Hidden away amongst the great oaks in a park in the centre of Plymouth there’s a cultural revolution taking place. Devonport, a district with one of the highest rates of social and economic deprivation in the country, is now teeming with innovative and exciting community theatre, art, film, dance, music and festivals thanks to the tireless efforts of Stiltskin Arts and Theatre Group. Their project was aimed at children from 0-15 but their work has been so successful entire families have become involved in the theatre and now parents, grandparents and even great grandparents are accessing the arts for the first time.
The Soapbox Children’s Theatre is a small unassuming building in Devonport Park. Originally built as a decontamination unit for use in the Second World War, Stiltskin has transformed it into a cultural hub where children and young people can access excellent quality cultural activity all year round. Their £60,000 Challenge Fund investment was crucial to this vision being realised. This money gave Stiltskin breathing space to start something new and unusual and allowed the organisation to develop organically – with incredible results.
One of the first projects undertaken on receipt of the Challenge Fund was to create a piece of theatre that was suitable for under 5s, including babies, as this is still a new area for theatre companies to work in. Tickets for “Caterpillar” were launched in February 2016 and within 24 hours 1000 tickets were sold. This paved the way for more under 5s provision with three or four shows running every year. They also created Story Stomps using the park as a backdrop for toddlers to explore, collect and look at natural things. As children grow Stiltskin aims to engage them in arts activity through after-school and holiday clubs, Arts Awards training, volunteering opportunities both in front of house and at festivals, or working as peer mentors or joining the Young Board of Directors. All these initiatives use the arts and culture to build children’s and young people’s confidence and self-esteem, give them a voice and help them to engage within social situations allowing them to investigate, demonstrate and participate whether as an audience or producer. At Stiltskin the arts are used for children to discover about their local area, their environment and their heritage, looking at people’s stories and how they impact and connect to Plymouth and the world around them, giving them a sense of pride about their city, their lives and their futures.
The Challenge Fund investment allowed for development of the old building to provide better access and toilet facilities. The front of house was transformed to create a small café and Plymouth’s only independent toyshop. This gives Stiltskin a new and invaluable source of income whilst also supporting the desire for the Soapbox Theatre to become a cultural hub for the whole community.
The project also saw development of the theatre’s family audiences producing work that is fun, challenging and connecting them with the outside world and encouraging them to enjoy a theatrical experience as soon as they walk through the door. The idea is to support better family functioning ensuring the shows are engaging for all so that parents want to come back time and again to see the shows with their children. Stiltskin has been thrilled to see their shows become family outings with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and children visiting together for a whole family experience.
The Challenge Fund investment allowed Stiltskin to explore and develop the possibilities of youth and family community theatre and devise projects that will be able to continue to run without Challenge Fund backing due to their enormous success. In the past three years audience numbers have trebled and the awareness and popularity of Stiltskin’s work is growing continually thanks to positive reviews online and winning accolades in theatre and community awards. Stiltskin has created a unique experience at the Soapbox Theatre where children and their families can visit with the knowledge that the projects are aimed specifically at their age group. The work will continue and grow funded through ticket sales, café and toy shop sales and after school and holiday clubs.