“We aim to bring people together, in a way where they’re able to shake off the day-to-day; whether that’s work or family life,” says Brighton People’s Theatre’s Associate Director, Jack Parris. “You can just play and be a bit silly. It’s an undervalued thing in this world we live in today.”
It’s a typical British summer’s day. In other words, it’s raining. We’re sat in a landmark pub at the centre of North Laine. Jack and I have met up to talk about BPT’s Born And Bread project.
While it reveals the stories of local people, the underlying themes resonate through history and around the world. It also started with a detailed chunk of research.
About 100 people were asked to share their experiences around food. These ranged from people working in foodbanks to chefs, and the rock man on the seafront to doughnut sellers. “This came together as a vibrant selection of stories, offering tiny snapshots of the city. Since then, the project has evolved into a narrative linking all the fragments together.”
This has been a sizeable undertaking. BPT operate a co-creative process, demanding that every stage in development be accompanied by conversations and workshops. So, creating something for the stage hasn’t been a straightforward task. What they have created is a more pure form of theatre, which genuinely reflects the lives and attitudes within our community.
With assistance from Arts Council England, Unity Theatre Trust and People’s Postcode Lottery, the research and development show (which was performed to sell-out audiences last year) has evolved into an immersive theatre experience. Coming to Brighton’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on Sat 30 Sept – Sun 1 Oct, it invites audiences into a community kitchen and to ask who sits at the table, what’s on the menu and what stories are there to be shared.
Now with a proper narrative structure and a few lively songs, the cast will be making a light meal for members of the audience.
“It’s a real egalitarian environment. No seats are better than others. Everyone is hopefully going to be immersed in the joy of seeing what’s happening in this safe and welcoming space. Hopefully, it’ll make people reflect on what food is to them, and what Brighton means to them.” Performed in the round, the show sees a cast of 28 people making bread and soup, while sharing their stories.
While there is an element of clownish humour attached to much of the work, there is a poignant message underpinning everything. “How is it we have all this excess, but people are still going hungry?” asks Parris.
“Brighton is a city of contrasts and contradictions. It appears to be so welcoming and beautiful. On a gorgeous day, you come down and see that blue, sparkling sea and everyone is smiling, and it seems like a place of acceptance and possibility. When you dig down, that’s not the story for everyone. It can be a place of hardship and gross inequality. There’s a veneer of what people think of Brighton, but if you live here and you’re struggling, whether that’s access to good transport or vital services, it’s harder. We’re about showing those contradictions.”
Brighton People’s Theatre’s foundations are in community development, so it’s unsurprising that Born And Bread has risen out of partnerships with local groups like Bevendean Food Hub and lunch clubs across the city.
Parris has been working with BPT for just over two years and says he’s learnt a lot about the co-creative process. And it’s something which can move beyond the boundaries of artistic expression. “We don’t know the answers, but here’s some questions… Let’s explore them together. People have amazing ideas and are really creative. It’s almost like a beautiful hive mind.” He suggests an important component is being honest about the development of work. Often, attending a BPT workshop is the first-time people have engaged with theatre in any form. Becoming involved in a production and rehearsing a couple times a week for six months is quite a commitment, so this is repaid by transparently explaining each step of the project; like rewrites, casting and production work.
“People who come to us might have creative aspirations, they might have always enjoyed acting, or they might never have done anything like this before. You connect with other people, which is a rare thing to find. It’s hard to get involved with long term creative projects.”
BPT’s work always aims to be relevant and curious.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be about the experiences of the performers involved, so long as we can see shades of our life in it. Whether that’s the cost-of-living crisis, the idea of moving to a new place or finding and meeting people for the first time. “It’s theatre specifically for people in this city. Hopefully it can speak to people on a national level, but there is a local context.” Often their research will irresistibly draw into certain areas. Much of the development around Born And Bread was done before food and energy prices started soaring. But the conversations they were having repeatedly included efforts to get food to those who most needed it.
As a company producing work which speaks at critical moments, addressing food poverty couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sustenance is fundamental. It comes long before self-actualisation, esteem or security. “How can you belong somewhere if you can’t even get the basics? That’s our characters’ journeys. They’re on the breadline and can’t survive without help.” As food bills go up and wages stagnate in real terms, our inability to provide for the most vulnerable amongst us is going to be an increasingly important conversation.
Parris says BPT don’t set out to make overtly political work, but organising of any kind is a political act.
Especially in the arts. It’s a choice to engage with it or not. “Our company always tries to look at what’s going on and see the issues affecting people. We came out of lockdown, and social isolation was a big thing. But our members said they didn’t want to make anything about Covid. They wanted to create something fun. While it does talk about issues with the food system, it is also a joyous show with songs.”
While it is a non-professional company, which comes with certain challenges, BPT shine through with their incredible group work. “People can just be themselves. It’s people being people. Some of the acting is incredible. People might assume it’s less polished, or a lower standard, but it’s more interesting and authentic.” He says that professional training has the side-effect of often putting actors into boxes. “You want to free people from that. There’s nothing worse than hammy overacting. That’s what we generally prescribe against.”
For a lot of people BPT work with, acting was never an option. It’s an industry which remains broadly elitist. Those with the deepest resources or support get to take the risks. You can go and train at drama school, but not everyone will make it. The economic realities of the world often discourage people.
There’s also a fierce debate around the value of arts in British society. Some quarters view it as fanciful or unproductive. “What is valued has, and will, always be defined by people in power. You could say it’s mathematics or coding. But in no way are they more useful to society than an artist. In some ways, we need artists because they think about things in different ways. For example, you could train all the computer coders in the world, but most would be irrelevant if there was no content to put on the internet.”
Parris hopes he and the company have captured a little of the Brighton food scene in Born And Bread.
But what does the future hold? It’s certainly going to include anticipating what the issues of tomorrow might be and continuing to provoke relevant discussions. Their workshop programme starts again in October. They’re also looking at how to further celebrate hidden and underserved communities in the city. “The mission of the company has always been about putting these invisible people onstage, or at least get them into the conversation. That’s the artistic goal. But it’s also about getting people together in a room.”