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St. Margaret’s House on how the arts industry went digital

Hot off the heels of launching Reach Online, a digital events programme, St. Margaret’s House’s Arts and Wellbeing Director Stuart Cox talks about how they innovated amid the pandemic and their upcoming programme of online events.

While established streaming services like Netflix came ready-made for lockdown, many others in the arts industry, especially smaller venues such as St Margaret’s House on Old Ford Road, had to innovate on the fly. For them, continuing to support their artistic collaborators and reach their audiences online is part of an ongoing digital experiment.

The Arts and Wellbeing Director of St. Margaret’s House Stuart Cox can attest to the initial shock as venues all around the country were ordered to close indefinitely by the government earlier this year. 

‘The first few weeks everything was just frozen,’ he says, referring to the early days of lockdown. ‘Then we started to see events being organised through Zoom; people embracing the fact that they’re going to have to try new things.’ 

Venues such as The National Theatre have found success in streaming their existing plays on Youtube. Pop superstars delivered impromptu concerts from their sitting rooms. Festivals such as Wireless went virtual, with the entire lineup playing live from studios around the world. 

This stellar display of ingenuity has brought about great positive change and it is widely recognised that this digital innovation has helped bring the arts to new audiences. Yet this doesn’t change the challenges still being faced by indoor venues that remain closed even as other arts sectors open up. 

Public funding, such as the £1.57 billion arts support package announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in early July, will be crucial to the survival of arts venues, says Cox. 

‘It is absolutely vital. You’ve probably seen news stories asking, “how do we get theatre back” so the state of the arts industry is one everyone’s minds and on-going government support is vital to that issue.’ 

In April, St. Margaret’s applied for Emergency Arts Council Funding and this has enabled them to fund their new Reach Online programme.

‘With Reach Online, we can support the artists taking part, as many of them would have lost all their work. And many artists are freelancers so they don’t have the option of being furloughed.’

Rethinking their relationship with digital media is also a learning curve for many arts organisations, and something that Cox says needs investment going forward, especially as there is still no date when indoor performances can go ahead. 

‘I don’t know anything about digital media at all,’ Cox laughs. ‘So with this grant, we were able to invest in rethinking how performance and digital platforms go together. Before, social media was more about promotion. Now it’s about engaging our audience.’

Reach Online is part of the great ‘digital experiment’ in the time of coronavirus. The programming is diverse, designed to appeal to both local audiences and new people.  There is a range of interactive theatre, creative workshops and performances that, according to Cox, is meant to stretch our old limitations of the role that digital media played in the arts. 

‘For example, we have Bric à Brac, a theatre ensemble who will be running interactive workshops aimed at families with children. So that will be an experiment because it’s interactive, not just streaming.’

As St. Margaret’s is a local grassroots organisation, its digital offerings are hosted by performers with whom they already have a relationship; familiar faces to regular locals.

‘I think it’s nice for people to have something to do that is not mainstream,’ says Cox. ‘You can still have a taste of something that feels local. It’s almost like we’re saying “look, we’re still here,” as an organisation.’

And already, their programming is reaching new fans. 

‘We’ve had some really nice feedback,’ says Cox. ‘There was a grandmother looking after her grandchildren who said she found our Junk Orchestra events helpful in keeping them entertained.’  

Their Reach Online programmes are an eclectic mix of crafts, dance and theatre. ‘Rosamund from YogaNest is offering dance lessons,’ says Cox. ‘And she is working with young carers in Tower Hamlets, giving them a creative outlet as well as using this opportunity to expand her skillset.’ 

The dance lessons are part of three main events that will be happening as part of Reach Online, with the other two blockbuster programmes being an embroidery ‘craft along’ workshop with Milou Stella and Bric à Brac theatre.

St Margaret’s House’s Reach Online programme successfully retains its distinctively local flavour, despite not being tied to a physical location. Not only does it involve artists who have worked with St. Margaret’s House before, but these events also reflect the variety of artistic genres and mediums that larger arts venues might struggle to offer. 

Independent arts charities like St. Margaret’s House may not have had the budgets of the large playhouses to help them ‘pivot’ online, but they have certainly risen to the occasion. They have taken their signature experimental and inclusive approach to the arts onto the digital landscape, extending the limits of live-streaming and digital platforms. 

It’s a testimony to the courageous and tenacious spirit of the East End that our grassroots organisations can utilise their limited resources so well and bring digital programmes to a potentially national audience while retaining their authenticity.

‘It might be digital, but it still feels very Margaret’s House,’ says Cox. 

For live theatre fans, St. Margaret’s House is in preliminary talks to showcase socially distanced physical shows once the green light is given for indoor performances to resume. In the meanwhile, the following interactive online events will keep you and the family entertained.

Movement and Dance with Rosamond Martin

With indoor studios and gyms hit hard by lockdown, being glued to your computer screen has become the new form of exercise. Thanks to Zoom, the video conferencing software that no-one had heard of before lockdown, you can join Rosamond Martin, a local choreographer, dance, Pilates and Feldenkrais® teacher, for a five-week Dance and Movement Improvisation course. 

Sessions will explore various ways of creating body awareness, improving coordination and linking moves together fluidly. Martin eschews routines in favour of individual expression through dance, offering a creative way to explore your body. You can channel your inner free spirit from the comfort of your sitting room.

In true St Margaret’s House style, this is much more than an exercise class. Simultaneously, Rosamund is also running movement and dance courses for Carers’ Networks and an advanced course for professional performers. The final session in the first week of September will be an opportunity for all these groups to come together and create an online performance. You are welcome to invite your own ‘online’ guests to see the final show.

Rosamund’s workshops will run on August 4, 11, 18 and 25, with the final get-together held on September 4. See St. Margaret’s Calendar for more information. 

C.R.C.K with Milou Stella

Creative Resistance Craft Klub (aka C.R.C.K) was born in the early days of lockdown to create an online safe space for crafting and chatting. Initially for people who had attended Embroidery for Wellbeing workshops and The Embroidery Loop at The Create Place at St Margaret’s House, C.R.C.K has since grown into a bigger project with special guest speakers, who will share their own experience and projects around the concept of Creative Resistance.

These sessions are open to everyone whatever their interests or hobbies. All you need is to do is bring your own craft project and sign in to Zoom.

Milou Stella’s Creative Resistance Craft Klub is every first, second and third Thursday from 5:30pm. Two of the three sessions a month will welcome special guests.

Classes will be held on August 6, 13 and 20. Please note that the latest you can book into a class is 3pm on the day of the class. See more information about how to take part in C.R.C.K

Bric à Brac Theatre

Taking interactive family theatre online, the Bric à Brac audience will be invited to workshops where they can take part in creative exercises that will enrich their experience of the final performance. 

This theatre troupe is creating a piece that tackles the topic of climate change and how we can all help to save our planet. Audience members will receive links to specially designed creative exercises to do as a family in their own time. Two live Zoom workshops will focus on songwriting and puppet making.

At the end of the process, there will be a live performance of the play with opportunities for the audience to join in with their new found skills.

There will be live workshops 28 July and 18 August, and recorded workshops 30 July, 4, 6, 11 and 13 August. 

The live performance will take place 29 August.  Find out more about Bric à Brac theatre.

This content is sponsored by St Margaret’s House, the charity and arts venue supporting creativity and wellbeing.

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