Forest Pathways: engaging families and communities with outdoor arts

Maya Sharma, Consultant, Diversity and Inclusion, discusses new guidance from the Forestry Commission on how to engage families and communities with wild spaces through arts.

Last year, the Forestry Commission England (FCE) commissioned us to create guidance for engaging families in outdoor art in wild spaces. We welcomed this commission as there is little guidance for those delivering outdoor arts in places that are wilder and away from built environments. FCE commissioned Burn The Curtain to create a night-time promenade piece based on Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of the Snark, which was performed at a number of FCE sites across England.

You can read the full guidance online, but here we share five key highlights.

1. Outdoor arts in wilder spaces has real potential to attract new audiences to theatre.

Introducing audience members to theatre in forest settings removes the (potentially off-putting) conventions of traditional theatre and frees them to enjoy the experience in a different way. Being outdoors reduces fears that children may disrupt or interfere with performances as there is space to move and less pressure to be quiet. Much outdoor arts actively encourages audiences to move, make noise and take part.

Actor:
There’s freedom in not being in a theatre – you don’t have to worry about how to behave, when to clap and so on… Outdoor space is for everyone.


2. Nightfall and darkness bring a sense of adventure, but addressing safety and security through creativity is key.

Creating experiences that take place at dusk and in the night, carefully enhanced by lighting, fire and music, can result in a truly magical experience for audiences.  

Forest Pathways nightime outdoor artspng

Young carers’ support worker :

It gave more excitement and more adventure...the darkness gives an edge especially when they’re (young people in the audience) not allowed out that late and wouldn’t walk through the woods at night – a real sense of adventure you wouldn’t normally do. It created a bit of the unknown.

Being in forests at night could, especially for younger audience members, be a scary experience. Consider how you will keep your family audiences feeling safe, drawing on elements such as music, placement of performers and audience grouping.  Music can frame the experience and keep the group connected.  

The placing of various characters along the way and with different audience groups can also create a sense of safety, as audience members aren’t left to feel alone at any point. Grouping audience members into teams also creates connection and helps people to feel less isolated. These elements can unite to give audiences a feeling of purpose and belonging and limit opportunities to worry or feel anxious.  

Family audiences need clear practical information about the show to help them have the most enjoyable experience: 

  • Give audiences the information they need in advance to prepare them appropriately for a night-time outdoor experience in the forests.

  • Make clear recommendations about the clothing, footwear and equipment they may need. 

  • Think about how you will meet families’ practical needs at sites. These might include warm indoor spaces for before or after the show.


3. “The forest is the star of the show” using wild sites to best effect

Those designing outdoor arts in wild spaces should spend as much time on site as possible, getting to know the space, walking the routes and rehearsing on site. Consider audience needs as well as artistic impact when choosing routes. 

Burn the Curtain invested considerable time getting to know each new site and working with FCE staff to choose the best routes for each show. Both narrow, linear paths and wider open spaces were used, allowing large groups of people to move comfortably and effectively through the forest. Accessible routes were chosen wherever possible.

Forest Pathways children and guidepng

Outdoor arts specialist :

The forest is the star of the show. But this has challenges. They are moving round with up to 100 people and so need spaces that work for these groups (e.g. not purely narrow paths).
Audience member:

They took the audience on a journey, they really used the landscape. Split people into small groups with individual characters for smaller spaces and used the larger glades and spaces for the ensemble pieces


4. Partnership with local organisations is effective in bringing people to see the performances.

In this particular instance, FCE and Burn the Curtain worked closely with community organisations (such as Jack Drum Arts and Torbay Young Carers) who were already working with target audiences and were trusted and familiar to local communities. This trust was a key ingredient in getting audiences to the performances. Community partners started engagement activities designed to encourage participants to build their interest and confidence before taking them to the night-time outdoor experiences.

The community partners also understood the practical barriers: most sites were difficult or impossible to reach on public transport and spending time in the woods at night required appropriate footwear, waterproofs and torches. Jack Drum Arts told us that the people they worked with wouldn’t have been able to go to the performance if transport and boots, waterproofs and torches hadn’t been provided.

So this partnership approach was crucial to FCE reaching their audiences. Partners also found it a positive experience, which in some cases lead to their learning more about outdoor arts and developing ongoing relationships with FCE and Burn The Curtain.


5. The project helped FCE staff to understand the huge potential for audience engagement across their sites.


Forestry Commission England staff member:

It was absolutely spectacular, and my colleagues agreed…it opened our eyes to what we can do on site, what is possible. We tend not to get too involved in what organisations deliver on site, but this was slightly more involved.


In the words of Silvia Bordin, Arts Development Programme Manager:

The ability to build mutually beneficial relationships with a range of partners as part of a large and dispersed multi-site organisation is crucial to enable the successful delivery of Forestry England’s contemporary arts offer. Different ways of working between small companies and large organisations can present challenges but also offer valuable insight and enlightening learning opportunities for all partners involved. I found it inspiring to read how local FCE staff embraced the opportunity to get involved with this project and work in a different way. To read how the experience “opened [their} eyes to what we can do on site, what is possible” is a testament to the value of collaborative working and the transformational impact the arts can have not only for audiences but for all involved.




Read the Forest Pathways: Engaging families and communities with outdoor arts in wild spaces report here.

Photo credit: Theo Moye
Written by Maya Sharma, Consultant, Diversity and Inclusion

Featured in the May edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.