“Extending the parameters of what’s possible”: The Spark Arts for Children on libraries, Leicester, & changing the theatre landscape

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that the group of men formerly tucked away in the newspaper section of Highfields Library have inched closer to join the packed audience. We – myself, a large crowd of children and mums, and now these gentlemen – are watching Sylvia South and the Word Catcher, a brand new play by award-winning playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, commissioned by Among Ideal Friends, a theatre touring consortium developed by The Spark Arts for Children in partnership with Libraries in the East Midlands. The story of Sylvia South and the Word Catcher is set in libraries, so it’s hard to know where Highfields Library ends and the show begins; the peripheral noise of visitors thumbing through paperbacks or returning books is the perfect soundtrack. In the show, Sylvia describes the spark that you can see in a reader’s eyes that reveals the adventures taking place out of sight. Leicester-based charity The Sparks Arts for Children aims to kindle and protect exactly this kind of spark, offering young people – and, as this performance proves, their families and community – the opportunity to discover and enjoy the arts by bringing it to their doorstep.

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Spark Arts began its life 15 years ago as a festival for children. A passion project that initially ran from a garden shed, the organisation has grown over time. The annual two-week Spark Festival continues, now presenting hundreds of events – from puppetry to contemporary dance – to thousands of children and families across Leicester and Leicestershire. But, particularly since Adel Al-Salloum joined the team as director a few years ago, Spark Arts has also extended its work to exist throughout the year and further afield, facilitating projects, activities and events that support the creative development of artists and educators, and offer children more opportunities to engage with the arts ‘as audiences, learners and creators of their own art’.

It’s not easy work – while Leicester has a vibrant cultural quarter, the city has the fourth worst employment rate in the UK, and in 2016, had the lowest household disposable income. As Keith Turner, Spark Arts’ Press & Marketing Manager, points out, the charity is working in areas that face deprivation and low standards of living, areas that are “incredibly diverse so can have an additional struggle in terms of being able to connect with the city and with other venues”, areas that aren’t highly engaged with the arts. Spark Arts focuses on these challenging areas, finding and meeting communities in the places they already visit – libraries, community centres, schools, shopping centres – and creating new audiences, like the group of men reading newspapers who were gradually drawn into watching the show, or the mum who tells Adel after the performance that it’s her first visit to the theatre.

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With Spark Arts, audience development isn’t a means to an end – a way to push ticket sales or please funding bodies – but the main reason for the charity’s existence, embedded in everything they undertake rather than added on as an afterthought. Adel and Keith enthuse about data, both quantitative – there’s an evidenced increase, for instance, in books going out and memberships going up when their shows visit a library – and qualitative – meeting a family at their first event and then spotting them at another.  “We’re part of an ecology that takes people on a journey,” Adel tells me, “Rather than us trying to sell a product out, it’s looking at the consumer and thinking about what we can create that they might want, but that also might stretch expectations. It’s about working within comfort zones, but also about extending the parameters of what’s possible.”

Sometimes that means larger-scale work, like Among Ideal Friends; the performance I watch is one of the first in a tour of 48 libraries and community spaces across Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. Sometimes it means focusing on a smaller group: “with some of our early years’ work, we’re working with five families. We could run a stay & play session with forty families, but we recognise that there’s going to be a different quality to that kind of interaction.” Sometimes it means running an afternoon of arts activities in a shopping centre – “it’s about doing that grassroots work, going where the communities go.”

It’s a change for Adel, who worked in traditional theatre buildings for all of her career until she joined Spark. Though her former roles as Associate Director of Northern Stage, and then Curve, involved a similar remit – education, participation and community engagement – working with Spark Arts offers a greater freedom to focus on these responsibilities, unfazed by smaller scale projects and unconcerned by a bigger agenda to sell tickets in a large venue. “I love theatre and there is nothing like going somewhere like Curve, Leicester’s big producing theatre, and seeing a wonderful piece of work, but I am really passionate about all children being able to access the arts, and there are limitations when you work in a big theatre building… The Spark is very much about young people – the child is at the centre of our charity. Whereas I suppose when you’re a senior manager in a large organisation who has a responsibility for learning, it’s still to service that building sometimes.”

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Now, Adel has “fallen in love with libraries – I could talk for hours about them!” It’s no surprise – after 18 months, the Among Ideal Friends pilot project is drawing to a close but its success suggests it may be replicated in the future. There’s also the Imaginative Neighbourhoods project, an artist in residence scheme that re-imagines libraries ‘as cultural hubs at the heart of the community’, offering a range of creative activities and events over the course of a year. But Spark Arts has also organised projects in schools, children’s centres and beyond, from boosting confidence with poetry, to working with Somali mothers to create Somali lullabies. And with a recent increase in funding from the Arts Council England,  Spark Arts will deliver Vital Spark, ‘a new project looking to shape, influence and transform the landscape of theatre for young audiences, with new and diverse work.’ As Adel put it when the project was announced in June, “Britain is a dynamic and evolving country with young people coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, be it cultural, family, education, heritage or ability, representing a truly contemporary Britain. We need to ensure young people are represented, recognised and given role models and The Spark and the city of Leicester are perfectly positioned to make that happen.”

For every statistic and story Spark Arts are able to collect, there’s unlimited potential that’s more difficult to measure. “When you’re able to give children a copy of the script, or some activity sheets, or little bits of inspiration – with Sylva South and the Word Catcher, everyone was encouraged to think about what the next scene would be, how the play would continue – you’re setting off things and you just don’t know where they’ll lead to” Keith explains. “Those young people might not end up booking for the next season at Curve, but in 15 years’ time, when they’re thinking about what they’re going to do in life, you’ve potentially changed their outlook. You don’t know the impact it might have, but you do know these things are happening.”

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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