Freedom Studios: transforming a theatre company’s approach to community engagement
Freedom Studios is a theatre company that nurtures new and experienced artists in Bradford and connects communities and audiences with new work. Amal supported Freedom Studios to take BD Stories, two new plays (No.4 by Asma Elbadawi and Pashto Thriller by Aina J Khan) into Muslim communities. They were performed at six community centres and one school and at Kala Sangam arts centre in the city centre. Amal's support was designed to take theatre that resonated with communities directly to them and provide opportunities to engage in workshops with Muslim artists. Alex Chisolm, Director, Dramaturg and Producer, was Co-Artistic Director of Freedom Studios at the time. She discussed with us the impact the project had.
"I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you’re at our centre, we don’t get anything like this here".
Amal supported with Outreach
Talking about the challenges of making theatre 'do more' in communities, Alex described how limited resources meant getting the show on had to be the number one priority and doing meaningful engagement around a show was not always possible. Amal's support transformed how Freedom Studios approached creative engagement with communities. It allowed them to think about the project in a different way, to shift their priorities when they conceived the project and its purpose and to work through difficult questions like how the project would really meet people where they were and not just look like it did. “Without Amal” Alex says “we would not have reached into these communities, formed these relationships, and brought people together. It has been transformative, both for the nature of the work we undertake and for building relationships with our audience in Bradford.”
Crucially, the funding enabled Freedom Studios to develop a new model of working, taking new work they produce into community spaces, and then working with the people in those spaces. It did this because the BD Stories’ experience was so successful.
“Without Amal we would not have reached into these communities, formed these relationships, and brought people together. It has been transformative, both for the nature of the work we undertake and for building relationships with our audience in Bradford.”
Alex Chisolm - Co-Artistic Director of Freedom Studios
The process was not without its challenges. Each community centre is different to the next and all operate on a shoestring budget. Freedom Studios honoured how each wanted to experience and interact with the show instead of changing the space to look more like a conventional arts venue. The show was performed at different times and to different audiences in each place. It became a matter of personally getting to know each centre and understanding how to fit in. This meant that each group had an offer that was tailored to them.
At the end, Freedom Studios brought all the groups together. For everyone who came to this final sharing, Alex says there was a sense of pride and genuine community among groups who were very disparate. It felt like a moment where everybody was able to feel connected from their own place.
One of the comments Alex recalls getting a lot, which she says was lovely but also sad, was:
“I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you’re at our centre, we don’t get anything like this here”.
For Alex, with over thirty years’ experience in the sector, this project affirmed that creative engagement with the arts is completely a two-way relationship between the participants and the creative professional.
She recalls a moment when a lady of Pakistani heritage in the audience started chatting to the character on stage, saying “Yeah, that happened to me too!” The actor paused and then responded, speaking back to her. Alex loves this about theatre - when created with the right ethos, you really are able to create a special kind of relationship. Audiences felt represented by these stories.
There were other outcomes of the project too. It allowed Freedom Studios to leverage an additional £20,000 from Arts Council England and XR Stories and, with this funding, to do more shows in the community. It also helped writers Aina J Khan and Asma Elbadawi develop their skills and experience and provided new producing and directing opportunities for members of the Freedom Studios’ team.