Everyday Creativity

Community Arts Re-imagined.


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2017 photo Kathryn Rattray

It was with a great amount of pleasure that I read a recent report produced by the campaign group 64 Million Artists. It discusses the need to re-imagine the way that community arts are viewed in this country, calling for measures to make sure that ‘everyday creativity’ is embedded across society.

The report recommends that ACE should reconsider using language such as ‘excellence’ and ‘great art’, which ultimately discourages people who are perceived by the ‘arts establishment’ to have little talent  and consider a more ‘democratic’ use of funded buildings and future capital developments.

The report is the result of a five-month nationwide study into how to move from ‘Great Art For Everyone’ to ‘Great Art By, With and For Everyone’. It defines ‘everyday creativity’ as grassroots arts activity, encompassing everything from breakdancing in open spaces to guerrilla gardening and painting in sheds.

Personal Reflection

In Rehearsal Witch's Blood

In Rehearsal Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 photo Kathryn Rattray

I first started getting involved in community arts programmes over 30 years ago, when I worked at Dundee Rep as Associate Director in the mid 198o’s. Dundee Rep was beginning to create work that reflected the lives of local people. At the time this seemed revolutionary. We set up youth theatre projects, dance programmes and an adult performance group.  We invited local artists and musicians to share their work. We developed a new programme of work to encourage new audiences to the theatre.  In 1986 I directed a production of  They Fairly Mak Ye Work written by Billy Kay with music by Michael Marra, which told the story of Mary Brooksbank who worked in the Dundee Jute Mills in the early years of the 20th Century. She was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1920 and 1933, and spent three periods in prison as a result of her agitation. She is remembered today as a prominent figure in Dundee’s labour movement.

The production was a resounding success, sold out on its first run and was repeated a few months later and sold out again. The production gave the Rep confidence to explore other local work and a year later a large scale community production Witch’s Blood was produced in partnership with a number of Dundee based community organisations, under the chairmanship of Dundee Community Arts Festival based at Dudhope Arts Centre.

Witch’s Blood

Witchs Blood 1987

Witchs Blood 1987

This large-scale community production, Witch’s Bloodwas created in 1987 to great critical and popular acclaim and is regarded as a seminal moment in the development of the community arts movement that is flourishing in Dundee today. It involved taking an audience of 1000 people each night across the city in double-decker buses to see a performance inspired by DC Thomson employee, William Blain’s novel. Both family saga and Dundee history (approx 1650 – 1850), the piece explores community and family issues and particularly inter-generational relationships.

Today a team of local and international artists are currently working with members of the community on a re-imagined version of the production, to be performed in June 2017, the 30th Anniversary of the piece. Using available technology and new digital art forms we plan to re-imagine the story for a contemporary audience.

Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

Last month we launched an event as part of Ignite Dundee at an amazing space that is  West Ward Print Works in collaboration with the first Dundee Design Festival.

Witch’s Blood 2016 was again a great success attracting full houses for a short Work-in-Progress. It involved an audience of 100 people walking through the ground floor of West Ward Print Works to experience memories from the first production and songs from the original show.

‘Layers of recorded voices, captured through city-wide community singing sessions, will filter in to the space, augmented and edited digitally to create a haunting soundscape that builds anticipation. Recorded audio of Michael Marra singing from the original show will blend with his daughter Alice singing live, creating an ambience in which reality and fiction can hold equal sway. As the performance builds momentum the live vocalists in the space come to life, starting with a solo voice before a 40 strong women’s choir emerge from the darkness. A symphony of voices entwined with spoken word and fragments of narrative hint towards a bigger story unravelling; creating a glimmer of things to come in 2017 and inviting the public to be involved in the impending large scale production’

In the past much emphasis was made of the necessity, by arts funders, for community arts projects to devise ‘legacy’ or ‘exit strategy’.  I always felt it was nearly impossible to say how things would develop and what might emerge from one project into the future. It also felt a little presumptuous.


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

I know that Witch’s Blood left an extraordinary memory in the hearts of hundreds of people. We didn’t have an exit strategy, we trusted in the people who had been involved to create their own creative path. The future was theirs. However, when we started to think about devising a 30th Anniversary project, people came back to get involved very quickly. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of participants, audiences and people who had just heard about it, all gathered for a public meeting at the end of March 2016. The stories and memories they shared were beautiful and moving and encouraged us to keep going with a re-imagined Witch’s Blood.  When Dundee applied to be UK City of Culture in 2017 their bid named Witch’s Blood as one of the projects that kickstarted an arts revolution in the city. In 1994 the city wrote its first cultural strategy. The philosophy and values that underpinned Witch’s Blood were firmly articulated within its pages. This was the start of the legacy, but now the wider community was taking the lead.

Dundee City of Culture


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

The changes in Dundee since the mid 1980’s has been extraordinary, beyond what I could have ever imagined,  and the arts have played a major role in making the city so vibrant today. There is currently a 1 billion pound investment in developing the Waterfront, bringing the city’s relationship with the River Tay back to life. The V & A Museum of Design will open in 2018.  Dundee has recently been named as an UNESCO City of Design and, in a spirit of never giving up, it has just been announced that Dundee will bid for European Capital of Culture title in 2023.

The Arts and their Role in Civic Society


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

There are many amazing examples of community arts projects on this web site and on our sister Facebook page.

Community Arts Projects continue to make a difference across the world.  There are some amazing projects and organisations working together, believing in the principle that everybody is creative and that the arts can make a difference in society for the better.

A recent interesting development comes from  The Gulbenkian Foundation who are developing an inquiry into the civic role of the arts

At the launch of the inquiry they wrote:

‘Arts organisations play an important civic role, sustaining individuals and communities and helping make many places across the country more creative and vital places to live and work. Today we are launching an Inquiry which will cast a spotlight on the civic role of arts organisations. 

We aspire through the Inquiry to increase awareness of the civic role that arts organisations play nationally and in their communities, develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘next practice’ and develop a movement of arts organisations committed to demonstrating it.

We are calling on arts, and other interested organisations, to get involved and help us to ensure that the full potential of arts organisations in promoting civic engagement and revitalising communities is realised. The first stage in the process is research and consultation and we invite you to visit the Inquiry website and join the conversation by, amongst other things, telling us what the civic role of arts and cultural organisations means to you and what needs to change in order for arts organisations to be able to fully embrace it?’ 

You can find out more about the inquiry here


Remembering Witch’s Blood 2016 – photo Kathryn Rattray

It seems to me that in these difficult times the arts are needed more than ever and that there are communities, artists, individuals and organisations who are ready to contribute to making profound change happen. Over the last 30 years I have learnt a lot and experienced for myself the power of the arts as a major contributor to changing attitudes, feelings, thoughts and emotions. I believe that the arts have been the stimulus to changing lives for the better. We all recognise those small, seemingly insignificant moments in life that suddenly become important and teach us something more about ourselves and the world with live in. I have experienced most of those moments when I am engaged with artistic and creative projects and places. Looking at art, listening to art, participating in art. It helps me to understand myself a little bit more and I believe I share this feeling with millions of other people around the world.

To finish this thought, here is a lovely little animation from Alain de Botton – What is Art For?




10 Ways to Change Theatre in England


When it comes to the theatre I’m very prejudiced.

I don’t like plays really. Lots of people pretending to be other people sitting around talking to each other.

However I have seen some great plays in my time. I still remember “Cinzano”  at the Tron Theatre Glasgow in 1989. for example, with Forbes Masson, Peter Mullan and Paul Samson. An extraordinary play by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya  about three young men in Moscow who drink themselves into a stupor to escape their drab lives and family responsibilities. I felt completely enraptured by it and the stunningly believable performances. But then Peter Mullan can really play drunks well, eh? It was one of the best memories of watching a play, ever.

Another prejudice – I don’t like Shakespeare productions by the RSC because most of the time it feels like people just showing off.

On the whole I don’t like acting,  but, as a young boy of 15 or 16, I remember David Warner as Hamlet at the RSC and feeling dazzled by his performance.  It  inspired me to start a career in the theatre and is still with me nearly 50 years later.

So why don’t I go to a play or the latest Shakespearian masterpiece by the RSC anymore?  I mean I work in the sector, I probably should. Ultimately I just think I will be bored and will probably feel angry at it all. What’s all that about? I watch bad television and enjoy it. I like slobbing out on a sofa watching “The Apprentice”. But I think the theatre has lost its soul. It is full of good intentions formulated by strategies and think tanks, but, for me, it rarely delivers because – another prejudice – artists tend to be shut out of the decision making process.

Lynn Gardner  has been writing a lot in the Guardian recently about what’s wrong with British Theatre, based on her visit to the No Boundaries Conference.  She wrote an article entitled  “Theatre is default middle-class, white and male. We must diversify or die”  followed by No Boundaries: theatres must reach out and involve their audiences”

10 Ways to Change Theatre in England

This is my contribution to the recent No Boundaries Conference held in Bristol and York.

This list should include all art forms – I am just talking about theatre because that’s what I do most. My take on it all, is that there are no rules, no absolute way to change things. You just have to do what you believe in and not listen to anybody else when it comes to your own creativity. Look inside first and then let it out. Don’t be afraid and, particularly, don’t listen to arts organisations and creative producers and critics.

Here are my top ten things that will change theatre arts in this country forever.

1. Develop Centres for Creative Communities across the country, as in Hobart, Tasmania  which has recently been set up – and The Welfare State International  model in Ulverston, Cumbria starting in the 1980’s.

2. Integrate the arts into the mainstream departments of social care, town planning, youth & community, health and education for a start – instead of it being an add on.

3. Don’t look down on amateur and community arts, embrace them. Participation in the arts, from the whole community, is going to make the arts more exciting and meaningful for everybody.

4. Respect artists.

5. Don’t create theatre – create events

6. Don’t start with writers start with somebody who has a good idea

7. Think internationally – work with the best artists from around the world

8. Grab every opportunity  to work with people you don’t know from different cultures, different skill sets, different abilities, different languages and different ages. Celebrate Difference.

9. Believe that old people have still got lots to offer

10 Establish permanent ensembles of artists in every city in the country – like a football team

One Final Thought

If you want to look at somewhere that has established most of these things, have a look at the City of Dundee






Do we need an organised movement to spread ideas?

Brilliant Speakers with Brilliant Ideas – but is that enough?



At the ArtsWork Conference in Dundee the other day there was a call from the real David Cameron , the Scottish presenter, trainer and consultant, to create a movement/institution, to change perceptions about community arts.

In another presentation from Alain De Botton at  ‘La Ciudad de las Ideas’ 2013 , he argues that we should look at religion as a model to create such an movement –  he suggests that because religion has been the most powerful institution to spread ideas through the world we should look at how it educates us.  He believes that culture can replace religion, as the new way for people to receive ‘meaning, consolation, the difference between right and wrong and the sense of community’. He argues that we should examine the way that religion works in order to learn how this idea might become wide spread.

He says that one person cannot do that alone  and we must create an institution, a movement to make these ideas a reality.

I really enjoyed listening to the real David Cameron, a brilliant presenter of ideas. I also enjoy listening to Alain de Botton. I heard him speak live at The South Bank Centre in London last year and he was very inspiring – but I am nervous of institutions and movements.

‘Owning our own truth is possibly the hardest thing we have to do’

I recently found this quote in an article about my friend Mark Clements, a british theatre director living and working in USA. It struck a cord.

At the conference I felt uneasy about the idea of another movement, another institution. My fear was that it would create another place for the articulate, the experienced performers and people who were confident – to shine – and it would leave the outsiders, the fearful and the powerless – in the shade. In the field of community arts we often express the idea that we represent people who are disadvantaged in some way, yet at the ArtsWork Conference I didn’t meet any participants from any community  project. I was only there for one day and of course I didn’t meet everybody and maybe there were people there who had become engaged in the arts through one of the projects – but they certainly were not centre stage on the first day.

A lot of brilliant people doing wonderful projects but where were ‘the changes in peoples lives’ that are often quoted as a ‘raison d’etre’ of community arts projects.

For me it was great being back in Dundee  and seeing the amazing developments happening in the city. I loved the Pecha Kucha presentations and I enjoyed David Cameron’s provocations and I met some great people. But the dilemma for me is to find a way to have less of the people who think they know about community arts and more from the people who have experienced something, who want to share that experience with others and have found new ways to communicate ‘their own truth’ by being involved in the arts.

Recently Dundee lost a brilliant advocate of the city with the early death of Singer/Songwriter, Michael Marra. In his quiet way he was able to express his admiration and love of the people who were outside the mainstream because he, himself, felt outside it.

I worked with Michael on his first steps into ‘professional theatre’ – ‘from the outside to the inside’ – another well used phrase of the ArtsWork Conference – and last week I was reminded of this teachings. In our first production together “They Fairly Mak Ye Work” at the Dundee Rep he sang a song that will always be with me and teaches me that I need to listen to the voices from the outside more than those on the inside because they give me comfort in my search for my own truth.

I don’t know how to embed this video but please click on the link to hear

Michael Marra’s “Here Come The Weak”


According to religious teaching “the weak will inherit the earth’ – I don’t see that to be true. From the typhoons in South East Asia to the refugees from Africa and the Middle east to the homeless to the infirm to the challenged to the Bedroom Tax in the UK the weak across the world are suffering.
Are we still waiting for that moment when the weak will be strong – Is that one of the promises that religion offers to help people believe that things will get better?
Can the weak express themselves through religion?  Can their voices be heard?

Or can their voices be heard louder through culture, through arts?


9. Creative Dundee


A City of Culture

I arrived in Dundee 1984 I don’t remember the month. I was to direct a play by Arthur Miller, ‘The Price’.

My friend Neil Murray had got me the job, He was working at Dundee Rep as Head of Design and I had recently worked with him in Birmingham. He had persuade Robert Robinson, the Artistic Director, to give me a chance. We had been living in London and were very broke but my wife, at the time, had just got a job in Fife so we had moved to Auchtermuchty. It was a fantastic opportunity.

Thank goodness the play was a success and I was to be given other opportunities there. Life started to take on a whole new energy and things were looking much better on the financial front.

I spent four years in Dundee. It was my training ground. It was where I started to understand what I wanted to do with my life. Suddenly everything was making sense.

The Past

Those four years were fantastic years for the arts in Dundee. I remember the amazing work happening at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, for example, I remember the innovative work of Steve Partridge who I see is now Dean of Research –  I remember the music scene with  Danny Wilson and Michael Marra to name but two of the wealth of music talents in the city – I remember the pioneering work that Royston Maldoom was doing in the field of community arts/dance and of course there was the work we were doing at Dundee Rep including some seminal pieces – “Witch’s Blood’ a large scale community event involving  an audience of 1000 people travelling in 12 double decker buses across the city in 1987 and, the year before, “They Fairly Mak Ye Work” the first theatre production for a long time that reflected the lives of the people of Dundee at a professional theatre in Dundee.

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 18.35.33

There were the creative activities developing across the city in communities away from the city centre. Places like Dudhope Arts Centre was doing pioneering work as were community development programmes in, for example, Lochee, Whitfield and Fintry. The bars up and down the Perth Road always seemed to me at the time to be full of music and poetry and debate. Just a few examples of  the creative atmosphere that was lighting up the city during those years.

The Present

30 years later and I have been going back to Dundee occasionally. The spirit of creativity is awesome. You can feel it in the streets. Of course the Rep is still there but the expansion of creative projects has been amazing.

Dundee’s artistic and cultural renaissance is progressing hand in hand with its economic regeneration. It is the birthplace of the Scottish games industry, some of the world’s biggest titles started there such as Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto. Whether it’s developing, programming or animation, if you’re into games, Dundee is the place to be.

There’s also Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre (DCA). DCA has trail blazed its way to becoming one of the UK’s leading artistic centres, attracting thousands of visitors each year to their exhibitions and events

The £5m dance, theatre and conference centre The Space at Dundee College is home to the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance offering award-winning courses and attracting Europe’s leading dance performers to stage shows and workshops in the city.

At the heart of the city centre, The McManus: Dundee’s Gallery and Museum has recently undergone an £8m revamp to restore its Victorian splendour and create a museum for the 21st century.

The world’s greatest museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum, has announced a proposal for a new landmark building in Dundee, the £45m project will occupy a prime site at the hear of the Dundee Waterfront redevelopment.

But the key to Dundee’s success has been the people, the community and their pride in their city.

Dundonian journalist Lesley Riddoch wrote recently in her blog  Another Side of Lesley Riddoch

“In their time Dundonians have elected Winston Churchill and the last Communist MP. So contrariness is in with the bricks. So is a stubborn modesty. The late songwriter Michael Marra described Dundonians as Glaswegians who listen. Locals won’t shout about Dundee — even though the city is overflowing with superlatives. It is Scotland’s life science hub, and boasts Britain’s most internationally cited scientists. Dundee University, worked with Ninewells Hospital to bring Britain’s best biomedical researchers to the city. And students of Scotland’s best art college (Duncan of Jordanstone) cross fertilised with the city’s powerful visual culture, and Sinclair PCs to create a digital entertainment industry with £100million annual turnover. The Dundee Courier’s circulation is just below the Herald and P&J and above the Scotsman. Abertay and Dundee Universities have been voted the most popular in Britain – never mind Scotland, Dundee City Council was awarded the best promotional strategy in Europe in 2004. The city houses the only urban wind turbines in Britain and with two thirds of its housing stock facing south – it’s gearing up to switch to solar energy for domestic heating and has just won a COSLA Excellence for cutting tenants heating bills with district heating schemes. According to Mike Galloway, “Dundee is small enough to get good ideas adopted fast but big enough to feel lively.” Or, as the Scotsman’s George Kerevan puts it, “Dundee has produced an entrepreneurial revolution of its own,” – competing with established centres through ideas, innovation …. and a stunning natural environment.”

The Future

Dundee has recently been shortlisted for the title UK City of Culture 2017 and the  organisers want to involve the people of the city. They will soon launch an “open call” for ideas to help pack the year-long programme in the event of Dundee winning the prize.

Can that happen? The people will  have their say. They will participate in all aspects of the planning process. They will make extraordinary things happen. My sense is that people in the rest of the UK don’t take Dundee seriously  – my hope is that 2017 will show the world a different story.

UPDATE  – 25.11.2013

We now know that Dundee lost to Hull in their bid for UK city of Culture but I know that won’t stop Dundee. By 2017 Scotland could be an independent country and there will be no stopping the people of Dundee developing their  vision