50 years of arts policy and what have we learned?

On the 50th anniversary of Jennie Lee’s seminal publication on arts policy, Deborah Bull, Director, Cultural Partnerships at King’s College London writes about what has happened since. Follow her at @BullDeborah @CultureatKings


For anyone with an interest in the state of the arts, February 2015 is a significant anniversary: 50 years since the publication of Jennie Lee’s A Policy for the Arts – The First Steps. This 1965 White Paper represented a first in government approaches to this corner of policy-making and marked a turning point in the social history of the arts.

Jennie Lee was appointed Minister for the Arts by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1964 – the first ever appointment of its kind in the UK. Initially, the post was located within the Ministry of Public Works, but before long it was transferred to the Department of Education and Science. It would be almost 30 years before John Major created a cabinet position with responsibility for culture, when he established the Department for National Heritage and appointed David Mellor to a role Mellor subsequently dubbed ‘Minister for Fun’.

Lee’s appointment came four years after the death of her husband, Aneurin Bevan. Their combined impact on the nation we know now was considerable: between the two of them, they gave us not only the first ever Arts Policy, but also the National Health Service and the Open University.

Once appointed, Lee got straight to work: the White Paper, published just one year into her role, set an agenda that placed education and outreach at the heart of arts policy and instigated a process of building (and rebuilding) that would rejuvenate concert halls, galleries and theatres around the country. The core of the White Paper, in practical terms, was this commitment to build a new infrastructure for the arts, pledging government money through the ‘Housing the Arts’ scheme, a fund that remained in place for decades.

The mid-60s were a period of optimism, progress and technological revolution. Increasing automation was giving people more leisure time and a new generation was challenging the status quo and blurring the lines between highbrow and lowbrow arts. The building of the New Towns was a visible indication of this changing world, and Lee’s belief was that these new towns needed culture, too. The philosophy was clear: ‘In any civilized community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place.’

Lee’s view on the arts was nothing short of radical. Her desire to open up the (at the time) stuffy world of the arts for the benefit of everyone infuses the White Paper – the enjoyment of the arts, she says, should not be ‘remote from everyday life’. She laments the fact that some museums, art galleries and concert halls retained ‘a cheerless unwelcoming air that alienates all but the specialist and the dedicated’ and suggests the innovative idea of opening galleries outside normal office hours so that workers and school pupils might enjoy them, too.

The paper’s influence is still felt today. Earlier this year, for Culture at King’s College London, James Doeser undertook a review of arts policy designed to engage young people. His research made clear that the roots of every strategy, initiative or funding scheme over the half century that followed could be traced back to Lee. Her White Paper also enshrined the idea of the arms-length principle, still in place today. The document opens with the statement ‘No-one would wish state patronage to dictate taste or in any way restrict the liberty of even the most unorthodox and experimental of artists’.

The world has moved on but the challenges Lee was attempting to address persist today: the regions are under-served, the school curriculum is disconnected from the arts, emerging talent requires support, there is a need for better co-ordination of resources, the best must be made more widely available. ‘Too many working people have been conditioned by their education and environment to consider the best in music, painting, sculpture and literature outside their reach’, wrote Lee in 1965. Fifty years later, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value reported that ‘high socio-economic background, university-level education and a professional occupation are still the most reliable predictors of high levels of engagement and participation in a wide range of cultural activities’. Lee warned that ‘the exclusion of so many for so long from the best of our cultural heritage can become as damaging to the privileged minority as to the under-privileged majority’. The Warwick Commission had the same message, that ‘the barriers and inequalities that prevent access to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life are bad for business and bad for society’.

Of course, the White Paper did not address challenges and opportunities Lee could not have foreseen: digital, copyright and IP, diversity or devolution, for example. She’s spot on when she says that ‘if the eager and gifted are to feel as much at home in the north and west as in and near London, each region will require high points of artistic excellence’, but in other ways, history has proved her wrong. Manchester’s International Festival alone refutes her assertion that ‘no provincial centre can hope to rival London’s art treasures’, and while she identified art’s potential to ‘increase the quality of contemporary life’, there is no mention in the paper of the impact research has since revealed on issues like regeneration, health, well-being, social mobility and the economy.

We’ve come a long way since Jennie Lee’s First Steps, but it’s clear there is still some way to go. I’m optimistic: while I’m not naïve enough to think it’s top of their agenda, I don’t believe, as some commentators wrote in response to the Warwick publication, that ‘politicians just don’t care about culture’. Ministers are increasingly interested to understand the growing body of evidence about the impact of arts and culture across a range of government agendas. And I’m inspired by the appetite among artists and cultural organisations to work together to find new approaches and solutions, as evidenced by the remarkable growth of the What Next? movement and the establishment of the Creative Industries Federation to provide a single, unified voice for a single, joined-up sector.

After 7 May, when the election results are in, my hope is that the incoming government seizes this moment to re-imagine cultural policy for the 21st century, taking into account that growing body of evidence and addressing the challenges and opportunities of Britain today. As we celebrate this anniversary and the 1965 White Paper’s enduring legacy, all the indicators are that now is the time to take the next steps. Just one question nags: where in today’s political landscape is the Jennie Lee to take the lead?

Get Creative

Deborah Bull, Director, Cultural Partnerships at King’s College London, gave this speech at the BBC’s launch of Get Creative, a major year-long celebration of British arts, culture and creativity. Follow her at @BullDeborah @CultureatKings


History has tended to associate creativity with extraordinary people doing extraordinary things: From Leonardo da Vinci to Mozart, Einstein to Edith Piaf, Steve McQueen to Zaha Hadid.

But this focus on the exceptional perpetrates a myth: that creativity is a quality that’s reserved for people who are somehow ‘special’. It’s not: creativity is innate in us all. We’re born creative. Without this inborn creativity, we’d never be able to acquire the skills that get us up off all fours and propel us from infancy to adulthood.

Unfortunately, the more grown up we become, the more creativity is likely to be crowded out. Creativity depends on time and space – rare commodities in the adult world. Creativity means taking risks and being willing to look a bit foolish from time to time. It means finding time to play with ideas that may not, in the end, turn out to be any use at all – as adults, we anticipate outcomes based on past experiences, which means we close down alternative options. Creativity means starting out on journeys where the destination isn’t quite clear.

These are all the characteristics of creativity – and you’ll have noticed that none of them are things we normally associate with adult life: with targets and measurables, Gantt charts and KPIs, with the grown up world of the workplace.

Unfortunately, with some honourable exceptions, they’re also less and less the characteristics we associate with education. Evidence from the Warwick Commission published earlier this week confirmed what we all suspected: opportunities for creativity in the school curriculum continue to decline. In 2013 there were a significant number of pupils taking no cultural or creative subjects whatsoever at GCSE level. This hides an even darker truth: a significant number of young people had to make a life-defining choice between arts and sciences by the age of 14. That’s an age when doors should be opening, not closing.

The Warwick report was also a stark reminder that without access to culture and creativity through education, we are in danger of allowing a two-tier system, in which the most advantaged in social and economic terms are also the most likely to benefit from the full range of creative and cultural experiences.

_final_8174575_8174566So Get Creative feels more important than ever. Through Get Creative we want to inspire people to recognize the creativity that’s all around them and the ways in which their own everyday creativity plays a part in the nation’s creative life. We want to celebrate the creativity in us all and the many ways in which arts and culture inspire, harness and unleash our individual and collective creativity. And this is not only happening here in London. Thursday’s launch at Conway Hall was just one of 14 Get Creative launch events around the country today, coordinated by the wonderful Voluntary Arts and Fun Palaces. They ranged from a graffiti event in Cardiff to a mammoth paint by numbers in Cumbria.

And this is indicative of the vast array of professional and voluntary organisations that have responded to the call for action: from the traditional Music Forum in Scotland to the Heston Community School, at least 150 organisations up and down the country have committed to providing opportunities for people to Get Creative over the coming year. The BBC’s role is pivotal: as Tony Hall said, the BBC aims to provide everyone with access to the best. This makes it the ideal partner in this campaign and the ideal platform for a national conversation about creativity, about how we think and feel about arts and culture in our lives.

We hope that over this next year, Get Creative will make a real difference – and our ambition is to capture its impact through an integrated research programme, led by King’s College London, which will add to our understanding of what arts and creativity mean to Britain today.

Get Creative is a partnership with arts and cultural organisations throughout the UK because all the evidence shows that art has a powerful role to play in unlocking our innate creativity.

This doesn’t mean that creativity is a quality that’s only useful to art and artists, or that it’s something you only find in the theatre, on the dance floor, in the gallery or the recording studio. Creativity permeates our everyday existence.

Creativity is vital to us as individuals – in our personal development, in our ability to make the most of our own lives and in our capacity to understand and share in the lives of others.

Creativity is also central to our economy. Last year the UK was listed as number one in Europe in the Global Entrepreneurship Index, with creativity singled out as the crucial factor in our success. This level of creativity translates into real financial benefits: the Warwick Commission reported that in 2013 the Gross Value Added of the culture and creative sector was £76.9bn: that’s 5% of the UK economy.

Creativity is key to employability – the top 10 ‘in demand’ jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. 65% of school children today will find themselves employed in roles that haven’t been invented yet. Without creativity, how are young people going to imagine and then fulfil the jobs they’ll be occupying a decade from now?_final_8164888_8164877

And finally – as if all that wasn’t enough – creativity is crucial to our survival as a society. We need creativity to imagine the future and to prepare for it. It was creativity that invented the wheel, creativity that discovered penicillin and creativity that imagined the world wide web – and it will be creativity that unlocks the solutions to climate change, affordable healthcare and all the other global challenges we face.

Creativity is our common DNA. It binds us together across cultures, language, ethnicity and geographies. It’s a uniquely human resource – and what’s more, it’s the only resource that is infinite. One day the oil is going to run out. But creativity will be with us as long as we have breath in our bodies.

That’s why creativity matters, and that’s why we’re asking everyone to get behind this campaign to Get Creative.

The story of ‘Love’

Intern Lauren Hart, currently undertaking her MA in Christianity & the Arts at King’s College London, describes the curatorial process behind the ‘Love’ exhibition, a partnership between the Cultural Institute at King’s and the Jewish Museum London.


On Sunday 30 November 2014 I was presented with shards of glass that had been lovingly reassembled and placed within a blue plastic mould, which I happily received. This was the beginning of my internship on the Cultural Institute’s exhibition, ‘What does love mean to you?’. This is an exciting collaboration between the Jewish Museum London and the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College London. The item in question was a glass broken during a Jewish wedding ceremony, following which a family friend had carefully collected the remnants, placed them in a plastic cast, and given it to the newlyweds on return from their honeymoon. This thoughtful gift is a symbol not only of the love the couple felt for each other on their wedding day, but also the love they continue to share, and one of my favourite objects that has been loaned to the exhibition.

After all the crowd sourced items had been accepted, a curatorial board decided on which community pieces and museum-held articles sat well together. All of which led to a decision on what manner of display would best tell the ‘love story’ that each object holds within itself. It soon became clear that the variety of pieces will certainly create a rich and varied exhibition that will demand the viewer’s engagement. The show is made up of sculpture, art, film and personal objects of devotion.

Hopefully, this will highlight the power of community-curated exhibitions to open a two-way dialogue between the object of love, and the audience.

This is the first in a series of exhibitions: the first runs from January to April 2015; the second from May to August 2015; the third and final exhibition will run from September to December 2015. I look forward to seeing you there!


For more information, see jewishmuseum.org.uk/love

Davos: Culture on the World Stage

Deborah Bull, Director, Cultural Partnerships at King’s College London, was among the world’s political and business leaders and intellectuals taking part in this year’s recent annual World Economic Forum at Davos. Deborah was named as one of the top four participants on social media at the Forum. Follow her at @BullDeborah @CultureatKings #davosculture


It was a privilege to be invited to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos as one of a small group of cultural leaders. The media at home tend to focus on the economic and political debates at Davos, but the Forum offers the opportunity for a broader and more inclusive conversation, with art and artists as an important part of the mix. As the Forum’s Head of Arts & Culture explains, ‘The arts are included in Davos now more than ever because they are needed’.

The unique value of Davos is that it brings together so many different perspectives: we know that it is at the interface of these different perspectives that new approaches to our global challenges are likely to emerge. It was heartening to see the role of creativity referenced time and time again as vital to the process of innovation. Given my role at King’s, it was particularly pleasing to hear Professor Michael Spence of NYU Stern – a Nobel Laureate in Economics – highlighting the need to combine creativity with evidence to tackle climate change.

Creativity was the theme of my first presentation, along with Professors Carol Becker (Columbia University) and Ken Goldberg (University of California, Berkeley). My focus was on creativity as a quality that is innate in us all – a unique human resource and one that will be available as long as we have breath. I also spoke about the role of arts engagement in developing creativity, the growing evidence base we have published via CultureCase.org and the partnerships we are creating at King’s between artists and academics, to provoke new perspectives on research.

There is a range of spaces in the Congress Centre, including a BetaZone with a large scale, high definition screen, where I moderated a session in which Martin Roth (Director, V&A) and James Cuno (J. Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust) shared their thoughts about the digital revolution in museums. I also took part in a panel discussion on the Impact of the Arts, in which I was able to share some of the work we are doing through Culture at King’s to increase understanding of the potential of arts and culture to contribute beyond their intrinsic value. In particular, I talked about the growing body of evidence about the role of the arts in developing creativity, improving mental and physical health, increasing cross cultural understanding and engaging the public with contemporary challenges. It was good to see the session attended by participants beyond the ‘obviously converted’. The audience included a range of individuals, including Edmund Phelps, Nobel Laureate in Economics.

As the conference went on, it became more and more clear to me that it will take a combination of creative thinking, technological advance and changes to public behaviour if we are to address the global challenges that were this year’s Davos theme. I’m delighted that in bringing cultural as well as political leaders to Davos, the World Economic Forum recognises that art has a role to play in this. Art and artists help to shape our culture, the way we see the world, the way we communicate and the decisions we take. This was the theme of my third presentation, alongside Haifaa Al Mansour (Saudi Arabian filmmaker), Platon (photographer), Patrick Chappatte (cartoonist) and Will.i.am (musician, social activist and philanthropist). The event provided a genuine ‘Davos moment’, when I found myself sitting within inches of an intense conversation between Kofi Anaan and will.i.am. But it also provided powerful examples of how the work of artists can influence the way we think and the way we behave, and the role of leadership in driving change. As the world’s decision-makers gathered in Davos, it was inspiring to see art as part of the mix.

‘Love’: the beauty of working with lenders

Carolyn Rosen is project manager for the ‘Love’ exhibition, a partnership between the Cultural Institute at King’s College London and the Jewish Museum. The exhibition uses crowd-sourced objects to explore the theme of love across different faiths.


I was given the opportunity to help manage the Your Jewish Museum series, and was immediately delighted to be part of such an innovative project. As someone with a keen interest in promoting interfaith and community initiatives, Your Jewish Museum felt like the perfect chance to work on several shows aimed at highlighting deeply personal pieces which would not otherwise have come together in a single space.

Meeting with lenders is the most beautiful part of the process for me. I love working with members of the community, practitioners of other faiths, students, artists, longtime friends of the Jewish Museum London, and people who had not yet visited the Museum when they received our call for objects. It is a privilege for me to hear their stories, learn about their lives and what they hold dear, then help manage an exhibit which testifies to the sanctity of these pieces.

Tahnia Ahmed, left, models the wedding sari of her mother Hasna Hena, one of the crowd-sourced exhibits. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Tahnia Ahmed, left, models the wedding sari of her mother Hasna Hena, one of the crowd-sourced exhibits. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

One of the most special aspects of the show, and a very important one for me, is that the lenders have written their own texts to accompany the pieces. There is a real ‘voice’ for each object and for each particular story. As a result the show feels even more intimate, the objects themselves even more precious. We find love in its many forms: parental love, marital love, God’s love for creation, love for each other and for a community, gentle love and fierce love. This is truly a beautiful show, one in which visitors will delight, and it will undoubtedly inspire more reflection on what love means to those who come see it.


Love runs from 20 January until 19 April, at the Jewish Museum London, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 7NB. Keep an eye out on the Culture Institute webpages for the next calls for objects, for Journey and Sacrifice.

Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 – so, what next?

Dana Segal responds to the Culture at King’s report on behalf of What Next? Generation, a movement focused on bringing together younger and emergent arts practitioners and professionals to champion the role of arts & culture in our society.


We were delighted to be a part of the Step by Step enquiry launch on Tuesday 13 January. It’s about time that policymaking for children and young people is impactful, and the only way this can be done is through longitudinal implementation and evaluation and, as Marcus Davey recommends in his response, with the involvement of young people at the heart of the entire process.

We support and agree with many of the policy recommendations that are part of this insightful paper. Ahead of the general election in May we have written a manifesto and a series of pledges, all of which relate very strongly to the final recommendation of the paper: that policy should be implemented so that arts activity is encouraged outside of the school system.

That’s not to say that we do not believe that arts activity should be a core part of education; because we strongly believe that all children should have access to arts and culture through their education regardless of their wealth. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most expensive private schools in the country also happens to have a very long list of visiting music staff.

As stated in the paper, family and social life of young people play a crucial role in forming their identity and impacting on their later life. As I highlighted in my conclusion at the launch: if it wasn’t for my father’s passion for music, and my drama teacher’s support to take the subject and experience live theatre, I would not be the person I identify myself as today: a voter, an employee, a student, etc.

Up until this point, it was due to specific people: but hopefully following this paper, it can be due to specific policies implemented to ensure all young people can access arts and culture.


Read more:

Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 – another response

In his response, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp OBE, Chief Executive, The Place, points to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Government and calls on the arts policy community to be better informed about the past.


The fact that history should repeat itself is not of itself a surprise. As the great Joni Mitchell incanted ‘everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes’. However love and fashion are notoriously fickle, and whilst the impact of their often cyclical whims may be of great immediacy – and of personal significance – by contrast, the impact of cultural or educational policy, for better or for worse, can be immense and long-lasting. All the more important therefore that we get it right, and that we are helped to this end by having gathered together in a way that is immediately accessible a trail of our previous endeavours, so that we may continue to learn their lessons.

The last five to ten years have seen great change in both cultural and education policy, especially in those areas that seek to have impact on the ways in which children and young people engage with the arts. Not all those changes have been met with warm approval from professionals working in the arts and education sectors. At the same time, even in the last couple of years there seems to have been a significant and welcome shift in thinking, with the strengthening of a shared belief across the political spectrum about the vital importance of arts and culture in creating rounded individuals, contributing to well-being, and to social cohesion, and there is broad recognition of the immense contribution the creative industries as a whole make to the UK economy. However, the way in which policy seeks to determine the way in which children and young people engage with the arts, both in and out of school, and the role of the state in supporting that through the implementation of policy is still a matter of great debate.

In that regard, this report and its recommendations serve several important needs: firstly the need for a historical record of arts policy in relation to young people’s access to the arts, but secondly, and of equal import, the need to maintain a clear perspective on developments in this field over a longer period, to strengthen the sense of shared history and to safeguard against collective amnesia in relation to sometimes even recent events. That need was made all too clear to me when members of the current government in 2012 responded to recommendations within the Henley Review of Cultural Education.

The Department for Education and the Department for Culture Media and Sport proudly announced the launch of the ‘first National Youth Dance Company’, oblivious it would seem that a previous incarnation existed with the exact same title, and with great success, for 18 years, led by the late John Chesworth OBE. The first National Youth Dance Company had only ceased to exist in 2004, less than 10 years before the heralding of a new venture. It hadn’t been forgotten in the dance sector; many dance professionals still working in the sector cut their teeth in that company and its enormous success was something for which John Chesworth was rightly honoured, for his services to dance. Yet how quickly others seemed to forget.

Whilst I wholeheartedly applaud the reinstating of our National Youth Dance Company, which is once again thriving, I was dismayed at the time at the collective amnesia of government who, through Arts Council England, funded the original venture and who, for their own credibility if nothing else, should have been better informed about the very recent history. Who knows whether this ignorance was just a matter of oversight, or whether perhaps, as this report suggests, it may have also been the result of ‘a policymaking culture that prizes freshness over precedent’, where there are fewer incentives to look back over our shoulder, even when the evidence, along with its lessons, is sitting right there under our noses.

This report and its recommendations are timely, relevant and an important marker from which I hope we can all learn. Thank you to Deborah Bull, Dr James Doeser and all whose contributions made this report possible.


Read more:

Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 – a brief response

Marcus Davey OBE, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Roundhouse, calls for greater involvement of young people in developing arts policy.


I would like to thank Deborah Bull, the authors of Step by step and Culture at King’s for this most important study. I think it is fair to say that many organisations are guilty of reinventing the wheel due to a lack of contextual and historical knowledge or understanding. This report gives us an excellent glimpse in to how we have arrived at current arts policy making for young people.

What is plain to me is that over the decades there have been great and eminent politicians, arts policymakers and at times artists who have didactically made decisions about what would be good for young people. It is becoming less rare but it is so often the case that the voices of young people are not considered or heard when developing arts policy. In the past there has been too much policymaking about what will be done for young people and not enough about what can be done with and by young people. This historical view outlines policymaking taking place in government and at the Arts Council. Another important supporter and developer of work for young people are local authorities. In my experience it is more often than not the case that local authority funding is directed at engaging young people in to the arts. This has been true for some decades and often not linked to Arts Council or government initiatives. This too could be an interesting area for review, especially at a time when local authority funding is being so significantly reduced.

At the Roundhouse we have two young Trustees, a Youth Advisory Board and by the end of our next business plan period 10% of our workforce will be made up from young paid trainees. This guarantees that in all our policymaking, programme development and project review that the voice of young people is heard. I firmly believe that to create policy for anybody you must involve them in the process.

I wholeheartedly support the recommendations in Step by step and I hope that, in all future policymaking about young people, young people shall be involved. It goes without saying that it is crucial for decision making to be set in context and this is a great reminder for us all to look at what we do and how it builds on the past, rather than running in parallel to it.

Image by Steffan Hill


Read more:

Opera cinema: the overture


Joseph Attard, a PhD candidate with the department of Film Studies at King’s, reflects on the first few months of his Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Royal Opera House.


After a short foray into the world of online media, I’ve returned to haunt the corridors of the Strand Campus once again.

My first few weeks back at King’s were actually fairly akin to my old work schedule. Before even officially commencing my PhD, I was hauled up before nine senior members of the Royal Opera House and compelled to give an hour-long spiel about my research. Despite an overlong and slightly flustered presentation, my audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic. Subsequent follow-up meetings with each of the attendees (in addition to short presentations to the company staff and board of directors) kept me coming and going via Covent Garden on a daily basis, bracketed by bouts of amassing ammunition for my literature review.

Once these meetings had wound up, I relaxed into the stereotypical, bookish isolation of the PhD student for the remainder of November. The aforementioned literature review now stands at about one-third complete, but at 15,000 words, it may need some pruning.

I have also been intermittently involved with the college’s social science training centre (KISS-DTC), attending a series of workshops on project design and archival research, with another on qualitative data analysis due next semester. As a committee member for the Language, Media and Culture theme, I boast partial responsibility for our £1000 annual budget. A workshop on interview technique and a symposium on audiences have been discussed, but as they’re still at formative stages, I’ll hold off on disclosing any more details until my next post.

Model for Andrea Chénier

Model for Andrea Chénier

This period of relative calm is finally beginning to ebb. Starting 12 December I have been observing the rehearsal process for Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano’s biographical opera of the eponymous French poet, who was beheaded during reign of terror. I’ve already attended the model showing, which (if you aren’t of the theatrical persuasion) is exactly what it sounds like. The stage directors, costumers, principal cast and I were shown exquisite, detailed miniatures of the stage set (one of which I almost inadvertently destroyed on the way out). The director, David McVicar, kindly gave his leave for me to sit in the rehearsal process, despite his personal distaste for cinema relays.

I have also had several meetings with my co-supervisors at the Royal Opera House: Associate Director, John Fulljames and Managing Director of Enterprises, Alastair Roberts. Happily for me, they broached the subject of free access to performances, meaning I can enjoy unlimited access the finest opera in the world – it’s a hard gig sometimes… A guest pass also gives me the run of the Royal Opera House building (a labyrinthine monstrosity so architecturally sadistic its corridors have to be colour-coded.)

joe-roh-accessFinally, I am in the process of designing a pilot project at the Royal Opera House, in which a pool of uninitiated respondents will lose their operatic virginity both in the auditorium and at the cinema. John and Alastair (ever conscious of audience development) seem keen on the idea, which I am hoping to put into practice sometime in the spring semester. Hopefully, this will also provide some much-needed fodder for my upgrade from MPhil to full PhD status in June.

I must say, I hadn’t thought of this term as especially hectic until I was asked to summarise its contents in 500 words. Despite the rather breathless tenor of this post, the title feels like an overstatement. Forget the overture; I’ve barely started tuning up!

The long and bumpy road


Maria Vaccarella, academic lead on Staging Transitions, a collaborative project with inclusive theatre company FaceFront and the Cultural Institute at King’s, reflects on her progress in bringing a new, inclusive theatre performance to the stage.


A big red cardboard bus carries the characters in It’s My Move! from one scene to the other: it’s a vivid metaphor of the ‘bumpy ride’ towards adulthood for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD). Rather than being an ordinary, everyday event, jumping on a London bus on his own was the immediate, tangible sign of independence for one LDD teenager we interviewed for Staging Transitions.

What became clear in our preparatory interviews with LDD teenagers in transition was that, despite a widespread call for transition planning to be ‘person-centred’, young people feel disempowered – faced with overwhelming, often rushed, information sessions and overprotective parents, teachers and carers. The play we’re developing thematises all these issues: its very title – the exclamatory ‘It’s my move!’ – emblematically focuses on the need to acknowledge the budding independence of young LDD people, as they prepare to leave special schools and children’s services. In order to ensure the play is a genuine and useful reflection of the transition to adulthood, LDD artists were extensively involved in the creation of the play, from the original soundtrack to set design, script writing to choreography.

FaceFront Theatre

FaceFront Theatre

Over the last few months, FaceFront facilitators and artists have brought the play to special schools and involved pupils by means of improvisation exercises to practice their self-advocacy skills. Our interventions were in line with Davis and Behm’s definition of creative drama intervention as ‘an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact, and reflect upon human experience’.1 We hosted one of these research and development exercises at King’s last month, bringing together colleagues from across departments, transition professionals and arts practitioners to witness the lively interaction between FaceFront artists and LDD pupils from Samuel Rhodes School in Islington.

Coming from a medical humanities background, I’m aware of the successful inclusion of performance studies in medical education, but what our project demonstrates is the potential to use performance in patient education as well, and not only in a strictly clinical or medicalised environment. It’s My Move! explores LDD people’s hopes and fears around their transition into adulthood by setting up a creative arena that by definition will yield much more nuanced responses than any ordinary research questionnaire. Inclusive theatre projects are also a great way of exploring what disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson calls ‘the giftedness of disability.’2 Opening up to LDD people’s non-normative approaches to reality and moving away from normalising aesthetic tendencies could also enrich current theatrical practice, as well as expand our notion of what constitutes a successful performance on stage and beyond.

Staging Transitions is looking at new ways to help young people with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD) handle the transition to adulthood.

1Davis, J. H., & Behm, T. (1987). “Appendix 1: Terminology of drama/theatre with and for children: A redefinition”. In J. H. Davis & M. J. Evans (Eds.), Theatre, Children and Youth (pp. 265–269). New Orleans, LA: Anchorage, p. 262.

2Garland-Thomson, R. (2012). “The case for conserving disability”. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 9(3), 339-355: 354.