Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic

by Lily Einhorn

in National Conference

Post image for Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic

(Photo by Sally Neville of Two Boroughs On Stage workshop. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon.)

Think of a theatre. The shape of it. The smell of it. The level of light. The seating. Is it dark and hollow and bare? Rich and plush and arched? Think of the people in the theatre. Their age. Their ethnicity. The clothes they are wearing. The newspaper they read. Where they buy their coffee. Might they have met at a dinner party? Perhaps a gallery opening? Maybe they share a love of the same type of music. Now picture the Young Vic. The shape of the auditoriums seem to alter. The seating is changeable. The depth of the space grows, tightens, and opens out. Picture the stage. It stretches backstage into the bowels of the building, it leaks into the seating bank, it spins, it sits still and narrow and sombre. Picture the people. Diverse ages and ethnicities, clothes, colours, newspapers, habits. A community of difference.

The Young Vic sits in the middle of two very diverse boroughs: Lambeth and Southwark in South London. The theatre produces internationally acclaimed work: a recently ended run of A View from the Bridge directed by the Belgian director Ivo Van Hove and starring Mark Strong attracted record queues for day seats; an upcoming production of A Streetcar Named Desire is yet to open, but has already sold out. Yet 10% of the tickets for both of those productions – and indeed all of the work the theatre produces – are given to Taking Part, the participation department run out of a small bare bricked office overlooking the road outside. The people that walk that road and live in these boroughs are our neighbours and we want to place them at the centre of what we do. The Two Boroughs Project, a strand of our work with local residents and community groups, exists to engage and create a local community around the theatre. We give away free tickets, run workshops, stage community shows with professional creative teams, and run backstage events. Everything we do is designed to throw our doors wide open, and keep them open. We want our local community to be the beating heart of the theatre.

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(Photo by Sally Neville of Two Boroughs On Stage workshop.) 

They and the young people we work with are one of the reasons our audience cannot be pictured or predicted quite as easily. The audience is moveable, changeable, it responds and participates and breathes back towards the stage with an aliveness that we hope is exciting for our companies and performers. If the plays the Young Vic stage are an ever shifting reflection of the stories we tell each other, then the audience is an ever shifting reflection of the world those stories inhabit. Our audience is the story we tell ourselves about diversity, about community, about the power of theatre. But it is a story that we are constantly re-writing.

We work hard to continue to find new individuals and community groups to engage with. Absolutely everything we offer is free, and we are lucky enough to be able to keep it that way. Experiencing an art form such as theatre should not be beyond anyone’s reach, but so often it is dependent on ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, how much social capital an individual has and often simple habit. Two Boroughs is a concrete offer: come on in, dip your toes in the water, see if you like it. It is also a taking away of sorts, an empty space to inhabit without the mantles we give ourselves and have placed upon us, which prevent our participation. Here we have local residents, ex-offenders, people in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, elder carers, defined not by which group they belong to, but which project they are taking part in, which show they have seen. We have people who remember the theatre when it was a butcher’s, who bought meat hanging from the hooks which still adorn our entrance, who took part in the new building’s opening show. We have people who have favourite moments in past productions that current staff have never seen. They can tell us about them. We have people who came for a free ticket and stayed to perform in a community show. People who turn up only if there is music involved. People who come with friends, people who come alone. And we welcome them into our theatre as if it is our home. Food and drink is a very important part of the Two Boroughs Project. Breaking bread. We provide biscuits, cake, fruit, tea, sometimes even wine.

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(Photo by Sally Neville of Two Boroughs On Stage workshop.) 

Many of our projects require large budgets – full scale productions involving a cast of 50 and a professional creative and production team in one of our studio spaces, for example. But equally important are the smaller projects, the ones which ease the doors open a little at a time and accentuate the feeling of community. Theatre Club, started here, gives our participants the opportunity to be heard, and to listen to one another without fear of censure (see: Tea & Tours allows Two Boroughs members to explore the building and chat to other staff in the theatre. One of my favourite projects are the On Stage workshops. Working with a show’s creative team and assistant director, these workshops literally take place on the stage of a main house production. The process of running a show is opened up to our participants as they take it in turns to run the sound, call the show, operate the lights and stand on the actors’ marks. We are not seeking to demystify the theatrical process – the mystery and the magic are a beautiful part of the experience. We want to share it. That is really the essence of what we do in Taking Part and Two Boroughs. We share food and stories. We share our tickets. We stand on the stage and we share the boards with our actors. We perch on the grid high above the stage and share a sense of dizziness. We sit with the Deputy Stage Manager and share a palpitation of nerves and excitement.  We share not knowing and we share exploring.

The desire to share an experience is what drives us in our bare-bricked office. It is part of the reason that the theatre’s audience cannot be easily pictured, because it is constantly changing and expanding. The auditorium is shared between people who have bought tickets and participants who have received them for free, but looking across the seats we would struggle to see who was who. We might have a man from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programme sitting next to a donor to the theatre, and we endeavour to make sure that this co-existence works. Occasionally the lack of a traditional theatrical etiquette in a first time theatre-goer creates a different atmosphere in the auditorium. I recall a memorable Saturday night when watching a performance of Feast, a celebratory show based around the Yoruban diaspora, a group of women from a hostel for ex-sex workers joined in with the African spiritual being sung on stage. It was a moment that could have had the rest of the audience complaining and the actors rattled. But after a sharp intake of breath the collective sigh was one of acceptance. And it was joyful. In that moment the shape of the theatre changed, and the space expanded. Moments like that are why we do what we do.

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(Photo by Sally Neville of Two Boroughs On Stage workshop.) 

Lily Einhorn is Two Boroughs Project Manager at the Young Vic Theatre. She is also a freelance writer and community theatre practitioner who has worked in London and Paris. Lily has worked extensively in domestic violence prevention using drama, and as a consultant helping theatre companies develop frameworks for educational workshops. She has directed plays on the London and Edinburgh fringes and was assistant director of the opening ceremony for the Liverpool Capital of Culture ’08. Lily was recently a ghost writer on Love Letters to the Home Office and contributed a chapter to Performance and Community: Case Studies and Commentary.