By Beth Watton

11 August 2021 - 14:56

Poplar Union's Artistic Director, Beth Watton, speaking at an event in 2019
'Lots of people have said they didn't know we existed before the pandemic.' Poplar Union's Artistic Director, Beth Watton, speaking at the 2019 Creative's Social panel event. Photo © Hester Welch used with permission.

Beth Watton is Artistic Director of East London arts and community centre, Poplar Union. As an organisation which prides itself on face-to-face engagement, the pandemic came as a huge blow. Beth tells us how they made it work digitally.  

What is Poplar Union?

Poplar Union is an arts and community centre based in Poplar, East London. 

We opened in January 2017 and, until March 2020, ran a range of in-person events.

On the arts side, we covered live music, theatre, dance, film, talks and workshops; on the community side, craft and sustainability workshops, nature trails and litter picks, as well as health and wellbeing activities like yoga and Zumba. 

Did you have a digital presence before the pandemic?

Before, our digital presence communicated what we were doing face-to-face. We used it to tell the story of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We’re a values-led organisation, so that's important. 

We’d also launched a podcast called Pop Talks, where I interview a different guest each episode. Topics include everything from foraging and South Asian culture, to spoken word and the Asian underground music scene.

We were starting to branch out, but never thought we’d launch an entirely digital wing of programming. Doing so is one of the silver linings of lockdown.

How did you make your arts and community centre work digitally?

We closed our premises on 16 March 2020. By 23 March, a week later, we were running online events. 

We realised people would need routine and wellbeing. So we put a free yoga class on our Instagram

We were also conscious that many children were out of school. So, our Creative Director started posting weekly family art tutorials from his studio. 

Our digital programming grew from there. 

I’ve never been more proud of our team as I was then.

What worked well?

Things made for digital, as opposed to those which were adapted. 

For example, we posted a recording of a show online which was never intended to be used in that way. It didn’t perform as well as a virtual, interactive show we organised from scratch in February 2021. 

We live streamed the show on Zoom and there was an app the audience could download to play along. Technically it was a great achievement, but it also performed well with our audience because it was bespoke and new. 

We created a fortnightly series on Instagram Live called Pop Talks Live, where I hosted an informal chat with a guest for no more than 30 minutes. We’re still doing them now.

At the start of lockdown, we covered topics relevant to what people were going through at the time, like fitness, baking and gardening.

More recently, we’ve discussed topics such as creativity and men’s mental health, mindfulness and photography, sustainable fashion and supporting the LGBTQIA+ community.   

Would you like to receive more articles like this? Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

What challenges did you face when you went fully digital?

So much of our transition to digital was trial and error. 

We couldn’t compete with everything. For example, engagement in our online health classes dropped. People were tuning into high-profile, but also free, YouTube classes with the likes of American actress Adrienne Mishler and fitness coach Jo Wicks.  

There were practical challenges too. Running digital events is like running a second venue. You still need to devise a programme and run a box office. It can be more complicated than a person walking into a building and watching a show. They don’t need a password and an internet connection to do that!

We also knew we couldn’t reach everyone online. We have a diverse audience of varying ages and financial positions. Before the pandemic, we hosted a weekly social dance class for 70+ year-olds, which was a social lifeline to many. It was difficult to replicate that. 

How did you reach people who aren’t online or have limited internet access?

Last summer, when we were still closed, we put funding towards creative packs for families. These were bags filled with activities for all ages, none of which required an internet connection or access to devices.

For adults there were recipe cards and exercise plans; for children there were word searches and colouring books. They proved really popular and we distributed 300 in total. People could just walk past our office and pick one up for free. 

We regularly phoned the older people we work with. One lady in her eighties, Eileen, is well connected in the local community so we were able to gauge from her how everyone was coping.

Did you reach new people?

A woman from South Africa joined our online photography workshop, and people from India and Canada tuned into our live shows. In the UK, too, we noticed lots of new postcodes among attendees.

Now we’re opening up again, we’re seeing new faces at our physical events.

Lots of people have said they didn’t know we existed before the pandemic. Our digital programming raised awareness, and the lockdowns forced people to find support and activities closer to home. 

Did you get the sense that people turned to arts and creativity to cope with what was going on?

Our experience was that the pandemic gave some people a unique opportunity to engage with arts and creativity. For example, people were logging into our events on their lunch breaks or when they’d normally be commuting. 

People said that arts and creativity was a way of supporting their mental health, and something positive to focus on. 

Online events also created a sense of community. Even though many of us had never met in real life, it felt like we'd known each other for years.

That dawned on me when we held a physical opening for our photography workshop. One of the participants came up to me and said ‘it’s so nice to finally meet you!’.

Learn about building creative hubs online via the British Council’s Creative Communities Learning Lab.  

Visit Poplar Union and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

Connect with Beth on LinkedIn.

You might also be interested in