Shape Founder Gina Levete and assistant at Shape offices, 1978

The original purpose of Shape Arts

In 1976 Shape was founded by Gina Levete MBE with the purpose of introducing creative opportunities for pockets of the community where there was little or no opportunity to participate in the artistic life of the country. Shape acted as a network connecting individual artists from all disciplines, and established performing groups to environments where people were isolated through illness, disability or social disadvantage.

Forming a new link between disabled people & the arts

After initial skepticism institutions came to recognise the benefits that creative expression could bring to people whose lives were so often without access to beauty or freedom. In 1976 the idea that young disabled people could seriously learn to dance was a new concept, as were many of the workshops and activities that Shape introduced at that time.

The first Shape-run workshops

From the beginning, Shape's leading principle was to bring the arts to people who were being restricted by the barriers society put upon them. As a linking service between the arts and isolated groups of people, Shape was doing something new and important -- connecting artists to different audiences through a variety of workshops. For instance, the idea that patients in long stay psychiatric institutions could benefit from performances of music that led to the formation of a reggae band, or that homeless people could learn to photograph their story for the public to understand, or that the elderly in care could speak out through mime, or prisoners could enjoy the skill of fabric art and that murals created in a hospitals or public spaces could be the combined work of students and artists, or that established theatre groups would be glad to visit venues where people were cut off from the main stream... Such initiatives rarely happened on an ongoing basis until the formation of Shape.

Through the very small amount of creative arts that have been introduced into these settings, people are increasingly realising that this is a wonderful way of breaking down barriers and encouraging communication between different groups of people.

- Gina Levete MBE speaking in 1978 about the work of Shape.

Time to Get Out' - the first ever Shape event

As well as taking workshops and performances to isolated pockets of community in 1976 Shape wanted to make it possible for people to enjoy the facilities and arts activities happening in public places. To kick start this intention, ‘Time to Get Out’ – a Christmas entertainment – was organised at the then Commonwealth Institute Theatre. Both artists and theatre offered services free of charge. Institutions from across the UK managed to raise the money for travel and with the support of dedicated helpers, those in their care were enabled to participate as an audience.

The start of Shape Tickets

This small step led to what was to be one of Shape’s most successful early ventures: the introduction of a theatre subsidy scheme. This was a project loosely based on one run by Shape’s America Counterpart ‘Hospital Audiences Inc’ (HAI) whereby New York theatres papered the house by donating tickets to HAI. After visiting HAI the scheme was adapted for the UK in the capable hands of Shape’s second Director Seona Reid. The ticket scheme became a pathway to pleasure for many marginalized people who were then able to enjoy public entertainment.

A final reflection

Forty years on, under the imaginative guidance of the present Chief Executive Tony Heaton OBE, Shape has grown into the dynamic professional organisation that it is today. One of the most rewarding aspects of Shape whether in 1976 or 2016 is the richness gained by all who pass through its doors.


Banner image: Quote by Gina Levete: 'Ideas only work if there's a form to them'

Body image: Shape Founder Gina Levete and assistant at Shape offices, 1978