“We’re constantly making sense of our lives through storytelling,” says Naomi Alexander, musing on how drama not only reflects society but helps shape it. “Theatre is a process of collective storytelling. It’s a really special way for people to make sense of crazy times.” The Artistic Director and Co-CEO of Brighton People’s Theatre (BPT), Naomi understands how telling stories can create a sense of unity and sow the seeds of effective change.
Starting work on BPT in 2015, she felt theatre was often out of touch with communities, both in the stories it told and the audience it courted. Everyone has stories to tell, and often personal insights help break down complex issues. And by taking it out of the traditional creative spaces, she’s been able to make a wider spectrum of people realise storytelling doesn’t just start conversations about the world around us, but also about the society we hope to create. “A lot of theatre appeals to other theatre-makers, and it can be quite self-referential. I guess we’re trying to break that down. It’s an amazing collaborative art form. It’s fantastic at bringing people together and sharing in live moments.” So, in their mission to make theatre more inclusive, BPT runs drama workshops, organises group outings to shows, and facilitates a range of opportunities to meet others and play.
One individual who feels he’s flourished because of this environment is Paul. After serving in the Army, and living around the country, he says he’d never previously had chances to realise his creative leaning. An event in Whitehawk during 2019 prompted him to start attending BPT workshops. “The quality of the people instructing was brilliant,” he tells me. “That’s one of things which has really hit. Someone will come in, and you’ll look them up and go: ‘Wow”. They’re people who have really done stuff.” He says he’s been given an avenue to express himself, while learning that nothing is considered ‘wrong’. “It’s fabulous. I’ve never had that encouragement before.” Theatre has the tendency to reveal our deepest values and what we share with others. The discovery and celebration of these shattered truths is what connects audiences and performers.
“What you get is a lot of opinions and ideas which melt into something better,” says Paul. In identifying common values, Brighton People’s Theatre is telling our stories and unlocking a lot of unrealised potential. It’s also transforming attitudes towards theatre and removing boundaries to tell the tales of our city, for our city. It’s theatre for all: theatre without boundaries.
The’s an arguable wellbeing aspect as well. Paul says he’s laid-back, so personally doesn’t suffer from loneliness. But the chance to get out and interact with others has still made a difference. “It’s really nice to have those couple of hours to kick you off for the rest of the week… It does make you feel physically better.” Most BPT members haven’t done any theatre since they were at school. They’re coming to it as an adult and Paul is adamant that drama provision in schools nationwide remains full of inequalities. A child’s access very much depends on what area they live in. Coming out of lockdown, he’s part of several small groups who are getting out to better engage with local communities, to find out how they can be served.
During the months where meeting in-person was almost impossible, BPT took their workshops and social events online. They were forced into making a few compromises but working within a rigid framework has forced a different type of creativity in sessions. “Obviously, it’s nowhere near the same thing as meeting up,” says Naomi. “But they served a really useful purpose, and we met loads of new people who would have never come along in person.” Games and exercises were reinvented, while still offering the same sense of intimacy and connection. There was even jointly-produced pantomime staged over video conferencing. Proof that story-telling can break almost any physical barrier. “It’s been far better than I thought it would be,” admits Paul. “At the end of the sessions, I’ve been completely lost in it. It didn’t feel like you’re stuck at home.”
This September they’re back to running covid-safe sessions, with a range of fresh initiatives launching across the city. Starting off with open workshops, they’re bringing events to Whitehawk, Moulsecoomb, Tarner, central Brighton, Portslade and online; it’s hoped a company can be built from across the whole city. And then in turn co-create shows with professional artists.
Being starved of the option to physically meet-up has seen BPT evolve into film-making. It’s a form which can be performed with social-distancing, and delivered remotely, while still managing to align with their core values. “It’s really interesting. It’s definitely something we’d like to explore,” says Naomi. “Our members are absolutely enjoying the process. I think theatre workshops are where a lot of people who work in film and TV started. That’s why it’s so important to create lots of opportunities for people to play and explore this world.” Scripted by Brighton-based film and TV writer Kenny Emson, whose credits include EastEnders and a range of theatre productions, it seeks to uncover what being at home in the city means to people.
Preparation for this involved plenty of time on the (now ubiquitous) Zoom, exploring participants’ lockdown experiences. What’s been produced captures a moment in time for the city, as it slowly emerges from a once-in-a-century pandemic. “I hope one of the things the film would do is to get people to realise, for all the diversity there is, that we’re all normal,” says Paul. “Despite all our differences, we all want to be healthy and happy.” Shot on location across Brighton and at the Attenborough Centre with Brighton-based filmmaker Dylan Howitt, Murmuration revolves around a series of monologues interspersed with everyday events. People meeting up in town, an artist, neighbour’s chatting across the garden fence – these are moments we can recognise in ourselves and those we know. “It does a give a good feel for the character of Brighton,” says Paul. “I’m just pleased to have had the opportunity. It’s something I thought about 20 or 30 years ago but just didn’t push it enough.”
Creating a film does seem like a good move in BPT’s mission to make theatre as accessible as possible. Go back to the heady days of Shakespeare and you’d find theatre was a more inclusive experience. There’d be a carnival atmosphere, where people would turn up as much to socialise as see the performance. Over these intervening years, the medium seems to have become increasingly commercialised and elitist, while television drama has become the most accessible form of storytelling for people. Now, watching Line Of Duty is the equivalent of visiting the original Globe. People are rightly respectful of the craft of theatre, but it can sometimes be taken too far and creates an environment which can be intimidating,” suggest Naomi. “There is a big movement around creating accessible and relaxed performances, where moving around and talking is welcomed by the theatre. Those kinds of initiatives are great.” These days, TV offers more immediacy and accessibility than going through the stages of finding out what’s being performed in a venue, getting there, buying a ticket and running the risk of the production not being to your taste. With a TV show, you can simply change the channel.
The barriers to entry regarding theatre can be complicated and numerous. Arts Council research suggests for some people there are psychological barriers. Sometimes it tied to class or circumstances. “For some people it’s financial, there’s also the risk factor of seeing a play with people you’ve never heard of that has an incomprehensible title. There can be social barriers where people feel like it’s not a welcoming place. “Why people don’t engage theatre a complex issue, and it’s not going to be for everyone. But by offering lots of different entry points – like playing games at a workshop, play-reading groups or social clubs which visit productions and discuss it over a drink afterwards – there is an incentive join them and play. “People have the right not to engage,” she says with a laugh. “But pretty much everyone is interested in stories.” BPT are trying to realise the potential across the city, open opportunities for people who are interested in any form of theatre making. It’s a discipline which can involve artists, musicians, set-builders, electricians, writers and dancers. This is form which feeds into an unusual number of creative industries.
The experience BPT provides means many different things to different people, but the ambition is to create a a sense of belonging, a sense of play and being part of something bigger. It’s helped a wide range of participants feel like they’re being heard and seen, and even develop new friendships. “We’ve had some amazing feedback from people about the impact it’s had on their lives,” says Naomi. “Which is really wonderful and humbling. Especially during lockdown, lots of people were saying it was really important to their wellbeing to keep coming back and stay connected.”
While BPT is demonstrating the value of theatre to overlooked communities, it’s also encouraging them to recognise the stories they already have. All tales of triumph and failure can engage with others in numerous ways, triggering emotions, aspirations or imagination, and often facilitate real change because we’re all hungry to make better sense of our world. Paul sums it up beautifully. “I’ve regained some faith in what is possible. When you see so much negativity, in newspaper headlines and such, it’s frustrating that people often don’t look into things further. But in the theatre group, it’s a mix of people, and we can try to understand a bit more about everything.”
Brighton People’s Theatre is running weekly workshops in different neighbourhoods across the city from September. These are led by professional theatre-makers, where you’ll play games, explore different performance skills, develop your creativity, make new friends, and have some fun. No previous experience is necessary. All workshops are £12 – or Pay What You Decide for people on a low income.