By Dame Joanna Lumley
I believe every child deserves the best start in life. As a longstanding patron of the arts, you won’t be surprised to hear I am firmly of the view that should include access to the captivating and inspiring world of theatre.
The benefits are immeasurable, and include not only the educational and cultural opportunities, but the vital promotion of mental wellbeing, increasing young peoples’ confidence, and providing an introduction to the fruitful and rewarding careers in the UK’s arts sector.
Sadly, for many children all across the country a single visit to the theatre remains out of reach for their entire time at school. Children from low-income families are most affected, as they are less likely to have access to cultural experiences outside of school. Those with disabilities or health conditions also risk exclusion from enriching artistic experiences.
The pandemic and its continuing impact, which shut down access to theatres and arts venues, and now the cost of living crisis, which is making cultural experiences unaffordable for many families, have made things even worse.
So I’m proud to be a patron of Polka Theatre, the UK’s first and leading children’s theatre. Based in Wimbledon since 1979, we empower young people up to the age of 12 who might not otherwise access the arts to navigate their world through inspirational theatre and creative experiences. Polka’s glorious building has a bright and welcoming café, shop, garden and indoor and outdoor playground, so the theatre is a wonderful place to welcome young people and their families. The play areas are often filled to the brim with families enjoying fancy dress, reading or arts and crafts, and are totally free for access for all to enjoy and be creative in.
We work with hundreds of schools from all across the UK and give away 6,000 tickets a year to those for whom a trip to the theatre might be financially or logistically out of reach. Many of the children who come to us have never been to the theatre before. Watching them experience live theatre for the first time is a magical moment, and one which stays with you. We work with children facing a huge array of challenges, such as those that have experienced the care system, or who are themselves young carers and children who have experienced displacement. Access to live theatre can provide such enjoyment, escapism, inspiration and memories which can have the most wonderful impact at a young age. Specially adapted shows are run all year round at Polka, including captioned (similar to subtitles) and BSL interpreted for deaf audiences, audio described for blind or visually impaired children, and relaxed shows for any children for whom a traditional theatre setting can be intimidating or uncomfortable. We work tirelessly to make sure theatre is accessible for all children.
As well as access to all sorts of theatrical productions, Polka runs a creative learning programme and drama clubs. The theatre work with local schools to provide workshops in a specially designed space equipped with fantastic sensory projection, making it the perfect learning and play environment for children with additional access needs. For many of the young people we welcome, it’s a profound and amazing experience that they will always remember.
We know we improve children’s lives, bring communities together, and create ground-breaking theatre. We also make a point of focusing on topical issues like the environment, mental health and celebrating diversity. The demand for what we provide is huge. Against a backdrop of increased budget cuts, we are seeing vast numbers of schools applying for subsidised tickets and had a record 98,000 visits to the theatre last year.
Theatre may not hold all the answers for the children we work with, but there is overwhelming evidence that show the positive impact on educational outcomes and mental health.
It also gifts children with the opportunity to forge cherished memories, acquire new skills, nurture confidence, revel in moments of joy and delight, and cultivate lasting friendships.
Sadly, there is a lot of pressure on funding for the arts sector. Polka Theatre’s funding is being cut in real terms and we have also lost money we used to receive through the EU because of Brexit. There is a real squeeze and urgent need for support.
That is why we are so delighted to be taking part in the Big Give Christmas Challenge this year. The idea behind Big Give is a simple but brilliant one. It doubles money donated by members of the public to charities participating in different campaigns across the year.
The Christmas Challenge is its biggest fundraiser and this year aims to raise over £30 million in just a week – an extraordinary achievement. This means that any donations to Polka Theatre via the Big Give platform will be doubled by Big Give’s funding ‘champions’ – companies, foundations and philanthropists who want to make a difference.
This is more relevant than ever this year as charities face what has been called a ‘cost of giving’ crisis. Many people can’t afford to give as much as they would like this Christmas, so what better way to do it than via a campaign which will double your money and multiply the impact of your generosity?
Please consider supporting the work of Polka Theatre in this year’s campaign, which runs until December 5. Theatre has the power to transform lives. It encourages empathy and deepens children’s understanding of themselves and of the world. Every child deserves to experience the transformative effects of going to the theatre – so let’s help more of them do so.
To support the work of Polka Theatre, please visit https://biggive.org/christmas-challenge/