Space is the Place: How community storytelling changed my relationship with my surroundings in 2019

| Azad Sharma

As a community storyteller, I often get the opportunity to enter into spaces that are explicitly created to welcome communities, to change the relationships between peoples, to foster cohesion and dialogue. They are spaces that are held with love and with hope. They are inspiring and humble places to be. But over the course of this year, I’ve been challenged by the organisations and peoples I’ve reported on for the Ideas Hub to change how I think about space.

New Year, New Experience

It all began in January when I wrote about Theatrical Co-production. In that article I learned about the infamous Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal whose seminal work ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ is now the stuff of legend. Boal was able to influence, using an experimental theatre practice which opened up the theatre into a public forum, as many as 13 laws in Brazil during his tenure in the 90s. Theatre returned to its ancient Greek roots and became a place of exchange, dialogue, and change. The public are brought onto the stage as ‘spect-actors’ and encouraged to be part of the art and part of the conversation. I was really pleased that Boal’s method was being used by UK theatre troupes and arts organisations.

Co-Production in the Arts 

In April I interviewed Julia Skelton from Mind the Gap, an organisation that uses theatre to explore issues around learning disabilities as well as provide training and work for learning-disabled artists. They’ve been around since 1988! Following that conversation, I quickly bought tickets to their summer show ZARA which took on the topic of parenthood in the context of mothers with learning disabilities. It was an incredible performance and the line that stayed with me all this year was ‘I’m not a case; I’m a human being’. The performance pulled no punches here and was a majestic example of community theatre which provides education to the public about issues that are not spoken about enough.

I began to think about ‘co-production in the arts’ which changes the way arts spaces are used traditionally to make them more accessible and more community based. I spoke to Natasha Britton from Magpie Dance in Bromley, London about neurodiversity and dance practice. Natasha emphasised the need to see the arts as not just a slice of fun but a serious opportunity for work, personal development, and collaboration. Education was a central pillar in their foundation and Natasha talked about Magpie Dance’s use of research into learning disabled peoples’ contributions to the World War One effort as a basis for a large performance. The combination of history, dance, and education was felt by many audience members who were reduced to tears. It is our responsibility to find a way to facilitate the telling of these stories.

I met up with Tony Cealy in October who spoke to me about how he uses radio and theatre to speak about political and cultural issues around race, diversity, and Windrush. Tony’s forthcoming performance is going to turn the whole of Brixton, London, into a stage for 81 acts of an immersive experience which serves as a paying tribute and respect to the Brixton riots of 1981. Tony’s vision was really inspiring and rather Shakespearean I thought: all the world’s a stage. Tony also curated the 492 Korna Klub radio show which follows a family that came to the UK during Windrush and took over the management of a community centre. With  rolling cast and emphasis on improvisation, this vibrant show has been going for over 5 years and can be heard on Galaxy FM on Fridays between 5 and 6pm. 

Creativity in unexpected spaces

Much of these re-imagined spaces that I encountered were arts-based and I was curious to know if any other organisations or people were thinking about space in similar creative ways.  I met pioneering community pharmacist Kar-Man Chung in June and it’s certainly the case that the humble local pharmacy is being re-purposed positively. Kar-Man teams up with a host of organisations from Age UK to the Black Prince Trust to signpost services to patients. Kar-Man’s desire to connect with the community around Hills Pharmacy in Lambeth, London, culminated in him hosting a tea party for residents on the estate across the road from him. With plans to create a wellbeing clinic out of the pharmacy, Kar-Man is changing the way pharmacies function and re-imagining them as a space with the community at its heart. 

The right to play outside

In December I came across a fantastic guest blog by Alice Ferguson, director of Playing Out in celebration of 10 years of their social enterprise. Playing Out began as a grassroots initiative to ensure that children have safe outdoor spaces for play, to encourage children to play outside, and to change the way adults in neighbourhoods can help shift the thinking around outdoor play as well as facilitate it. Alice’s blog is on the Hub and I was really captured by her personal reminiscences as a mother of two children who have been able to enjoy playing in their local streets. It was a fitting way to end the year.

Re-imagining space is my Ideas-Hub theme of 2019, and whilst I’m only selecting a handful of the stories I wrote about, a vast majority of our contributors this year explored similar themes in their work so please do go and scroll through if you’d like to read more!

Photo by DANIST 

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