A project initiated by

Duckie

"We are queer and you can feel that coming out in the body of the work."

From its office in the kitchen of a social housing flat, Duckie has grown from a weekly gay club night started in 1995 to an organisation staging social events, performances and workshops across the UK. Its core team of three is led by creative producer Simon Casson, and supplemented by approximately 20 associates and regular collaborators. It is financially expanding, from a turnover in the early 2010s of £350,000 to £940,000 in 2016, of which the bulk is received in the form of public subsidy, including £144,000 from Arts Council England, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and partnership projects. The Saturday night club remains as its commercial arm, bringing an earned income of approximately £75,000.

Mission: progressive working-class entertainment

Duckie has used the tag line Purveyors of Progressive Working Class Entertainment for most of its existence Playful on the surface, it indicates the ways in which the organisation is increasingly “trying to be useful”, by setting Duckie in opposition to “the structural inequality that happens in the west under capitalism”. Simon Casson argues: “Inevitably those structural inequalities are reflected in arts and culture: everything’s set up for the posh. In the old days the UK was 70% working-class folk, 30% middle-class folk, nowadays it’s about 70% middle-class and 30% working-class or people that are more socially and economically marginalised. Are those folk being served by the theatres and art centres and galleries? I’m interested in making meaning for that 30%.”

To “speak that language”, Duckie’s work takes place “in pubs, clubs, community centres, church halls, and involves a lot of popular forms, music, comedy and dance, catering, and dressing up”. It also reflects the company’s LGBTQ+ identity: “We are queer and you can feel that coming out in the body of the work. It’s part of the celebration of it: our work tends to be fun, with lots of socialising and entertainment, in order to find a bond and celebrate an audience or community. There’s a sense of playfulness, a sense of outsiderness, a sense of not taking yourself too seriously, and a bit of gentle sensitivity.”

“There’s a sense of playfulness, a sense of outsiderness, a sense of not taking yourself too seriously, and a bit of gentle sensitivity.”

The identity politics route

Duckie’s “goal to make popular performance and arts for ordinary people” initially led them to make theatre work in partnership with significant venues, including the Barbican, but latterly has shifted towards “serving specific groups in different areas” through distinct and tailored projects, including:

1: The Posh Club

This cabaret/afternoon tea for working-class elderly people, aged 60 and over, from mixed ethnic communities and lower socio-economic backgrounds runs weekly for the autumn/winter season, and offers an alternative to traditional daycare settings, with the same risque performers who appear on Duckie’s late-night Saturday stage offered as entertainment. Younger volunteers, of similarly diverse backgrounds, act as a silver-service waiting team. Casson developed the idea for The Posh Club when his mother moved from Hackney to Crawley and discovered there were almost no activities for older people; already established in both areas, it is expanding across the south-east, to Elephant and Castle, Brighton, and Hastings.

2: The Slaughterhouse Club

A drop-in creative project running two days a week, 40 weeks of the year, The Slaughterhouse Club is “an arts school for homeless alcoholics and addicts who live in hostels in Vauxhall and Battersea”. Both are “wet hostels, so people there are still drinking and still taking drugs”; three facilitators work with them to “develop art works out of conversations, using the myriad of mediums from painting and drawing and sculpture to film making, and song writing and performance-making”. This project has personal roots, too: Casson himself has experienced alcoholism and addiction and knows how, when deeply unhappy, “you might have a couple of hours that are actually OK, even if your life’s really desperate. We’re trying to provide that two or three hours, and we’re using arts to do that, because the making of art is a creative act that takes you outside of yourself, and that’s an enjoyable positive experience for people who are struggling with how to be a human being.”

3: Duckie Family

This project is dedicated to supporting the emerging “queer and trans, black and people of colour communities”, and again is framed in terms of service: “I’m trying to use my skills to help them create their own centre and their own platforms, to have fun and be creative in a very accessible way. I’ve always thought big changes need to happen and change happens very slowly. The key is to know when to step out of the limelight, when to hand over the power.”

The key is to know when to step out of the limelight, when to hand over the power.”

Each of these projects is “an act of passion. Service is at the heart of it, and we go to the communities we’re passionate about.” which exists because Duckie, and Casson in particular, “grew up. I don’t want to die an unhappy gay who’s just served himself: I want to serve the people, and I want to slightly change the world. I’m not a doctor or a nurse or a councillor: all I can do is put on shows and events, so that’s what we do – try to make the party for the people that don’t necessarily have the parties. We want to have fun and bring groups of people together and we take our job as social entrepreneurs and social engineers seriously.”

What next?

“The bottom line is that a hundred years ago, everyone who lived in this street would go to that church at the end of it, and they don’t any more, they all go to different places. But we need that way of coming together and theatre should be providing that.”

Casson admits that each of these projects is “modest” in its reach, and his ambition is to expand beyond “groups with special characteristics” to reach “whole working-class communities, ordinary folk outside of the university-educated system. I want to get to a position where we can rock up with a horse and cart and the dancing show opens out on the estate and it makes people go, you know what, I don’t need to watch the X-Factor because I’m going to go and take part in that magical thing that’s going to happen.”

As someone of working-class background himself, he often feels limited by his own lack of university education: “I do try to be articulate and clear about understanding the world and what needs to be done, but I wish I was more able to communicate that, because I think we could make more changes if I could. But how do you get working-class people in positions where they can actually take power? I’m middle class now, because of the process that I’ve been on as an adult, and I’m grateful for that, but I wish I was armed a bit more.”

Although the art forms that interest him are spectacular, popular entertainment, it’s also important to him that the work is “meaningful. The bottom line is that a hundred years ago, everyone who lived in this street would go to that church at the end of it, and they don’t any more, they all go to different places. But we need that way of coming together and theatre should be providing that. Theatre isn’t just some product that we consume: it’s something to participate in, in order to understand what it is to be a human being, and what it is to be together with other humans in a room.”

Leave a comment