When I first moved to Manchester to study theatre, I was 18, and I wanted to be an actor. I enjoyed my degree course, and I’m enormously grateful that I had the opportunity to do it, but I am even more indebted to the teacher who taught me most of all: this city.
Feeling connected to where I live has proved key to my writing, my confidence and my happiness
Manchester, for anyone who doesn’t already know, is overflowing with creativity. I threw myself into the wonderful work made by our producing theatres like the Royal Exchange and Contact Theatre, the world class shows brought here by Manchester International Festival, and the city’s thriving live literature scene, which orbits around Manchester Literature Festival. I came out of these experiences feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself. Art and culture made me feel at home here.
Thanks to these experiences, in my life outside the Arts Council I’m now also a writer. That’s not unusual here; many of my colleagues lead double lives as artists or running creative projects in their spare time. Manchester’s fantastic cultural offer is invaluable to me as a writer, which is often a very solitary occupation; it provides me with inspiration and a welcoming environment to try out my own work at regular events like Bad Language and First Draft. Being part of a creative community, whether it’s as a performer, producer, or just as an audience member, has become a huge part of my identity. Feeling connected to where I live has proved key to my writing, my confidence and my happiness.
Not everybody lives in a major city with so many opportunities to engage with art and culture on their doorstep. One of the things that excites me most about working at the Arts Council is our commitment to working with local authorities and other partners to make sure that there is access to art and culture for everyone who wants and needs it, wherever they are in the country.
We invest in art and culture because it empowers us and our communities
And of course, not all communities are based on where you live. For me, that’s where it gets even more interesting. How do you support work by, with and for the Deaf community, for example, which is spread across the world, and incorporates a huge diversity of cultures and sign languages? Or, how can you use art and culture to reflect the experiences of the millions of displaced people, who are having to rebuild or reimagine their communities in foreign countries? (Keep an eye on #RefugeeWeek this week, where we may find some answers!)
Last week, like people across the world, the LGBT community in Manchester was deeply shocked and saddened by the brutal events in Orlando. I was one of the many, many people who gathered for a vigil in Sackville Gardens on the edge of Manchester’s Gay Village, to grieve and to come together in the face of this act of homophobia and terrorism. The event included poetry from Gerry Potter, and music from Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus, with which we all joined in. Gerry talked movingly about his own response to the horror of the weekend; he said that, as a gay man, he felt he was ‘forged on the dancefloor’, which has always been a place of freedom and safety, and which we must defend against hatred and oppression.
The experience of singing together helped to unite us, to comfort us, and to remind us of our strength
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the most-shared responses to this horrifying event in Orlando have involved groups of people singing. In my job here, I occasionally come up against the persistent little idea that the arts are frivolous; that their sole purpose is entertainment; that they are the ‘soft option’ to study at school or university; that they are the domain of the privileged who have the time and money to spare on something that doesn’t really matter. I think most of us who have suffered or witnessed any form of hardship know this isn’t true. We invest in art and culture because it empowers us and our communities (just look at some of the amazing projects emerging through our Creative People and Places programme). We put pieces of ourselves into it, whether it’s by visiting a favourite painting in an art gallery, or a dance class that makes us feel good, or a book we’ve read and reread since childhood, or a song we play on repeat when we’re feeling sad. And in return, art is there when we need it.
We might not all feel that we were ‘forged on the dancefloor’, but we have all been shaped by artistic and cultural experiences in some form or another, and they remain important places of freedom and safety. For those of us who stood in the spectacular Manchester rain last week at that vigil for Orlando, we needed to sing. The experience of singing together helped to unite us, to comfort us, and to remind us of our strength. And it was anything but the soft option; in that moment, we were steel.
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