Sadler’s Wells hosted a free public talk exploring the relationship between art and human rights on the first day of Fly The Flag week, part of a nationwide campaign marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Chaired by Kate Arthurs, Director of Arts at the British Council, the debate examined the role of art in addressing human rights issues. Author, university professor and prominent human rights barrister Philippe Sands QC, Jasmin Vardimon, choreographer and artistic director of Jasmin Vardimon Company, and actor, writer and equality campaigner Kate Willoughby shared insight from their own experiences, work and expertise.

The rich and thought-provoking discussion considered how we are often unaware of our human rights, take them for granted, or think about them as something relating to ‘others’. It highlighted how there is still a lot to be done to build understanding that each and every one of us has a minimum set of fundamental rights at any given time, and how art is uniquely placed to humanise stories, make individual issues universal, appeal to our emotions and foster empathy among people – ultimately advancing the cause of human rights for all.

Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells’ Artistic Director and Chief Executive, introduces the Fly The Flag arts and human rights talk.

The evening began with a video contribution by choreographer Akram Khan. Alongside members of his dance company, in the clip he reflected on why art is such a powerful reminder of our shared humanity.

Fly the Flag 70 / Outwitting the Devil, Akram Kahn Company.
Video: Maxime Dos

“People connect with art because they find themselves in it.”

Akram Khan

Kate Arthurs then invited the speakers to share their thoughts on why, and how, art bears witness to, and shines a light on, our human rights.

“Human rights are the heartbeat of our humanity. They’re the lifeblood of our very existence and the hope for better days ahead – without them, humankind is lost. As creatives, we have incredible power. Art is underestimated as a powerful tool. With it, you can reach people, move and lift them, and change lives.”

Kate Willoughby

“Art is firstly a form of expression, a form of communication. It can shine a new light on subject matter, raise awareness, provoke thoughts, stimulate emotions and present a reality from an unconventional perspective. All of this can open new ways in which to view our world, and potentially lead to making actual change happen.”

Jasmin Vardimon

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gender inequality and crimes against humanity are some of the subjects explored in Jasmin Vardimon’s work. Her productions Justitia, 7734, Freedom, Medusa and PARK all deal with themes relating to universal human rights.

Fly The Flag for Human Rights, Jasmin Vardimon Company.
Credit: Jasmin Vardimon Company

Reflecting on their professional experiences, the speakers said:

“My work means that I am always in one of two places: either the classroom or the courtroom. My audiences are therefore either students or judges. But it’s not enough for just those two groups of people to be part of the discussion – human rights issues are just too important for that. Through my work as a writer, I found out that I can reach an audience much wider than I could have ever imagined.”

Philippe Sands

“Courage from the past calls for courage in the present. The fight is tough, but this is not a time to be a bystander. Understanding the history of the suffragettes is understanding that these were brave, ordinary, extraordinary women that we can learn from.”

Kate Willoughby

“Working on a piece, I like to look at an issue from different points of view and ask questions. How much does who we are – our cultural background, our preconceptions – influence how we judge situations? Perspective changes everything. A terrorist can be seen as a freedom fighter from the other side. Does our point of view dictate what we see, or does what we see dictate our point of view?”

Jasmin Vardimon

L to R: Speakers Philippe Sands, Kate Willoughby and Jasmin Vardimon, and chair Kate Arthurs.

On the value and impact of the arts, in society and in our everyday lives:

“What better way to express ourselves than through the body? I think the human body has an endless capacity to communicate and express, to tell a story and to rouse emotions. Using the entire capacity of our body to express can be a very powerful, expressive and communicative vehicle, whether that’s intellectually or vocally. The body is the home for each individual’s thoughts and emotions – it houses what makes each of us unique.”

Jasmin Vardimon

“It’s incredibly important that people recognize that there is a crying need out there to provide support to the artistic world to do what it wants to do. It’s an important time for solidarity right now.”

Philippe Sands

“It’s important to be true to yourself. When you speak from the heart you are heard by the heart. Feelings trump facts and stories matter. As creatives, we can tap into these truths for good.”

Kate Willoughby
Kate Willoughby performs an extract from
To Freedom’s Cause, her play on suffragette Emily Davison

In the Q&A session with the audience, speakers discussed the importance of equality of access to arts and culture for everyone, and of democratising the dialogue in ways that ensure everyone can be a part of the conversation.

We closed the talk with a poem from The Unknown Hour, by renowned poet and novelist Ben Okri, which was read by Cameroonian journalist and English PEN’s current writer-in-residence Mimi Mefo Takambou.

Mimi Mefo Takambou reads Ben Okri’s poem from The Unknown Hour.

To fall is not to fall

From space or height. It is to fall from unity,

From oneness. But it is easier to walk out

Than to work it out. Easier to fall apart

Than to stay together. The romance of independence,

Of freedom, is stronger than the truth of unity.

Ben Okri, from The Unknown Hour

Fly The Flag week runs from 24 to 30 June and is co-produced by Fuel, Amnesty International, Donmar Warehouse, Human Rights Watch, Liberty, National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells and Tate. 

Sadler’s Wells’ Voices: Maurice Rowan-Bishop on his apprenticeship

Sadler’s Wells offers a number of apprenticeships, giving young people the opportunity to access practical training and develop crucial knowledge and skills across different areas of the creative industries. In October 2014, Maurice Rowan-Bishop joined Sadler’s Wells as Cultural Venue Operations Apprentice, as part of the creative employment programme, to gain experience in the Front of House, Catering and Events departments. Following his successful apprenticeship, Maurice was offered a permanent role as Catering Team Leader in October 2016. He is responsible for helping to train staff and ensure the smooth running of the cafes and bars at the theatre. We spoke to Maurice about what he learnt from his apprenticeship at Sadler’s Wells.

What is your background?

I came to Sadler’s Wells straight from education, having spent 2 years studying English Literature at the University of Essex. My experience with higher education was not what I had hoped for and so I left in 2014 without gaining my degree. This was a big disappointment at the time, however looking back now I feel like coming out of education and into work benefited me in a huge way. I came to Sadler’s having worked previously for Aramark at the 2012 Olympics in the dining hall of the Athletes village. Not only did this give me a first experience working in hospitality, but it left me with a feeling that I was participating in something significant and influenced my desire to pursue a career in the arts.

How did you find out about the apprenticeship you applied for?

On the website. They have an entire section dedicated to Apprenticeships, which I was searching with a particular eye on the arts sector. When I saw that Sadler’s Wells was offering one I knew I had to apply as I recognised it as a really important institution in the arts world and great way to start a career in the arts.

Why did you apply to work at Sadler’s Wells?

It was perfectly suited for what I was looking for at the time; I knew I was interested in working in theatre, however I was unsure of what area to focus my attention on. The apprenticeship was very general, offering experience in a number of departments within the theatre so provided me with an opportunity to gain a flavour for the various careers one can pursue within the arts and decide which was best for me.

What did your apprenticeship involve?

I spent my apprenticeship working in three of the theatre’s departments. Front of House, Catering and Events. For the majority of this, I worked in the events department of the theatre, assisting the team with the sale of events spaces and the organisation and smooth running of events. These spaces included the theatre’s main auditorium, reception areas, meeting rooms and dance studios. My responsibilities within the team included: Communicating with other internal operational departments to ensure the needs and requirements of clients are met, receiving external phone calls and forwarding them to the appropriate team member, using the diary system to book internal departments into events spaces as per their requests, generating a daily schedule of events each week to be used by all departments and carrying out market research to improve the sales of spaces. I also attended Lewisham and Southwark College and completed an NVQ in Cultural Venues operation during this time.

What did you learn?

The fact I was given an opportunity to work in so many departments gave me a fantastic insight into how a theatre is run and the various roles its many staff have. During the first four months (the portion of the apprenticeship spent in FOH and Catering), I was able to really hone my customer service experience, especially working as an usher during the sold-out Christmas show where a large portion of the audience were new to the theatre.

Working in the events department was my first time in an office environment, so I was able to learn a lot. Everything from sending emails to colleagues and clients as well as answering enquiries over the phone were all new things to me, but I got a lot of support from the rest of the team and by the end of the 8 months I very comfortable with those sort of tasks. I also learned a lot about time management and the prioritising of tasks, skills that are still very valuable to my current job even though it is more operationally based.

What did you particularly enjoy as part of the apprenticeship?

The experience of learning whilst working was very refreshing when compared to the academic approach I had struggled with at university, particularly when it came to the structure that comes with full time work. I also remember being really impressed by how friendly the atmosphere was within the theatre. It felt a bit like a family full of people who were proud of what they did and where they worked.

How do you feel the apprenticeship benefited your career?

It’s hard to imagine how else I could have gotten my foot in the door at a theatre like Sadler’s without a degree. The apprenticeship also gave me a fantastic understanding of the arts sector in general, and helped me understand what direction I could take with my career.

What advice would you give to other graduates doing an apprenticeship at Sadler’s Wells?

I would say definitely don’t put off the coursework. It’s basically functions as a portfolio of all the little things you learn as you work, making it a lot easier if you add to it as you go rather than leaving it to the end of the year as I did. Another thing would be to hold on to the contacts you build throughout the apprenticeship – from your tutor to the other apprentices on the course with you, because it is a useful way to build a network of both personal and professional support.