A Culture of Possibility Podcast #6: Jade Campbell and Erin Walcon of Doorstep Arts in Torbay, England

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the sixth episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. We hope you enjoy the episode and invite you to tune into our next episode in which François and I explore the uses of story, both hits and misses. It drops on 16 July.

We spoke to Erin Walcon and Jade Campell, cofounders and codirectors of Doorstep Arts, an impressive arts education organization based in Torbay, a borough in Devon on the southwest coast of England, which Erin described as “an area of high deprivation,” with many people living at or below the poverty line. They told us about the multiple drama groups Doorstep runs in youth clubs, church halls and schools, and the many projects they host. Doorstep is also the creative education company in residence at the Palace Theatre, Paignton. And like so many community artists we’ve spoken with, Erin and Jade also have other jobs, Erin a halftime post in applied drama and education at the University of Exeter and Jade in community outreach at Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Jade and Erin each also have a title unique to Doorstep Arts: both are “Co-Parents” of the work’s core strands and direction. There’s a third Co-Parent too, Polly Ferguson-Carruthers. We asked our guests to tell us how this way of understanding their work came to be.

“When we set up Doorstep,” Erin explained, “we consciously built the model to be feminist and flexible. We constructed it because we all like to do all kinds of things and we all have care responsibilities, and we all really love our freelance lives. So we set up a model that could work around the fact that most of us have other things that we do. Jade works with Theatre Royal Plymouth and I work halftime at the University of Exeter. When we say these things are half-time, of course they’re not; we’re basically working multiple full-time jobs — but it’s for joy, it’s for love.”

Doorstop’s primary participants are children and teenagers, so the title “Co-Parent” also seems to reflect an it-takes-a-village philosophy. Jade explained that “If we all co-parent strands of work — our passions, things that we care for — we can collaborate. We always feel the more brains in the room the better. The co-parent structure is about being able to communicate and nourish and support strands of work to the best of our ability, bouncing ideas off one another.”

I loved listening to Jade later in the podcast describe their collaborative approach as it pertained to a boy who wanted to direct a performance. “This young man is telling me he wants to direct. He’s four and a half. He told me that he wanted to direct because he’s got some ideas about how the children need to move from one side of the room to the other when they’re taking the moon for a walk. He said ‘I want them to walk like this.’ I said, ‘you need to tell the group your idea so they understand, and maybe you could show an example.’ He will do that and we will have a conversation about it, and he will show the group and they will do it. I ask ‘Is that okay for you?’ He says yes or no. Sometimes we have to try again. There can be many conversations, explanations, why my vision is not the same as his. In the end, we may have to vote so the rest of group has a say.”

If that doesn’t sound like deep and delicious fun, what does?

One impressive thing about Doorstep is how conscious and intentional their values are, and how careful they are to manifest them in the work. Erin explained their “underpinning values:”

“One of those is looking at questions around social justice and how we make the world a more fair and just and friendly place, particularly how you engage those questions with children in a way that respects their intelligence, their capacity for hope, and their infinite imagination about how we could do things better. That comes with some real challenges. You’re asking children who are growing up in poverty to ask questions about why I’m growing up with less resources than other children, and that brings ethical responsibilities with it.

“We also operate from a foundation principle that we call ‘dialogic pedagogy.’ If we can be in respectful and conflict-rich juicy friction-filled dialogue with people in a way that’s safely held, transformative things can happen, and art is an incredible tool to do that with. It’s a way to start a conversation that’s really important about things like climate change. The young people we work with are brilliant at this. They want to talk about the difficult stuff — equity, environmental issues.

In the podcast, Jade and Erin describe a range of projects from The Cabbage Rebellion, with teenage participants exploring the history of protest in the region to that theater piece in which the aforementioned four and one-half year-old and his friends “from conceptualization to action, they took the moon for a bloomin’ walk, they did it!”

Doorstep Arts’ work expresses a feeling of collective responsibility for culture and how it is perceived, funded, and nurtured. We have great respect and admiration for folks who not only work hard on the ground to engage and support people in making community and art together, but extend themselves into the field with their take on the big picture. In the podcast, you’ll hear about their Manifesto for Change and how they deal with the challenges of translating their work for funders. Hope you enjoy it all!

Reach Out,” The Four Tops.