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Interview: Turtle Key Arts

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Turtle Key Arts is an organization that is aimed towards helping young people that have disabilities, mental illnesses, and other disadvantages find their voice and express themselves through art.

The company runs many different programs, involving activities such as dance and music, and they reach a large audience of approximately 30,000 people. Below is an interview held with Alexandra Shaw about this amazing program.

What is the goal of Turtle Key Arts?

"Our goal is to make the arts accessible and impactful to as many members of our community as possible. This can mean helping a young theatre, dance or circus company to navigate the early stages of their career or setting up a project that allows young people on the autistic spectrum to take part in really high quality arts projects. We feel that both the production and participation aspects of our work are equally valid as ways to access the arts and we believe that they inform each other."

How did the project begin?

"The charity was initially set up in 1989 as small scale performance venue that championed disabled access and gave a platform to new and emerging work. Our goals were ground-breaking at the time and we have always tried to keep pace with change and to evolve as our environment changed. We left the venue after the first ten years but the ethos and aims of Turtle Key have remained constant in our work as arts and education producers."

What kind of mediums are presented in your shows?

"We work across all areas of the performance arts and we try to have a spread of different kinds of companies on our books at any one time eg: Aerial theatre/circus, contemporary dance, new writing, physical and visual theatre and children’s theatre."

What kind of reactions do you get from artists who become involved with the project?

"The companies we work with tend to have fairly effusive reactions to us since often they have been trying to make their way without any support or people to bounce ideas off. When they suddenly have an office that includes financial, marketing, fundraising, administration and strategic experience to work with, they tend to feel very grateful. We also have good responses from the artists that we employ to help deliver our education/participation work. These are mainly freelance theatre, music and dance practitioners and I think they are delighted to feel part of a larger ‘family’ and to be treated as such."

You have programs aimed at many different people - such as Turtle Song for people with Dementia, Key Words for young people with Dyslexia and Turtle Opera for young people on the Autism Spectrum. Are there any plans for projects oriented towards new demographics?

"Yes we are keen to remount a project that we ran a few years ago that targets interfaith/inter-cultural work. It uses a story exchange model to create empathy between different groups, for example, an Islamic school and a catholic school or a group of refugees and a group of retirees in a community. We have also spoken about the enormous increase in anxiety and mental health problems amongst young people including students and we would be interested in the future in looking at how the live arts might be able to help combat some of the problems faced by this demographic."

How does this project influence both the people involved and the people the art reaches?

"I think that in this time of increased retrenchment and insularity amongst individuals and groups, the arts provide an opportunity for communication and understanding. A play like our current production of Love, Bombs and Apples by Iraqi writer Hassan Abdulrazzak which deploys comedy and well observed characters to look at stories from Asian communities in the UK and the Middle East has proved this time and again when audiences in post- show discussions have commented, discussed and debated issues that often feel taboo in other settings. It will travel to the US this spring at a time when it is crucial for these stories to be heard more widely. Equally a project like our Turtle Song project for people with dementia and their carers tackles both the stigma of dementia and issues of isolation and loneliness in the wider community. Our Autism projects teach all of those involved how we can make our world easier to navigate for those on the spectrum and allow the participants to feel included and listened to."

Your website states that Turtle Key Arts reached an audience of 30,000, collaborating with 250 artists and involved over 1900 participants. That is a pretty amazing feat, but how do you plan to reach even more people?

"The numbers that we have reached to date often come from our wide touring reach by all of our companies. Sometimes the geographical reach is as important as the numbers though and the impact of a very well run community arts project in an area where there is little or no provision can be a more effective agent of change than a performance at Glastonbury. However we do aim high for our companies and the sight of hundreds of people on the streets of Seoul applauding Joli Vyann is a window into how far our companies can go if they are supported in the right way. We will continue to develop those touring networks and relationships.
In terms of our outreach projects, we often work with universities or schools and we are aware that every student who we train and who then continues to work in the community arts increases our reach. Equally by extending our partnerships and being open about our projects, we can impact far more widely than if we try to do everything on our own. We constantly celebrate our existing partners which include English Touring Opera, Royal College of Music, Wigmore Hall, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, National Portrait Gallery, universities of Oxford, Reading, York and Wolverhampton and charities like Young Dementia UK, Autistica and CHiVA (Children with HIV) to name but a few, but we are constantly in conversation with new potential partners. We also plan to grow the core of the organisation to give us more capacity both on the production and the education/participation sides of the organisation – so students should look out for opportunities to join the Turtle Key core team for the next stage of our journey…"

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