Council Estate Creativity: SPID Theatre Company

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In these times of uncertainty, as rising rents and soaring house prices mean even Britain’s professional classes struggle to afford shelter, the phrase ‘council estate’ has become demonised. Estates are characterised by the right-wing press as hot beds of crime, poverty and immorality; as depressing ghettos where miserable people in tracksuits scam the benefits system and smoke crack. Meanwhile, left-leaning activists and social commenters point to the desperate need for subsidised housing provision and occupy crumbling Brutalist buildings to protest the social cleansing of our capital city.

Although debates about the state of the social housing sector are essential, as they happen, life on estates across Britain goes on. And the creativity and dynamism that exists on these estates is largely ignored, in favour of politically polarised discourse, which only makes life on estates more difficult. On the Kensal House estate in Ladbroke Grove, London, SPID Theatre Company attempts to counter the poor reputation of council estates by making and producing films and theatre projects that celebrate estate life and explore the complexity of living in socially marginalised conditions.

Based in the community rooms of Kensal House, SPID produces professional performances and runs a youth theatre programme, attended by estate residents and locals. SPID’s work includes the plays Sixteen, The Passerby and iAM, all performed in the community rooms themselves, and the films Happy Slap and Affected: Greed is Contagious, which won a Young People Now award and was selected for the LA Femme festival in Hollywood.

SPID’s latest performance Arthur’s World, took the council estate to the attic space of the Bush Theatre. It was staged in an ‘immersive’ environment, meaning the audience were invited inside the fictional world of the play; character Arthur’s council estate flat. As Shelley McDonald, a youth theatre member who provided a voice-over for the performance told me, ‘the audience are literally part of the action, sat on furniture inside Arthur’s home.’

The immersive staging usefully prevents the performance serving simply as estate ‘voyeurism’ – where the audience watch the action from the safe distance of their seats. Instead they are inside the estate-world of the play, so that it becomes difficult to separate audience from performer.

‘I wanted to show that people have more in common than it might first appear,’ said Helena Thompson, the author of Arthur’s World and Artistic Director of SPID.

The play centres on Arthur (Paul Greenwood), an elderly white man who hides inside his flat, frightened by ‘The Fights’ – a series of riots sparked by a notorious video game – happening outside. He is waiting for his missing son, Mikey who is black, to return home, but when he opens the door, he finds white Keno (Joseph Tremain), a teenager seeking refuge from The Fights. As the play unfolds and Michael (Enyi Okoronkwo) returns, we begin to question whether the events happening are ‘real’ or part of a video game.

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The play was a particular hit with the under-26s. ‘The Fights’ clearly reference the 2011 riots, and sparked debate among the youthful audience. ‘The riots are still relevant,’ one told me, ‘if you’re from this area, then you’re familiar with the riots; the problems that started them still exist today.’ This kind of comment evidences the power theatre can have to provoke difficult discussions and enable reflection on important social issues.

Anuli Changa, another young audience member I spoke to, was impressed by the questions the play raised about race and class identity (she has written a review of the play, which you can read here). ‘I’m a person of colour but I’m very privileged’, she told me, ‘and the play made me think about the connections between race and class difference – about how people do judge you on what you look like first and foremost.’

That questions are being raised about social injustice, race and class difference – at a point when wealth inequality in London threatens to divide already marginalised communities further – is important. We must have platforms where issues that affect young and disenfranchised people are debated. SPID’s work demonstrates the role art can play in facilitating difficult discussions. But perhaps more importantly, SPID offers a positive example of the creativity that exists on council estates – we need to hear more about the positive aspects of estate life if there is any chance of council estate communities surviving the social cleansing happening in London.

This post was first published at Huffington Post.

Immersive Theatre: David Shearing’s THE WEATHER MACHINE

David Shearing

David Shearing’s new work, THE WEATHER MACHINE, premiers in Leeds this weekend. Shearing collaborates with musicians, writers and performers to craft immersive performances. His work is in the tradition of popular companies such as Punchdrunk, Shunt and You Me Bum Bum Train, who create performance landscapes that place audiences at the centre of the action. However, unlike Punchdrunk, whose latest offerings, The Drowned Man in London and Sleep No More in New York, comprised elaborate, highly detailed sets constructed throughout the sprawling expanse of disused buildings, Shearing is concerned with creating gentle, reflective immersive spaces. Spaces that work against what he has called the ’empty spectacle’; of huge scale realist design-scapes.

Shearing layers sound, text and image. His pieces have no live performers; instead the work is designed to encourage audience members to engage deeply with the scenographic elements. Set, lighting, sound and video projection combine to create a nuanced environment in a single studio, where spectators linger for the duration of the performance.

The atmospheric qualities of Shearing’s works are striking. His 2012 performance And it All Comes Down to This…, was developed using psychological models of mindfulness and catharsis. The journey through a landscape of glass jars, where sounds escaped from bird-boxes and haze curled up around deckchairs, on which the audience was placed to hear sections of text, was profoundly moving. It won the 2013 World Stage Design award for Installation Design.

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Shearing cites Adolphe Appia’s theories of stage design as especially important to his aesthetic approach. Appiah famously expressed frustration at the superficiality of the realistic set designs of the early twentieth century. Like Appiah, Shearing is not interested in recreating reality. Rather, he fuses forms to evoke sensory and emotional engagement – giving life to Appiah’s assertion that, “we shall no longer try to give the illusion of a forest, but the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest”.

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For THE WEATHER MACHINE, Shearing has collaborated with composer James Bulley and writer Kamal Kaan. The performance takes place on a terrain constructed from screens, wooden pallets and grass, in the main studio space of stage@leeds, the University of Leeds public licensed theatre. Shearing uses the weather conditions of the day on which the performance takes place to present a part-improvised work about the ways in which the chance incidents of nature shape human lives. Headphone technology is a recurring feature of Shearing’s work and he employs the technique here – shifting between intimate headphone delivery and external speaker delivery to highlight the separation between the individual and the community.

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You can catch THE WEATHER MACHINE this weekend (until 7th Feb) at stage@leeds. David Shearing will also be speaking at a panel on the ‘Scenographic City’, as part of Leeds Ludus Festival on Saturday 7th February. Along with Alan Lane, director of Leeds-based company Slung Low, and the performance collective Invisible Flock, he will discuss the ways that theatre can reimagine and recreate the city space.

You can find out more about these events and book tickets here.

*This post was first published at the Huffington Post.