The Corn Exchange Newbury packs a punch as a regional arts venue with community and wellbeing taking centre stage, as director Katy Griffiths explains to Natalie Li
It took 20 minutes for 4,500 oversized dominoes to fall into the lake at Victoria Park in Newbury, much to the delight of thousands of cheering spectators. The spectacle was momentous for the community and a personal career achievement for Katy Griffiths, Director of Corn Exchange Newbury. But it was no mean feat.
“The logistics were extraordinary, we hoped and prayed everything went to plan! It was amazing,” Griffiths smiles. “We think around 10,000 people came together from Newbury and beyond.” It was all part of a playful yet epic piece, which weaved through the streets of Newbury. Thousands of concrete blocks installed by hundreds of volunteers form a meandering line through the town, traversing roads, pavements, waterways and parks. At a pre-arranged signal, the first block fell, knocking over the second, the third and the fourth – gaining momentum until the toppling blocks surges through the streets, creating a spectacle that was engaging, mesmerising and witty.
With the support of the town council and local partnerships, the free event brought immense joy, a feeling that has intensified since the global Covid pandemic, adds Griffiths. “When that final domino toppled, and we heard the cheers and celebration, it was an incredible moment for the town and community. People were like kids, chasing the dominos, such brilliant fun. Knowing that our organisation made that happen after the last few years is very special.”
On that fateful week in March 2020 when lockdown forced closures across the UK,
Griffiths refused to let the curtain fall on the Corn Exchange. Instead, it forced then to adopt an innovative and community-focused approach, an ethos that lies at the heart of the organisation.
“When lockdown was announced we immediately launched a programme of work called Contactless Creativity; this involved our volunteers delivering 100 creative activity packs each week to those who were completely isolated or shielding, with no access to the internet,” Griffiths explains. “Local artists pulled an array of ideas together and recorded messages on dictaphones so participants could take part.”
Griffiths, who was director of the Corn Exchange from 2011 to 2017, returning in 2019, admits that leading the venue through the pandemic held its obvious challenges, but a role she was able to shoulder thanks to her familiarity with the organisation. “I knew the venue so well and it made it easier having that history,” she says. “It was an extremely challenging time for the arts but somehow it drew the organisation closer together and forced us to be creative while staying true to our values. We were successful in receiving three rounds of emergency government funding from the Culture Recovery Fund.
“There has been a real shift in the landscape because of Covid,” she continues. “There were exciting opportunities that we were able to grow out of an extraordinary situation. We’ve always had a massive programme of creativity and engagement; getting the local community involved in activities is at the heart of what we do. During lockdown people remembered how to learn an instrument or took part on an online class. There has been a shift in understanding how this impacts on wellbeing.”
Griffiths’ passion about the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing is evident as we chat. She is a huge advocate of how creativity can meet the many challenges in health and social care associated with loneliness, mental health, and ageing. The venue’s flourishing participation programme in their Learning Centre reflects her desire to enable local people to engage, and feel better.
“Adapting during the Covid pandemic has really led us to focus on the benefits the arts have on wellbeing and the reduction in loneliness and isolation,” she says. “We have since been working closely with social prescribers from GP surgeries across the local district to offer referral and self-referral places on our Links to Thrive programme, free courses for adults offering creative activities, support and social connection delivered in venues across West Berkshire. It’s all about supporting people to manage without relying on traditional medicine.
“We also work with the local authority and mental health leads for the area to ensure we do the best we can to support the community. It has become an ever-important part of what we do. People know us best for performances, theatre and entertainment and having a good night out. This community programme of work is one that I feel passionately about, and I am excited to move this to the next stage.”
Leading the Corn Exchange is evidently a busy role, one which Griffiths seemingly manages with aplomb, overseeing more than 150 volunteers and staff across the 400-seat theatre auditorium, an independent 40-seat cinema tucked away on the top floor, kitchen and bar, plus the 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space for the development of large-scale outdoor staging and residencies, which recently hosted rehearsals for some of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee performances.
“The juggle never stops,” Griffiths laughs, “people always want to do more, and my challenge is trying to bring the most value to the community and make a difference. Striking that balance is tough but a real privilege.”
The autumn programme is a good case in point. Following a packed August full of family treats including a Superhero Adventure trail around Newbury and outdoor theatrical magic from French theatre company Le G. Bistaki in Bel Horizon, the season is peppered with comedy from Milton Jones to the Crown Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker.
Pantomime rounds off the jam-packed season and this year it’s Jack and The Beanstalk – a production Griffiths is excited to bring to local audiences. “We have our panto every year and it’s massive,” she smiles, “we produce it ourselves and tickets start from £15 so it’s accessible to families. Panto is an amazing introduction to live performance for so many, it’s wonderful seeing how it brings different generations together.
“We work with amazing creatives and this year comedy writers and directing team, Plested Brown and Wilsher, will create the show – it’s totally bespoke to Newbury and the surrounding area. I am hugely proud of panto going ahead after the uncertainty in recent years. The team are always so determined to make it happen.”
The Christmas magic continues with the annual Festival of Light where Newbury town centre is transformed into a twinkling winter wonderland with hundreds of lanterns made by families, schools, and community groups, again bringing the local community together.
Griffiths wraps things up by saying: “Not only am I proud of our team and programme ahead, but it’s also the role our venue plays in the local community and the difference it makes to people’s lives. The impact of arts, culture, and creative engagement is life changing and that’s what makes it so special here.”
To find out more about the autumn season visit cornexchangenew.com