We caught up with founder of Spectra, Kate De Right whose vision for creating interactive, collaborative work has been spreading immersive joy to theatre audiences for a decade
Kate De Right founded Spectra 10 years ago inspired by the type of theatre she liked to see and with a particular focus on achieving a strong connection with audiences by including them, so they never feel on the ‘other side of the wall’. While it’s more collaborative than traditional theatre it’s not a scary forced audience participation scenario which, frankly, brings us out in a cold sweat. Kate reassures us there are ‘broad ways to get involved’ and it’s more about being welcoming and inclusive.
At the time of Spectra’s inception, Kate was working with some people with autism who often felt like they were on the other side of the wall, so she listened and took on board their issues and views creating something she’s proud of using the insight from their first-hand expert knowledge. The first show explored inviting the audience in rather than merely come in and sit down which resulted in inclusivity and relevance.
These days we’re all familiar with relaxed performances, however Spectra is much more than a few relaxed dates within a standard show’s run – inclusion is embedded in everything they create, it’s central to the company’s ethos. It helps perhaps that Spectra’s performances aren’t always in traditional theatre settings – for instance, sometimes outdoor, sometimes large installations – it varies but the constant is a wide appeal. Kate says: “It has broad appeal to different ages. Someone compared our productions to the Simpsons in that young people laugh at it while older people do to, but at something different – political maybe.”
ROOM TO GROW
The first eight years of Spectra were essentially about Kate ‘squirrelling away’, then the theatre received a funding grant that meant she was able to bring between 20 and 30 people on board for a specific project. The theatre is about to join the Arts Council’s National Portfolio which means Spectra will be able to employ a core team of salaried people, five of those full-time with more brought in when needed. Kate explains: “It ebbs and flows depending on the project. We also often involve different community groups.”
Covid lockdowns clearly presented challenges, but thanks to an emergency grant from the Arts Council and Kate’s inventive leadership the company took to Zoom. In true Spectra style it wasn’t a sit down and watch vibe. Everyone who signed up to watch a performance received a sensory box full of goodies to enhance the experience and squeeze every bit of enjoyment from the show.
It worked tremendously and Kate received emotional feedback from people who weren’t able to get out to the theatre – one example she recalls was from the daughter of a man who was bedbound and hadn’t been to the theatre for a long time. He absolutely felt he’d been there in the flesh thanks to the inclusive nature and heightened sensory experience. The theatre has continued with Zoom as it really works for some people and rather than dimming Spectra’s light, it’s enhanced it. For instance, a film made at Moseley Bog earlier this year that was streamed came complete with a sensory parcel that included a wood smoked smelling candle.
Although Kate is the director, she’s keen to point out it’s a team effort. “We create together. It’s very egalitarian and we hold space for everyone. It’s risky – it means you don’t necessarily know where it’s going but it’s rewarding. I don’t think we could really claim to be inclusive otherwise.”
Regarding Birmingham’s arts scene generally, Kate thinks it’s in pretty good shape. “While there’s a general disinterest in tooting its own horn, the city is cracking on with some pretty ground-breaking work,” she says. “Sector colleagues like MAIA, Friction, The Gap are pushing boundaries and making change in radical ways through socially engaged practice.” She adds: “We’ve got diverse leadership in big organisations that is helping to bring new perspectives that reflect our brilliantly diverse city.” On the not so positive side she says: “With Ort Gallery closing its space and Centrala losing its ACE NPO funding, it’s not all roses and there is a definite need for greater investment.”
Spectra was about to tour in 2019 when Covid hit, so they’re looking forward to developing some touring productions this year as well as continuing to work with local NHS Trusts. Partnered with NHS Sandwell, the theatre built a garden at the hospital and hopes to build a second this year as well as starting to work with the new Midland Met Hospital. Kate’s passionate that the arts are crucial to fulfilment and connectedness impacting overall well-being, so working with the NHS seems a natural step. The Zoom shows will continue as they represent the ultimate in accessible theatre in many ways which is a huge and unexpected plus to come out of the pandemic.