Clair Challenor-Chadwick, MD of Cause UK writes about St George’s Crypt, one of the most respected charities in Leeds. This article appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post in October 2014.
St George’s Crypt supports those who are rough sleeping or vulnerably housed. They provide food and shelter for well over 100 people every day; along with long term support for those recovering from addiction. They offer training and engagement activities to help people gain life skills.
Every Friday a theatre group called Urban Sprawl provides sing-a-long sessions and a drama workshop. Over the course of 12 weeks the sessions end with a show designed and staged by the group shared with their peers. Each week Urban Sprawl perform music in the dining room.
Damian Colman, the Artistic Director of Urban Sprawl says “we are the only homeless theatre group in the North. We are providing a platform for the homeless to engage with the arts, perhaps for the very first time. Our workshops build confidence and self-esteem and create a sense of belonging. Our sessions are not necessarily structured; for part of the session we just sit and chat, people aren’t immediately expected to participate. We help build a sense of community and family that has perhaps been lacking in our clients’ lives.”
Kim Parkinson, Training & Engagement mentor at the Crypt adds “sessions like Urban Sprawls help clients learn appropriate behaviour, promotes listening skills and clients are encouraged to put ideas forward and are actively listened to. There is a huge amount of respect from clients at the Crypt and inappropriate behaviour is challenged by clients first, then the staff. Drama, Music and art help people from over thinking, it is a positive means of escape and allows clients to focus on something constructive.”
The mix of support at St George’s Crypt builds up the mind, body and spirit. There is an emphasis on trying to make people physically well; they then provide opportunities for further development through a range of activities designed to promote self-esteem, This holistic approach very much benefited a female client who initially came to the Crypt in crisis. Through engaging with music and drama sessions with Urban Sprawl her confidence increased and she has not only successfully performed in public but has gained accredited qualifications. She has now enrolled at college to further her education.
Kim says “Clients are encouraged to take responsibility for their own development through a wide range of interactions and activities, from residents helping with housekeeping to clients accessing art, cooking group, meditation, music and drama sessions run by Urban Sprawl.”
The clients colourful and bold artwork adorn the walls of the crypt, “creativity is another way to help people express their feelings in a positive way, exploring relationships, working as part of a team and helping to build confidence without resorting to drugs and alcohol.”
Urban Sprawl’s latest project is to engage clients with the moonlit paintings of Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93), whose work hangs in the Leeds City Art Gallery and shimmers somewhere between Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, Atkinson’s haunting oil paintings shed their mystical glow around familiar but distant Leeds landscapes.
Damian says “Our sessions explore how does the moon look to someone who has nowhere to go? Does the night sky have a different meaning when you’re forced to sleep beneath it! What part does the moon play in our biology, in our spirituality, in our history and in our culture, in the physical world around us, in our beliefs, our fears, our myths, in the very stuff we’re made of?”
“On Monday night, using structured word association and story construction devices, we took a little peek into our collective subconscious, conjuring images like “running up angels” and “throwing pebbles from the river bed.” We also learned some new songs – “Blue Moon,” “Moon Dance,” and “Bad Moon Rising.”
Funding arts engagement with the homeless is an uphill struggle, with Art Funding cuts and tight budgets to work to, Urban Sprawl is funded on a wing and a prayer.
Despite a rocky funding environment, future plans are ambitious with a regional tour planned to help raise the issue of homelessness and how the arts can transform lives.
Damian says “you have to be creative and bring in as many partners and goodwill as possible to make a homeless theatre project happen. In 2015 we will launch our most exciting and ambitious project to date – a dynamic reworking of the story of “Spartacus” brought vividly to life by a team of writers and researchers, with support from Leeds University academics and Leeds Museum archaeologists. Together we are draughting a script which will bring the audience directly into the Roman Arena. And it doesn’t stop there – because audience members will be asked to join in the action, too, whether that’s debating in the Roman Senate or fighting on the battle field.
The cast will include clients of Urban Sprawl, people who’ve been homeless and who’ve honed and developed their acting talents, alongside professional actors.
One of the homeless actors who has honed his considerable skills is Matty. Matty is in his thirties and has been with Urban Sprawl since 2011. He became homeless after leaving the care system, with a stint in prison, he also suffers from PTSD bought on by a horrific traffic accident.
Matty is thankful for the support of St George’s Crypt and Urban Sprawl, “they saved my life and gave me the support and self-esteem I needed to make positive changes.” Since 2011 he has performed in 7 different Urban Sprawl productions at St Georges Crypt and Seven Arts in Chappel Allerton, as well as street theatre performances at Lincoln Green and Dortmund Square. He has ambitions to get a job on Emmerdale. Currently he is learning to sing solo in the style of ‘The Commitments’ and he will perform in front of his peers at 1.30pm on October 3rd at The Crypt.
Ella (name changed), like Matty has had major obstacles to overcome due to family breakdown, with Urban Sprawl’s help she has now decided she wants to take up a career in the arts and enjoys acting and singing.
It is stories like these that really show how the arts can benefit people who have fallen out of the mainstream. Matty says “I never knew I could sing until I was given the encouragement and confidence to try.”
Ella and Matty will be gaining their first professional experience in a performance by Urban Sprawl for Chesterfield homeless charity, Pathways in October.
Other art organisations following in Urban Sprawl’s footsteps are also engaging with St George’s Crypt including Opera North and the ‘Singing on the Edge’ community choir, collectively contributing to a vibrant arts engagement programme.
The art of creativity is certainly empowering at St George’s Crypt. Urban Sprawl celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and has supported over 5,000 homeless people on their journeys to the moon. Long may it continue.
For more information go to www.stgeorgescrypt.org.uk