Leeds 2023: Slung Low theatre director talks running Covid lockdown food bank in Holbeck

Alan Lane, Artistic Director of theatre company Slung Low, talks about running a food bank in Holbeck during lockdown and the importance of communities telling their own stories

By Alex Grant
Sunday, 17th April 2022, 11:45 am

Slung Low is a theatre company that makes large scale outdoor shows. Alongside that we manage the oldest working men’s club in Britain, The Holbeck, and during the pandemic we ran a foodbank out of the club.

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Many people ask why a theatre company would start a food bank. Slung Low believes that every publicly funded arts organisation has a responsibility to be as useful as possible to its community. And in 2020, food is what our community needed. It is the central responsibility of public funding - to be in service to your community.

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The club has been at the heart of the local area for almost 150 years. Picture: Malcolm Johnson.

We’ve been part of Holbeck, a brilliant area of inner city Leeds, for the past 12 years. Our first home was in an old railway arch called the HUB, and three years ago we took over The Holbeck.

The club has been at the heart of the local area for almost 150 years. But in 2019 it was struggling financially and the amazing volunteers running it were coming to the end of their energy. Our promise was simple - pay off the club’s debts, keep the bar running and turn the rest of the building into a Pay What You Decide arts and community centre.

And that’s what we’ve done. As I write, the club is full of rehearsals, English as a Second Language courses, community meetings and performances. A building that’s busy, useful and kind.

We believe that the club should support the local community in whatever way it can, and however the community needs. Easy to say, this was put to the test in March 2020 when lockdown hit and we were forced to close, not knowing when we’d be able to open again. Locking up and heading home on furlough was not a response that we felt met the moment.

We wrote letters to 200 of our nearest neighbours asking how we could help them. They replied with requests to walk dogs, collect medication and pick up shopping. As the weeks passed, more and more people were telling us that they needed one thing: food. So we turned our operations into a community food bank.

If people were hungry, they were fed. The foodbank system we inherited often required people to demonstrate their poverty, or limited how long they could have support for. This wasn’t an appropriate response for us to the systematic failure that is food poverty in this country.

With the help of the brilliant organisations already doing this work in the city we became a Non Means Tested, Self-Referral foodbank. Over 15 months of the pandemic we delivered 15,202 food parcels to people who needed them.

Of course, we couldn’t have done it by ourselves. Supported by the city council and ward councillors, local people and businesses donated groceries, their time, their kindness; people from every part of our community doing something heroic for Holbeck.

This week the book The Club on the Edge of Town has been published. It tells the story of Holbeck, us moving into the club and how neighbours came together during lockdown. I hope people pick it up in years to come and read this story about a community that did something, a community that cared.

Kully Thiarai, the Creative Director of LEEDS 2023, talks about the need to shout louder about what’s happening in our neighbourhoods. She’s right. Holbeck is full of brilliant people, galvanising stories, extraordinary achievement. For too long communities like Holbeck have been overlooked, their story unheard. Time for change.

We’ve recently announced that Slung Low is moving on from The Holbeck. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved - the club is debt free, physically accessible for the first time and the members are ready to take the reins back.

We’ve a new home in Holbeck, we’ll be announcing all the details later in the year. A big new adventure to fulfill our commitment to providing the best cultural life for the people of Holbeck. Because that’s the promise we made. And it has to be kept.

Alan’s book The Club on the Edge of Town: A Pandemic Memoir is available now at www.salamanderstreet.com