Michael McEwan speaks to Steven Thomson, Creative Director and CEO of Outspoken Arts, a professional and creative organisation interested in work which references cutting edge social issues such as creative learning for young and vulnerable people, stories of migration and asylum, issues affecting LGBT people, disability, ethnicity, creative ageing and social health and well-being.
The organisation represents diverse communities and recognises that equality, equal and human rights are now very much the focus of mainstream society, civic and organisational culture and its shifting sense of identity plays an increasingly influential role in this.
MM - Michael McEwan
ST - Steven Thomson
Michael McEwan speaks to Steven Thomson, Creative Director and CEO of Outspoken Arts, a professional and creative organisation interested in work which references cutting edge social issues such as creative learning for young and vulnerable people, stories of migration and asylum, issues affecting LGBT people, disability, ethnicity, creative ageing and social health and well-being. The organisation represents diverse communities and recognises that equality, equal and human rights are now very much the focus of mainstream society, civic and organisational culture and its shifting sense of identity plays an increasingly influential role in this.
MM On this episode we hear about an Arts Organisation called Outspoken. We were talking to Steven Thomson, who is a Creative Director and the CEO of Outspoken Arts. So, Steven tell us what kind of audience do you have?
ST Well Outspoken Arts is a legacy organisation that originally came out of the Glasgay Festival. The Glasgay Festival ran from 1993 to 2014 and it principally had quite a mixed audience. About probably 55% of the audience were lesbian and gay, there was a small percentage of bisexual and trans audience, a few percent, but also that audience did come from all over Scotland. A large proportion of it was Glasgow because the festival was Glasgow based and there was a travelling audience, you know, people coming from the Highlands, 5% of the audience came from Down South and 1 or 2% were international visitors. So, in that twenty-year history the festival managed to be quite a well-known, well recognised product in the annual calendar. Over the last two years we transitioned into a different type of organisation that doesn't deliver a festival, as such, and therefore our projects have been spread out more year-round and we have done work in Renfrewshire, work in Glasgow, work in Edinburgh and work with artists from Down South as well, so we are still pulling a bit of broader audience but it's just much more spread out now.
MM So, what are the values of your organisation?
ST Our values are principally based around artistic excellence, quality and championing those with protected characteristics. So, where originally we would have focused just lesbian and gay artists, or LGBT artists to be precise, over the years, the last 2 years we have expanded that to include those broader protected characteristics, that would be older people, women, the disabled, black and ethnic minorities, LGBT people of course, we have retained those, and to a certain extent younger people as well.
MM So, do you work all over Scotland or do you...?
ST We do work all over Scotland, although because we work with communities that you would describe as non-homogenous there is not a whole bunch of LGBT people out there in Auchtermuchty that we are referencing. We recently did a project called Queer Champions, which is a national exhibition at the Scottish Parliament, and that pulled together activists from all over Scotland. It was an unusual exhibition in that it didn't just reference well known faces like authors or celebrities, it actually pulled together community activists, so there were journalists there, there were young new networking organisations like the Women out at Work Network, and similarly trans people and people of colour. So, we worked with the Equality Network, we've got a broad reach across the country and a leading artist from the UK called Ajamu, who actually helped bring some of these dispirit faces together, and that exhibition ran in the parliament for LGBT history month and then in Glasgow and in Paisley, and that was 1 of the first projects for a while that actually is able to reference a wider Scottish community, people from Greenock, people from the Highlands, people from Perth, Dundee, Edinburgh, etc. so they were from all over, about 21 portraits altogether were shown but over 3 dozen people were originally photographed.
MM That kind of leads me onto my next question, so tell me, if people want to come to your organisation with an idea, what happens?
ST Well we absolutely are an ideas organisation. We are a creative organisation that has it's own ideas, but we really do welcome in people with their thoughts and suggestions as well and we very much work in a way of collaboration and co-production so when we meet people who have specific ideas the first, sort of, questions that we generally ask, they are a bit similar to the questions you are asking today, you know, what might be the audience for this work? How do you see it being presented, on stage, on screen or on an exhibition or on a different setting? And we will work with an individual, I suppose ultimately the idea has to appeal to us, it has to be relevant to our audience and we have to feel that it maybe has some quality outcome that's going to result in an event, an exhibition, a festival, a play or whatever, or a musical even, but it will have some point of difference from things that are going on elsewhere. So, we don't just take every idea that comes to us, we are a wee bit curatorial in that respect, but what we often do is, we will identify people have good ideas but they've maybe not worked it up yet, and that's a case where we would say to someone, well lets look at that idea and think, would you be willing to work with other artists, be it a writer, a musician, choreographer, whoever, and look at those flavours and themes and ideas in the idea and see how we could maybe augment that or improve it or develop it, and we would then chat to the person bringing the idea and see if they are willing and open to have things developed or, if they are looking for that development process, we would then encourage them to meet and collaborate with others and we would then fund a project to go forward, um, and that quite a while. You know, sometimes people have a very strong ideas, but they haven't thought out how they are going to get the show on, or they might not be theatre makers as such, or filmmakers, so we have to gauge how much they understand the process and feel comfortable going through that. So, sometimes that does take people with a bit of experience but if they don't have that experience we can often find the right professionals that can support the development of an idea.
MM So it's like a buddy system as well?
ST Yeh, I suppose it's more of a commercial way to put it, they call it a client relationship.
MM Oh right, ok.
ST But, I mean, in the arts you don't call it a client relationship management. I mean, ultimately we get to know people and we are very interested in people and their quirks and their stories and their, you know, their points of observation. We are always looking at people and their lives and how they are represented. So, sometimes in an idea we will see themes that maybe an artist, or a person with an idea, doesn't see, or we will see relevance's to our audience and think, yeh that's a quirky story, or that's a point of view, or that's a really important issue that's coming up, and those things are the things that drive us and will make us feel, yeh, this is for us. So, it's a bit like getting to know a new friend and figuring out, have we got shared interests? And are those interests going to be of interest to other people, to our audience, and will we work, and do we like you? you know, we've got to like you ultimately, that's often the way. You don't have to like everyone you work with, but they just have to be good ultimately, I think, and that's probably the biggest challenge in Arts sometimes, is that you'll have ideas come forward that might be a strong idea but are hard to get on to a next level. Sometimes people have ambitions for the scale of a work, which we can find it hard to fund, so you know, we don't do Busby Barkley musicals with grand staircases and a chorus of dancers kicking their high legs up in the air with fancy costumes. Quite often our work is small, it's intimate, it's immediate and it's very up to date and very contemporary. So, we are often looking at ideas and thinking about ways of effectively putting them on without necessarily having to raise a huge amount of money. So, you know, we don't do stadium work, that's 1 way of putting it, we are much more interested in the 1, in the stories that are intimate and can draw an audience in, a bit lie reading a book. For us, meeting artists and meeting people with ideas is a bit like reading a book where you want to love that book from cover to cover and be able to tell a story from beginning, middle to end and enjoy it and it has to be an enjoyable process, otherwise why would we do it, you know?
MM So you're not open to a particular audience, like disability and gay and bisexual and...?
ST Yeh, I think that we look for the relevance's, so we are going out meeting and engaging with 13 organisations in Renfrewshire at the moment and including some national organisations like The National Theatre of Scotland and The Tron, the Citizens and Former producers of the Arches. So, we are always out there being aware of what their interests are and what we might bring to the table. Of course we have got our own spate of projects that we are trying to develop and find connections for, so in that process there will be ideas that emerge out of that engagement process where we will meet constituents, we will be looking for certain types of people, you know, so, for example, if we are developing a suite of monologues about people in care and care settings, then that principally references quite often older people and their experiences and, of course, older people are a protected characteristic, therefore, that's really important for us. Similarly, for disabled people or for black and ethnic minority, or LGBT, but what we are probably not looking to do is always just do those things in a silo so that they are talking to themselves, talking to their own audience. It's a bit like preaching to the converted, you know, we want to integrate people, want to integrate those characteristics into our stories so that if we do a play bout care and care settings, or a number of plays, there might be 1 elderly LGBT person there or 1 person from an ethnic minority or there might be a character who is disabled or wherever, so we will look for ways of influencing the shape of the idea and the development of the idea so that characteristic is represented well, in that their issues and their experiences are true and ring true to an audience, are authentic, they are celebrated as an individual, they are not just shown as a case or a victim of their disability or their, of course you still have to portray the dark side and show their experiences and where people share those experiences, whether it's of prejudice or difficulty that they face in their lives. We want to tell those stories, but we let those things develop naturally, we are not saying, right you have got to be a victim of prejudice or hate or whatever, to be in our work, that will come out naturally because it comes with the territory sometimes that people have had difficult experiences and difficult experiences make good drama. Happiness doesn't always make good drama, so yeh you are looking for both sides, definitely.
MM I suppose it's important to burst the bubble, as it were, and not perform to disabled people a play about disabled people, you want the guy down the street to see it as well.
ST I think, we've chatted about this before obviously out with today's recording, and I think that the important aspect of how your portray people from different backgrounds, particularly from disabled or from LGBT, is that you want to show aspects of their life that are meaningful to everyone, so you want to show everyday human relations, tell their stories and show their lives without being judgmental or just putting it into a silo and saying, this is the experience of a disabled person, look, oh how sad. You definitely don't want to do that, you want to do something that is a bit more celebratory and show them having everyday experiences where they, but also show them overcoming difficulty, because I think one of the ways in for an average audience who are sympathetic to people with protected characteristics is you have to show the journey of their life, from having overcome adversity to becoming something that's celebrated in their own life and something that they feel they are not being seen or recognised for. That's often the story of disabled people or LGBT people, they always feel they are overcoming a difficulty and it characterises so much of their own personality and their own behaviour that that's why we often say we are championing them, not that I believe the word underdog is necessarily right, but we are always championing those that are finding difficult to express themselves or to have a space to express themselves, and so the big issue really, more often than not, is not our ability or desire to do that, it's often the space that is allowed, in the arts or in television or film or screen, for these different issues to emerge. It's fine to be all blended in with the mainstream, but then sometimes the issues that people are experiencing aren't being told because, you know, it's fine to be a happy, shiny individual, but you have to see yourself, you have to see your battle, your journey, your experience, otherwise, you think, well that was a great representation of that lesbian or gay person, but they never stood up for anything, or that disabled person was really happy and nothing happened to them. That's not real life and it doesn't make good drama. So, I suppose we are always looking for that counterpoint and that's where people can see, you know, they will go on a journey with a character and they will think, god, they were really struggling and look how well they have done, or, look what's happened to them, and you can tell those stories, but we want them to be real not forced.
MM So, obviously we are coming at this podcast from an angle of disability and mental health, so I think I know what you are going to say here but I will ask it anyway, how do you feel that the arts in general is a good way of spreading the good news about disabled people and mental health, because as you know, it's still a bit of a stigma nowadays, we are getting better, but it's not...
ST I think you are right, it's both a stigma within society but it's also slightly ghettoised, you know, you look at the way the news, particularly, and the media, cover issues of mental health, you know, it's a bit like having the football slot on the last 15 minutes of the news, they will have a caring slot and they talk about issues in the health service, or they will have an arts slot and actually quite often what you don't see, you sometimes see positive representations of people's lives, but the reality is that it's kind of a new trend, in the arts particularly, that is filtering into broadcasting and filtering into mainstream media, that you have to celebrate people's lives so that you are showing them having gone on that journey and that they have had a positive experience because it's the experience of the arts that's the currency. So, gone are the days where a film director comes up with a great idea and drives that idea through without necessarily thinking about the audience or the issues or the experience of the product, and so ultimately how you create work that celebrates people's experiences and celebrates their lives and gives them a good journey and a good, I suppose one of my favourite film directors in that capacity is someone like Ken Loach who brings everyday people and actors, who makes actors look like everyday people and he makes them work in a very natural way where they are creating the work as they go and it's very authentic and very real. It's not overly scripted or overly directed, it's much more organic and, I suppose, because I've got a theatre background I am very interested in that kind of work that takes the real, everyday voice, and gets it onto the stage or on the screen and through that journey the actor or the writer or the audience, they similarly go on that journey and they think, I've had a great experience with that piece of work, it has changed my life. We overuse this terms in the arts quite a lot, but ultimately that's what taking part in the arts does, be it the school kid who gets their first show or the young actor who gets a great workshop and a great master class by a leading professional or gets into drama school or goes to music school or goes on to college to do art and design, that experience and that journey is something that we need to promote more, because taking part in things changes your lives, and I find that, it's refreshing coming back to work in Paisley, I have obviously been born and grown up here, where you find participants in arts projects who are not led by arts professionals, necessarily, but are getting arts work and they say, oh this project is changing my life, it's actually giving me something to get out my bed for and come into the centre for and enjoy and take part in, and actually they are enjoying it so much that they are born stars performers now in their own lives. Hearing those stories and celebrating the journey, I think, is why it's good for your mental health and wellbeing. It's not always easy, you know, taking people on a health and wellbeing journey can actually be quite painful for some and it can be really hard to face up to some of the difficulties that people go through. You know, for years when I was working in the Glasgay festival I dealt a lot with LGBT people who had been abused, who had been victimised, who had faced prejudices, who had ran away from home, who had turned their back on their family, and it's only now that we have an Equality Act that looks at the protected characteristics that you can say, well everyone has a right to a family life, to be respected, to not be discriminated against, to have a place in society, but you still have to recognise the journey of their lives and I often feel that the rush towards making sure that equality is rolling out everywhere means that some people don't feel they are actually being represented anymore because everybody is equal and you are all fine, well no we are not all fine, my individual story and my experience still has to be told somehow, because otherwise I won't be feeling fine all the time. So, that feeling of seeing yourself effectively represented or celebrated, I think, is quite important.
MM Finally questions from me then, and it just kind of leads on to what you were saying there, do you feel that people come to you with an idea, but they are not very confident, but 6 weeks down the line you know there's a difference and you say, wow, their confidence is actually...?
ST Yeh, I think that's, because we are an organisation of storytellers, so ultimately when we meet artists with ideas, or anyone with an idea, that will start a dialogue and over that period of engagement with them, and it can be as quick as a few months, sometimes it can take longer because quite often we will be dealing with writers who are a particular set of people who like to squirrel away on their own and come up with their ideas and then slowly test them with people because they are always scared of how it's going to be received, or you will meet theatre makers, for example, who are super confident and know exactly what they want to do and they can see the show at the end in their head. We are, I suppose, a bit of both where we like to meet writers who are still forming ideas and encourage them to think about things that, you know, maybe they've not heard of that experience of that person over there in a foreign country or in a care home or a particular politic thing that's going on right now or a change in legislation. Those things sometimes writers are not always aware of, or they are not referencing, but then sometimes people will come to us with those very things, they will say, look this is going on right now with the mental health and wellbeing or with care of the elderly or wherever, and we feel it's really important to write about that and talk about that, but we are going to do that in this way. We will often look at that and think, well is that the right way to represent it or is there another way? Is there another thing you can bring to the table? So, it's always a bit of to and fro, backwards and forwards, but ultimately, as producers, we also recognise that people come to us with formed ideas, you know, they have maybe done one or two plays and they are ready to get on the go and if we like it enough we let them sign. It's their voice, it's not my opinion or my show, I'm just glad when it comes out looking good and the audience say, that was a great night, I enjoyed that. So, it's not a case of us having big egos, it's a case of us being really grateful for people bringing us quality and good ideas and if we've been able to support that and enable that then that's the job of running an arts organisation, is to enable people to produce and to be entertained.
MM Ok, thank you. if you would like more information about Outspoken Arts and any of the projects they are working on, please call 0141 847 1122, or go to their website at, www.outspokenarts.org. You can also add them on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening.