Leading by example, telling from experience
Sophie Willan was raised in and out of care, a consequence of her mother struggling with heroin addiction who was unable to look after her. The British actress and comedian uses these difficult experiences growing up to fuel her work, which is most apparent in her semi-autobiographical sitcom ‘Alma’s Not Normal’ which aired on BBC Two in September last year.
The BAFTA-nominated series follows Alma Nuttall, a thirty-something from Bolton (where Sophie is also from) who dreams of becoming an actress. Alma’s life exposes viewers to a world of social care, sex work and poverty. Speaking to The Guardian last year, Sophie highlighted:
“I think care-experienced people often get depicted as either a hero or a victim or a demon. But in the sitcom, Alma is full of life. She makes a lot of stupid decisions, but she also makes some really great decisions, and she’s good fun.”
The gap between people’s impressions of care leavers and reality is one of the reasons Sophie founded the nonprofit Stories of Care in 2015, the year after she started writing ‘Alma’s Not Normal.’ It was created to improve the visibility of people who have been in care offscreen, by providing writing opportunities.
“Stories Of Care was originally designed to empower care leavers to tell their own stories across multiple platforms,” says Oliver Sykes, the charity’s artist in residence and producer, adding that since opening, the organisation has widened the pool of people it accepts on its courses, now including people aged 18 to 25 from a range of backgrounds.
“The application process is open to everybody, but we are keen to work with young people from low-income, single-parent and care backgrounds, which could also include a young person that provides care for another person,” he adds. “It’s not just about empowering care leavers to tell their own stories and become creative leaders in their communities; it’s about empowering young people from all marginalised backgrounds.”
According to Oliver, one of Stories of Care’s greatest successes is its Children’s Writing and Development program, which took place last year. Twelve new writers participated in a 14-week course in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University. The work produced was included in an anthology titled ‘Tales of the Bold, the Brave and the Beautiful’ published in June.
The nonprofit also hired former participants of the programme to assist. “One of the things that Stories Of Care is passionate about is providing continued professional development,” he says. “We don’t want to provide a project where somebody comes, has a taste or feel for the arts, and then we just disappear.”
Libby Hall, who was in the children’s writing program, says it gave her the room she needed to grow her craft. The 20-year-old from Salford was told about Stories of Care by her former high school teacher, with whom she has kept in touch since leaving compulsory education four years ago. “I was a bit reluctant at first because it was completely different to what I’d done before,” she says. That said, she learned how to tackle various aspects of writing, including plot structures and character development. “I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been formally taught how to write. You obviously go to school and study English, but I think it’s different.”
Libby’s story ‘Nana’s Magic Medicine’ hones in on a teenager’s anxiety around illness after a bereavement. “She has a tight-knit family, but her grandad has just passed away. That’s fractured the family bonds, and her Nana’s struggling with alcoholism, though that’s not explicitly said in the book,” Libby explains.
“She then goes on this quest to get to Nana’s house and drink this magic medicine to cure a lump in her arm. It sounds dark and a bit morbid, but it’s actually very hopeful and has a happy ending.”
Widening access to the arts
The reason organisations like Stories of Care need to exist is that people do not have equal access to the arts, either as creators or as consumers.
“I quickly realised I was from a ‘working class family’ minority. I had to work harder to prove myself for grants and funding that stood between me furthering my training.”
Recalls Connor Taylor, a professional dancer from North Yorkshire. His experiences spurred him to found Adore Dance School in east London in May last year to provide affordable, diverse dance opportunities, and to help people break into the industry.
“We aim for our classes to be enjoyed by all communities, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race or social-economic status,” he says. It doesn’t always take donations to make that happen. For example, instead of asking families to cough up large sums of money upfront to cover a set of classes as many dance schools do, Adore offers a pay-as-you-go service.
“It’s much easier for people to take the first step. It’s also about finding more ways to give people a chance – whether that’s scholarships, free lessons, or just creating more accessible productions and tours to allow more than just the elite to see professional dancers on stage.”
Funding is essential to increasing access and opportunity. Earlier this year, 24-year-old actor and writer Kieton Saunders-Browne was supported by the Generate Fund, created to help UK-based Black, Asian and Global Majority artists to showcase their work at Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts and media festival.
Kieton’s play tells the story of five working-class characters living in various homes in a block of flats. Each person is trying to “escape the cycle of deprivation,” he says. “I would define that as being stuck in your circumstances because of your circumstances.”
Part of Kieton’s play was supported financially by the performing arts venue Pleasance Theatre in London and Edinburgh.
Yet he believes the mentorship he received was the most rewarding type of support.
“We’ve had loads of hiccups and changes to our scripts, rehearsal process and creative team, but Pleasance Theatre has been there for us every step of the way,” he says. “I would not be going to Edinburgh if it wasn’t for this grant.”
Kieton believes that by offering the chance to people who may not typically get the opportunity to showcase their work in the arts, there will be a greater range in what is produced. “You’ve got a whole group of people telling new, interesting things in new ways with new perspectives.”
Essentially, widening access benefits everyone. This could be through stories like Sophie’s, whose character Alma is maybe someone viewers wouldn’t otherwise encounter in their own lives or the arts they consume. But it can also be in writers and performers bringing lived experience to the stories that already get told.
For example, in children’s fiction, it is not uncommon to have a main character in care because they have lost both of their parents – it’s a sympathetic starting point, after all. “It’s a trope that is massively overused by people that have no experience of it,” Oliver says. “If you look at bookshelves and how many of those authors have the experience from which they can write about it, authentically, there’s not that many.”
This does not mean that stories written by artists from different backgrounds cannot be powerful – fiction is about inhabiting other people’s lives after all, but there is an opportunity to add authentic perspectives, voices and talents to the mix that aren’t usually heard.
“It’s important because we all deserve to be able to tell our stories and have the platforms to tell them,” Oliver says. If we can make that happen, as charities and businesses like Stories of Care, Adore Dance Studios and Pleasance Theatre are trying to do, then we not only get wider participation and skills, which is worthwhile in its own right – we might also in the process learn a little bit more about each other.