When you’re suddenly tasked with co-ordinating emergency food parcel deliveries to vulnerable local people during a pandemic, the ability to think creatively comes in useful.
As artistic director of one of the UK’s most innovative theatre companies, Alan Lane is used to coming up with imaginative solutions.
But they normally involve finding ways to stage epic community theatre shows, not making sure hundreds of people have the food and medicines they need in a lockdown.
“Today we find ourselves with a Transit van full of crisps,” he says on the phone from Leeds. “Which is amazing.
“But yesterday we didn’t have any vegetables. And tomorrow we’re not going to have any eggs.
“So constantly I’m on the phone doing deals. The other day, I swapped a load of tote bags that I got from the university for some face masks, which I split in half and swapped the other half for a lot of cream.
“It’s constant creative thinking, constant problem solving.”
Six weeks ago, Lane and his company Slung Low were asked by Leeds City Council to co-ordinate the community response in Holbeck and Beeston, meaning any requests for help from the 10,000 households in the area have been passed to them.
They are mainly from people needing food, but prescriptions need dropping off too, and they are often asked to just phone lonely people for a chat.
Lane is in charge of around 90 volunteers, including some from the region’s other arts organisations – from Opera North and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to theatre company Red Ladder. Bafta-winning TV writer and producer Mark Catley is driving a van two days a week.
Managing them is not the only new role Lane has taken on during the pandemic. When not scrounging and delivering food, he has become a game show host, and a very entertaining one at that – appearing online every fortnight from Slung Low’s HQ to keep locals’ spirits up.
He says that makes Slung Low the only people in the UK to be putting on regular live performances from a theatre stage during the lockdown.
On top of that, he has launched an open-air art gallery, posting residents’ lockdown pictures on lampposts. And Slung Low has just made a short film – shot before coronavirus rewrote Lane’s job description – which went online on Friday.
“We didn’t know this at the time, but having a short film to release at the moment is much better than having a play,” he says.
Except – he will be taking an enforced break from all that frenetic activity for a while. When we spoke on Tuesday, he had just been for a Covid-19 test. It came back negative, but he has symptoms so is isolating and recovering. Others have stepped in to ensure Slung Low’s work goes on.
In truth, it has never been a conventional theatre company.
It made its name by staging big outdoor plays using professional actors and local volunteers, but in 2018 opened a cultural community college on a double decker bus, and in 2019 took over the UK’s oldest working men’s club.
It still runs the Holbeck as a working men’s club – or did before the lockdown. In normal times, the function room hosts gatherings ranging from majorette award ceremonies to African funeral wakes as well as Slung Low’s experimental theatre and cabarets.
“Everybody turns up to the cabaret,” Lane says. “It’s proper old-fashioned fun, and we serve dinner in the middle, and they normally go on for too long, and the band plays out, and everyone staggers out drunk.”
When lockdown put paid to that, he decided to do an online version and came up with You Can Bet!, a game show that sees him don a tuxedo and bow tie to do silly challenges.
Viewers can phone in and gamble on whether he can jump over an ironing board without touching it, or beat his four-year-old son in an obstacle course while dressed as a dinosaur.
In fact, young David is the real star of the show. And yes, it is just a bit inspired by 1980s and 90s game show You Bet! – whose former host Matthew Kelly sent a tongue-in-cheek message for their first episode.
“The vast majority of our members are absolutely right in the middle of that crisis group that you really don’t want leaving the house,” Lane says.
“But it’s been a long month for them now. So for half an hour a week, they get to tune in and roll their eyes at how silly we are.”
You Can Bet! is very different from the short film Slung Low has just put online, The Good Book, which is set in Leeds at the start of a future civil war. It features dozens of locals alongside professional actors like Fleabag’s Angus Imrie, and is the first work from Slung Low offshoot Leeds People’s Theatre.
“We realised that in order to be in a Slung Low [theatre] show, you have to give up three evenings and every weekend for three months. And that means that only certain types of people can be in those shows,” Lane says.
“Whereas being in a film, some people only gave up one weekend, and they still got to have a really rich experience.”
The connection with the local community is what sets Slung Low apart from other theatre companies and means it can adapt to doing things like delivering food during a crisis, Lane says.
Other venues have been busy putting their shows online and continuing their education and outreach activities digitally, but Lane thinks they could be doing more with their facilities.
“There are a lot of vans currently sat in the car parks of arts organisations because they couldn’t quite work out the insurance to get them doing food bank work,” he says.
He adds: “We spend a lot of time talking about what we’re for at Slung Low. What we’re for is not putting on a show for people to pay for tickets.
“It’s something we do quite a bit, and something that we can be quite good at on a good day. But it’s not what we’re for. And therefore, when you can’t do that, it doesn’t mean we stop.”