I think we underestimate the value of fun nowadays, especially at school. With the financial downturn, everything is very driven towards getting qualifications and so on. The arts are about so much more.
Chris Enticott and I co-founded Eastside. At the time I was doing bits of arts marketing and admin beforehand and Chris was a stage manager. We thought we’d do something one summer for six weeks, so we put on a production of Bugsy Malone, which is where the name comes from. It’s not just because we’re in East London, it comes from the Eastside of New York.
We did that at a tiny little theatre in Poplar, but then all the kids went back to school – that was in 1994. And we started to get calls, people were really interested in having people come in and work in that way. I think artists going into schools back then involved much more traditional residencies or performances. There’s been a real shift since we’ve been going and it is now more normal for creative practitioners to go into schools and lead participatory workshops, which wasn’t the case when we first started.
We are an arts and education charity. We work across all the art forms; drama, dance, visual art, literature, film, photography, digital media and music. We work with young people from 5-18. We go out to them quite a lot, so we will go to schools right across London. But we also have a space here and a small but very versatile studio space plus a boardroom space too. So we do have young people coming here as well.
It’s about engaging young people, motivating them, educating them and thinking of the arts as a fantastic enrichment tool. It’s great to reach young people who perhaps aren’t doing so well at school because the traditional forms of education don’t do it for them, but learning through the arts can really engage and excite them.
We do lots of literature-based programmes with spoken word artists and that’s about self-expression, getting those voices out, public speaking and presentation skills. We want them to create their own art, so we send in professionals and artists. We have 150 individuals we work with really closely who go into schools and help develop young people’s skills within those art forms.
The skills that young people can acquire through the arts aren’t necessarily those that traditional learning can give them. The curriculum is very narrow and defined, so people get very narrow and defined within their positions at school. Very often a teacher will tell us to look out for a particular pupil, they’ll say they don’t contribute very often or they’re difficult. And it’s always the reverse. The ones that are star pupils, who do really well when they learn in that way, are generally not star pupils when it comes to this.
We run a project celebrating community languages so children who speak other languages at home really get a chance to shine and suddenly the kids that may have been thought of as a bit strange, because they have a different accent or their mum can’t speak English, suddenly have a new skill that’s really valued. And it’s about valuing that, and saying sometimes it’s important to value things that don’t just lead to grades. I think by having a culture where there’s a wrong and a right and everything leads towards grades, we’re really losing that important side of things which is about experimenting and trying things out; being brave and trying something new, even though there is more fear of failure now.
Eastside started in 1994, so we’re 20 next year! We moved to Perseverance Works about 9 years ago. We started out with offices on board HMS President, moored at Blackfriars. We had an underwater office, without portholes so we had a very boat-shaped space. But HMS President had to have some essential repair work, so we had to come off board. We went into serviced offices for a while as a temporary measure while we looked for somewhere permanent.
We looked all over the place. I remember seeing this place, it used to be an art gallery. We did loads to it; all our furniture was donated by one of our supporters. It came from the Paris offices of Morgan Stanley, which is why it has that corporate look. We deliberately went that way, rather than the graffiti look, because I think quite often people try to have a youthful look but they quite like coming somewhere that has a sense of being a business and professional.
It’s quite good having a blank canvas downstairs; it’s been living rooms, kitchens and all sorts of other things. We’re currently working with the BFI Film Academy, which is about giving young people an insight into the film industry and some of the hidden careers and pathways. Because we’re here in East London, we’ve also been able to link into other London organisations as well around film. So we took them to Three Mill Studios, to a sound school in Limehouse and we do some of our screenings at Rich Mix as well. So we’re very much making it an East London film academy.
Where we were before was in the city; it didn’t quite feel right, there weren’t a lot of local young people. Here we’re based in the heart of the community, but we feel like we’re in the heart of lots of communities. There are obviously lots of young people; they come and sit on the steps waiting for the bus quite a lot… And we sometimes throw open the doors when the Columbia Road flower market is on, so we get lots of local young people that can come and do crafts downstairs and open workshops. We’re very much rooted here – it’s a brilliant spot. Also because Shoreditch has such a creative, young vibe and lots of our creative team live nearby.
And as well as all those communities, we’re part of Perseverance Works, which is quite a creative and vibrant community. We’re increasingly doing more work around digital media, and that ties in with a lot of the businesses at Perseverance Works as well. We really expose young people to creative businesses and careers being here.
We started out very much with drama and we’ve developed adding new art forms along the way. We did one project called Write Up Your Street, which was about getting young people to write stories that we then put up on those poster panels on buses. And that was about 10 years ago, and some of those young people have got back to us to tell us they’re writing professionally now. That’s really been great.