NEXT Door But One may be new to Art Council England’s National Portfolio, but this York community interest company (CIC) has been a familiar, welcoming face to many in the community for ten years.
When Arts Council England announced its £446 million investment in 990 organisations each year from 2023 to 2026, to “bring art, culture and creativity to more people in more place across the country”, six York organisations were given funding, alongside such big hitters as the Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company.
Maintaining their previous NPO status are York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre, while Next Door But One (NDB1) and Explore York/York Explore Library and Archive both join for the first time.
“It might sound bizarre, but it’s OK if people haven’t heard of us yet,” says NDB1 founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. “We’ve been busy in residential settings, youth centres, pub courtyards and even the odd portable cabin or two – making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them.
“People have always come first, and profile second. But now becoming an NPO allows us to shout louder about our work and reach out to even more people.”
Set up by Matt in 2013, the applied theatre company cum community arts collective began by using improvisation to tell the stories of women’s groups, Muslim families and people new to York.
“Soon our storytelling was being used to make research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and enabling City of York’s training programmes to be more engaging and accessible,” he says.
“Our original productions were then showcased at York Disability Pride, the Great Yorkshire Fringe and York’s Dead Good Festival. From 2016, we’d honed our model of co-production and created partnerships with Camphill Village Trust, The Snappy Trust, York Carers Centre and Converge, to name a few.
“In the last year, we engaged more than 600 participants and 2,000 audience members. Something that, as a part-time team of five, we’re incredibly proud of.”
At the height of the Covid pandemic, NDB1’s activity went up by 61 per cent. “This was due to our community partners turning to us and saying ‘Can you help keep our communities connected and creative?’,” says creative producer El Stannage.
“So, we made digital performances for neurodivergent young people, online Forum Theatre to support the wellbeing of adults with learning disabilities and ran three online theatre courses for adults accessing mental health services, LGBTQ+ teenagers and unpaid carers.
“The need for our work has not decreased, even once lockdown restrictions were lifted, and that’s why we applied to be an NPO; to sustain our increased programme and to reassure our community groups that we’re still going to be there for them.”
This work’s impact on the York community has been acknowledged with formal recognition and awards from the Lord Mayor of York, the Archbishop of York and as a finalist in the Visit York Tourism Awards for “Innovation and Resilience”.
Anne Stamp, service manager at The Snappy Trust, is delighted that NDB1 are to become an NPO, helping to continue their long-standing collaboration. “Next Door But One is a much-needed service in York: a great resource for many and a service that helps to provide children and young people with a wider range of experiences, enabling them to learn, grow and have fun,” she says.
NDB1 are finalising their plans for 2023 but are working already on revivals of performances that toured to their fellow NPO, York Explore, including The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Operation Hummingbird, as well as expanding their professional development offer for local performing arts professionals that originally produced Yorkshire Trios at The Gillygate pub in April 2021; the first live, in-person performances that year in York once lockdown restrictions were lifted.
“All NPOs must go into a negotiation phase with Arts Council England until early 2023, but for now what Next Door But One are saying is, ‘We are here and we can’t wait to continue working with communities across York or meet new people for the first time, and create together,” says Matt.
Artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on what lies ahead for Next Door But One, York’s community arts collective
From Harrogate Theatre to Pocklington Arts Centre and English National Opera, venues and companies have suffered blows in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio awards for 2023-2026. What were the factors that meant Next Door But One NDB1) was selected as one of the new recipients in a climate where ACE talked of “levelling up” in its allocations?
“While we’re delighted to receive the NPO support, we are equally devastated for our peers across the industry who did not receive the support they had hoped for.
“We see us receiving the funding as validation for our community-driven approach, which makes our work inclusive and relevant to those we serve, while also taking on the responsibility to support our peers and create partnerships with those who aren’t part of the portfolio, so we can all continue to deliver our equally valuable work.”
York has come out of the NPO awards with tails up: York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre retaining NPO status; Next Door But One and York Explore Library and Archive joining for the first time. What does that say about the health and diversity of arts provision in York?
“I think we’ve known for a long time just how much the city is steeped in arts a culture, and as you suggest, this goes towards celebrating that – and what a diversity of offerings York will have over the coming three years.
“From central building-based theatres, to touring companies, music, museums, libraries and a nimble participatory company like us, there really is going to be something for everyone, and we’re proud to be contributing to that collective.”
What are the benefits to NDB1 of acquiring NPO status?
“The main benefit for us is sustainability. Over the years, we’ve been able to do what we do by working hard on securing project grant funding, but this can become time consuming and resource heavy.
“Knowing that we have our core funds secured for three years means we can really invest in current delivery while also having more headspace to think strategically about how we continue even further into the future.
“On the day we got the funding announcement [November 4], I phoned or emailed every partner we work with to tell them ‘We will still be here for you’ and that’s what it really means to us to become an NPO.”
Being a participatory arts and community-focused performance organisation gives you a different profile to other arts organisations in the city. All that with a part-time team of five. Discuss…
“It does, and I think that’s the real joy of the portfolio, particularly in York. We’re part of this great network of arts and culture creators, all approaching it from different angles, which should mean that everyone in York can access the things they want in a way that works for them.
“There can be a mistake when there are lots of organisations doing similar things into viewing it as ‘competition’, when it’s not. It’s complementary and collaborative. In fact, we’ve already had many discussions and meetings with fellow NPOs to see how we can support one another; how our work can go to their venue or how our participatory approach can strengthen a certain one of their projects.
“As for the part-time team, it’s great to have stability in our roles, which means we can grow both in terms of impact and by working with more York freelancers on upcoming projects.
“Even though it’s a full-time passion, we see our ‘part-timeness’ as a real strength; among our team we have those that in other areas of their working week are arts and mental health programme managers, music specialists, campaigners and directors of other theatre companies. All that additional skill and insight is really welcomed into NDB1.”
Is this the key: “Making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them. People have always come first, and profile second”?
“Yes, we pride ourselves on meeting people where they are, in terms of geography but also in terms of experience and aspiration. So, whether that is taking performances to community libraries or residential gardens, or workshops to children’s centres and support groups, we go to where we’re needed, connect and create together.
“This can often mean we don’t inhabit large, prolific buildings or that our work has huge visibility, but as long as we remain meaningful to those we do engage, then that’s what counts to us. And being an NPO will enable us to sustain this work while also reaching out to new communities and asking them what they want from us.”
Within the York community, you involve people who would not otherwise participate in the arts. Discuss…
“Well, rather than saying ‘We have this thing and you need to get involved’, we approach it the other way around by saying ‘We know about theatre, you tell us how you want that to work for you’.
“For example, our programme of Forum Theatre came about through communities of people with learning disabilities, their support staff and family wanting safe yet productive ways of exploring independent living.
“So, we worked with members of The Snappy Trust and Camphill Village Trust to gather the tricky situations that they wanted to explore, trialled the format with them, evaluated together and now this has become an embedded process and programme of engagement.
“This has been the same with us using storytelling and performance skills to increase the self-confidence of unpaid carers wanting to apply for volunteering and employed work, or offering online creative writing sessions to keep LGBTQ+ young people connected and openly exploring topics important to them.
“Our approach is for the community to identify what they want, and then our responsibility is to shape the theatre with them to meet that goal.”
Lastly, Matt, put some flesh on the bones of what you have planned for next year…
“So, as every NPO now must do, we’re in a negotiation phase until the end of January 2023 to confirm the first year of plans with ACE, but in short, both programmes of Forum Theatre for people with disabilities will continue and increase, as will our training course in Playback Theatre for adults with mental ill health.
“We’ll also be remounting our 2021 production of Operation Hummingbird with York Explore, creating new audiences with our adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, building on our relationships with schools and universities with a new tour of She Was Walking Home and supporting a cohort of local performing arts professionals with a series of mentoring and skills-based workshops.”
She Was Walking Home: the back story
PROMPTED by the kidnap and murder of York-born Sarah Everard in March 2021, Next Door But One mounted a city-centre audio walk last year, in response to “the reaction from women in our community and the unfortunate subsequent attacks and murders”.
Subsequently, it was expanded by Rachel Price into a live adaptation this spring, performed by a cast of four women at York Explore on May 5, Theatre@41, Monkgate, on May 20, The Gillygate pub, May 26, and University of York, June 14.
“She Was Walking Home aims to put the focus on the voices of local women, but not the responsibility or accountability for their safety,” says NDB1 associate director Kate Veysey.
Last year, for the first time, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data on how safe people feel in different public settings. One in two women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home, or in a busy public place, and two out of three women aged 16 to 34 experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months.
“Behind every one of these statistics is a true story of harassment, abuse, rape or even murder – a life changed forever,” says Kate. “We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience.”
She Was Walking Home takes the form of a series of monologues created from the testimonies of women living, working and studying in York. “We created this production in response to the heart-breaking murder of Sarah Everard and the understandable shock and uncertainty it caused in our local community,” says Kate.
“We wanted to amplify the voices of local women, while also prompting conversations around where responsibility and accountability lies for their safety. Since the original audio walk, listened to by almost 800 people, there have been further attacks and murders of women, including Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy, and still the rhetoric seems to be skewed towards rape alarms, trackers, self-defence classes and dress codes being the solution. We needed to continue and challenge this conversation.”
The 2022 tour to libraries, pubs, theatres and universities in May and June aimed to “bring this very real issue home with the experiences encountered on the very streets that make up York. “The invitation was to come and watch, listen, but also to think ‘What is it that I can do in making the women in our community safer?’,” says Kate.
Alongside the touring performance, Next Door But One have created a digital pack for schools and community groups, including a recording of the performance and a workbook containing prompts for debate and conversations that will lead to change.
“As a company, we want the theatre we make to be as useful as it can be; a tool that supports people in the ways they need,” says creative producer El Stannage.
“The tour reached different communities through the venues we visited, but equally the digital pack can be used to evoke conversations now, for change that will be seen into the future; empowering girls to report experiences of abuse and harassment and raising awareness of how boys and young men can be better allies in keeping women safe, for example.”
Watch this space for details of the upcoming performances in 2023.