Bringing people together through creativity.
A conversation between Maddy Mills, Director of Entelechy Arts and Connecting through Culture researcher, Karen Gray. 10th June 2021
Q1. Tell me about Entelechy Arts.
At Entelechy Arts we work creatively with artists and different communities in and around Lewisham, London and beyond. We collaborate with various communities, including elder people at risk of, or experiencing isolation, people living in care homes and people living with disabilities.
It is these communities who take the lead in collaboration with our artists. They are the decision-makers. Also, our volunteers – some of whom are elder people themselves, are really passionate about making a contribution. The artists we work with are people who really understand the people and the work, some have been with us for 25 years.
Q2. And how have you and your members been affected by Covid?
All have been affected by Covid-19, and some members very disproportionately. Our work has always had a relational element to it. This really came to the fore during the pandemic.
We have had to work in completely different ways. Some of our members don’t have easy access to the internet or computers. If we’d just moved our work to Zoom we would have lost contact with a lot of them. In March 2020 we initially focused on making sure people had support networks around them. The team worked extraordinarily hard to keep in touch with people during lockdowns, through creative activity but also with things like birthday cards, letters, deliveries and doorstep visits.
One way we have been working with people is using Skype in what we call ‘Creative Cluster’ sessions on the telephone.
Q3. How have those calls worked?
They bring different groups of people together to be creative together on the telephone, with an artist. Three telephone choir groups formed out of an existing in-person choir. One of our artists started a ‘Making With’ group, where members use art materials we have posted out. There is a poetry group. All have sprung up in response to members’ requests.
We usually have between four and seven people on each call. Any more than that and things can get tricky. We’ve also been doing one-on-one creative calls with an artist, including for those who are living with dementia, where we know that people just don’t engage well with group phone calls.
Logistically it is complex. We send out information in advance by post, follow up with a phone call to check people can make it and we give them a reminder the day before. Somebody calls each person to let them into the session and is in the background helping people if a call drops out. That’s in addition to the artist and a volunteer. We brought a new member of staff on board specifically to deal with access. She rings around to make sure people are accessing and enjoying the sessions and puts any additional measures in place. For example, in one group someone might say they are struggling to hold a pencil, so she will send them a pencil grip. Having her in post has helped us pay close attention to people and give them important personalised care. She’s also been able to signpost people to other local support groups if needed, welcome newcomers through social prescribing and has been able to support with any wider healthcare concerns.
Most calls are joyful, but sometimes people have really just been sad. And that’s OK. Many members have known somebody who’s died from Covid. There have been moments of joint reflection and grief as well as joy and laughter.
I think a lot of people, including me, assumed that people would attend for escapism or just to add interest to their day. Actually, one woman told me that she has been constantly on the go around the house, and the call was her time to sit down with a cup of tea – for calm and focus. One chap told me he enjoys getting dressed up each week for the call – even though of course no-one can see him.
Q4. And your members have also been making a radio show, is that right?
Yes! Meet Me on the Radio is part of our Meet Me programme which we run in partnership with the Albany theatre in Deptford. It was another way of reaching people and chance for our members to lead. Two of them, Rosaline and Ron, are the hosts. Episodes are released on a Tuesday morning and are then available on demand. All the content is chosen through members’ interests. For example, there was an episode connected with Windrush Day.
People have told us it’s been a source of comfort. By March this year, I think we were up to around 20,000 listens, although it has been surprisingly challenging to track who is listening where. It was only meant to be short-term during the pandemic, but now we’re considering how we can keep it going.
Q5. How has the experience of delivering creativity at home differed from your normal in-person activity?
We were already thinking about how to reach people in their own homes before the pandemic. At home you can sit on your favorite chair, you can eat, you don’t have worries about transport. But many of our elder members don’t have easy access to computers and / or wifi and so have missed much of the creative content that went online. And there is just something fundamental about getting together in person in a group. Whether that is for a cup of tea or to make art or to watch a show, there is communal togetherness in each of those things which can’t be replicated through a digital experience.
Q6. Have you tried any purely digital activity?
There’s our programme called Ambient Jam. This is co-created with people who are living with profound and multiple learning disabilities. To my mind Ambient Jam zooms are the most wildly creative use of Zoom I have ever seen.
Imagine a virtual room of people, some of whom are non-verbal: in advance they may have been asked to collect a list of themed objects, maybe – something shiny, something orange, something you can see through. Facilitating artists create a ‘working score’ through which members are prompted to present the things they have brought through non-verbal physical improvisation including music and sound. As they do this the whole screen fills up with textures and colours. Add music and it’s almost filmic! They create these epic improvisatory sensory experiences together. It’s not a patch on being together in person, but the team have done an extraordinary job making the most of being together digitally.
Q7. And what is going to happen next?
We’re slowly returning to in-person activity. Some people understandably aren’t ready, so we are continuing to run a remote programme. It’s not sustainable long term without additional funding but we won’t leave anyone behind.
There’s this narrative coming out about how digital has increased access to culture during the pandemic. It has in many ways, but the digital divide is real. We need to keep working together as a sector to ensure the arts are available to everybody, including those who are digitally excluded. We have to make sure we tell that story as well.