Kate Relton talks to the Darlington Theatre’s CEO Ben Dickenson about creative connections and shaping communities through culture.
There are few adults who can claim their average working week involves sitting cross-legged in a magical forest, trying their hand at circus skills, or watching a pair of alpine skiers setting out across a café. Anyone who has set foot in Darlington’s Theatre Hullabaloo knows this is just the tip of the creative iceberg.
A children’s arts charity creating world-class theatre for young people and their families, Theatre Hullabaloo’s mission is one that reaches far beyond early years: “Our mission is creativity for every child,” says CEO Ben Dickenson. “This job is worth doing because there is a price here which is a whole different kind of childhood: a whole generation of children who grow up to become the artists and the creators of the future. And that’s a prize we could potentially win.”
In the face of economic and political challenges, and a funding landscape that routinely short-changes the arts, Theatre Hullabaloo have set out to establish a national centre for children’s creativity, starting with a conference that saw a cross-sector audience invited to see first-hand just how vital creativity is for us all.
“Essentially we invited people to join us on a journey of bringing creative play to the lives of every child in the country,” says Ben. “Every one of the 92 delegates said: ‘we’re with you’. It was inspiring.”
It’s hard not to buy into Hullabaloo’s mission when you hear Ben talk, his passion for the work is infectious. Crucially, though, everything he and his team are championing is proven to be true:
“We have an evidence base, researched and supported by scientists and led by the Institute for Social Justice,” says Ben. “It shows that creative play reduces depression amongst parents, increases parental confidence and attachment with their children and speeds up the acquisition of developmental milestones among those children. Ultimately, it attaches people to each other and their communities in a way that stimulates everything: wellbeing; economic growth; sense of place and pride; community cohesion.”
This sense of belonging, and collaboration between creatives, families and children themselves is what really makes Theatre Hullabaloo unique, and it’s something they’re keen to explore with more artists, commissioning and co-producing new works. “There aren’t enough specialist artists for children’s work, and we want to change that in the next couple of years,” says Ben. “We want artists and creatives who work with us to feel supported to do the very best work they can. We passionately want to see North East-based artists from diverse backgrounds develop the specialisms in their work for children, to be multi-skilled and to recognise that children and families are the most important audience there is.”
For artists who’ve never considered working with children, that might sound a bold claim. But spend five minutes at Hullabaloo and it’s impossible not to be swept along by the ambition, conviction and sheer joy of it all. “Human beings reshape and create their world and their own image because we are, at our core, creative,” says Ben. “In this organisation, we have this unique experience of stimulating, enhancing, supporting and growing the creative capacity of very young humans. You can see the potential possibility of what that creativity will do for them in their individual lives, and for the rest of society in the future. Who wouldn’t want to come to work?”
Find Theatre Hullabaloo at Borough Road, Darlington www.theatrehullabaloo.org.uk