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Jack Drum Arts: going entirely digital didn’t resonate with us…

Helen Ward, Managing Director of Jack Drum Arts talks with the North East Culture Partnership about the impact of COVID-19 on their organisation and how they have adapted to the new landscape.

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Jack Drum Arts operates out of an arts centre in Crook, South West Durham delivering a regular programme of activities alongside an outreach programme across Wear Valley and Teesdale and Durham City.

Our aims are to increase access to quality arts experiences for people of all ages, particularly those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable.

We do this by delivering engaging, innovative and inspiring arts opportunities that promote self-expression, well-being, learning and community cohesion.

We use a range of art forms with a particular focus on carnival arts, theatre and music-making for children, young people and families. We also run a youth leadership programme developing young people’s skills so they have the tools to move into adulthood as confident and creative individuals with an understanding of their place in the wider world.

Space and Time

Like many arts organisations across the region, we took the decision to pause our activities prior to lockdown being enforced by the government. Our priority was to ensure the safety of our participants, volunteers, staff and the artists we employ first and foremost, although the financial impact on the organisation was also of great concern.

It was not an easy decision to make as everything we do is about bringing people together in social gatherings, big and small, but it was the right decision in light of what was about to happen.

All staff were given the space and time to settle into a new way of working from home for us as a team to consider how best we would proceed.

During this period we worked in close consultation with our funders, partners and our local area action partnership asking questions, sharing information and finding out as much as we could to respond appropriately.

All our funders have been incredibly flexible, supportive and open to our ideas particularly at the beginning of the crisis when we needed to request changes to project aims and outputs.

Everyone in the team felt very strongly that we wanted to stay connected to our community, to find new ways in which to engage with those that we already work with and reach out to new people to offer our support using the skills we have as a collective of creative people.

We have weathered some storms over the last 30 years but nothing quite like this and on a personal level, I can honestly say with no rule book to follow it has been the most challenging time of my career. Having to take the lead on making the decisions and not knowing if these decisions were the right ones has at times been daunting.

A blended approach

As a project funded organisation we needed to look at our project activities on an individual basis and decide how to proceed to take into consideration the participants, their ages, any specific needs, the art form(s) that were used within these projects and our conversations with our funders.

Going entirely digital didn’t resonate with us at all and did not seem in keeping with the ethos of our organisation.

We also needed to take into consideration the digital poverty experienced by some of the children, young people and adults we work with.  With this in mind, we decided to focus on a blended offer taking some of our activities online whilst coming up with ideas of activities we could deliver to homes with a focus on supporting children, young people and families.

We undertook a period of research joining online classes in singing, dance and music-making to see how other organisations and freelance artists were doing things.

In one week alone I took part in a singing class in Newcastle-upon-Tyne using Zoom, a dance class in Stoke-on-Trent via Facebook Live, a percussion class in Brazil using Facebook video messaging and my favourite a ballet class in New York using Zoom!

In addition, we began to explore how to stay connected with our community offline consulting with local freelance artists on what activities they might be able to create if we were to put together arts & crafts activity packs for children and young people.

And we also began to explore the possibility of putting together a mobile recording kit that could be delivered to doorsteps so that young people from our music programme could record new music.

Throughout this process, we consulted with our local Area Action Partnership to get advice on what the council response might be to any kind of offline activity we might propose with regards to health and safety and social distancing.

Our AAP team have been key supporters of our journey through this crisis and we feel extremely lucky to have them onside as a sounding board supporting us as we develop new ways of working.

Reframing ‘failure’

In the first stages of lockdown we found the amount of information being shared by other organisation’s overwhelming.  There was lots of useful stuff being shared however navigating through it was a massive job in itself. My in-box has not been this full since the changes to GDPR!

It was challenging to make the jump to the delivery of online participatory work in the first few weeks as up until the crisis we had only used tools such as Zoom for meetings.

The digital skills within our team were hugely varied so whilst some were able to make the leap to online working quite easily others struggled to transfer their skills and find engaging ways in which to work with participants remotely.

Many of our young people did not want to engage in lots of activities if they were online, what they wanted was a way to meet up with their friends to stay connected without the pressure of achieving. Finding a way to re-interpret the way we worked with our participants to match the change in need was sometimes hard as we are programmed to deliver, meet targets, outputs, gather data etc. Moving away from that mindset without feeling that we had failed was a hurdle we needed to cross.

Something for everyone

We recognised that we needed to respond in different ways so we came up with a number of solutions of online and offline activity which would appeal to people in different ways including:

  • We launched new courses online including percussion, electronic music-making, dance, singing, creative writing and photography.  To date over 150 people have engaged with our online programme.
  • Our 2 rock band groups have been able to access sessions online using live streaming via Twitch TV to compose and produce new music and delivered a mobile recording studio to young people’s homes to support them to record new music.
  • We have delivered specially commissioned arts & crafts activity packs to 315 children and young people over the Easter Bank Holiday and May Bank Holiday weekends and created a new Instagram profile @DurhamGoViral to profile what young people are feeling and doing during the pandemic crisis.

Highlights for me, however, have been developing the Doorstep Gigs initiative with our wonderful storytellers Mike and Brendan.

They visited the homes of 30 families during May Half Term to entertain children who are shielding, whose parents are key workers or live in a low-income family. The joy in children’s faces has been magical to witness and clearly demonstrates the magic of live performance.

I am also incredibly proud of our new samba music video which we premiered online during May Bank Holiday weekend. A collaboration between members of our community samba band Runaway Samba alongside members of DrumDin as part of our new project ‘Nordestinos’.  Members filmed themselves in their homes performing our unique take on the north east folk song ‘The Blaydon Races’ and it’s been really well received with over 4,000 views already.

Looking back now over the last 2 months we have done so much and engaged with so many people many of whom are completely new to our organisation. This has only been possible with a brilliant team of staff and lots of skilled freelance artists, musicians and dancers all ready to take a leap into the unknown.

The response to what we have provided has been overwhelming with so much positive feedback coming in from people taking part in our activities, from our funders, local councillors and from colleagues in the sector. As we gear up to move into the next stage of this crisis we are now able to look to the future with optimism and will continue to innovate and use our creative skills to support individuals and a community in need.

Feedback from a parent who booked a Doorstep Gig

“Hi, can I just say thank you so much for coming to our door today. My little girl Amelia absolutely loved it and has talked about it all day, she couldn’t believe that the storytellers came into her garden just for her. It has really cheered her up as she has had a tough week having to go back to school as a key worker child and been down in the dumps struggling to cope with the change.

Today she has been beaming, talking about the stories and asking lots of questions about what they told us. She absolutely loved it. She has been asking all day if she can go on the adventures with them when they go to different countries and if they got to America in time. She has taken in all they said. You might have a new recruit when she’s old enough. Thank you so much. Everyone needs a bit of upliftment at the moment and some kindness in the world.”

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You can find Jack Drum Arts on:

Facebook: facebook.com/jackdrumarts/

Twitter: twitter.com/jackdrumuk

Instagram: instagram.com/jackdrumarts

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