James Haddrell on the value of community theatre

There has been much discussion in recent years about the accessibility of theatre, or the need for the theatre industry to make itself more accessible. What that means can vary, and I am being deliberately vague as any and all interpretations of that term have hit the headlines at one point or another.

Accessibility may refer to the physical experience of entering a theatre, buying a ticket and attending a performance, so many theatres have worked to improve their service for audiences with physical disabilities, and to include performances with audio-description for the visually impaired and either captioning or sign language interpretation for those with limited hearing. Accessibility may also refer to the economic demands of going to the theatre, so a whole range of ticketing initiatives have sprung up across the industry to make ticket buying more achievable for those who might struggle to afford a ticket.

The accessibility of positions on the other side of the curtain, as professional performers or arts practitioners, has also come under scrutiny. During a speech at East London Dance’s Ideas Summit earlier this month, the Arts Council’s Simon Mellor described the need to tackle a lack of ethnic diversity among those leading and working for funded organisations. At the same time the National Theatre is currently fire-fighting a serious backlash against the lack of female playwrights featured in its latest season announcement. Calls are being made, across the industry and from the public, to achieve equality for those wishing to carve out a career in the arts, on or off the stage.

Much is being said and, in some cases, much is being done to improve accessibility to the arts in all of these areas, but we should not overlook the fact that accessibility should also apply to participation.

There is something magical about stepping out onto a stage in front of an audience, or hearing your words performed, or having your work hung in a gallery or playing music at a concert, and everyone should have the chance – if they want – to experience that. Just as the over-pricing of tickets restricts theatregoing to those with the privilege of money, denying the opportunity to those who want to have a go at performing restricts that activity in much the same way.

This is not to say that theatre programmes should be dominated by amateur performance, but theatre buildings and theatre companies, particularly those with significant public funding, should offer the opportunity for their local communities to access both sides of the curtain, to watch performance and to perform.

Last year I was lucky enough to work with Charlton based company Global Fusion Music And Arts to stage local writer Louisa Le Marchand’s play The Canaries at the new cultural hub in Woolwich. Over two days, one thousand five hundred people saw a cast of local amateur actors, working alongside acting students and professionals, performing on stage – and the benefits were as significant for the participants as they were for the audience.

This year I am delighted to once again be working with Global Fusion, this time to direct an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Thamesmead, and we are now seeking community performers to join a cast of professionals and amateurs for this new summer project. Anyone interested in being a part of this should email me at j.haddrell@greenwichtheatre.org.uk for more information.

Projects like this are incredibly important to me, and serve to remind me year after year that whilst working in the arts is a unique privilege, that privilege should in no way be exclusive. Whether people want to watch a performance or perform, the experience of engaging with the arts should be as widely available as possible. Some will make a career of it, some will enjoy the experience of participating and some will enjoy having the opportunity to watch live performance, but whatever the nature of their engagement, the arts should never be out of reach for anyone.

James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre

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