartic, scary and ultimately, empowering thing.
Schools win over social media all day long in terms of reaching people in small towns. Your boosted post may reach young people, but how are they going to get to you if public transport is poor and their parents are working? Pay for their transport.
Most outreach/participation projects use a little and often approach. Like one session a week for 12 weeks. Do that.
Lastly be direct about exactly what your project is/what you’ve been given the money for. For too long I said “oh we’re just chatting to people about what it’s like growing up here.” People connected much more strongly when we said “we’re exploring if there’s a link between growing somewhere isolated and feeling it”