Back in the 19th century, the Holbeck area of Leeds was a hive of industry and invention that helped power the Industrial Revolution.
It was here that John Marshall perfected his spinning machinery and where Matthew Murray built his pioneering steam locomotive.
A century and a half on and it continues to be a place of innovation with the acclaimed theatre company Slung Low today launching a new Cultural Community College.
The college, which will begin running courses in September, is located at The Holbeck Underground Ballroom (The HUB) on the edge of Leeds city centre, and will offer an array of courses covering diverse topics from South Indian cooking and stargazing to short film-making and carpentry.
Slung Low, which runs a theatre space in the city, has carved out a reputation for its exciting productions and this is perhaps its most ambitious project yet.
The college, which is funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and supported by Arts Council England, is open to adults with the courses led by experts and artists from the region who will share their skills and experience with the students.
Free at the point of use, it is up to those studying to decide how much they pay for the courses, sessions and classes.
Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane believes the college can help plug a cultural gap in the city.
“The opportunities as an adult to learn something that has nothing to do with your job are really limited,” he said.
“When I was a kid my mum used to go to WI classes or go down to the local working men’s club, or the church, and now those organisations are in the front line of dealing with society’s challenges.
“We started talking to people in Holbeck and those that already use the HUB to see if this was the sort of thing they would be interested in and everyone kept saying ‘yes’, so we’ve tried to put on courses that people say they want.”
The first term runs from September to November and Mr Lane hopes they will attract a diverse group of people. “There are a number of things that prevent people signing up to courses like this. One of them is cost, which is why we’re saying ‘pay what you decide’.
“You can’t pay what you can’t afford but some people might choose to pay more than if we had put a price tag on it.”
It’s an approach that underpins Slung Low’s ethos. “What we’ve discovered over the years is those that can pay more and those that can’t still come. It’s not about the market value, it’s about how much you value it, so there is no wrong answer.
“There are other factors that prevent people doing the thing they want, like time and location and over the course of the next year we’re going to try and remove as many of these obstacles as possible.”
The college is part of the company’s long-term ambition to create what it calls the Leeds People’s Theatre. It is also, as Mr Lane points out, about encouraging more adult learning. “What I hope we end up with is more demand than we can meet,” he said.
“If we can contribute, even in just some small way, to the citizens of Leeds being a bit more confident than that has to be a good thing.”
Curriculum will develop
The college is funded by £59,000 each year for the next four years by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and is supported by the Arts Council of England and Leeds City Council which both currently fund the company.
The curriculum will initially be programmed by Slung Low in consultation with the college’s Community Advisory Board and other local stakeholders and will later be chosen by the participants themselves.
An advisory board made up of educators from across the education spectrum including universities, theatre education departments and the private sector will support the team at the college.
For more details visit www.slunglow.org.