Case study: Hull Truck Theatre open a dialogue with communities

Back in 2016, Hull Truck Theatre received funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation to find out more about under-represented audiences our city. Since then, we’ve been undertaking a programme of research and engagement activity with families living in Hull’s Thornton and Orchard Park estates, discovering what might prevent them from coming to their local theatre and piloting new ways of letting them know what’s on. This project is called Community Dialogues.

As the Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre, I’ve been out in communities to deliver this project, building relationships with organisations and individuals. This case study tells the story of the work we’ve been doing so far, in particular our partnership with McMillan Nursery School.

18 May 2016 – Meeting McMillan

This was my first meeting with McMillan Nursery School and I couldn’t wait to get started. In addition to providing childcare, the school offers training and advice for parents, and are also a School of Creativity; this means staff believe in offering opportunities to take risks and think outside the box, which is a perfect environment for my research.

Meeting with the school’s headteacher and chair of governors, we agreed it was best to take a gentle approach to my research, building up a relationship with parents before asking too many formal questions.

I had the opportunity to meet nine McMillan parents on this first day, who were all really keen to talk to me and share their opinions. Even at this one informal meeting, I heard about a number of issues that prevent some families from attending arts events:

  • Money is always a barrier to arts events, particularly for bigger families. This includes the cost of public transport into the city centre, which can also be stressful, particularly with pushchairs.
  • Parents don’t always know what’s on, for a couple of reasons. There aren’t many leaflets or posters around the estate, not everyone can get into the city centre to pick up a programme, and some families don’t have access to the internet.

24 May 2016 – Teddy Bears’ Picnic

I met a class of younger children on this visit, who were mainly 2-3 years old. It was the first time I had met their parents too and it was going slowly – I realised I would have to build their trust before I could ask them any in-depth questions.

I used a simple activity as an ice-breaker, creating a more natural environment for discussions and enriching the event with an activity the children would find fun and engaging.

Having broken the ice, I was able to have a chat with parents about what might stop them from attending arts events. I found out that a number of them used to go to the theatre when they were younger, but now find it difficult to arrange childcare. In other cases the parents worked into the evening, or found they were just too tired to travel into the city centre for an event. For many parents ‘free time’ actually means doing children’s activities or household chores, while others simply don’t have anyone to go with.

26 May 2016 – Children with English as an additional language

Later that week, I joined a class of older children (mostly 3-4 year olds). Many of the children in this group did not speak English as their first language, and struggle to express their feelings because of this.

Some of their parents had the same issue, and as a result they avoided talking to me. I speak Polish however, so I was able to speak to some of the Polish-speaking parents. These parents told me that they used to visit the theatre back in Poland, but since they moved to the UK they have never been. The language barrier is the main reason for this, but changes in lifestyle, work commitments and lack of childcare all prevented them from attending.

After this meeting, we had a really successful family engagement experience with the children’s show Frogs and Snails and Teddy Bear Tales. We donated two family tickets to the show, and I was very pleased to see that the families who won these tickets had never been to Hull Truck Theatre before. One family, originally from Syria, came to England recently and were incredibly grateful for the experience. Speaking to the parents after the show, they told me that:

  • They felt a little bit uncomfortable when they first arrived at the theatre, but found the staff very friendly and welcoming.
  • Their children enjoyed the show and it made them think about coming back to other family-friendly shows and events.

14 July 2016 – Family Fun Day

I spent a brilliant afternoon at McMillan’s Family Fun Day, introducing myself to parents, chatting and building up their trust. I did a more structured exercise too, finding out what parents do with their free time and the family activities they enjoy. Their views were all very different; some parents told me they never had free time, others told me they only had a limited amount of time to spend with their kids, and only on the weekends.

While many parents told me the main activities they enjoyed included soft play areas, local parks and watching TV, others told me that family fun days (like the National Play Day) and the free city centre museums were all favourite activities. Transport, however, was still an issue for many.

I had some useful feedback at this day too. Some parents told me they didn’t find Hull Truck Theatre very family friendly, since there aren’t very many productions suitable for children and families in our programme. We were able to respond to this feedback quickly, by creating a family friendly play area in our foyer and programming more craft and performance sessions for families.

February-April 2017 – Story Makers

Over six weeks, we worked with theatre company Mud Pie Arts to deliver Story Makers, a series of drama workshops for young children. We decided to do this in the McMillan Children’s Centre (next door to McMillan Nursery School) as it gave us the chance to take this work right into the community, and invite parents from schools and nurseries all around that area.

I had developed some really positive relationships with parents by this point, as well as teachers and staff at McMillan. This allowed me to work with parents who trusted me and could really engage with my research.

To celebrate the work we’d done, our final session with Mud Pie Arts was the Story Makers Party, which we held at Hull Truck Theatre. We brought nearly 25 families together, including several from the McMillan community, to take part in a fun and informal workshop. The parents gave me some very positive feedback at the session, with many of them asking me – can you run more activities like this?

Next steps

We’re now in the process of evaluating Community Dialogues, identifying everything that we’ve learnt and making changes across the theatre. We hope to continue to work with the individuals and organisations on Thornton Estate and Orchard Park, strengthening our relationships with those communities and building new relationships too.

We’re continuing to work closely with McMillan, welcoming groups on tours of the theatre and supporting several families to join us at performances later in the year.

Magda Moses is Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre. Find out more about Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s support of community projects in Hull at