Katherine Leedale

How we’re bringing creativity to the frontline of homeless services

We wanted nothing more than to reach people face-to-face during the lockdowns of the last year and a half. Streetwise Opera exists to create music and stories with individuals affected by homelessness; looking into each others’ eyes, searching for each other’s smiles, breathing together, singing together, laughing together. One heartbeat to another. That is what we do – when we are not in the grips of a global pandemic.

In the reality-bending days of mid-March 2020, we swiftly pulled together a full and creatively rich online programme, bringing performers together from Newcastle, Teesside, Manchester, London and Nottingham. Starting from daily singing sessions, to raise spirits and develop a national online community, we evolved this programme into producing high quality digital projects and performances. We produced The Linden Tree, featuring performers from all regions and world-renown baritone Roderick Williams, The Deer – an eight chapter digital project working with eight composers, directed by Emma Bernard, Unseen, a project exploring underrepresented composers culminating in a short film, interweaving projection and new composed work, featuring soprano Abigail Kelly, and In This Place, a collaboration with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company and Trinity Laban. We developed Culture Club, a session where we reflected on cultural interests and ran artist-led masterclasses and also A Gallery for All, wherein performers showcased their own creative work.

Where once Streetwise performers had walked into a room, to be greeted by a handshake and a chat – taking their places in the circle of chairs, ready to open their lungs and hearts; now we were looking at each other across our screens, from within the defined boxes of our Zoom frames, sharing our voices but with mute at the ready, trying our best, but knowing this wasn’t us at our best. Also, whilst we invested – and continue to invest – in data and digital access for those that need it most, we knew we were reaching only a small number of the people we would want to.

As Autumn 2020 set in, and we realised that we weren’t going to be zooming away from Zoom anytime soon, we put our minds to how we might be able to reach people within the perimeters of social distancing restrictions. We became aware that in hostels, residents were living in their own “bubbles”, and if we could create safe working conditions for artists and residents alike – then working-in person might be possible.

We made tentative forays into running projects in different frontline homelessness settings, and had our first spark of interest from a women’s refuge in Manchester. As singing had become an unexpectedly dangerous activity (producing a substantially larger number of respiratory droplets and aerosols than speaking), we aimed to begin doing visual art based projects instead. We worked with visual artist Harriet Hall to run a series of sessions that responded to a number of online projects – The Deer and then Unseen. The residents at this refuge created work that chimed with the themes and music of these projects. Once again, we were in a room, making stories, smiling under masks and working with sanitised hands to create and to build.

We wanted to do more. Respond was born. Through this project, our aim was – and is – to engage in a creative dialogue with individuals and small groups of residents; to listen and respond to them and to their needs, interests and attune ourselves to their strengths, to make something they want to make. Also, through the project, we aimed to understand some of the challenges that the centres were facing, and see if we could develop creative projects to help address these challenges.

So far in London – we’ve delivered a number of these projects in Passage House and Centrepoint-run Camberwell Foyer. At Passage House, we delivered a Kandinsky inspired project run by artist Katherine Leedale, and a ceramic collage project, inspired by residents wanting to create art that they could take back to their rooms, to help them feel more “theirs”. At Camberwell Foyer, we worked with songwriter Aga Serugo-Lugo and spoken word artist Mr Gee, to develop music and words with young people to work towards an open-mic night event. In Manchester, individuals at SPIN worked with electronic music artist Steve Summers, to make and record a series of electro music pieces.

Nottingham Programme Producer, Victoria Munro, has developed a project in collaboration with the team at YMCA Housing, where the staff spoke to us about the need to re-animate the community spaces at the city centre supported accommodation hostel. And residents expressed the importance of feeling welcomed, represented and uplifted. We are working with artist Honey Williams to create a mural, inspired by the stories and ideas of the residents, as well as the building’s architecture, that aims to enliven communal spaces – and which will be the basis of a music-based project to bring this mural to life through sounds and song. Manchester Programme Producer Emma Doherty is now building up song writing projects at MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health) and at AKT (Albert Kennedy Trust) working with young people who are LGBTQ+ in Manchester. There are more projects in the pipeline.

Respond is the most varied programme of frontline work we have done in the past few years. We have sat around tables, resplendent with charcoal, pastels and paint; we have looked into each other’s eyes, shared stories, smiles and sometimes sadness. Dogs have wondered in the room and out again, steaming mugs of tea are back on hand and chatter has filled the air. It was born in lockdown but it is firmly here to stay.

Elsewhere in the programme, our weekly in-person sessions in arts centres – Nottingham Playhouse in Nottingham, Southbank Centre in London and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester – have resumed. We are firmly following guidance on COVID safety and will continue to do so, but we are back. Singing and sharing stories once more. One heartbeat to another.

That is what we do.

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Marigold Hughes

Marigold Hughes

Marigold is Head of Programme at Streetwise Opera