6 August 2019

A pioneering National Theatre programme is bringing together a handful of London community groups to get a taste for the stage – and is training them to produce a professional-quality show.

Now in its second year, the Public Acts initiative sees more than 100 people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds – including clients of homelessness charity Thames Reach – to create “extraordinary acts of theatre and community”.

Following last summer’s triumphant performance of Pericles, the next flagship production will be a musical adaption of As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, directed by Douglas Rintoul, at the end of August.

Forced from their homes, Orlando, Duke Senior, his daughter Rosalind and niece Cecilia escape to the Forest of Arden, a fantastical place where all are welcomed and embraced. Lost amidst the trees, they find community and acceptance under the stars.

It is the play’s UK premiere, first seen at the Delacorte Theatre, New York in 2017.

Artistic director Douglas Rintoul said the institution is “thrilled” to be the first theatre partner working with the National Theatre on the Public Acts programme.

“The project is transforming lives, communities and organisations (ours included) and we are immensely proud that Hornchurch will be at the heart of that this summer.”

Taking part in weekly workshops and theatre trips, some of the cast are put forward by organisations like children’s charity Coram, group Open Age for older Londoners, the Havering Asian Social Welfare Association (HASWA) as well as Thames Reach. They’re joined by professional actors and cameo groups.

Around 25 Thames Reach clients have been involved with the programme, says employment and skills team manager Michael Buckley.

“As an organisation, we’re always looking to facilitate new experiences for the people that we work with,” he added.

“We’ve heard lots of really positive stories, like clients who were struggling to engage with services before they started doing theatre then felt able to really engage after the programme.

“People develop an interest in their tenancies, come into the employment academy, actively look for training and job opportunities. The confidence this programme helps them develop is amazing.”

Public Acts will be moving on from London after this summer. In August 2020, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, adapted by Chris Bush, will be performed at Cast in Doncaster by community groups in the local area.

Digital support worker Annabelle Ferary agreed with her Thames Reach colleague that participants leave the programme with a new confidence. “Some people have a number of complex learning difficulties, and the transition I’ve seen since before they started doing the theatre to how they are now has been amazing.

“Although it’s tough when we’re doing the rehearsals, it’s a routine. And it takes some of them – all of us, really – a little bit out of our comfort zones.”

“You can see how much it means to them and they’re all really enjoying it.

“Once we’re all together as a company, we do not discuss what organisations we are from. Public Acts make a point of that. They ask that we do not ask others where they’re from or what organisation they’re from.

“Once we walk through that door, we are all actors.”

As You Like It will play August 24-27 at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Tickets are £15.

Source: The Big Issue