One participant even told us ‘It’s amazing! When I am here, the time goes so quickly, and I forget my pain’.
September 2018 saw the launch of Stratford Arts Social – an arts club for older people, based at Stratford Circus Arts Centre in Newham, East London.
In the months that have followed, we’ve welcomed approximately three hundred older members of our community into our building to take part in creative activities ranging from music and dance, to storytelling, printmaking, drama, collage and more. We’ve held large-scale events, delivered intimate group workshops, hosted singalongs and jazz concerts, presented theatre performances, pulled off one MASSIVE end-of-year party and served many hundreds of sandwiches!
The structure of our arts club is simple: once a month, we hold a large-scale event where older members of the community are invited to drop in to a number of different creative workshops and performances over the course of a day, as well as joining us for lunch. Additionally, once a week we get together for the Creative Café – an informal, coffee morning style meet-up where we take part in a relaxed activity over a cuppa. We also have celebration events dotted throughout the year – parties, shows, singalongs – any excuse to come together on a grand scale and show-off how creative our community is!
The broad aims of Stratford Arts Social are also simple: to provide older people in our community with opportunities to take part in high quality creative activities in a relaxed and sociable environment. We also aim to empower those who have further artistic ambitions by providing opportunities for participants to commission their own special arts projects.
We know that older people are among those most at risk of marginalisation and isolation
We’re situated in one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, with levels of poverty continuing to rise, and we know that older people are among those worst affected and most at risk of marginalisation and isolation. When we met with a focus group of around twenty older people from our local area last summer, they told us that they needed opportunities to get out of the house, have fun, socialise and have their voices heard. Through art and creativity, Stratford Arts Social aims to provide those opportunities, free of charge and in an environment that’s welcoming and accessible to everyone.
Over the coming year, we’ve got our work cut out to build on the success of our first few months. We’ll be working with our steering group of participants to continue programming the activities and events they most want to try. We’ll be working closely with our community partners to connect with the older members of our community who are most isolated and who we’re committed to supporting to be part of Stratford Arts Social. And we’ll also continue to strive to make our programme appealing and accessible for everyone, working towards ensuring our participants and the artists we work with are representative of our culturally diverse community.
Stratford Arts Social is in its infancy, but in a short space of time, it’s become an integral and really special part of our work. And our participants have told us that being part of the project is already impacting them in diverse and far-reaching ways. Benefits range from the satisfaction of learning a new skill to the opportunity to enjoy a hearty free lunch in a warm and welcoming place. One participant even told us ‘It’s amazing! When I am here, the time goes so quickly, and I forget my pain’.
But a common thread that runs through almost every piece of feedback we’ve received is the value of connecting with other people and the unique capacity participatory arts have for enabling and encouraging these connections to take place. Through the arts, our participants are encouraged to chat, share experiences, express ideas and opinions, meet friends, and feel part of a community. And as a result we’ve seen countless friendships made and rekindled. Participants regularly exchange phone numbers so that they can keep in touch outside of our sessions, and one of our participants even told us that through the project she’d rekindled a friendship with someone she once worked with but hadn’t seen in over fifty years!
As one participant explained, involvement in Stratford Arts Social has given her ‘freedom, peace and friendship’. Another told us ‘This has really enriched my life! I used to sit at home a lot, but now I see my friends. I love to be sociable!’
‘This has really enriched my life! I used to sit at home a lot, but now I see my friends. I love to be sociable!’
Stratford Arts Social is gaining in momentum from week to week, and we can’t wait to see what the next year holds. With activities like steel pan drumming, podcasting and circus skills on our list of possible activities for 2019, I think we can safely say that the adventures have only just begun!
Colette Auer is Creative Learning and Programme Officer at Stratford Circus.