I had been trawling through various websites looking for paid and unpaid work in the creative industries and just as bitterness was about to set in, I stumbled across an ad on the Royal Court’s jobs page. The title read something like, ‘…Looking for an intern – must live in Peckham’ and as an aspiring writer born and bred in the manor, I was convinced that the role was created for me.
If successful, I would be working to promote the Theatre Local project, a Royal Court programme designed to bring theatre from the Court to different spaces around the City. This year the Court chose Peckham and planned to bring two of their plays, truth and reconciliation by debbie tucker green and The Westbridge by Rachel De-lahay. I felt the plays were perfect for a Peckham audience as there was something for everyone of all ages. After wowing the girls on the team, I got the gig and couldn’t have been happier and though I didn’t fully know what to expect, I had no idea how much I would learn about myself, theatre and my local community.
Our team brief was simple – SPREAD THE WORD! So we went to work contacting local schools, youth groups, churches and businesses. Initially people were slow to respond though word soon got around and we were glad to see many of those faces at the Theatre Local launch party. Alongside our plays, we also offered a series of free drama and playwriting workshops led by some of the Courts best known writers and assistant directors. I had the privilege of assisting on the playwriting workshops which took us to Harris Academy (the secondary and primary school) and Downside Fisher youth club. The idea of the workshops was to teach these young people the necessary and basic skills required to write their own play. This was done through various writing exercises and of course, a lot of game play.
The playwriting workshop with Harris Academy (Secondary) was led by Bola Ajagbe (Belong) or ‘Aunty’ as she was affectionately called by one of the students. It was a mixed group of funny and charismatic year 9 and year 11 students, some of whom initially had no interest in writing and were simply waiting for friends. As the weeks progressed however, they soon changed their tune and would turn up faithfully each week to take part. Without a doubt the highlight of the workshop was when the young people read excerpts from Bola’s play Gone too far. They couldn’t get enough and really engaged with the themes of the play, the characters and the dialogue. This week was our last week with the group and we all were sad to be leaving.
The second workshop was at the Harris Academy (Primary) and was led by Nick Payne (Constellations). The group was made up of two year 5 classes and had children from all backgrounds and abilities. In my opinion, it was Nick’s natural ability to relate to the young children without patronising or confusing them that made the workshop so successful. Again, they were a highly amusing bunch who spoke their minds and hung on Nick’s every word. Although I was there in a teaching capacity, I’d also learnt a lot from these young minds. Unlike us adults, they hadn’t yet learnt to restrict their imagination and so came up with the most amazing and imaginative characters and stories. I’d often read their work and think, ‘A pencil gets married to an apple and they join together to fight crime… well why not?
The last workshop was with a youth group called Downside Fisher and this was perhaps the most challenging. It was quite difficult to keep these young people engaged, especially as we were competing with other existing activities, such as archery, gym or gossiping with friends. Still, it was interesting to work with the young people, some of whom had clearly had difficult personal lives. It didn’t go as easily as it did with the other groups which was a shame as I believed that there were some great stories to be told. The next time around, we will have to look seriously at how we engage youth groups in the area.
So what has Theatre Local meant to me? In theatre land, there has always been a debate about how to widen audience participation but I don’t know of many theatres who have been willing to put their money where their mouths are in the way that the Royal Court has. After speaking to many young people and local culture vultures, it is clear that Theatre Local was a project that needed to happen and must continue. The Royal Court has shown that if you can make theatre accessible AND affordable, you can engage the underrepresented and create a powerful buzz so LONG LIVE THEATRE LOCAL!
By Diana Atuona