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Behind the Scenes with Alice Gilmour

The current crisis has been particularly challenging for those who rely on community services.

We asked Alice Gilmour from our Community Partnerships team for her thoughts on the role the arts can play in engaging with communities across Leeds and how they have coped with COVID-19.

Why do you think it’s important for arts organisations to work with community groups?

I think that the arts are vital for our health and wellbeing, whether we realise it or not. It’s really important therefore, for us to make our work available to community organisations that support people who can benefit the most from the solace, inspiration or confidence boost that an amazing arts experience can provide.

In 2018, we became the first opera company in the country to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status for our work with refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds. This was wonderful in terms of recognising the commitment of the whole company, but it’s also important in helping us make sure we maintain that welcoming attitude to everyone.

© Jonny Walton

What does a typical day look like to you?

It’s usually spent keeping in touch with people via emails or meetings, writing newsletters or reports, and updating budgets and websites. During performance weeks at the theatre, it will also involve printing tickets and handing them out in the foyer, being around for the show and saying goodbye to people at the end.

In the past, we have also organised and gone out on community tours around Leeds. These are always fun to do and have included singing workshops with Opera North performers, interactive shows with an actor and multi-musician – and recording the People’s Lullabies at different locations with a small crew.

How has this changed during lockdown?

Not much has changed really, other than the fact I’m working from home. My computer is in my bedroom and, of course, meetings are all online. One thing I have found is that I’m talking on the phone more than usual which is actually really nice.

Sadly, there are no tours to be planning right now and no performances at the moment, but it’s a quiet time of year anyway for that. However, I am busy with Arts Together, linking up organisations who are doing some amazing work right now (you can read more about this in a blog I’ve written), commissioning small arts projects that people can do from home, and updating the website with great online arts events and performances.

Something which is new is the Wellbeing Group which I chair and which is helping support Opera North staff as they adjust to all the challenges which this time has brought.

Peer Support Service, a Leeds-based dementia charity and member of Opera North’s community engagement Encore Scheme, experiencing Opera North © Justin Slee

What types of community groups does Opera North work with?

Our Encore scheme consists of over 100 community groups in the Leeds and greater Leeds area. These include organisations that support people who have mental health issues, people in rehabilitation from addiction, people from areas of high social deprivation and low arts engagement, people from different cultural groups, refugee and asylum seeker support groups, people with physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities, ex-offenders in rehabilitation programmes, and older people’s support networks amongst many others,

Each group is offered free tickets to performances in the first instance and then may graduate on to a ‘suggested donation’ level. We always support their visits by meeting and greeting them on the night, circulating during the interval to see if anyone wants to chat about the show or if they have any issues, and staying to the final curtain to say goodbye.

How do you choose Opera North’s Community Partners each year?

We choose six groups a year from the Encore Scheme to work more closely with over the next 12 months. We like to get a good spread of groups from large organisations to small grass-roots ones, from all geographical areas, and ones who work with all the different types of people. The steering group, which consists of other people in the company, helps us choose. The groups get extra offers such as a community tour, workshops, backstage tours, pre-show talks and invites to events. We have already had 36 different groups graduate through the scheme, and they always stay more engaged with us after their year is over.

Encore event, part of Opera North's Community Engagement programme © Tom Arber

Can you tell us a little more about Arts Together?  

Arts Together is a bigger version of the Encore Scheme. It’s a network of over 75 arts organisations and community organisations in the Greater Leeds area. It came about because we were aware that, when community group leaders wanted to find something to bring their group to, they had to wade through tons of emails and websites to find out what was available. Opera North applied to the Esmée Fairburn Foundation and they agreed to fund the initiative for three years; we’re now in our second year.

We help community groups by listing information about all the accessible performances in Leeds on our website. We also send out monthly newsletters which offer partners free tickets to certain events, and we help arts organisations connect with the communities they serve, enabling greater participation and collaboration. We meet once every three months at a different partner venue (or now on Zoom!), with a presentation or discussion each time. These have included making your work accessible, working with refugee and asylum seekers, and working with older people. The next one will be to discuss pricing models.

Mafwa Theatre lead a workshop at the Arts Together End-of-Year Celebration © Tom Arber

What is the best part of your job?

The best bit is getting to know the people from the community groups and the inspiring group leaders who do incredible work out in our communities. It’s also great to read feedback where someone is telling you how much they enjoyed or were moved by a particular performance. That can really make your day! We always circulate these to the whole company so people can see the impact their hard work has had.

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As a charity, Opera North relies on donations to ensure that we can continue producing new and diverse work. You can help us use music to bring people together, now and in the future.


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