Kyle Maxwell is the manager of Hanger Farm Arts Centre in Totton. The arts centre is run by Minstead Trust to provide work experience to people with learning disabilities and affordable, accessible entertainment to the people of Totton and beyond.

This year has of course been a hugely difficult one for us all and the impact on theatres has been particularly severe. As part of our winter focus on health and wellbeing, Kyle tells us how he has found this year, the impact on audiences and what the future looks like.

It was a really strange time in March, nobody knew how long it was going to last for. First we moved shows to June, then to autumn, then to 2021. If I’m honest, I’m still moving shows.

It felt like a real kick. I felt we had a good programme coming up that covered a wide range of genres and styles. There was a lot of excitement for that season that was coming up and belief we were heading in the right direction.

Music and inclusive theatre performances in happier times

The audience have been fantastic all the way through this. About a third of the people we asked about show refunds have said ‘you keep our ticket money’ and even those who have understandably asked for refunds have been apologetic as they understood the situation we were in. There was a desire of the audience to look after the theatre, they recognised the good that they get from going out to see live entertainment.

The entertainment industry is vital to people’s day to day living, the mental health benefits of having a Friday out to look forward to and get them through their weeks. So many people have said ‘I just can’t wait to get out again’.

Our volunteers are champing at the bit to get back in and help, they feel like they are missing something in their life, interacting with people they know in a place they know. Their desire to see the venue succeed is as high as anybody’s.

When things relaxed in the summer the first group we had back was yoga. In the first couple of weeks people wondered how it would work with social distancing. But when they saw how it works the group’s members feel really comfortable and have told us how much they missed it and how pleased they are that it’s back. We have also been able to offer groups that would usually meet at home an opportunity to come and meet in a Covid-safe environment.

People who attend our groups benefit so much from social interaction, even if it’s about the weather or general chit chat. Just that ability to have a conversation with someone rather than stare at a wall at home. All these things that we took for granted we have realised how important they are for our mental wellbeing.

I am still very up and down. One minute you get a wedding booked for 2021 and you think you see a light at the end of the tunnel then you’ll get a show cancel and it feels difficult again.

On the good days there’s a lot of positives for next year. On the bad days I think ‘well, when is next year going to start?’. We put plans in place and then suddenly they are blown out the water by new restrictions. It’s difficult.

What this situation has done for a lot of people is make them realise just how central the Arts Centre is to the community. The number of people who have told us they miss the groups, shows and events we run is incredible. Having a safe, pleasant, friendly place to come down to locally is something people really value.

That sense of nostalgia, of wellbeing, of being part of something bigger is more important now than ever. Affordable, accessible entertainment matter to people more than they ever realised. I don’t think we realised how important it is to have something to look forward to in our lives, we took it for granted.

We can’t wait to be bring that joy back to people’s lives again when it’s safe to do so.

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