The news of Stopgap getting a significant uplift in core funding from Arts Council England comes off the back of us completing the busiest ever touring season with the outdoor work Frock. In this signature blog, Co-Artistic Director Lucy Bennett talks about the company’s longstanding ambition to make works that are inclusive and relevant to diverse audiences, which is a key principle of the Arts Council’s new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create.
Listen to an audio version of this blog
If someone asks me what does success look like for Stopgap? I quickly say:
“It’s a full house of diverse people engaging and appreciating our work”.
This summer, we performed our outdoor dance work Frock nationally and internationally 56 times in 19 cities to some 26,000 people. The tour began with a shopping mall tour in Sweden in March and took us to places like Skegness, Grimsby, Leicester and Bournemouth in the UK to Barcelona, Malta, and Munich in Europe.
The beautifully diverse crowds have been turning up and tuning in, and they have been wonderfully receptive wherever we went. We are so thrilled to have made a piece of work that has such a universal appeal.
Leading a Frock themed workshop at the Tea & Jubilee event in Crawley this summer.
Disabled audience members and the Frock dancers together after a performance in Worthing.
Performing Frock at Grenzgänger Festival in Munich
An audience in Malta giving the performers applause.
At times our tour of festivals, town centres and city sites has felt a little like a contemporary dance roadshow. With audience members asking me and my team about the style of our dance and where they could find out more about inclusive contemporary dance. Often people have actively sought me out as the choreographer to ask me how we created the choreography, commenting that I must have made the steps with the dancers performing, as the movement was so idiosyncratic.
In retrospect I wonder: Were our audiences always so engaged with our dancing or is this part of the fallout from being stuck inside our homes for two summers? Or is it because dance and disabled dancers are gaining more visibility in our media?
One aspect of our production I know has encouraged more audience enquiries, is our pre-show in person access guide. This summer, we decided to take care of our own access support as best we could for audience members wanting to experience Frock. One member of Stopgap’s backstage team is nominated as the access guide, and before the show commences there are several announcements sharing the location of our access guide and that the access guide is available to answer questions. Our access guide has several copies of our laminated easy read programmes for Frock. The easy read programme was created by Stopgap’s access and content artist Lily Norton and is a plain English copy with narratives, character descriptions and plenty of images of the dancers.
Often, we will offer the guide for people to browse as they wait for the show, and we watch as the easy read programme is passed around the audience followed by a bubble of chatter. I have experienced audience members returning to watch the show later in the day and asking again to browse the programme as they dig a little deeper into the production. They often use this small interaction with me to begin a conversation on the themes of the work, to share their lived experience of gender roles or sometimes they relish telling me about a loved one that has broken with convention to be their true selves.
The Audience is Boss
Before I was a choreographer, I was a professional dancer with Stopgap. During a research project in my early twenties, I was once told off (literally) by a contemporary movement researcher for admitting I loved to dance for the audience. “You should only dance for yourself” they said shaking their head. Maybe that is why I happily sit amongst the audience as a choreographer now. I know who my boss is – The Audience.
I love that my boss is the audience and I’d like to say a big thank you to all the street arts and outdoor dance audiences for turning up, supporting us and being a great boss! We have loved how, over the summer, the audience literally got closer and closer to our dancing.
We’d like to say thank you to the audience members whose sleeping area is where we performed, and not only did they let us dance where they lived, they celebrated our productions and our diversity.
We’d like to say thank you to the carers who organised minibuses to bring their clients to our performances.
We’d like to say thank you to the disabled people who pestered their activities buddies to bring them to the front row of Frock.
We’d like to thank the 93-year-old dancer in Worthing who took the time to give feedback to every member of the cast, and we’d like to thank the 5-year-old who when asked by his mum: “Do you want to watch this or get an ice cream?” He said: “Watch this!”
At the end of the show the dancers gleefully bow. Lovingly penned in by their audience, the dancers openly wait. Gradually the audience gets closer and audience and performer merge. The performers busily answer questions and graciously smile and nod as they receive compliments on their performance. It is a wonderful moment to observe, a moment we feared might not happen again. There are no walls, so it is not technically a full house but in this moment the connection between audience and performer does not seem to need walls to feel the atmosphere of a full house – in fact I think it does better without.
So, now to the next venture and how to get a full house engaging with our indoor production or more importantly a full house of diverse people engaging with our work?
We will be putting what we have learnt from touring Frock into our next indoor production ‘Lived Fiction‘, which boasts a cast of eight distinct dancers. We are considering a much more porous style of experiencing the production, with an audience up close and mobile in a street arts style. We want to integrate creative access for our audiences with an access host cum master of ceremonies, who will gently tug the audience and performer closer together. One of our sayings at Stopgap is “Inclusion Elevates Everyone”. We hope by weaving creative audio description, innovative captions and proximal witnessing into the process, we can expand everyone’s sensory experience of dance, and with the blend of voices, perspectives, and styles, we are hoping it will also be a meaningful one.
Catering for everyone’s perspectives inclusively in one shared experience is a huge undertaking. It will involve us deconstructing and reconstructing dance as an art form from vastly different vantage points… but it’s a challenge a company like us with our history and experience has to attempt. In January, it will be 20 years since my Co-Artistic Director Laura Jones and I began working together at Stopgap, and we feel there’s enough experience amongst us and our colleagues. Arts Council England will be significantly increasing our core funding from March 2023 onwards, and we hope this production will have the scale of ambition that matches the trust our core funders have shown us.