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Community theatre

By Nou Ra

A chance encounter in 2016 led me down the path of community theatre, an art form I’d never considered. On 3 June that year, a friend at Cascade Creative Recovery (a charity based in Brighton and Hove supporting people recovering from substance misuse) invited me to an open mic night. I remember the specific date because it was the day Muhammad Ali died. I ended up singing in a freestyle form, in his honour, and the manager of Cascade approached me; he turned out to be another old friend of mine, Pete, and he was looking for someone to write a play for Cascade drama group. I was a little hesitant as I’d never written a play before, but I decided to give it a shot, and it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.  In my early 20s, I’d sung in bands, so it felt like a natural progression to try theatre in my 40s, especially as it involved music.

 

Community theatre gave me a meaningful way to channel my creativity, instead of scribbling down poetry and song lyrics in notebooks that no one was ever going to read. During that process, I met Kate McCoy, a talented director and founder of the company Small Performance Adventures. She has since become a friend and mentor.  Under her tutelage, ‘The Washing Up’, a poem I wrote for the 2017 Brighton Festival ‘Army of Storytellers’, was transformed, through workshops, into a play. The Washing Up went on a short tour to Liverpool, Manchester, London and Brighton. It was extremely validating that my art reached people at all.

Around this time, I received a diagnosis of chronic anxiety and depression, and I was trying to find my way through what that actually meant. My confidence was shattered and, after two of my friends took their own lives within ten days of each other, I was a shell of my former self. 

Community theatre was a tool towards recovery. It was empowering but the moment just before going on stage was terrifying. I only developed stage fright through acting; when singing I was fine. I think stage fright results from the pressure of memorizing not only your lines but also the ‘blocking’ (knowing which side of the stage to enter from, and where to stand).  My anxiety is a passenger on my journey; it rides shotgun. I threw up before performances and, when holding a piece of paper on stage, the physical shaking was embarrassing. Yet somehow all my anxieties, fears and stress were not in the room with me whenever I was in workshops or rehearsals. 

Community theatre gave me a space to retreat and to start the healing process. It has been a safe space and a form of therapy through play. There’s a reason we are called ‘players’: the workshops are filled with silly games and fun. Now, I can’t look at tough guys actors such as The Rock or Tom Hardy without imagining them rolling around on the floor pretending to be a potato or a mermaid in an acting workshop. Games are played to break down barriers that we erect between ourselves and others, allowing us to tap into our creativity and develop new and vibrant material. 

The Washing Up explored the theme of misogyny in the home. One scene, titled ‘A Dirty Reminder of the Power of the Patriarchy’, looked at how the chore of washing up can create cold wars in a domestic setting. Another scene explored the divide between ‘Sinks’ and ‘Bowls’ which became a metaphor for the Brexit divide.

At its best, community theatre provides a narrative of things that directly affect the community; even a mundane subject like the one illuminated in The Washing Up connects with people and speaks to their experiences as well as our own. 

During lockdown, Cascade drama group wrote a play called Bertolt Wrecked, in the style of Bertolt Brecht, with short scenes. I wrote songs to accompany the vignettes. It was a deep dive into many difficult themes: murder, suicide and betrayal. We rehearsed via Zoom for the most part, and when lockdown was lifted, the play was performed a few times; it was a dark, powerful and moving exploration of a malfunctioning society. 

Community theatre has given me something to be passionate about, something to get excited about during several lockdowns which, as for all of us, were isolating experiences. It has helped me through a difficult phase of my life and allowed me to better understand my condition. My social anxiety became manageable in an environment in which everyone was empathetic and accommodating. Community theatre, for the people, by the people, near the people, is a vibrant cultural form that also helps bridge personal and social divides.

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