Turtle Key Arts is a registered UK charity established in 1989 to unlock creative potential in individuals, companies and communities by producing and devising original inclusive art to entertain and inspire. They are headquartered at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.
Turtle Key Arts have played a committed role in advancing participation in the arts for disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded people. Participation and Education are embedded in everything they do.
They are widely recognised as a leader in this field, often charting new territories, with projects such as with Turtle Song for people with Dementia, Key Words for young people with Dyslexia and Turtle Opera, The Key Club, and Musical Portraits for young people with Autism Spectrum Conditions.
Their work has a UK and international reach through a wide variety of innovative projects with many different collaborators and partners.
Recently selected by the National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing as an example of good practice, the Key Club, created in 2003, is an Arts Club for people between 16 and 30 years old with autism spectrum conditions.
Monthly, Saturday morning meetings at The Lyric Hammersmith cover creative writing, singing and song-writing, film and video, visual art, script-writing for TV and Radio, drama, circus skills, photography and stop-frame animation. The Key Club encourages communication and inspires confidence
“The Key Club not only allows members to create great art and learn new skills, it also helps them to develop friendships and inspires confidence. Members have become independent travellers as a result of skills developed at Key Club, developed and forged friendships for the first time and it has proved instrumental in helping young people onto further education courses and into employment.”
The Club is free to attend.
Turtle Song was created in 2007 to bring music, song writing, singing and movement to people with Alzheimers and all forms of dementia, together with their companions and carers.
Participants meet once a week for ten weeks and with the help of professional musicians and music students, write the lyrics and compose the music for their own song cycle. The programme ends with a live performance of work for friends and family, which is recorded as a DVD.
Turtle Song encourages artistic and social interaction, a positive outlook through an enjoyable and shared activity, and gives the brain and body, stimulating exercise. It also helps to enhance the professional development of the music students who take part in the project
Since the first Turtle Song at the Royal College of Music in 2007, it has been introduced in Cambridge, Wolverhampton, Dulwich, Hackney, Suffolk, Oxford, Stockton-on-Tees, Leeds, Norwich, Croydon, York, Reading, Newbury and Waddesdon Manor; there are now on average three held each year.
"I cried silent tears of sorrow, of pride, of happiness, of loss, of admiration, of gratitude and more. Thank you for bringing joy to my mum, for accepting her just as she is and for making her truly happy. I have not seen her smile like that for a long time, today she was my beautiful, intelligent, kind & caring, fun loving mum again” (From the daughter of a participant in Reading 2015)
Turtle Song is free to all participants. It is an English Touring Opera, Royal College of Music and Turtle Key Arts collaboration. The next Turtle Song will be held in Oxford from April- June 2018.
Interview with Charlotte Cunningham MBE, Founder and Artistic Director, Turtle Key Arts
How did you become involved with Turtle Key Arts?
I founded the charity in 1989 with my co-founder Magdalen (Maggie) Wolloshin. We launched Turtle Key as a hundred-seater performance space in Fulham that was fully accessible to people with disabilities. It was a beautiful white-box photographic studio with a sprung floor that invited experimentation and innovation.
As well as welcoming new work of every description – dance, physical theatre, devised work and some work that defied categorisation-we started to build links with community and disability groups and to design projects that would appeal to anyone struggling to access arts venues and opportunities. It was a wonderfully creative and exciting time. We met and made lasting relationships with many of the collaborators and artists that are still part of the wider Turtle Key family nearly thirty years on.
How did the idea of Turtle Key Arts come about?
Maggie and I met working on a fringe show in north London – I was assistant director and she was the movement director. Over the course of that job, we both realised that we shared many aspirations around how the performing arts should develop at a time when the world was beginning to open up and change.
Maggie was sharing a flat with a friend who was a wheelchair user and who struggled to come and see any of her friends performing in theatre. This acted as a catalyst, and the idea of genuinely accessible theatre that would be new and different from the status quo was born.
Why Turtle Key Arts?
We are often asked what our name stands for. The Turtle was the symbol for ‘man’s intuitive knowledge of truth’. The Key stood for access and opening doors, as well as being the symbol of the Sesame Institute where Maggie had trained. This explanation was carefully researched and learnt off by heart after the name had been casually invented one afternoon in the park. It has also helped us to build up an impressive collection of turtles and tortoises for every occasion which we would have sacrificed by calling ourselves by any other name!
What makes your work special?
We are producers of both young professional companies, and of ground-breaking arts outreach projects. We feel strongly that the two streams of our work strengthen each other. Our companies gain from their work with communities, and groups and the participants in our projects have access to all of our exciting young artists.
We currently have seven collaborating companies: Ockham's Razor, RedCape Theatre, Amici Dance Theatre Company, Joli Vyann, Open Sky, AIK Productions and Oddly Moving. Our outreach projects work with dementia, autism, dyslexia, disability and interfaith groups, and partners include the English Touring Opera, The Royal College of Music, The Wigmore Hall, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Universities of Oxford, Reading, Wolverhampton and York.
We still think about physical access in all of our work, and are supported by our long serving disability advisor. However we also feel that access is a wider concept. It is not just about the physical barriers. Once you start thinking in this way, you realise that access is also difficult for people who live in places where arts are not provided; for communities that are hard to reach for cultural or linguistic reasons, and for those who simply feel that the arts are not aimed at them.
What has been the most inspiring story you have seen as a result of the work you are doing?
Nearly every day brings new stories which highlight the ways in which our work impacts on groups and individuals. That can be through audiences who view the world differently after watching a performance of, for example, Love Bombs and Apples, which allows Muslim voices to be heard in a new way, or Amici dance theatre company who shows a cast of 40 people with and without disabilities creating phenomenal theatre on one of London’s main stages.
However often our inspiration comes from the feedback from our participants who amongst many therapeutic benefits, report a sense of self worth, acceptance, of fitting in, of being able to express themselves truly and fully.
In terms of your projects, which of them are you most proud of and why?
I find it very hard to choose one project to single out, but our current connection to Prospero has come through our Turtle Song project which we run in partnership with English Touring Opera and Royal College of Music. We have presented at numerous conferences and platforms about dementia and the arts and joined in a new movement that is finding new ways to help live better lives with this difficult diagnosis.
I am extremely proud both of what Turtle Song has achieved for the many hundreds of people with dementia, their carers, music students and composers and directors who have participated over the last 10 years. It is wonderful to have rolled it out around the country, evaluate its impact and document our findings.
Our model – 10 sessions with up to 40 people who come together to write 5 to 8 original songs based around a subject of their choosing, and that culminates in a celebratory performance for friends and family- is both high quality and easily transferable.
Music students have ensured the wonderful quality of playing and performance but they also represent our future since many of them carry on these kinds of projects, or become project leaders in their own right. They also help to provide the wonderful inter-generational aspect of the project.
We are currently putting together a collection of the ‘best Turtle Songs of the last 10 years’. Choosing a song from each project has reminded me how much we have achieved and how we have genuinely helped to change the conversation around dementia.
What would £10,000 enable Turtle Key Arts to achieve?
This amount could run a full Turtle Opera project. This is a ten-week music and drama project for 10-14 year olds with autism spectrum disorders and it is one of the areas that we still find hard to raise funds for.
The project is currently running in partnership with Autism Family Support Oxfordshire and the Oxford Music faculty and for our last project we had 4 applicants for each available place, a sign of how necessary this kind of work is for those families.
“I don’t mean to be dramatic about it but Turtle Opera has completely changed our lives. My child walked out of the first session, and it was as if “Oh my god, it’s ok to be autistic”. For the first time in his life he picked up the phone and he now talks regularly to his grandparents in Australia. He is a changed child.” Mother of Participant