Vulnerable Audiences in Lockdown and Beyond

The implementation of lockdown measures had an immediate impact on cultural organisations throughout the UK – and perhaps none more so than those focused on vulnerable audiences and clients. Two of these are Dance Reading and Reading Refugee Support Group, both widely admired for their community work but whose very different activities meant that they have taken two distinct paths over the last six months.

*Dance Reading: Stepping Back*

Since 2014 Dance Reading has been supporting the local community, from aspiring dancers to professionals, as well as bringing companies from around the world to the town each November. Their major project for 2020 was to a commission from Reading Borough Council: a programme of dance for mental health classes, in partnership with Sport in Mind and co-funded by Berkshire Community Foundation. Four targeted audiences had been
identified: people in the community with severe and enduring mental health conditions, patients at Prospect Hospital, raising awareness in schools and new mothers at risk of or experiencing mental health conditions, as well as their children.

“When lockdown hit we couldn’t work in the hospital, we couldn’t run the community sessions, we couldn’t be in small buildings moving around,” explains Dance Reading executive producer Liz Allum. “Lots of people moved immediately online – dance teachers have been really adept. But for us working with very vulnerable participants, going online quickly was just not an option. The whole purpose of dance as a tool for mental health is that you are doing it with other people.”

As organisations across the country found themselves having to respond speedily to a situation few had ever anticipated dealing with, Dance Reading resisted the temptation of a digital stopgap for this project. “It wouldn’t have had the same impact – the programme was designed with significant research and knowledge behind it. And we wouldn’t have ended up with the wealth of data that we hope to have to show the impact that proper participatory dance can have on wellbeing.” Liz cites the response of Sport in Mind. “I think that the strength of that organisation (Sport In Mind) is that they took a pause and thought, okay, this changes everything about how we work with these people, we can’t just carry on as before – for their existing participants, suddenly adapting to something totally different online is potentially not as beneficial as just keeping in touch and working towards something different.”

While the negatives of lockdown are plentiful, Liz said that one plus was the rare chance for a small-scale community organisation having time to take stock and work on plans for the future. “We would never usually have the luxury of almost a year’s planning, but we have been able to have a really, really informative four-way conversation with dance teachers, the participants, Sport in Mind and ourselves. Were lockdown to magically end and Covid disappear, we would have a really kick-arse project!” Top of the agenda was putting in place measures to demonstrate the impact of the programme on the wellbeing of those taking part.

*Reading Refugee Support Group: Rapid Response*

Having provided a lifeline to some of the town’s most in-need residents for over 25 years, Reading Refugee Support Group (RRSG) felt they had no option but to continue their outreach online immediately. “Working with asylum seekers and refugees, some of them were in very vulnerable positions by the fact that they weren’t in accommodation,” explains RRSG’s Jude Haste. “We provided them kit or funding so they could join us online. Video conferencing takes up lots of data so for some we did audio only. I’m fairly proud of what we’ve managed to achieve, bearing in mind that there was a big proportion that it just didn’t work for or was a format they weren’t comfortable in. So we gave the option of just having phone calls, while others missed the social aspect so liked the video option, and we had translators in some sessions.”

The Group came up with a three-fold digital offering: moving their existing Monday and Wednesday drop-in sessions online, creating volunteering options at a local farm so those clients dependent on food parcels could also enjoy fresh food they had grown themselves and weekly drama sessions on Zoom, aided by Arts Council emergency funding. “Drama is a natural way to expand on language developments and was something I had wanted to bring in for a while; when Covid kicked in we though, let’s do it online.” They found material relevant to or written by people from refugee backgrounds to work on, with all participants to receive a qualification from Lamda.

And for Jude, one positive of the past few months has been the opportunities and benefits of collaboration, both with local organisations like Reading University and those further afield including Olive, the Refugee Agency, the Red Cross and Counterpoint Arts. “It’s been really rewarding to partner with geographically wider organisations – there has been a great sense of reciprocation.”

*Next Steps*

Two organisations who know the importance of understanding what is right for their audiences, both emerging strongly from a period of dramatic change. Reading Refugee Support Group is now moving towards reopening its drop-in sessions with limited, pre-booked sessions, while maintaining casework, language and drama support online. For Dance Reading, while hospital work in particular still seems a way off, a five-week series of mother-and-child classes in parks is imminent – and in terms of the festival that is an annual highlight for the town’s culture-lovers, Liz can’t reveal all yet but she confirms: “There will be something celebratory and dancey in November, yes, a little bit of something for everybody as is always the case with our festival.”

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