My Favourite Top 10 Community Arts Projects

Photo Maria Ferrie

My Top Ten Community Arts Projects

‘My Top Ten Community Arts Projects’ is a personal response to work I have seen and/or been involved in.

The projects come from a range of organisations and fulfil my personal definition of community arts.

All the projects I have chosen make a real connection with people. All of them have high artistic quality at their core.  All if them have found a satisfying process for participants to engage with the work/event. All of them believe that art is an important component in the transformation of people lives. All of them want to engage with audiences and spectators in a way that requires them to make a contribution to the event.

In my own work I don’t want to get bogged down with titles. I don’t want my work to be defined as a particular style of work – I want it to be judged as an event in its own right. I don’t want it to be compared with other work, I just want it to be seen as what it is. Sometimes it it good art and sometimes it is not such good art. It will be judged by others not by me. But it is there because I needed to do it.

All the projects that I have chosen in My Top Ten Community Arts Projects’  come from a desire to make something meaningful in artistic terms. Some are led by a political, social or religious beliefs but they are all about creating something of aesthetic beauty. I have learnt and been greatly inspired by all of them and all of them have made a profound difference to my life  and my work.

I recognise that everybody will have their own favourites – I would love to know yours


1.     Piña Bausch,  Kontakthof, Wuppertal, Germany

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Pina Bausch first made the dance piece Kontakthof  at the Tanztheater Wuppertal with her company in 1978. The piece was revived  in 2000 with dancers over 65 years old and in 2008 with teenagers. It has been described as ‘Chorus line of  awkward seductions, unease and discomfort’

I saw the piece at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with the company of performers aged 65 years and older. It had a profound effect on me and images still stay with me many years later. I saw the young company years later on film and in the Wim Wenders’ film ‘Pina’ I saw the three different versions intercut from young, old and professional company and then back again in a different order.

One of the crucial elements of the piece was my fascination with the people who were the performers.

Who were they? What was their life like? Why were they performing this piece? How had they got involved? They were performers performing intense choreography but at the same time they we not performing, they were being themselves.

As an audience I am interested in two things as I watch the performers 1. Who they are and 2. What they do.

In her review in the Guardian, Judith Mackrell wrote:

“Unsurprisingly, the teenage dancers inhabited a different physical universe, one of thick, glossy hair, peachy-smooth skin and limber joints. And unsurprisingly, the effect on Bausch’s choreography was galvanic – the shapes of the movement looked much sharper on these younger bodies, the rhythms accelerated. But the sense of time and place was less focused than in the seniors’ performance. Were these teenagers, dressed in formal evening dress and dancing to 1930s tunes, the grandchildren of the senior cast, or the ghosts of their youthful selves?

These differences were intriguing and touching, but for me the teens’ performance fell far short of the seniors’, which was rich in surreal comedy and human interest. Kontakthof is about the games people play in order to communicate; the older cast were able to bring a more knowing, cussed, tender, disruptive life to the material. Next to them, the teens appeared almost generic.

As a choreographer, Bausch had nothing to do with political correctness, but in this one brilliantly inventive act of casting she exposed the poverty of our ageist culture – particularly when applied to dance. The 65-plus men and women who performed Kontakthof not only gave the lie to the notion that we become invisible as we age; they demonstrated that we can look significantly more vital and alive.”

So who were the performers?  In the two later versions a team of teenagers aged between 14 and 18 years old and a group of pensioners aged over 65.

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things and being themselves at the same time. I glimpsed a reflection of  human beings at different stages of their lives and it filled me with wonder and amazement at the beauty, the vulnerability and the love that people can share with each other across generations.

More about Pina Bausch here


2.     Semana Santa, Seville & Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

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The first time I experienced Semana Santa (Easter Week) was in Seville in 1995. I had given myself a sabbatical of a few months from Northern Stage to write an artistic plan about setting up an Ensemble Company. I wanted to be away from the company, I wanted a different experience, so I could write without thinking of budgets or the politics of  the North East of England’s Arts Community.  We were also planning to celebrate the anniversary of Federico Lorca’s birth and create a fiesta in his name so I travelled between Seville and Granada searching for the true voice and spirit of the poet.

In Seville I discovered authentic flamenco for the first time, I learnt about Duende,  I met and saw performances from the extraordinary El Farruco Family, I drank in Triana and listened to the rhythms in the streets – and then Easter time arrived.

In the months before I had seen the rehearsal in every corner of the city. Burly men practising carrying the makeshift paso, with a ghetto blaster on top blearing out the music. There were brass bands and drummers finding corners to rehearse. It was everywhere. Ordinary Sevillanos rehearsing obsessively, working to make extraordinary theatre happen in the streets.

Then the first day of Holy Week came and the streets are thronged with thousands and thousand of people – the first paso leaves the chapel for the four hour walk slowly through the city to the cathedral – the show has began. Large Scale Community Theatre – like I had never seen before.


This year I was in Jerez de la Frontera – smaller city but even more obsessed with the spectacle. The streets are still full but I am aware of friends and neighbours in the crowds watching the pageant, the ritual, next to me. This is the community I have chosen to be with and today I feel closer. I am not religious, I don’t go to church, I am not a Catholic but something is making me feel closer to these people – something is holding us together. Is it in being part of something bigger than ourselves?  Is it being part of a history, a culture where the passion for life spills onto the street at fiesta time? Is it the cante jondo?  Is it the heat of the sun? Is it people coming together to celebrate in an expansive , open hearted way with no considerations for the reality of life in this moment? Is it about love and pleasure and excess and devotion and completeness? Yes it is. It is all this and more. It is art.


3.     Sinulog, Cebu, The Philippine Islands

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It seems appropriate that I would follow on from my Semana Santa blog to write about the Sinulog Fesitval in Cebu. The Philippines were ruled by the Spanish for over 300 years, they are named after a Spanish king and received the Catholic doctrines from a series of expeditions following Ferdinand Magellan arrival in the islands in 1521.

I arrived in The Philippines in 2006 to study and teach at the International Academy of Film and Television, Cebu. At Easter time I saw Semana Santa in the streets of Cebu. I phoned my friend Paco in Jerez and told him what I was seeing and he told me that he was watching something very similar. The Catholic Church travels far and its influence is immense.

Sinulog is an annual Festival held on the third Sunday of January it commemorates the Filipino people’s pagan origin, and their acceptance of Roman Catholicism.

As soon as he arrived in the Philippines Magellan persuaded Rajah Humabon, the Cebuano leader and his chief wife Humamay to pledge their allegiance to Spain. They were later baptised into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos and Juana and were presented with a statue of Santo Niño de Cebú. 

Today The Santo Niño  is one of the most beloved and recognisable cultural icons in the Philippines, found in both religious and secular areas. The image is replicated in many homes and business establishments.  Sinulog is an amazing street fiesta during which devotees carry a portable Santo Nino image onto the street with participants in bright coloured costumes dancing to the rhythm of drums, trumpets and native gongs and celebrating and partying through the night.

I experienced it a number of times during my time in Cebu. I loved the energy of the people, the devotion of something outside themselves .

The Sinulog celebration lasts for nine days, culminating on the final day with the Sinulog Grand Parade. The day before the parade, the Fluvial Procession is held at dawn with a statue of the Santo Niño carried on a pump boat from Mandaue City to Cebu City, decked with hundreds of flowers and candles. The procession ends at the Basilica where a re-enactment of the Christianizing (that is, the acceptance of Roman Catholicism) of Cebu is performed.

The Philippines are still greatly influenced by the Spanish time but in recent years the American, Japanese and Korean influences have made a deep mark on the city of Cebu.

In 2006 I made a short film ‘Sangpit Senyor’, which was set during the Sinulog Festival of that year.


4.     El Sistema in Venezuela

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‘Socially, inclusion is the basic principle. Our motto is the disadvantaged first and for the disadvantaged the best tools, the best teachers, the best infrastructure. Culture for the disadvantaged cannot be disadvantaged culture. It should be large, ambitious, refined, advanced; not scraps’

Maestro José Antonio Abreu Founder of El Sistema

The story of the El Sistema revolution in Venezuela is one of the most powerful proofs that art can change the lives of individuals, communities and even nations. On 25th June last year I attended a ‘Festival of the World Summit’ at the South Bank Centre in London entitled ‘Art Will Change The World”. In Britain today such a statement generally brings guffaws of laughter from the rich and privileged and from the people that currently run our country. However much we explain, prove with statistics, give examples of people whose lives have changed through the arts and prove that money spent on the arts saves millions of pounds on other budgets and services the establishment doesn’t believe it.  Recently there have been 100% cuts to arts budgets from local authorities across the country in the mistaken belief that the arts don’t give value for money. But it is wrong – deeply and depressingly wrong.

On that day in June I was in the company of people that believed in the power of the arts to change lives and as I heard the orchestra play,  any doubts of the possibility that Art Will Change The World  were washed away in a tidal wave of passion and friendship and community and love and music

Jude Kelly at the South Bank had brought Jose Antonio Abreu founder of El Sistema (“the system”) to London, with the now world famous, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They played 4 sold out concerts with live relays in the Clore Ballroom played to thousands more people free of charge

In 1975 José Antonio Abreu set out to help poor Venezuelan kids learn to play a musical instrument and be part of an orchestra. nearly 40 years on, El Sistema has seeded 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers — and over 250,000 young musicians. Jose Abreu’s  visionary philosophy has, since 1975, been based on the notion that a free, immersive classical music education for the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social problems plaguing the country. His hypothesis has been overwhelmingly vindicated, with more than 380,000 children engaged in national music programmes, more than 80% of whom come from low- or middle-income areas. Of the two million graduates of the programme since its inception, many have gone on to become not just musicians, but lawyers, teachers, doctors and civil servants.

“Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”  José Antonio Abreu

Listen to the TED Talk  HERE

Many music education projects have been modeled after the Venezuelan program in more than 25 countries. Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile,Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, England, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Scotland, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, and Uruguay are among them.

There is a documentary film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier called “El Sistema”

More about El Sistema  HERE


5.       Streetwise Opera, UK

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I’ve just received my invitation to the North East premiere of Streetwise Opera’s “The Answer to Everything”, a 75-minute interactive live opera and film event set in a fictional conference. I feel honoured to be invited and responded immediately.

Streetwise Opera is an award-winning charity that uses music as a tool to help 500 homeless people per year move forward in their lives. They do this through a weekly music programme in 11 homeless centres across England and Wales and by staging critically-acclaimed opera productions starring homeless performers.

Their productions platform the skills of the performers in a professional arena, showing them that whatever life throws at you, you can achieve great things.

I became aware of Streetwise Opera in 2009 when I was researching the lives of people who had experienced homelessness at The Crisis/Skylight Centre in Newcastle. I attended one of their sessions and meet a fantastic group of people who were dedicated and enthusiastic about singing and were hungry to learn complex operatic choruses.

I saw their  production “Fables” in London a couple of years later, a combination of film and live performance taken from traditional fables and re-mixed into an eclectic contemporary multi-media event. I was overwhelmed by the power of the people involved and the artistry of the presentation. It felt like a new performance genre which celebrated individualism inside community and at the same time aspiring to the creation of great artistic endeavour. Nothing seemed compromised. The performers were presenting themselves completely. Vulnerable yet powerful, confident yet humble, determined yet tentative. Beautiful people being themselves and performing art with passion and commitment.

In 2012 I was fortunate to be involved in the performance “With One Voice” at the Royal Opera House in London. The first time in history that an event for homeless people was part of official Olympic celebrations.  ”With One Voice” saw 300 performers who had experience of homelessness come together from around the UK to showcase their talents. Echoing the international ethos of the Olympic Games, the event also featured films made by and about homeless people from around the world and helped to start to the first ever global network of arts and homelessness organisations. At the end of the night 300 people, all of  whom had experienced homelessness, sang a newly-commissioned song by Gavin Bryars in the glittering atmosphere of the Floral Hall. I watched with admiration, completely amazed and inspired by what they had achieved. I was moved, excited and felt an incredible surge of hope.

Over the years I have got to know some of the performers from Streetwise. I have worked with some of them and continue to do so. I have seen for myself the progress they have made in their lives. From some extremely difficult circumstances and environments they have created lasting positive change in their lives. The contribution made by Streetwise Opera towards the individual’s personal development maybe cannot be measured in social work terms but is, without doubt, considerable.

More about Streetwise Opera Here


6.   The Grassmarket Project, UK

Grass Market Project

It was 1990 and I was in Glasgow as they were celebrating their year as European City of Culture. I was lucky enough to be working there for TAG Theatre Company and we were working away on a large scale community production called ‘City’ by the late, great Tom McGrath. 1990 was a seminal year for me in that it introduced me to the work of Peter Brook, Lev Dodin, Robert Lepage and many others and gave me the direction I was to follow for the next 25 years.

But surprisingly the one piece that was to make the most impact on me was in a homeless hostel in Edinburgh. One night I ventured out to The Edinburgh Festival Fringe to see a new theatre project by an organisation called  The Grassmarket Project, named after the local Mission Hall.

Written by Jeremy Weller in collaboration with the cast and directed by Jeremy Weller, ‘Glad’ was the very first Grassmarket Project production.  In the company’s own words ‘Glad’ presented “an uncompromising description of homelessness”.  Based on the experiences of selective members of Edinburgh’s homeless community, the production involved twelve homeless men from the Grassmarket area of the city, who alongside two support actors confronted their audience with personal experiences of boredom, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and social exclusion.

With a real homeless hostel as the venue, ‘Glad’ did not require much of a set.  Separated by a wide central isle, two rows of five beds were placed as close to the front row of the audience as possible. The production itself consisted of a combination of two plots: one told the story of a theatre director entering the world of the homeless with the intention of developing a piece of theatre based upon the experiences of and involving these people.  Interwoven with this self-reflective aspect of the production was a collage of scenes set outside workshop hours focussing on the relationship between one of the homeless men and his girlfriend, discussions between the director and the hostel warden and everyday scenes inside the dormitory walls.

The audience was seated as close to the stage area as possible and on one level with it

I remember the production most because of a speech from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard the Second’ that one of the alcoholic residents, Terry, recited. It was the most beautiful, touching and powerful rendition of Shakespeare I had ever heard and still is in my memory bank to this day.

‘Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings ….’

Every time I see a production of ‘Richard the Second’ I am transported back to that moment of seeing the man in the picture above speaking those lines.  Terence Francis Rigby was a philosopher.

The piece was so successful it went on to play in Islington Union Chapel Hall, London; December 1990, Volksbühne; Berlin; January 1991, The Arches, Glasgow Mayfest; May 1991, Grassmarket Mission Hall, returning to Edinburgh Festival Fringe; August 1991, Schauspiel, Bonn;  Bienale Festival of European Theatre; September 1992, City Centre Theatre, Dublin; Theatre Festival; October 1991, Centre Pompidou, Paris; January 1992.

Jeremy Weller went on to make many theatre pieces for The Grassmarket Project. I came across him again when we were both working for The Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen. Always controversial he was making a piece about young people, now living in Denmark, from Palestine and Israel. The young cast acted out the conflict in their country  in a very personal way – the anger, frustration and prejudice was so tangible in the auditorium from the stage.

Jeremy has worked around the world. Quoting from the Grassmarket web site:

‘ “Jeremy Weller’s interest in theatre began with his admiration for the work of the Polish writer / director; Tadeusz Kantor. In 1987, while a student at university studying fine Art and philosophy, Jeremy used the excuse of a study tour of Poland to meet his mentor, who made the unprecedented offer of a year’s scholarship. As Jeremy explains: “That year changed my direction irrevocably. In Poland, theatre was a fundamental part of the culture rather than an elitist art form. Poland at this time was under communist rule. Censorship was everywhere, because of this theatre was forced to evolve into a new form in order to defy the censors. The theatre then became a source of hope for the public, because it was a last voice of freedom. Here was the last place that the public could see and hear the truth of their reality. In this, for me, Theatre found it’s role. It was impossible to return to painting after this experience. Painting felt too removed from life. I wanted to take art away from the specialist and give it back to people by producing work based on people’s experiences “.

In 1989 he moved to Edinburgh to concentrate on writing and directing theatre.

“I wanted to make a theatre not tied to politics or art. I wanted to celebrate lives. A lot of art has isolated itself and become too rarefied, so that people have lost interest in it. George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Vittorio Da Sica, and Roberto Rossellini all use their writings and films to comment on society. I believe in the role of the artist a social commentator. My work is the view from below, rather than a socialist theorist view from above. Everybody can understand art when it is based on human emotions and the conditions in which we live.”

“I want the audience to be moved and believe totally in what is taking place before them, unlike traditional theatre where they are asked to suspend their disbelief. These are real people up there on the stage, telling us stories from their lives. I want my plays to demonstrate that there is creative potential in everyone, but more importantly, I want to engage those who do not normally have access to the Arts. I am not against professional actors as such, but I only use professionals who are able to share their experiences with non-actors. So called ‘ordinary’ people live such amazing lives that is what I want to show on my stage. I also want to use the theatre to explode the myths that surround certain groups in society. Terms such as ‘young offenders’, ‘street kid’, deny the individual totally.”

“Individuals are what they are because of a multitude of cultural, social and family influences. We need to focus on the individual, rather than the social preconceptions we may have about their circumstances. Our work is multi-cultural and universal. It is the spiritual and emotional base of each person, which separates them from, whilst also connects them to, other people. It is this aspect that the work highlights” ‘

Further details of The Grassmarket Project  HERE


7.   C:ntact, Copenhagen, Denmark

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I was introduced to the  theatre community and to the great city of Copenhagen when I worked at The Betty Nansen Theatre in 2004 directing a piece of new work called “1001 nat NU” based on the stories of Scheherazade . The concept was based on the fact that 20% of the population of Denmark had recently voted to rid the country of people who had arrived in the country, seeking asylum, over recent years. ‘Denmark for the Danish’ was their cry. Henrik Hartmann, the producer at Betty Nansen, wanted to counter these thoughts with a piece of theatre that told stories from the people that the same 20% of the population seemed fearful of. “Let us hear the voices of the others”, he told me.

Henrik had come up with an idea to invite 11 writers from the Middle East with a brief to write short performance pieces based on the stories they would tell in order to survive in their present day situations. His notion was that ‘sometimes we tell stories to entertain, sometimes we tell stories to explain who we are and sometimes we tell stories to survive’.

We started with  pre-rehearsal workshop working with dramaturg Kitte Wagner and a great team of 11 writers and performers to workshop ideas and to find a way to create a piece of theatre and few months later we rehearsed the piece and performed it. The response from audiences was very supportive and Henrik notion of listening to ‘the voice of the others’ started to grow.

Over the next few years Betty Nansen developed a stream of work looking at this issue and as it grew through successful productions, multi media education projects and community and participatory style work was developed.

Henrik and his team visited Contact Theatre in Manchester to see how that company worked with young people and as a result of that visit and their own experiences of  their ‘education’ department range of in house productions and film and radio projects a new concept emerged. Aimed specifically at young people the project was an antidote to the growth of nationalist

C:NTACT is an independent organisation dedicated to ethnic, social, and cultural integration and education, based at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Every year they launch a wide variety of stage, film, radio and journalistic productions. C:NTACT’s core objective is to provide a platform for living encounters between people with widely different backgrounds. Their principal task is to nurture and encourage the ability to communicate thoughts, dreams, ideas, and visions.

C:NTACT offers a wide variety of productions and workshops – primarily targeted at young people with different backgrounds. Through C:NTACT the young people team up with professional artists, teachers, and directors who assist them in creating and developing artistic products that are suited for a large audience.

See more about C:NTACT  HERE


8.    Royston Maldoom, Berlin, Germany

Royston Maldoom photo Volker Beinhorn

Royston Maldoom has been the initiator and leader of numerous dance projects all around the globe for the past 30 years. His work was especially honoured by the movie “Rhythm is it”! which received the German Lola Movie Award for best documentary film in 2005 and reached large audiences world-wide.

I can’t remember the first time I met Royston but I think it was in the late 1970′s at the long disbanded EMMA Dance Company headquarters  in Loughborough.  Our paths have crossed  on many occasions since. He played the title role in “Dracula” at Dundee Rep in a production I directed. We worked together in the early days of setting up Dundee Rep Dance Company and he became a friend, a mentor and an inspiration to me.

The influences on one’s lives are many,  but some stand above the rest, and watching Royston work with the communities of Fife and Tayside for the first time was one of those transforming and memorable moments. Every community project I have done since owes something to that moment. Insignificant in some ways – turning up to a village hall in Fife and watching a dance class – but the beginnings of a movement, a philosophy, a methodology that I have developed ever since.

He has worked in an amazing range of community environments around the world, alway striving to create a great artistic event and always believing in the abilities and talent of the young people he worked with to achieve this. Some have ended up in major companies all over the world and some feel that their time with Royston gave them hope, self esteem and confidence to follow the lives they wanted to lead.

Rhythm Is It’ – Film with 250 kids Sir Simon Rattle and Royston                        Watch presentation by Royston

His perception of community dance is “to dance with anyone, anywhere, at any time” regardless of their experience, age, gender or social or ethnic background. He particularly enjoys working with groups that are intercultural, differently abled, and inter-generational.

When he was twenty years old, studying agriculture, he saw a movie of the Royal Ballet. His passion for dance was awakened and he immediately joined a local Cambridge dance school.

From 1980 to 1983, he was Dance-Artist-in-Residence for Fife/Scotland. During that time he organised numerous workshops, summer schools and dance festivals, founded community dance groups for teenager and adults and began to develop his philosophy of Community Dance.

He directed dance projects in Lithuania in 1991 during the independence movement, in Croatia and Bosnia during the Balkan War, in South Africa during Mandela`s election, as well as other projects in Zimbabwe, Georgia and Oregon/USA and others throughout the United Kingdom and abroad.

His international engagement led him to Ethiopia in 1996 where he organized a dance project with 100 street kids. Following the success of this project, they established the Adugna Dance Company, giving young people the opportunity to be educated in dance, choreography, and teaching. On graduation the students were given accreditation by the University of Middlesex, London and many have gone on to work internationally  as choreographers, dancers and teachers.

After many visits through the 70´s, 80´s and 90´s in 2000 Royston Maldoom initiated a project with dancers fo the Ballet of the University of San Marcos, Lima , helping them to set up und deliver community projects with and for socially handicapped children in Peru.  He worked also with catholic and protestant children in Northern Ireland, male and female prisoners, children and adults with learning difficulties, young adults and children in exile, as well as in numerous primary and secondary schools and dance academies.

In the 1990s, Royston began to work  in Germany. From 1989 to 1997 he was the choreographer and artistic director for the German-British Youth Dance Exchange Program in Berlin. From 1990 to 1997 he was choreographer of the European Youth Dance Festival in Duisburg.  During this time he also worked with young adults with physical and learning disabilty from the Caritas Workshop, Moers. He has been guest-choreographer at The Academy for Performing Arts at Frankfurt University. In the last few years he has worked extensively with Philharmonic Orchestras and cultural institutions in Germany.

The dance project “Le Sacre du Printemps” with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle, in which 250 kids participated, gained popular attention through the movie Rhythm is it! This documentary was awarded the Lola Film Prize in 2005.

Next to other international awards, in 2005 Maldoom received the German Honors Prize in Dance (Deutscher Ehren-Tanzpreis) in Essen for his continuous and groundbreaking engagement for dance throughout the years. For his work with Le Sacre du Printemps with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra he, the orchestra, and Sir Simon Rattle received the Special Schiller Award of the City of Mannheim.

In 2006 The Queen presented Royston Maldoom with the Order of The British Empire (O.B.E.) from the British Government for Services To Dance. In 2007 he received the German-British Forum Award for his engagement for the british-german relations in London and the prize of the “Club der Optimisten” in Hamburg.60


9. Dundee City of Culture

Witchs Blood 1987

Witchs Blood 1987

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 audiences travelling in 12 double decker buses across the city in 1987 and “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. 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

UPDATE 19.06.2016

Dundee is now an UNESCO City of Design and has just presented its first Festival this year. The V & A Museum of Design will open in 2018 and currently there is a £1 Billion Waterfront Development that will open the city to the River Tay again.

More here – We Dundee


10. Amber Film Collective

Sea Coal Amber Collective

10. Amber

“Whoever paints the wall chooses the colour”

I first became aware of Amber films during the heady early days of Channel Four. I believe that C4 had commissioned the film “Seacoal” which I was to see many years later. But I remember seeing Amber Films listed in the Radio Times and thinking they look really interesting.

I became more aware of them when I came to live and work in Newcastle upon Tyne. I used to pop down to the Side Gallery and see exhibitions and I would watch the films on Channel Four and bought the books. But I never met them for many years because they were somehow connected to Live Theatre and I was working for Northern Stage and I just felt that they were Live Theatre people. My narrow thinking. My loss.

Years later, after I left Northern Stage, I did work with them for a moment in Jerez de la Frontera when they became involved in a project we were doing in the South of Spain. We made a little  taster film about a Flamenco Rap Group which we hoped to develop into a full project working with young people from the north east and young gypsies from Jerez.


They are an extraordinary collective of people who have steadfastly and stubbornly held on to their beliefs for over 40 years. They have been an inspiration to many artists and journalists and photographers and me.

The following is taken from the Amber-Online Website  – I couldn’t put it any better

“The Amber collective came together in 1968 and moved to the North East of England the following year. Committed to documenting working class and marginalised communities, in 1977 it opened Side Gallery, to show its own work and celebrate the best in international documentary.

The group started commissioning other photographers to tell the stories of the changing region. It collected exhibitions to show in the gallery and to tour, reflecting its political, social and artistic explorations of the possibilities of documentary photography. And alongside this, Amber continued to make films.

The collection that has grown out of this is unique: hundreds of different stories held together by a single, coherent, continuing narrative; a complex body of artistic work, the focus of which has been sustained for over 40 years. Deeply rooted in its relationships with north eastern communities, the interlinked narrative Amber’s films and the photographs of collective member Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen was recognised in 2011 by UNESCO as of national cultural importance. The collection is, without question, one of the most significant bodies of cultural work to have been created in the North East over the past 50 years.

The work of Amber is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. Through the gallery and cinema programs and at festivals and screenings, the group makes connections with inspirational production in the wider world. There is an integrated approach to production (which includes documentaries, dramas and photographic projects), publication (including exhibitions, books, DVDs and works created specially for the web) and distribution (though the odds sometimes seem to be stacked against it).

The approach is celebratory, even when the marginalization of lives and landscapes makes this more difficult.

Production grows out of the relationships with these communities, and our creativity is inseparable from that of the people with whom Amber works. In any project, the first commitments are to individual lives, a particular landscape, or a set of concerns. The stories always emerge, opening up more ambiguities and possibilities than you can shake a stick at.

Rooted in practical craft skills (camera work, direction, editing, sound, etc), there is an egalitarian, collective approach to the film making. Technological innovation has made the different processes ever more democratically accessible, and Amber has taken advantage of this to extend its on-going experiment in collective creativity. Photography is necessarily about individual vision, and this can provide a healthy tension within the work, but Amber importantly provides a context for photographers, whether they are members of the collective or commissioned by the group. Everybody has a voice in all of the group’s activities, from the gallery and cinema programmers to the menus in the café, from the film projects to the photographic production. At the same time, the group abides by the dictum: Whoever paints the wall chooses the colour.

Amber’s approaches and concerns are best explored, looking at the work it continues to produce, commission and collect. The website is a constantly expanding educational resource, aimed at allowing you to explore the connections between the different strands.”

I had to include them in my top ten personal choices of my favourite community arts projects.



3 thoughts on “My Favourite Top 10 Community Arts Projects

  1. Pingback: Waste Land Documentary | Awa Kiné's Piece of Mind

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