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The Big House Theatre Company peform Phoenix Rising in memory of a cast member

PUBLISHED: 17:00 08 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:58 14 November 2017

Maggie Norris and The Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Catherine Ashmore

Maggie Norris and The Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Catherine Ashmore

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The Islington theatre company that supports care leavers and young people at risk are staging a reimagining of their debut play at Smithfield Meat Market

Aston McCauley from The Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia ArcherAston McCauley from The Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia Archer

Four years ago, the debut play from a new theatre company sent shivers down the spines of critics and audiences alike.

Inspired by the lives of its cast, Phoenix was about a young person coming out of care. Going in blind to the show, no one would have known that not only were these actors untrained, but many were completely new to giving any type of performance.

Since their first play in 2013, The Big House Theatre Company in Mildmay Community Centre has worked with care-leavers and young people at risk, helping them to express themselves in entirely new ways.

This week, Phoenix Rising opens. A reimagining of their first play with a new cast, this iteration is being staged in memory of an original cast member who died earlier this year: Kieran Taylor, also known by Dwayne Kieran Nero.

The Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia ArcherThe Big House in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia Archer

“He was a very key member of the group and a lovely and mischievous spirit,” says Maggie Norris, founder and artistic director of The Big House. “He had multiple sclerosis and he inspired the production because he was very keen that we should do a play that tackled that subject and showed that young people can get that diagnosis; because most people think it’s an old person’s disease.”

As is the case for many of the company’s productions, Phoenix Rising will be a promenade performance. The audience follows the cast around the space (Smithfield Meat Market), which is “quite a hostile, stark, intimidating place”, something she took into account when finding the location.

“I wanted the audience to feel what the central character is feeling, his alienation, his displacement, his being moved from placement to placement, trying to find himself, so I didn’t want [the audience] to walk into a comfortable theatre environment with a bar and box office.”

The lead role is being played by Aston McAuley, who Maggie describes as a “breathtakingly talented young man”.

Phoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia ArcherPhoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia Archer

“He’s very sensitive and has really thrown himself into this part. It’s a huge challenge for him. He’s never done anything like it before. It’s been an emotional journey, knowing and learning about Kieran, who he has never met, but meeting the family and understanding what happened over the last few months, and being able to embody that spirit – it’s been challenging, but he’s embraced it and worked incredibly hard.”

The cast changes with each production but one returning member, a good friend of Kieran’s, is playing the physical embodiment of the disease, an “emotional” process for him; and the part that Kieran played in the original production is now being played by his best friend, says Maggie.

“What is great about the play is that, although there are dark elements about it, essentially the play is hugely uplifting and that’s because Kieran’s spirit is very brave and playful,” she says. “He didn’t roll over and become depressed in the face of that diagnosis; quite the opposite actually, he showed huge bravery.”

Maggie is clear that neither Phoenix nor Phoenix Rising tells Kieran’s personal story, as “we’re very careful to safeguard members’ personal stories”. The current cast have a strong hand in moulding the play to fit with their own experiences, with the writer, Andrew Day.

Phoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre CompanyPhoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company

“There are the other themes as well: there’s the central theme of a youngster leaving care and flailing out of control without the right support in place.”

Children in care are five times more likely to have been excluded from school and have a much higher risk of homelessness and unemployment after leaving. Only six per cent go to university, compared to 50 per cent of the wider population.

Maggie founded The Big House to bridge the gap.

“We’ve got somebody studying politics at Goldsmiths who came to us when they were homeless,” says Maggie, who is passionate about keeping the relationships intact after members move on. She speaks about other alumni who are studying at university or writing and directing theatre; as well as those who need more support for long-standing mental health issues.

Phoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia ArcherPhoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia Archer

“Our main focus after they’ve done the play is to actually focus on the next 12 months, working out a plan. We tend to have a continuing journey, so it’s growing a community.”

A recent development is a programme called The Big House Means Business, a branch of the company where the young people are taken into the corporate and social care worlds. This year they have attended workshops with social workers in training to share their insight and experiences of the care system and what they feel could be improved, “really feeding into the practice of young social workers coming up”. They have also been working with Barclays and looking at how empathy can be embedded into the workplace.

“I’m so proud of that strand of our work,” says Maggie.

After four years of making an impact on the lives of young people in need of support, there is a lot for Maggie to be proud of.

Phoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia ArcherPhoenix Rising - The Big House Theatre Company in rehearsals. Picture: Sonia Archer

“The journey they go on is quite transformative, going from angry, alienated, often with lots of complex problems to giving award-winning performances where their communication skills and the sense of themselves is so strong. That in itself is such a lovely thing to be able to share.”

Phoenix Rising runs until Dec 2 at Smithfield Car Park. Meet at: The Hope, Smithfield. 94 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, EC1M 6BH. thebighouse.uk.com

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