Before the Applause Podcast

Exploring Community Engagement & Arts from Education to UK City of Culture with Louise Yates

August 20, 2023 David Watson Season 1 Episode 3
Before the Applause Podcast
Exploring Community Engagement & Arts from Education to UK City of Culture with Louise Yates
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We're thrilled to host the pint-sized powerhouse, Louise Yates, a luminary in the arts  renowned for her pioneering approach to community engagement. Prepare to join us as we journey through her inspiring narrative, from the theatre-loving schoolgirl spurred on by a visionary drama teacher, to the artistic director and producer shaking up the arts scene. Louise's vibrant stories of her work with Hull City Council and her instrumental role in Hull's recognition as UK City of Culture 2017 promise to inspire.

Louise has a unique approach to arts programming that she generously details for listeners, placing the community in the driver's seat and revealing how her methods break down barriers and foster long-lasting, impactful connections. Her insights into the exciting, grass-roots creative scene in Hull, as well as her reflections on her personal evolution from actor and musician to producer and director, add depth to her narrative. From Louise, we learn the power of adaptability, of taking a step back to listen and understand the real needs of the community, evolving into a more reflective practitioner.

Despite challenges and hurdles, Louise's optimism for the future of the arts scene is infectious. She delves into her experiences, the struggles of bridging the gap between policy makers and the people, and why the arts should never be viewed as a low priority. Her passion for community engagement shines through as she shares her insights, leaving listeners with a sense of hope and inspiration. So, pull up a chair and join us for this extraordinary conversation with Louise Yates, a true advocate for the arts, community, and the power of human connection.

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David Watson:

Welcome to this new episode of Before the Applause with me, your host, David Watson. In this episode, we talk to Louise Yates. She's the pint-sized powerhouse producer, artistic director and audience engagement pioneer, creating waves up and down the country through her unique approach to collaborating with communities defying the norm. She's on a mission to weed out inauthentic engagement and resetting how long-lasting and impactful community engagement can truly be achieved. We talk about how placing communities in the driving seat of programming and taking it right to their doorsteps breaks down barriers that can resolve these surprising things. We also explore the importance of creating the right invitation to participate and experience great art and culture, and that the welcome they receive doesn't end with a goodbye after organisations, artists and practitioners tick that box, but actually a see you soon. Grab a cup of something nice and join us as we discover more. Before the applause Lou, welcome to the show, hello.

Louise Yates:

Thanks for having me on.

David Watson:

No, thanks for doing this. I've been looking forward to this one and I've been waiting for a long time to deep dive into your world and get other people to listen to what you've been up to. I feel scared. Why are you scared? For this is a good conversation, I don't know. So I thought we would start with a little look back of your career, and I wondered if you could talk to me a little bit about where it all started, what have you been up to and, ultimately, where are you now?

Louise Yates:

Well, I think I need to go right back to really when I was a teenager and I know people have quite a similar story, in that it was a person, a really ace teacher, who switched me on to the arts. I was unbelievable. I was a nightmare teenager. I just loved having a good time and that didn't involve learning in any way, shape or form. I'd be kind of present, but doing my own thing at school, just looking for fun. Basically, I had this really great drama teacher called Dave Kelman and he's over in Australia now like spreading the love, but he just saw something in me and he was interested and gave me time and he encouraged me to join a local youth theatre. It's called Southwood Youth Theatre. It was a youth theatre but there was people of all ages in it. I remember there was somebody in it that was like in their 50s. It was a real mix of people and we created really ace work. We did shows that really looked at the issues in the area In South Leeds. It's quite a diverse area and pockets are diverse. There was a lot of issues around racism, around people's identity, and the school was kind of bringing that all together. It was a bit of a melting pot really, and Dave was an absolute genius. He got us all talking about those issues. He got us performing. He got money from Leeds United for us to make work and brought really interesting writing. So he really switched me on and, to be honest, if it weren't for him I would never have got into college. He really supported me and so while I was at the youth theatre and kind of finishing off school and going to college, I started working professionally as an actor. So I got some professional jobs in TV and film and I didn't really enjoy it. I thought I would and I'd been to quite a lot of auditions. So when I went to auditions I didn't feel like I really fit. I don't know, it just didn't feel right for me. I love that live experience. I love being on stage and having an audience there and getting a response that was quite instant, whereas filming just seemed really long and you know you wasn't following a story. I guess I just wanted things to happen really quickly. That really wasn't for me. And we started to talk to the producer of a film that I was doing about some opportunities in Emmerdale and on Children's Ward and I knew I didn't want to do that and the thing that had really kind of put me off. I'd done some interviews with local press in Leeds and they'd just put pressure on me so they put this story out about. You know, this is a young girl from Leeds and she could be the next big thing and that absolutely terrified me. I was like I don't want to go down this road. I don't know what that means. They're digging into my life, into my background, and I just felt really uncomfortable with it. But the director of the film that I was working on at the time, maggie Ford, she just gave me some really sound advice. You know. She said if you dip out now, these opportunities are always going to be there, you know. So you really need to think about long term what you want to do. And I started going for interviews at universities and that felt a little bit early. I was kind of in the position where I wasn't sure where I fit, you know, with any teenager. But I think it's so hard when you're trying to work as a performer, you judge so much, there's so much pressure, and I was really feeling that. I was also kind of touring around night clubs and venues with Inna Cabaretia and I loved that. So you know, I had this kind of different life, on a night as well as a night out, so I had all these different things going on and I've always kind of liked having lots of different things going on. But I felt I had to make a bit of a decision. So I missed loads of interviews for different universities. But I turned up for an interview at University of York and got a place and it was the Scarborough campus where the course was run. So I did this studies with Music Tech and they kind of got me to kind of think about not so much longer term what I wanted to do, but to just really think about the skills that I had at that time and what I was interested in and just to lose myself a little bit in the work rather than thinking about where I wanted to be next. So I started to think less about my career and more about just learning and enjoying. Whilst I was at uni I had loads of other things going on at the same time. I was working loads. I had loads of costumes. So I opened a shop underneath the market in Scarborough. It was like a retro clothing shop. So I had that going. I pretty much nearly moved into the shop because it was only £25 a week for rent and it all in the lecture. It was £25 a week.

David Watson:

Wow.

Louise Yates:

And it became like a bit of a hub for people to come and to chat about music. So I always had the record player on and play music and to chat about theatre, chat about clothes. So I guess it felt like a really nice community space. And obviously I was away from Leeds and a lot of my friends. I met loads of people through the shop as well. So I had sets of friends at the uni and through the shop and the events that I used to put on through the shop. We used to put on nights in different nightclubs and I was still involved in this cabaret show. So yeah, I've always kind of had lots of fingers in lots of pies and that has tended to at some point come to a head and I've had to kind of make a decision what way do I go? And I think within creative industries it's that peak and trough in it of having lots of work and then all of a sudden not having very much work and it gives you time to think what next? So after uni I didn't really feel lost. I felt a bit like I'd achieved something and really if I'd have spoken to people and my teachers at school they would not have believed that I would have got to that point and lots of things were unearthed while we were at university. I had some kind of test done and I found out that I was dyslexic. And finding that kind of information out changes a lot of things on how I look back at my behaviour and how I had somehow managed to get through without that being noticed. When it was so obvious to people at university, my lecturers were like pretty much immediately recognising that. So yeah, I come at. It was definitely the right choice for me to make. You know it was a challenge and it was uncomfortable. The first year really struggled. You know I was pretty much the only one on the course that was having to work a lot to pay, you know, for me to be there. I didn't have to pay fees, obviously at that point, but you know I had to work to pay for my rent and there was a lot of quite privileged people. But it was so good for me. I've never shied away from, you know, trying to get to know people that are very different to me. I've loved doing that. I've absolutely loved it, and you know I was. I got really good friends with people that had been brought up so different to me and had such a different life. You know that never stood in the way. They never treated me any differently and I never treated them any differently. So, yeah, it was. I had a really good experience. It was the right thing for me to do and I couldn't keep on working professionally as an actor at that point. I did get some offers while I was there, but I had to, you know, just really focus on what I was doing and make it, just make sure that I got the most out of being at university, because you know it's a shot time in your life, isn't it?

David Watson:

Oh, absolutely. It can actually be quite challenging to go through university. I mean, it's definitely a moment that defines you. So tell me what happened next after the university adventure came to an end.

Louise Yates:

So after uni I kind of chundled around, scab a little bit, having a good time for a year, and then went back to Leeds and when I went back to Leeds I started working at Thomas Stanley College and I taught performing arts and it's the college that I went to. And bearing in mind that I was an idol and he was the same guy, ken Reid he's another absolute legend Ken was still there and he's, oh Ken's just amazing, very, very well known for the work that he's done in Leeds and the young people that he supported, and he is so relaxed and chilled out and he was like, oh well, he said, let's see how this goes. So I was teaching improvisation, acting and directing, and I had two kind of groups that I was working with. Well, three groups. I was working with BTEC national students BTEC first students and then a group of young adults that were in supported lodgings close to the college who had various disabilities and additional needs. So I had a real mix of people that I was working with and so I was doing those three units, teaching those three units, and then I took on teaching devising and I absolutely loved that. I love teaching that and creating work. And the BTEC nationals were fantastic. They had some direction, they knew where they wanted to go. The group of young adults they were very kind of clear about what they wanted to get about the time with me and they loved creating work and they loved creating scenarios where they could talk about issues that they felt they couldn't talk about in everyday life. But the BTEC first, they were tricky. So there were some of those students that had rocked up at the college and kind of said they were kind of me five, six years before, I don't really know what I'm doing, I've got to do something. And they were like there you go, performing arts. They were turning up late, they were disruptive, the mid, my life pretty hellish if we had off-studding. I had like really funny times with them where off-stud would come in and I would sit and be far and pleased to comment on the person personally, on how they look, or just sit, just kind of think they're not here and let us get on with what we're doing. They would always do that. So this poor inspector coming and she was really tall and slim and they just started shouting Skeletor. They wouldn't stop shouting Skeletor and I was like, oh so I was like, right, everybody on the floor. We're going to do some breathing exercises. Everybody on the floor and played the Wonder Review by Elvis and just got them all chilled out and when they left the room she was like, wow, that was amazing and I was like it wasn't at all, it was an absolute nightmare. So I learned so much. I was there for a couple of years. I did my PGC through Huddersfield University while I was there and what that time did for me was it got me organised. I had to be organised, I had to do the schemes of work. So it really helped me kind of as a project manager, as a producer, I really had to get myself organised and plan and think about the work and start to become a reflective practitioner, and I've always been really reflective since then. So it was a really good experience. So I moved on from Thomas Dambey and went to work at Hull Truck. And you've got to bear in mind, whilst I was kind of at Thomas Dambey and kind of all the way along, I've always worked in clubs and clubs behind the bar, because I can't not, I just love doing that type of thing. So I was doing a lot of that stuff as well, just to kind of earn a bit more money. So that's what kind of brought me to Hull. Hull Truck brought me to Hull. I saw an opportunity. They were advertising for some sort of work in their education department and it was a really interesting role because it was a partnership between Hull Truck, hull City Council and Young People Support Service. So it was really interesting. I remember getting a phone call to talk about the role by a guy called Dave Bertolini. He was doing some really interesting projects and he came to meet me at Leeds Station and I thought that's a bit weird, this is a bit strange. So I went and had a chat with him and he was like, you know, it's something quite new that we're looking at Rolling out. He told me a lot about Young People Support Service and because I've been working at the college and obviously I was there as a tutor, I spent a lot of my time supporting young people with things like housing and other issues in their lives, you know, referring people to get support from, you know, strategy services and I just thought, wow, this Young People Support Service sounds amazing. So I applied and I came to Hull for an interview and I was interviewed by a lady who was a social worker working for Young People Support Service and a group of young people. So we had a nice chat and then that afternoon I was offered the role. So that's really what brought me to Hull and I was working in different communities. I developed some youth theatres around the city and you know I was really interested still in working with people to devise work and that's what was really driving me and giving people a voice through that work. And I was there for again. It was about a year I was commuting to start off with, but I just really fell in love with Hull, even though when I first started commuting I used to come on the train, couldn't drive there and I got off the train one day and I was running a bit late. So I jumped in a taxi and I was going to Gypsyville. We had an office the Young People Support Service had an office there and I developed a youth theatre there. So jumped in this taxi and the taxi driver was like oh, where have you come? So I said, lee, I didn't even get in as far as American golf down the road. He kicked me out the taxi and he said go on out. I thought he was joking. Anyway, I'm not having a lead supporter in this taxi. Go on out, you go. You're like I'm getting another one. I was like are you joking? He totally weren't joking. I was like. I was like, all right. So I had to walk back to the station and get another taxi. I told that taxi driver and he was like, well, that's out of order, it weren't nasty to me or anything, it was just like his principles. You know what I mean. You're so funny. I just thought I do know what I love this place. It's very. It's not so easy. It's where people are straightforward to say what they think and you know it never. It never put me off the place. It's something about a whole I feel. Kind of it feels homey to me yeah it's a rate. It's something really special here. You know it's the people, but it's also there's something in the area. It's definitely a special place. So I moved to Hull and, you know, got to try to get involved in the creative scene here. There was so much more interesting things going on for me than what were happening in Leeds. It was a bit more underground here, you know. It was more kind of felt, a bit more organic, a bit more of a scene that wasn't as mainstream as the stuff that was going on in Leeds, and Leeds was getting to the point where it was a bit flashy for me in some ways. You know the city centre was a bit, you know, all singing, all dancing and I don't know. I thought for me it lost its soul a little bit. So I was, I was due a change and so, yeah, working for on this project with with Hull Truck and People's Park Service in the council was was really great. It brought me here and from there I went to work for a project called Creative Connections, which was a regional youth arts project funded through the European Social Fund, esf, which is a bit of a tricky funding stream in terms of the amount of evaluation and monitoring that you have to do so. I learned a lot about that kind of area, and it gave us a good chunk of money to do some really interesting projects with young people. It took me to loads of different places like Grimsby, scunthorpe, did a lot in Bridlington and there were some real moments where I worked on projects. There was one that I think back a lot about where I worked with a group of young people in Scunthorpe and it took me a long time to engage these young people. There was an amazing youth centre in the centre of Scunthorpe and it was an old cinema and there were hundreds of young people that went there and they were all into rock music. It's a bit wild. They're riding the bikes everywhere. It's like amazing chaos. But they hadn't done any kind of drama before and they really didn't want. They really didn't want to know. And you start to think about it when you're working on a project like that. Is this all about what I want and what a funder wants? Am I not thinking about what the community wants? I thought you've got to give that time. You can't just expect to walk in a place and for them all to go. Amazing, you're here.

David Watson:

That's great.

Louise Yates:

Let's do what you say, you know, and it's all really cut my teeth on community work. During my time of creative connections, I learnt so much about how you can set your boundaries, how you can really think about what true like community engagement is and what, what, what it's not. You know, when it becomes tokenistic, when it becomes not about the people that you're trying to engage with, and it really got me to hone in those skills around how you do you voice an influence really well and it, and it took time and that, but there was that moment and think there's all you, you know, there's certain projects where you get that moment where the pick, the pick, the community that you want to work with, fully engage with it and they take it on, they're invested and everything changes. And that's the point where I could. I could either get even more involved in it, but that's the moment actually where you've got to take a breath, calm yourself down and take a few steps back and let people own the project and hand the reins over. And I think that sometimes is really really difficult to do because actually most of the time quite a control freak first people you've got to know when to let go and they created this show about youth rights and it was amazing how the the there's a big, there's a big stage in this gorgeous, it's gorgeous data that being the cinema and it was packed. It was absolutely packed and I was really worried about hundreds of young people being in there and they've not before. The group had not performed before in front of people and I'm like how are we gonna cook? So it was noisy. You know they were shouting that the minute the music started it was silent. I was sad at the front and had a sound person with me, so I brought in a freelancer to operate the sound and I was operating sorry, there was operating the lights and I was operating the sound and I was just sat there looking them and there were just tears rolling down the cheeks the whole way through and I was so proud of them and I just think you can't I'm getting like upset thinking about it you know, you can't. You can't just expect to get that kind of engagement from people and that buying from people without a lot of work, without giving a lot of your time, and you know it's difficult sometimes to kind of manage where you being. You've been very you've been professional and but you've been really human as well and you know it's it's getting that fine balance and when you get that right, those kind of amazing things can happen. So, yeah, we did some fantastic projects, that creative connections, and then I had a break while had my daughter, not for very long, because I get bored. You know that was a lot of having baby, but you know I was like I need you know it can be really hard in it for for working mums unit and, you know, for working dads as well, working people that have got caring responsibilities and and parents. It's difficult and about to us. We've joined parents in performing arts. You know I think it's you've got to really think about what those issues are. Now you can support people we care in need and so I took some time out. And then, because we've created connections, I've worked within all four local authorities North East links, north links, east riding, ample, and and they were all kind of interested in me working with them, but made the decision to to work for Hull and though there was a role with within arts development and community occasion, so that kind of eased me back in and you know you've got to kind of find your feet again but I don't like to do that for too long I was rampaging around long hill but you know, working with some young people and and talking to them about projects that they'd like to do. So I kind of got back into the swing of things quite quickly when Nancy was about four months old and so that kind of brought me to to Hull again and I'm working for Hull City Council and it's so interesting working for a local authority, you know when you're in it and not. You know I've worked in partnership with local authorities when I was at creative connections. But you know, being in it working within a local authority again, you learn so much. You've I've got such a better understanding. I couldn't understand, you know, why there was certain procedures in place and why things maybe took a little bit longer. So I didn't understand kind of the scale of the operation. You know they're just huge and there's so much kind of to consider for them and so many people involved in the decisions that are made by local authority. So, you know, I understand that a lot better now and appreciate that more. And obviously, whilst I was at Hull City Council, it's where I got involved in in city of culture and the bid. And obviously, the moment that that day that Hull was announced as UK City of Culture 2017, I was stood in Hull Truck Theatre next to Karen O'Carrick of being you know, she does a lot of work in communities. She's now on back to Asgard and she'd been involved in the bid process and you know she'd been involved in the interviews for City of Culture and I stood next to up next to her and I was holding her hand and it was just again one of those moments where I can hear the voice of the culture minister. I can still hear that voice echoing in my head how she said Hull, you know when she said those words. They're just place erupted. I mean you, things were going to be different from their nom and how.

David Watson:

When you look now, you're reflecting on that moment. What, at that point, did you have any kind of aspirations for it? You know, for the year itself, what were they? What were they I?

Louise Yates:

thought to myself if, if I can engage people in the arts when we're City of Culture, I'm never gonna be able to do it this. I thought this is a real opportunity to get some amazing experiences out into communities, so I knew that's what I wanted to do. In the lead up to the bid I'd been working on a project called Network Neighbourhood Torry, which is actually now back to ours, and I've been in lots of discussions with Paul Holloway, the Arts Development Manager at the Council. Me and Paul have been to meet with some venues that were that we thought might be interested in having a Torry network very similar to the rural Torry network, taking work out into community venues. And whilst I was an arts development officer, I'd kind of obviously brought all my experience but I kind of call it baggage sometimes all this baggage of how I, how I really got under the skin, of how to work well with people and how to involve people as participants in a really meaningful way, and I didn't want to kind of lose sight of that. That was something that, to me, I was, I was really passionate about. I was passionate about the arts reaching everybody and I was passionate about people having a voice within the arts that you know wouldn't be listened to. Usually in the in the arts that you know, that weren't the regular voices, because I'd seen how powerful that could be and I'd seen how that could create work that was of quality. And I think, up until working at creative connections, I'd sometimes had the view that community it didn't have to be, community work didn't have to community arts didn't have to kind of be of quality. That wasn't the priority. But I'd learnt that yes, it was a priority and it should be a priority.

David Watson:

Why do you think that idea of it not needing to be of quality was floating around?

Louise Yates:

I think because where I think sometimes it's the nature of certain funding that people take on projects and it's very driven by a funder's needs and that could mean that the project has got to focus on quite a specific outcome and the outcome is around what benefits the wider community and what might be of benefit nationally to this country. But where's this person in that mix? What's the best thing for that person? And sometimes it don't give you a certain funding and just the culture of delivering arts projects For me at that time was very much not about individual needs, but that was kind of happening. When you're working on a project and say the outcome is for the people that are involved in the project at the end to gain employment or gain certain skills, to be able to then move on, that's great on mass, if that's what you want to do. But within that there's individual people that are going to reach that goal at all different times and at different places. So it can be quite tricky and the arts can be used as the vehicle. So it's not that the arts doesn't become the priority, it's that end goal and I've always tried to make sure that we did. There were nine practitioners working on creative connections and we all had different creative skills and we've come from different backgrounds and we'd all worked professionally within the industry. So we're bringing that experience in with us. And what we weren't saying and what I was not saying when I was embarking on Network Neighborhood Touring was that I wanted to go out there and train people to be actors. I weren't even thinking that when I was teaching at Thomas Danby College. Not everybody there wanted to go on to be a performer. Some people were really clear that they wanted to come to college and then they wanted a job at the end of it and they were considering lots of different options and they were there because it gave them confidence. And some people were like I'm just here because I don't know what else to do. So I think I was comfortable I'd always been comfortable with about people wanting different things, but being really clear within my work that there has to be some exchange, and I've talked about that before to people around. What is the exchange? Because for me the exchange can't be about what I want or about what a funder wants, because that fits with government policy. I've got to think about the people, the community of people I'm trying to engage with. What do they want? So I've got to really listen to what that is and listen to various people. So, for example, when I started working on Network Neighborhood Touring, obviously I needed to think about what people would want to see and how they'd want to get involved in communities around hub, in their neighbourhoods, and within each neighbourhood there's so many communities of people to consider as well, and the card game that we developed, the Programming Poker, allowed me to then go out and to speak to those people that I was trying to actually engage, but also to speak to the people around them. So what was interesting was when sometimes I would play the game with the very people that I'm trying to engage with, who I would like to be the audience. So I would be in Morrison's Cafe playing the game. A family would come along and they'd ask me what I was doing because the card had laid out on the table. I've kind of explained to them that I've got this idea for bringing touring work to community locations, venues. I was looking for people that might be interested in that, that could tell me what they would like to see. People kind of engaged with that fairly easily and quite quickly got involved in that, and people would be thinking about what they wanted to see, but also what their friends would want to see, what their family, work colleagues. You know, people aren't always thinking about themselves. They were thinking about other people and I was like you know what? That's great, let's consider them, let's really think about you. So I started to get a feel for the people's tastes, ideas. But then I would speak to a family and play the game, and then I would go to the local school or I'd go and work with a group of housing staff from the council and I'd play the game in two different ways with them. I'd be asking them as for themselves going to see things, but then I'd say what about the people that you work with, and obviously their day to day job, want to go up and talk to people about what arts would you like to see? So you know, I said I know that you haven't had this conversation yet and I'll come back because I would like you to have the conversation, but you know. So I'm asking you to make some assumptions and those assumptions were miles away from what people actual people were really saying they'd like to see. So I went to one school and played the game with some members of staff and they were like I really don't think they'd be up for any of this, if I'm honest. I think they said I think it would be nice to have some kind of they were saying like vintage cars, that type of thing. They were coming up with some other types of events that were interesting, but I was like what's making you think that? And they were like I really don't think people in this area or families will want to buy into this. They won't want to come in and sit down and watch a play. So I guess I was making assumptions as much as they were. And in the end, what you've got to do sometimes show people something, otherwise sometimes you won't do anything, would you? You've got to present people with things and then say, yeah, what is this of interest? Is that of interest? So I think that was I'd kind of I'd been coming to that conclusion for quite a while that I needed to. Really, if I was going to continue to engage people, because I absolutely saw the benefit of that and what that did for people, then I would need to really explore the other ways in which people could get involved, because not everybody was. I wasn't going to create a piece of work with everybody that I was going to work with. You know there had to be different levels of how people could get involved, and when I say levels I don't kind of mean that in a ladder, because for me engagement is very linear. You know, one type of engagement like being a participant. I don't see that as being above and beyond somebody coming in and being an audience member for the first time, because everybody, I think, is on their own journey.

David Watson:

Yeah, and so from this initial touring project that you had, it became very quickly a major feature of Hall 2017. How did that feel for you, seeing all this energy being put behind it and, ultimately, what it's turned into today?

Louise Yates:

Exactly is that for those moments in the again where you think that people are truly getting involved with this? So when we'd gone from the network near Boat touring and it had grown into back two hours, that had kind of happened and I'd got funding through Arts Council, so the team at 2017 had worked with me to get the funding, so there was a pot of strategic touring money for back two hours. I think it went from these conversations that me and Paul were having to being back two hours because there was so much. There was a lot of buying to the project. When we went, when City of Culture was announcing, we could go back out and talk to people and say that this touring network was going to happen as a festival within the year of culture. All of a sudden, people were listening a lot more the schools that we'd started to talk to. So it was a real opportunity. I think beforehand thought we're a long way off this. We've got this woman talking about bringing touring circus shows into our school. That felt like such a distance, so that just felt like a long place off to travel to and all of a sudden it didn't. People were just like, yeah, anything's possible. And at the same time as that kind of happening and 2017 being such a big marketing machine, but behind this project that had been up to that point, really kind of grassroots conversations and again, that way that I like to work, that's very much about the process and giving time to the process. There was conversations that we'd been having with local venues, so we had a group of venue partners that were our hub. So they were like what are now the hub members. The hub members now are residents. So along its journey of going from network neighborhood touring to back to ours, along that journey it's dug deeper into neighborhoods, into groups of communities, and it's got people more involved, more involved in terms of the decision making and not just around what we program but that is a big part of the decision making but also about how we shape the program, about how we and where we work. So how we work and where we work, so where in the city projects should be happening, where there's pockets of areas where there's not very much happening, and working with residents to have conversations that are really kind of strategic conversations and taking residents to see work and having that conversation about what is quality about that. Who would engage with it? How would they engage with it? What are the community assets in the places that we're wanting to work? Why are we wanting to work there? What is the data telling us? So the hub members get quite involved in that and to the point where recently we've just been through this process the hub members are commissioning artists and again, it's very much about the process and sometimes we don't get that process right, and that's another thing that I've learned along the way is that you're going to make mistakes and that's okay.

David Watson:

Absolutely. And how would you describe Back to Ours today?

Louise Yates:

It's hard to describe it's Back to Ours because it's so many different things, but I would describe it as it's a brand new charity. It's an NPO, but it's an organisation that puts local people at the heart of programming. Great art experiences for local people.

David Watson:

Boom. I want to explore with you this idea of community engagement and engagement generally, and what you think the magic source is for it. Because everybody talks about it, we're all required to do it, but Back to Ours has really done it really well, hence why it continues to be a great success. What do you think is the magic ingredient to do community engagement well?

Louise Yates:

I think, to do it well, and the key thing that you've just said there is that we're all kind of we've all got to do it, and I think that poses a big issue because not everybody wants to do it and people sometimes feel they have to do it. So I think the really key thing, and the thing that I talk about a lot, is the invitation and the welcome. And when I talk about the invitation, I think that is the thing that, back to Ours, does very well and it's the thing that we're thinking about a lot is how do we invite people in? And when I say that it feels like you're inviting them in and then you're closing the door to other people, but in some ways that's, it can feel like that the arts can feel like that. It can feel like there can be so many barriers for people. You know, when we take people to a venue for the first time, you know that it can, there can be a venue can present so many different barriers. You know, we know from data that people there's a lot of people not engaging with the arts and that's why, you know, we're all encouraged to do engagement and to welcome people in. So I think that invitation is the key thing and to think about why. Why are you engaging with people and what you engage in people in? I think it's those conversations within our organization that we're regularly having and revisiting, which can feel a little bit like we're going down one direction and then we stop, we put the brakes on why we're doing this. Let's speak to the hook, members, why we're doing this again. Is this right? What's what? What feedback are we getting from people? So there's something around that invitation being really clear. What are you asking of people, why you're asking them in? I think that's got to come from to me, it's got to come from right, the very top of an organization, you know, right up to a board level. Engagement can't be something that you tag on at the end. So you, because some, because I think sometimes it can get very blurred when engagement can be a bit forced and it can make people feel like the artworks not as important, when really the two things should be coming together. It can feel sometimes a bit tagged on to the end and it's like, well, we need to. We've got this amazing piece of work and we need to. Now we need to engage some people in it, and sometimes that's fine. Sometimes you know we're doing that, so the work, you know it's a piece of work that's already been created. There's been no engagement in it up to that point and then we're looking at how do we engage people in that. So sometimes the work does come first, or sometimes you, you know you're creating work with people and the engagement happens before the work. So there's so many different scenarios, but it's just been clear as an organization at what point is that invitation open and how is that invitation being put out to people? Is it through a conversation? Is it the first time somebody's hearing about this? Is it on the radio? Is it a flyer? As opposed to it's really thinking about? You know what's that in? How's that invitation being put out and what is it saying? and we get we're lucky that we've got so many residents involved that we can send check some of that stuff with them, and sometimes they're the ones doing the invite for us which is part of the magic right and they're part of the magic having, yeah, having lots of residents involved and telling us when things don't work and telling us when things go wrong and being open to saying, you know, we've tried to engage and we've done it. And, with you know, just being times when we thought, do you know what we've not done? That very well, what went wrong there? And and seeing a challenge and not walking away from it, thinking right, let's just put the brakes on, just stop, and let's revisit why we're doing this work, what we're trying to engage people in what's the invite, what's the place and what do we know about the place, what's who's the people and how we're trying to, why we're trying to reach them, how are we going to reach them? And then eventually, once we know about the, what the invitation is going to be, we understand the place, we've got an understanding of the people, then we'll work on our welcome. And you think, when you start to, when you start to drill into those four things, it makes you realize kind of how long this work takes, because I'm thinking about how I invite the audience, but when you're doing work in a neighborhood, in some discommunity, you have to think about how am I gonna get myself an invitation to that place after those group of people. So sometimes we are sometimes what we're rewinding. So we spend a lot of time talking about those things talking about the invitation, the people, the place and the welcome but then we're rewinding on those four subject matters and thinking sometimes we've gone to places and we've not fully known the place enough, so the reason it didn't work is because we didn't do our work around the place. So you know, we need to do some more research, we need to speak some more people before we go back into that area. So it's a lot of the time with community engagement. There's a lot of time thinking why there's a lot of, there's a lot of time that you just need to give it time. It's not gonna happen overnight, you know it's. But the long-term benefits, you know fantastic. And that's the other side of it. When you've engaged a place or group or community of people, it's then what's next? Which is why you need that strategic thinking from your board, from your senior management team, to to really plan where that's going next and not to put that onto one person in the organization whose job it is to do community engagement. And I've done that before I've gone right. That's your responsibility. It's like everybody's responsibility. You know we're all doing that work, including myself yeah, absolutely you know, if I'm out in an airboat chatting to people, that's what I'm doing at that point.

David Watson:

You know I'm always doing it conversations are really important and, and I think, and that's where you get the value and on the understanding and the trust, and trust is a big part of community engagement and relationships, isn't it? I've got a question for you around why, why do you do this? What? Why is this? You know you're given a lot to other people, you really think about other people, you really want to engage them in arts and culture, but my question for you is why, why are you doing this and what is driving you?

Louise Yates:

I'm doing this. I obviously get something from it, you know, and yeah, it's that one fuzzy feeling of when things go well and when you can sit back and think that was great, but it's it's the same feeling as what I got when I used to perform and I enjoy being on stage. It's that, it's that same feeling that I get. But ultimately, I think I do this because I want to make a difference and I want to see some change. You know, I want the arts to be for for everybody and people to to have that wealth of choice in. You know, the things that they can do within their life. That, you know, I knew weren't that open to me when I was, when I was young, and it took an individual person to switch me on to the arts. You know, and I think you've got to, I don't feel like I'm giving that, I'm giving something back and but it's, it is that feeling of look that that person really switched me on to it and I think you know there's our HUB members are doing that for each other. You know, it's that ricochet effect, yeah, and I think I think some days it's like it's the best job in the world, you know. So you're working with people and that's, I guess, why I always love like working behind the bar and and interaction with people and how surprising people can be. You know, you can never, ever make any assumptions and I have. I've made loads of assumptions about what I think people will engage with and what they were, and I'm always surprised. So I don't ever think, do you know what? I know exactly what I'm doing, I've done it and now I can just sit back and enjoy this job. It's never because I would, I'm just a tap, as I would get really bored with that. I'm always thinking, well, that was a shock, that was a surprise. Maybe I'll try this differently. I just feel like I've still got a long way to go and I'll never, ever get to that point. There'll never be an end point where I go. Yeah, I know everything about community engagement, I know everything about arts and communities. I'll never get to that point and that's that's. That's what really gets me up on them all.

David Watson:

And you know, and every day is so different- yeah, and that's that's talking about the change in what communities want and need, and you mentioned change earlier on, and this is a theme that keeps coming up with the interviews that I that I'm doing around. The change and people are describing it is the change has been. Processes need to change the way we fun things.

Louise Yates:

I wondered what has been the change in the area that you work for and what is the change that you really want to see obviously, I've seen so much change because I've been in whole since it for a long time now and seen how, how arts and culture can change a place and just physically how the place looks and obviously, how certain venues and how community assets have been used in such a different way. Yeah, so I think, but I think in terms of, like, the change I'd like to see, it is around funding. It is around how short term funding can be, because I have I do I have concerns around engaging people and in something and getting them so involved in something that's so short term, when I know that I want to engage people and their families and their friends in arts and culture long term, for that to become a way of life, a choice for them that they can make, and that I know that that takes time, and when you're constantly having to think right, then that funding's coming to an end, we need to look at another funding part. We need to. You're constantly having to do that and it feels like having short-term funding. The message, that message is going back to those people and saying this needs to happen quite quickly. Come on, this needs to happen really quickly, come on, what's the next thing? What's the next thing Everything feels quite rushed and I want to make, I want to see that change. I've seen a huge shift in the interest around this type of work. People are wanting to do this work. People are and artists have always been interested. Artists have always been working in communities with people. That's always been happening, but I think that's of interest to a lot more people now. But it is who's wagging the tail.

David Watson:

Yeah, so if you want that change, is the change we need to make to talk and provide more evidence to funders and challenge their models, and is that something that you feel the sector is doing enough of? Do we feel they're hearing what actually it really takes to have great deep engagement for the long-term? Are they interested in hearing that?

Louise Yates:

I think there's interest in hearing it, but I think it's going to take time because, yes, we need to provide the evidence, but a lot of the evidence at the moment that we're collecting for funders is very kind of data-driven, and I think what we're losing is, you know, those really meaningful conversations and feedback that we get from people as to why they don't want to engage, and sometimes we don't want to hear that stuff, do we? You know, I think there's pressure coming. You know all funders have got pressure on them. They're you know how they're funding SIX with policy. So I think, ultimately, the changes need to come at policy level. You know, if we want this country to be a place where people can engage in arts and culture it's part of their everyday life and it's for everybody we've got to get people at the very top to understand what communities are like, what people's lives are like. It feels at the minute there's such a gap there and the cost of living crisis. We're working every day on an estate, in home, through our chat shop, and we see how people are really struggling. They're really, really struggling and we're here saying we want to engage you in the arts. It's like where that becomes so much less of a priority. But at the same time, we know that those same people that are talking to us about the situation that they're in and it's not just the people that we're trying to engage, it's, you know, it's ourselves Everybody's struggling and I think we're not feeling as much. We're not feeling at the moment uncomfortable about talking about arts and culture, because the people that are talking about how life is difficult and the cost of living is difficult are the people that have had an experience with us and can see the benefit of the projects that we're doing. There's people coming to us and saying you got me through lockdown. Having a bit of it's been a lifeline for me. We've got a hub member who's also involved in the shop who has said you know, this has saved me, it's given me something to focus on, whereas my experience maybe 20 years ago was that people would say why are you spending money on arts and culture when it ought to be going on food and electric and gas? Nobody's saying that to us. I think that message needs to get to policymakers and that's the challenge that I've got how do I bridge that gap? Through the hub members, they've got a voice within our organisation and a voice within this city. I think the next step for back to ours is to share that voice nationally and it's why I want back to ours. As always, it's very much about hope. It is about this place, but it's always looking out, because I do think sometimes the power of the work that's going on in our organisation and lots of hundreds of other organisations across this country it's not recognised.

David Watson:

So I've got a question for you. What are the misconceptions around community engagement that you feel like you want to get off your chest and tell people about and clear up wadsom for all?

Louise Yates:

Well, it's not drifting in, getting what you want and then buggering off. It's definitely not that and we can't be doing that. And if that's needed I don't know when it would be, but it might be If somebody is doing something and they need an opinion of it, just say it, be honest, say what I need is to and come to an organisation like ours. You know, go to. You know, sometimes I just think we have to close the door sometimes because we can up. I don't want to be a gatekeeper, but that's, and it forces me to be when people want to do that. We can't just take from people, you know. Again, that's not an invitation, is it? It's not a nice invitation and we have to think that we need to be invited into those people's spaces, into their lives. We've got to respect that.

David Watson:

So, with that and some of the difficulties, you've spoken about, and the state of the nation. Why should people want to be invited? Why should people work in the arts or particular community engagement?

Louise Yates:

Because that's If you do. That's not going to be. We're not going to make these changes. We want to see great art, great experiences grow and develop and progress and more people be involved the advocates for the arts and, if you know, if we want a really thriving arts scene in this country, that's the work that we need to do. These are our future audiences. They're families that we're now engaging. We've had hub members come and work with back two hours and move on and be like they've outgrown us, because they're full, they've really engaged, they're really interested and they're taking their families and their friends to see things. We've got a lady who takes people off her estate to go see things. She's kind of flown our nest. We've had hub members that have joined people's boards. So you think this is why people need to do this work.

David Watson:

Are you positive about the future?

Louise Yates:

Yeah, you've got to be, haven't you? You've got to be positive, and I am quite a positive person, but I'm ready for challenge and I'm ready for change because I like change. I think change is good, but I know that for some people change isn't great and people can find that quite difficult to deal with. But, yeah, I think I'm excited about what's next. I'm excited about how policy changes, how changes in government changes around funding on the horizon. That is interesting to see how that will impact on the work that we do and to somehow be a part of that bigger picture and to know that we have given and we are giving people a voice within that. That's important.

David Watson:

So we're at the point of this conversation where I ask all my guests to make a cultural confession, and I hope you've done your homework and had a think about what you might want to confess to. And that could be anything you want, I'm assuming you have done your homework.

Louise Yates:

Yeah, of course I have.

David Watson:

Come on, then make the confession.

Louise Yates:

So my confession is that I told a big fat lie during 2017, which was that the secret gig was not supposed to be a secret gig. The secret gig was me not having met the deadline for the market in Berkshire.

David Watson:

Wow, how do I not know?

Louise Yates:

about this?

David Watson:

How do I not know about this?

Louise Yates:

Because the good thing was we were in two separate offices producers and other creators that were happening down the road and the programming and then marketing comms volunteering different offices down the street so I had the whole length of that street to me up a story as to why I've not met the deadline for the first back to hours festival. That was February half term 2017 and the brochure. We wanted it out for December 2016, so we thought people might want to buy tickets as Christmas presents, that kind of thing, so we wanted it out. So this will have been November 2016 and I programmed everything and I was like, in the word, one of the exec producers. I'd given birth to my first festival, but there was this gap. And there was a gap because I'd had loads of different meetings with different cabaret promoters and talked to a lot of different companies and really wanted some cabaret in there, because when I played poker, it was the one thing people were really interested in it and I'd not managed to pin everything down. I'd worked with the dates. It was clashing with quite a few international festivals and a lot of the cabaret shows were out of the country that I was particularly interested in. So I was like what am I going to?

David Watson:

do, what am I?

Louise Yates:

going to say so, I'd run out of ideas, probably smoke three fags. I was walking down the street and then I just thought, just say it's a secret. So I said it's a secret. And so I said it's a secret and either you or maybe Laura said oh, it's a secret gig. Yeah, a secret gig.

David Watson:

And it took hold and the legacy of this thing is we love a secret gig and they are epic.

Louise Yates:

We love a secret gig, not done one for a little while, but, yeah, people are always asking for a secret gig and that opens up loads of avenues. We've put things on that have really challenged people and, yeah, it's a great opportunity for people to see things that they wouldn't normally get the chance to see, which is great opportunity. And again, I love to do that. I love to surprise people with some things, so they're in an environment that they're really comfortable. So the secret things happened in social clubs worked with two social clubs in the city and they were really open to the different acts that we were putting on, and people kind of took hold. And one element of it where we'd put on some retro comedians and people always expected to get quite a well known comedian there and I thought, well, that's interesting because we can surround that with lots of other types of performers, which we did. But yeah, it came from a lie, it came from a massive lie, but yeah, it worked. Do you know what, though? Sometimes you just have to go with things, don't you know? I think it's roll a bit and make sense. Sometimes you are making sense of things afterwards, after the fact.

David Watson:

Brilliant and our former colleagues are going to be finding this out, and I can't wait for the WhatsApp exchange about. Did you know?

Louise Yates:

She lied.

David Watson:

It was a lie, but what an extraordinary outcome, because secret gigs play a big part in the legacy of back to ours and for me, the one I came to you with Off the Boulevard I've still got my membership, which cost me three quid a year. Brilliant, lou. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. We could have carried on for hours and hours now, because we normally do, I know.

Louise Yates:

I just go off on tangents though I just ramble into a mad woman. I think sometimes a lot of the work I do is very much in my head and it's hard to sometimes prize out.

David Watson:

Well, I think we've got a lot from this conversation and I've definitely learned a lot more about you, and thank you for doing what you do. The work is great and you're amazing, and thank you for talking to me again Thank you. Thanks for listening to this episode of Before the Applause. Please do tell everyone about this podcast and stay connected with us across all the usual social media platforms by searching at Before Applause. If you've got any burning questions, want to share your own insights, want to recommend a guest or be one yourself, then we'd love to hear from you. You can direct messages on any of our social accounts or email studio at beforetheapplaudepodcom.

Introduction
Experiences in Education and Creative Scene
Community Engagement and City of Culture
Engaging Communities in the Arts
The Importance of Community Engagement
Community Engagement and Challenges in Funding
Cultural Confession