Experiment in Leisure

In 1973, the Department of the Environment (DoE) and the Department of Education and Science (DES) instituted an investigation into developing leisure activities, cultural as well as sporting and recreational, in a number of towns across the country, one of which was Sunderland.

Part of the rationale behind this investigation was the expectation that, in the future, increasing automation would reduce the average person's working week considerably—they got that wrong, didn't they?—and so government needed to plan accordingly.

Each town was given the same amount of money (over £200,000, a considerable amount in those days, plus locally sourced funds) and all were tasked with measuring the impact of extra spending on the take-up of leisure opportunities and facilities. Each town had to set up a steering committee which would be made up of some councillors but also of non-councillors with special involvement, experience and expertise in the arts, sport and wider leisure pursuits.

Sunderland named the scheme "Experiment in Leisure", set up the steering committee and provided it with support staff from the council's officers and set aside a committee room in the Civic Centre for its use.

I have no idea who made the decisions about who should be invited to join the committee but I was one of those brought in as someone involved in theatre. We began work in 1974 (or it might have been late '73—my memory of the exact timetable is a bit hazy) and decided to set up a number of sub-committees. It was decided that there should be a sub-committee for Drama and Literature and I became a member. Initially, the chair was a councillor but he stood down fairly soon after the committee was up and running and I was elected in his place.

We talked to organisations and individuals in the sector, writers and poets as well as theatre people, and asked what they perceived was most needed, and we tried to meet those needs.

We tried to spread the money across as wide a range of arts and other organisations so they could all have access to equipment and expertise to help them develop their own practice. For example, we set up a store of stage sound and lighting equipment, with a professional techie in charge, which could be borrowed free of charge by any organisation within the borough—school, community centre, church, groups like the WI etc—and the professional would be able to offer advice and practical help.

Surprisingly, we did meet opposition in some quarters. Small drama groups kept mentioning having access to a "proper" small theatre (the Empire with its 2,000 seats was, of course, far too large) but when we approached one such venue, offering to bring their sound and lighting system (which was quite antiquated) up to state of the art on condition that they would make their theatre available to other groups when they weren't using it themselves, they flatly refused.

“It’s ours. We worked for it. Don’t see why we should let others use it.”

Experiment in Leisure lasted for more than a year and I hope we produced useful and meaningful data. Certainly the council officers seemed happy enough. However, the shorter working week did not materialise and, regrettably, out of all of the projects set up by the project, only one has survived to this day, Wearside Field Club, which still meets every second Tuesday in Fulwell Community Centre.

What didn't last anywhere near as long, alas, was the Wearabout Theatre Company, a professional theatre-in-education and community theatre company, with a brief to play in schools, working men's clubs, public open spaces—anywhere there were people, which did some superb work and for some years was supported by grants from Sunderland Borough Council and Northern Arts (now Arts Council England NE) until the latter withdrew its funding, along with that for other community-orientated companies like Bruvvers, Skin and Bones and Uncle Ernie's Road Show (all Newcastle), in order to support the RSC season at Newcastle Theatre Royal. Bruvvers and Skin and Bones were collectives so were able (with real difficulty admittedly) to survive the cut but Wearabout, an Equity company, had to close.

It took a very long time before I could bring myself to go to a RSC production! But that's a different story.