Over the last five months I have had the joy of getting to know the Freewheelers Theatre Company, in my new role as Operations Manager. It has been hard work coming into such a well-established company (it turned 25 in 2014) and trying to get a handle on both the everyday functions and the bigger picture. My job is characterised by the constant tug-of-war between dealing with the immediate, tangible and never ending tasks of company management, and finding the space to think in a more strategic, long-term and visionary way. This is just one of many such contradictions I find myself and the company navigating, and the subject of this first post on our new staff and volunteers’ blog.
Last month’s production of our new play Cold and Wet marked an important moment for me, when the day-to-day work of the performers, staff and volunteers collided head-on with the bigger picture, which is about achieving artistic excellence, fulfilling potential and changing perceptions of disability. We have ambitious plans to tour the production and for the Freewheelers’ work to be recognised outside of our performers’ family and friends, and outside of our local area. As I sat in the audience watching last weekend’s performances, I knew, in a visceral way that cannot be expressed in words, just how important this is, and how deserving the company is of that recognition. Yet I am far from certain about how best to go about achieving it, and know that this process will require a series of choices about how we define ourselves as a company. Choices that force us to take one side or the other, when in fact it feels to me as though we reside, presently, in the spaces ‘In Between.’
The first of these spaces is a physical, geographical ‘In Between’ – we are based in Leatherhead, just a few feet from the M25, but far enough the wrong side to mean that we are not a ‘London’ organisation. Not far enough, arguably, to make us ‘regional’ – and perhaps this is not what we want to be. We want our work to gain a reputation nationally – and we know it is of the same quality as plenty of other organisations who have achieved this. Such a reputation needn’t require a London base. But sometimes it feels like the shadow of the capital, looming so large over us necessitates a carefully engineered approach. Engaging with local people and organisations in Surrey, Sussex and Kent requires one strategy; engaging with London, and all that it represents both demographically and professionally, requires another. It is not a matter of choosing between the two, but acknowledging the situation we are placed in by the geography, embracing the challenge of this dual-approach, and hoping to make the best of both these worlds.
We are ‘In Between’ in other ways, too. In between ‘community arts’ and professional theatre. Much of our work is person-centred, and in the vast majority of cases we don’t pay our performers, but the latter has much to do with the complications of mixing freelance work with disability benefits. We do work with professional artists and as Cold and Wet showed, our performers achieve incredible standards. We are starting to blur these boundaries further and drive our standards up by engaging both disabled and non-disabled performers on a paid basis for our forthcoming production of Amandla!
We are between ‘disability arts’ and simply ‘arts’, sometimes labelling ourselves as ‘integrated’, but aware that all of our current members – insofar as we distinguish them from volunteers – have some kind of disability. This matters because we are forced to define ourselves regularly, not only for the sake of satisfying funders, but in order to decide on the direction we want to move in. Do we target festivals of ‘disability arts’, or should we be pushing harder for our work to be programmed in mainstream platforms? How will we be perceived if we embrace or resist such labels? Of course we must resist any label that is restrictive or permanent – but this should not mean rejecting completely a movement which has been so vital in bringing about change and recognition for artists who happen to be disabled.
My final sense of being ‘In Between’ is connected with our size as a company, and with the idea that voluntary sector organisations have become accustomed to delivering huge amounts of work on sparse resources (as described eloquently in a recent Guardian Voluntary blog). Every year Freewheelers facilitates vast amounts of creative activity – hundreds of workshops across multiple art forms, and many performances too. We have a highly skilled and experienced board of trustees and we plan ahead to ensure we will be able to maintain our activities in the face of financial hardship. Having come from the world of far smaller, time-limited projects, it is a joy for me to work with such a well established company whose future is surely as secure as any in the arts. There are moments when it really does feel as if there is nothing we cannot achieve. And yet we still worry, every day, about whether there will be enough money for us to deliver on projects that we must mentally commit to well before we know the outcomes of grant applications. This final space which we inhabit is the seemingly tiny one that lies between ultimate fragility, and world domination – or its creative equivalent. I suspect this is a feeling we must all learn to live with in this field of work, even when it may appear to those on the outside that we have achieved definitive success.
Is the space ‘In Between’ a legitimate one? I think so. But we must occupy it confidently by letting go of our preconceptions about what a company can or should be, and learning to embrace our unique position. We must acknowledge the problem of labels, but not allow ourselves to be overcome by it. We must step out when it serves us, into the space of definitions, and know that we can continually step back to the In Between, and redefine ourselves through our work.