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“When you’re talking to the media about young people, all that many of them really want to know is a rags-to-riches story: young Johnny who was shooting cocaine is now a ballet dancer, that kind of story. And that’s dull to all of us because we see young people as what they will be, not what they were”

Roundhouse – Marcus Davey

Reopened in 2006 following total renovation to the building, the Roundhouse has been in the charge of chief executive and artistic director Marcus Davey since 1999. It has approximately 125 staff, and a turnover of £12m, rising towards £15m depending on the commercial programme. Of that turnover, public funding of £950,000 accounts for less than 10%, while approximately £2.5m is fundraised through individuals, trusts and foundations, corporate relationships and events. All other income is generated through the building facilities.

Mission: supporting young people towards a better future

As one of the key mid-scale music and performing arts venues in London, the Roundhouse looks from the outside like a commercial operation – but on the inside, says Marcus Davey, “We run like a social organisation. The money we make from music gigs goes directly to supporting work with young people.” Based in Camden, a typical inner-London borough in that affluence sits side-by-side with poverty, the Roundhouse is particularly focused on “working with those that are excluded, at risk or hard to reach: last year, about 60% of young people came from excluded, disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Through a multiplicity of programmes, the Roundhouse “supports young people through their creativity to get a better future”. That might mean a career as a musician, or as a technician, or in arts management, or in an another field or industry altogether: “Some have gone on to be policemen, electricians, plumbers, because of the skills that they’ve learned here that can be transferred, from time keeping, communications, responsibility, etc, through their own creativity.”

A range of activities

The Roundhouse works with more than 3,000 young people each year, giving 70-100,000 hours of contact time. Those from more affluent households know about the programme and would quickly book up all available slots, so places are deliberately kept free for young people who must be reached in other ways: “through word of mouth in community settings and housing estates, and working with schools, pupil referral units and homeless shelters in a very detailed way”. There are other differences between attendees: “Some of them might come at 11 years old or 18, or 25; some might come as real beginners and some might come on the verge of a career.” And this is reflected in the range of programmes and activities available to participants:

1: Open programmes and audition projects

Most of the programmes – of which “about a third are in music, a third in performing arts, including spoken word, poetry, circus and theatre, and a third in the digital sphere of radio, broadcast and tech” – are open to all, and on Thursday are also drop-in. These programmes might end in a performance or sharing opportunity. There are also audition projects, which look for commitment rather than experience or accredited talent: for instance, to join the Roundhouse Choir, “you don’t have to show that you can read music, but you have to show your commitment, your passion and that you can sing as part of a group. Roundhouse Choir has gone on to perform at the Proms, on Radio 3, Radio 2 and Radio 1, and was part of the Folk Awards last year – so an amazing level of quality from young people who a year before might not have been singing at all.”

In addition, all work made in-house, including festivals and commissioned performance work, involves young people, which might mean “anything from performing in the participation project with the director of a show to making radio programmes to helping with the rigging or being involved in front of house”.

Many of the participants in these activities go on to careers in the arts: Davey mentions that roughly 30 of the producers and presenters on BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra are alumni of Roundhouse Radio, and several people working in British television similarly came through Roundhouse programmes. He also names Little Simz and Maverick Sabre as two of the music acts who emerged through Roundhouse studios.

2: Intensive training

For young people who are not in employment, education or training, the Roundhouse also offers very intensive training opportunities to small groups at a time, with a success rate of 85%.

3: Governance

Aside from the creative programmes, young people are invited to contribute to governance of the organisation. There is a Youth Advisory Board, and two young people sit on the main board of trustees.

Young people have become integrated at every level of the organisation because it is made clear to all employees that their roles involve collaboration and skill-sharing: “Even if you’re in finance or technical or building maintenance, the first element of the job description says that we are an organisation working with young people and you’ll be expected to support that. When you get a hundred people like that, you make more possibilities happen all the time. We also merged the team that programmes the main space with the teams that work with young people, so it’s not split up into lots of little silos, they’re actually all working together.”


The key issue that Davey identifies as challenging is communication, in two ways:

1: External: the paucity of the media narrative

“When you’re talking to the media about young people, all that many of them really want to know is a rags-to-riches story: young Johnny who was shooting cocaine is now a ballet dancer, that kind of story. And that’s dull to all of us because we see young people as what they will be, not what they were,” says Davey. He prefers the stories of young people who come to the Roundhouse for an arts activity, which “unlocks their potential so that they can follow a career in the arts or in another field altogether”, translating the skills they’ve acquired.

2: Internal: competing with the commercial activity

Davey admits that the Roundhouse needs to be better at “communicating clearly about what we do. When you’ve got the brightest lights in the world – Lady Gaga, Jay Z, etc – performing here, they shine so brightly that everything else is dimmed.” He feels many many young people already know what the Roundhouse is and does, but many funders and the wider public don’t – and that can be a barrier, especially in a political climate which traditionally, and at times still, has seen “the arts as soft, or a fluffy option”.

What next?

Building on its governance activities, Roundhouse is looking at how it can involve young people on “all of our interview committees for important roles in the organisation”, and also achieve greater diversity across the organisation – in programming and in management alike.

Davey is also aware that “there are more and more young people who need support, especially those at the margins of society, those that are not in employment, education or training,” and hopes to extend the Roundhouse’s capacity to accommodate that. Fundraising is about to begin for a new building on the site, with more studios and space for activities. And the Roundhouse is beginning to explore how it might expand into other areas, and share its practice, perhaps through a network of like-minded organisations. “We need money to achieve that expansion, and also we need to acknowledge among ourselves that we can lead in this field. If we’re strategic about it and set ourselves reasonable goals to hit, we can probably galvanise that.”


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