Searching for theatre's future on Andover Estate

by Andrew Wilson

The distinctive ziggurat architecture of the Andover Estate central buildings (all photos: AW).

"She gets sick in Mumbai.”

“So she takes a helicopter back to England.”

“And gets arrested for possession!”

“Yeah, and ends up in Feltham!”

It’s Friday night at the Andover Estate Community Hub, and Natasha Kathi-Chandra is facing one of her more challenging audiences: 21 kids aged four to 15 who have shown up for Youth Club.

Well, not exactly facing them – they’re in a circle, taking turns to create a story with each person contributing a sentence.

Natasha is a facilitator with Park Theatre’s Playground and Core Players groups, and is conducting this young people’s workshop as part of the theatre’s community outreach programme. An accomplished director and writer – she has a play in the upcoming Creative/Disruption Festival at the Arcola – she is accompanied tonight by Nina Graveney-Edwards, the theatre’s Community Engagement Manager. The large housing estate with its distinctive ziggurat-shaped buildings, a short walk from the theatre, is high on her (long) list of priorities.

Our host is local youth worker Katie Delamere from Tollington Parish, who runs the Friday night Youth Club each week.

Vocal and energetic, the kids are a diverse North London mix. Natasha takes them through some ice-breaking exercises, beginning with a beanbag-tossing game designed to get people to learn each other’s names. The beanbag whizzes across the room as names are called out: Sami, Evgeny, Sarah, Cameron, Emile, Sa'id, Millie....* A local mum and volunteer named Lizzie joins in most of the activities, a calming presence who cracks jokes with the straightest of faces.

Nina, Katie and Natasha compare notes after the session. Below: Katie and Lizzie.

Not all of the kids know where or what Park Theatre is (“that building across from the Nisa,” explains one girl to another), and few have much experience of formal theatre.

Cameron, a lanky teenager in a baseball cap, has seen a Shakespeare play but shakes his head comically at the memory: “CoLizzie and Katieuldn’t understand it!”

Sami says he’s seen a modern language version of Macbeth, and gives a rapid but accurate breakdown of the plot. Others have seen a panto with their school, and one has seen “Matilda” in the West End, but most show little enthusiasm for the brief discussion of drama that Natasha initiates. Focus is difficult to maintain as kids drift in and out, buying drinks at the shop next to the hub and stopping to kibitz with friends outside the hub entrance.

Enthusiasm flares, however, with the story game. Cameron displays a quirky imagination, each of his sentences taking the story in unexpected directions. Sami’s interventions are quiet but delivered confidently. He already has an interest in theatre; it turns out that he and his school participated in the 2018 Shakespeare Schools Festival at Park Theatre.

The story gets wilder and wilder, the faces more expressive, the body language more animated.

“But then she loses her super powers.”

“And gets beat up.”

“So she picks a lock and gets out.”

“And goes home –“

“ – and gives it a REST.” (This last from Lizzie, who can clearly see the value in ending the game on a high, rather than letting it slowly deflate.)

The end of the session approaches, and Nina makes a pitch for Playground and Core Players programmes, mentioning that scholarships are available to cover the £135-per-term fees. She also mentions the theatre’s Youth Board, a new project aimed at giving young people a say in the theatre’s future programming. Sami looks cautiously interested; Cameron shrugs and says he’ll think about it.

A tough sell for a difficult audience? Natasha, Nina and Katie tell me they are pleased with the evening.

As we walk out into the Andover central square, the ziggurat shapes are lit up, like the giant set of a play waiting for the actors to arrive.

Perhaps, one day, some of these kids will do exactly that.

* Not their real names.

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