Why places like Chapel FM Arts Centre in Leeds are vital for community arts

What if I told you that there was an arts venue in Yorkshire that was going to stage, this weekend, a radio drama, several free writing workshops, a series of open mic events and more?

Children making a radio programme at Chapel FM Arts Centre in Seacroft, East Leeds; the venue runs a number of training programmes.
Children making a radio programme at Chapel FM Arts Centre in Seacroft, East Leeds; the venue runs a number of training programmes.

You would think that venue might make a perfect addition to my series of lockdown profiles, right? I’m assuming that’s a yes so I bring you, this week, the story of Chapel FM Arts Centre.

It is, as the name suggests, dedicated primarily to radio, but it is a community radio station run from an arts centre with a strong history in drama. The dramatic bent of Chapel FM can be traced back to 1986 and a touring theatre company called Heads Together, a company from which Chapel FM was born.

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Tony Macaluso is co-director of the organisation. “For the first decades following the founding of Heads Together in 1986, the company explored many different art forms from theatre to film and radio, eventually starting East Leeds FM radio and then renovating and moving into the Chapel FM Arts Centre venue in 2015,” he says.

A Musicathon at Chapel FM Arts Centre.

“I joined as co-director in 2018 after arriving in Leeds from Chicago where I worked for some of that city’s experimental theatre companies such as The Neo-Futurists and Redmoon Theater as well as helping create a giant digital archive of Chicago’s legendary, very theatrical radio interviewer and oral historian Studs Terkel.

An odd twist of fate brought me to Leeds and almost immediately a new friend and long-time Leeds community development leader Mick Ward said I had to go and check out Chapel FM given my past work in radio and theatre.”

That he became co-director is a good example of the sort of passion this little venue inspires.

“As a group, the staff and associated artists from the Chapel FM Arts Centre are attracted to the idea that participatory community broadcasting is a kind of theatrical happening. So while we sometimes create and present traditional theatre events in our venue, we see the buzz of making live radio shows, especially with young people out and about in our community, as a kind of broadcast theatrical spectacle.”

The venue is housed in a 19th century Methodist Chapel.

The rest of the core staff have deep and wide ranging experience in different facets of community arts: Katy Hayley who leads on youth participation comes from a visual design background, Sian Ashby is a veteran musician, Elliott Moon brings technical wizardry, Charlotte Carrick, the centre manager, is also a writer.

It’s quite the combination of people running an arts venue in Seacroft in East Leeds, a part of the city that isn’t as well served as some of the others when it comes to arts provision. It makes Chapel FM something of a gem in the area.

“When we put on shows, either created by people from our community or host touring productions, one of the things that makes our venue unusual and enchanting is that performances take place in our upstairs Radio Theatre, which has many of the details from the original 1874 Methodist Chapel that we renovated back in 2015: the audience sits in old wooden church pews, we have a (working) 19th century pipe organ that makes up the backdrop of the stage and vibrant stained glass windows,” says Macaluso.

“But the real magic ingredient is the fact that because radio and other digital media is at the heart of our work, we’re well set up to stream live performances out to the wider world through our community radio station (East Leeds FM) and by high quality video.

"There’s a delicious moment at the start of each performance when the live audience gets to be part of “going on-air” when we count down the start time, play one of our rousing radio jingles and suddenly everyone in the theatre is helping create the broadcast with their reactions to the show. It makes everyone realise that creating live theatre, music, spoken word or other arts is a collaborative effort between performers and audiences.”

Audiences will have the opportunity to experience those magical moments this weekend with the Writing On Air festival. The Chapel FM Director of Words is Peter Spafford.

“Our radio theatre is a gem. I always love showing people round. If someone hasn’t been up those stairs and entered Studio 3 before, their first word is always ‘Wow’. The space preserves the best features of the wonderful old Methodist chapel and is such an intimate place for performance of all kinds.”

When the moment we are living through passes, and it will, many believe it will lead to an explosion of creativity. If it comes to pass, Chapel FM will be right there at the heart of it.

“Our decisions about what theatre performances and other live events to present come from people in our community,” says Macaluso. “We have a Live Events Planning Group with dozens of participants, including young people. Anyone can join and be part of suggesting what kinds of performance we bring to our theatre. Participation and training is a big part of what we do.

“We run a series of youth programmes called Next Generation that give young people from Seacroft and elsewhere hands-on experience making radio shows and podcasts along with courses in music, writing and theatre,” says Macaluso. “We also run adult courses called Find Your Frequency and Have a Go that often lead to people launching new radio shows on our station East Leeds FM.”

A venue and an organisation to keep an eye on for all kinds of reasons.

For more information visit www.chapelfm.co.uk