Don’t talk about the money, money

Ever since we started acta back in the 1980’s, chasing the funding we’ve needed to do the work has been a constant task, and a source of both despair and wild elation (when we’re successful!). It’s hard to explain to funders how important the work is, the impact it has on people, and how it needs to be funded properly. And for every funder which understands the story and supports our work – and we have been fortunate to find many of those – there’s always more who are harder to convince, or who can’t see why it’s important. It’s always been the same…

That first year, acta staff (two of us and two volunteers) existed on freelance sessions, paid mainly through Avon County Council. Avon (for those who don’t remember) was a vast county, encompassing all of Bristol and what is now North Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire. acta’s aim (and it’s still in our memorandum and articles) was to work across the whole county – and we did so, with groups in Yate, Peasedown-St-John, Weston-Super-Mare, Kingswood, as well as all over Bristol.

I had lots of contacts all over Avon County in the Youth and Community Service, as I’d spent a year covering the maternity leave of the Youth Arts Officer, Cath Leendertz. My boss, the head of Youth Arts, was Roger Bale. Roger was an old school youth worker, from the days of billiards and coffee bars in the fifties; a real character. He always wore a natty trilby and smart, checked jacket, and had a carefully set idea of what constituted Youth Arts. This comprised of four activity packs; a badge maker; a VHS video camera which weighed a tonne; ‘Fimo’ clay modelling; and ‘fantasy dip’. This last pack consisted of bundles of thin wire, and a number of tins of brightly coloured liquid plastic, which dried to create a thin hard film. The idea, I think, was that the thin wire was to be twisted into loops, dipped into the liquid plastic, and then used to create petals, or butterflies or .. well, petals or butterflies, pretty much. It didn’t have much of an impact; I do have memories of exasperated youth workers trying to encourage savvy young people that this was a worthwhile use of time.

Bit of a digression, but it illustrates where youth arts was at that time. (While I was working at the County, I did try to bring in some new ideas, some successful – circus skills with the wonderful Kez Margrie – and some not so successful – stage fighting workshops (seemed like a good idea at the time!) and of course, lots of drama and theatre making.

So when acta began, I was soon knocking on Roger’s door, and looking for funding to underpin the youth theatre network that we were setting up across the County. Bits and pieces came our way, but it was never really enough to pay ourselves properly. Our first week’s earnings, I remember, were £17. After a year or so, it was getting quite desperate (although the work was continuing with the support of our volunteers.) Eventually, we went to see Roger again in the Youth Arts office, in a bid to get him to support our youth theatre network with more funds. I can’t remember exactly what he said (it was 33 years ago, after all), but it was along the lines of ‘I would if I could… I really support what you do… my hands are tied… I’ve got overheads’.  (I’m sure at this point his eyes strayed to the crate of fantasy dip in the corner).

My colleague Caroline Green responded with ‘We can’t keep doing the work without more support. We can’t afford to live, or buy new clothes. Look at the state of Neil’s coat’.

To be fair, it had seen better days (and was already a charity shop purchase when I first got it). I’m sure she meant well, but I wasn’t that chuffed to have my ragged state flagged up like that.

Roger mumbled something vaguely regretful, but it was along the same lines: ‘I wish I could help… my hands are tied… I would if I could’. We left, with little hope of any change.

Next morning, as we sat and wondered about how to bridge the gap between what acta should do, and what we could afford to do, there was a knock at the door. When I answered it, there was Roger, in his natty trilby and smart jacket.

‘I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday’, he said. Hope rose – could this be a change of heart? He handed me the bag he was carrying. 

‘Here’, he said, ‘this should help’. And he left, quite quickly, without another word.

I looked in the bag with some excitement (was it full of fivers…?) and there was one of Roger’s old jackets; smart, checked, good as new. It was well-meant, a kindly gesture; but one which missed the point somewhat, and also reflected how our work, how community theatre, was viewed; worthy, heart-warming, but not a funding high priority. Only worth a second hand jacket. It frustrated me then; it frustrates me still.

That’s not to say it hasn’t changed over the years; there is now considerably more understanding of the value of participation in the arts; for example, the next Arts Council 10 year strategy underlines the importance of supporting this work; several of the larger charities are exemplary in supporting participation. But it can still be hard to make the case; and there are still those who question the validity of the work. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

By the way, I don’t think I ever wore the jacket; didn’t quite fit, and to be honest, it didn’t look right without the trilby.

Neil Beddow

December 2019

Hear more about the value of community theatre in acta’s recent documentary “Behind the Scenes” on BBC Radio 4.