Interview with Without Walls Director Ralph Kennedy

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Without Walls is a leading catalyst for the the UK's diverse outdoor art scene. We sat down with Director Ralph Kennedy to talk about the impact of the annual Blueprint programme...

Hi Ralph, could you share a moment where art has had a transformative impact on someone you know?

I think all art aims to be transformational. It asks us to look and see the world through someone else's eyes. It gives us another worldview, sometimes in quite radical ways.

For those of us working in the publicly funded arts sector, the question of transformative arts has another layer of complexity, as we are looking to bring high quality creative experiences to places where there aren’t opportunities to enjoy arts and culture. For me, culture exists wherever and whenever people come together and create meaning in the world around them. It’s found in the songs sung at sports games, in viral tik-toks, in our food, and in clubs and civic associations of every hue. It has few boundaries and infinite potential.

What Without Walls is trying to do is bring arts experiences to places where they don’t exist. This immediately raises difficult questions of what these experiences should be? Is what we create what people actually want to see? It is easy to throw out platitudes and say you are transforming lives through art, it is quite another to get it right and make genuine change.

A woman wearing traditional Indian attire, including jewelry and hair accessories, performs a classical dance. Her movements are captured in a double exposure effect against a purple gradient background, emphasizing the grace and fluidity of her dance.

Without Walls works hard to nurture more outdoor art; what does outdoor art offer us as a society/individual vs. indoor?

In recent years, cities and towns across the country have experienced a decline, largely fueled by changes in consumer behaviour and reductions in local authority funding, which has led to the disappearance of essential community spaces like theatres, libraries and social clubs. It's evident that our relationship with, and utilisation of, public and civic spaces has shifted, and not necessarily for the better. Outdoor arts play a critical role in reversing this trend, allowing communities to reimagine the places where they live and work. Festivals in the Without Walls network offer the chance for people to come together, engage with their surroundings, and foster a sense of connection and creativity.

I’ll give you an example. Soon after joining Without Walls I attended a festival in a small town where Autin Dance Theatre was performing Out of the Deep Blue, a show that features a giant puppet ‘sea creature’ called Eko. Before the performance started, Eko walked through the town centre, joyfully playing with the crowds that gathered to see him and leading them to the performance site. Two teenagers walked transfixed next to me. One turned to the other and said ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened here’. Seeing people genuinely excited about seeing art in the places where they live and work is an incredible feeling. Audiences across England resonate with outdoor work because it creates moments of excitement, wonder and pride on their doorsteps.

What’s the premise behind your annual Blueprint programme?

Our annual Blueprint programme is designed to support the research and development of new outdoor touring work. Artists often have fantastic ideas for new creative projects and need support right at the beginning in order to develop these ideas into something tangible. In the current financial climate, early-stage support of new creative ideas and projects is more important than ever. It allows artists to take risks, push boundaries and continue to challenge the status quo. Through our Blueprint programme, we seek to celebrate innovation and expand the possibilities of what outdoor arts can be.

Could you share with us some of the talent that was selected? What criteria were you looking for in applications?

Six projects have been selected to receive Blueprint funding in 2024. These projects are linked by a common thread of community, resilience, and solidarity. All six promise fantastic things and I hope they will go on to become full-scale shows in future years. It's difficult to pick out any of the six. That said, I am really excited by two projects that are by fast-emerging young artists who have been creating waves in the outdoor scene in the last few years.

The first is GO GRANDAD, GO! by Company DHW. This is developing into a heart-warming family-friendly dance show that focuses on the importance of intergenerational relationships. It highlights the bond between a grandfather and his grandchildren as they prepare for their family talent show and celebrates the growth and impact Caribbean culture has had on British Society.

The second is We Break. We Build. by The Working Boys Club, which will be an immersive, interactive installation. Audiences will experience a towering structure fall and rise before their eyes, powered by hidden mechanisms and on-the-spot audience interaction. The show is inspired by the simple magic of finger-push puppets and is a reflection on resilience and the beauty of community support. Working Boys Club's previous show, Serving Sounds, has been a huge success at outdoor festivals over the last two years.

A person dressed in black is leaning towards and embracing a large mirror that shows a close-up reflection of their nose and mouth. The background consists of a white brick wall with a white cable and fixture hanging from it.

What’s caught your eye in the UK culture scene recently?

I have to give a shout-out to the town of Halifax. Over the last five years or so, it has developed into an amazing place to visit. The Piece Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in the UK. It is great to see that it is used by local communities on a day-to-day basis, and that it also hosts high-profile gigs and events. You’ve then got Square Chapel Arts Centre (which is a stunning building), Eureka (which is a museum especially for children) and a fantastic Victorian-covered market. The town is also home to an incredible range of artists and creatives.

Images shown are from Blueprint selections 1) Shadow and Persona & 2) One Sky

Learn more about Without Walls here.