Theatre company offers support and creativity for care leavers during pandemic
- Credit: The Big House/ Dylan Nolte
When the pandemic hit in March, Maggie Norris, Artistic Director of Islington’s The Big House, saw a “radical shift” in young people’s ability to access their normal support network - from social workers to mental health services.
As the theatre company, which works with young care leavers at high risk of social exclusion, started bringing improv workshops, counselling and drop-in sessions online, they also stepped up to provide information on housing, universal credit, food banks, domestic abuse and mental health services.
They raised money for a fleet of bicycles so the cohort didn’t have to use public transport and gave computers to those who needed them to access online workshops.
The library at The Big House’s Englefield Road premises was also accessible during lockdown.
While Norris, who set up the theatre company in 2013 after working with ex-offenders and young people at risk of crime, admits adapting to the pandemic was a “scramble”, good things have come from the process.
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“It was a challenge,” she says. “But in many ways a good and productive challenge that leaves a legacy which we will develop and follow through.”
At the start of 2020, Islington had 365 Looked After Children. A report by Home For Good, a charity for vulnerable children, found that around 8,600 young people leave the English care system every year. Nearly half the young men under 21 in custody have experience of the care system, and one third of care leavers become homeless within the first two years.
Young people find their way into The Big House community through a 12-week programme of life skills workshops and drama workshops which culminate in the presentation of a play.
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After suspending the project they were working on in March, Norris split up the cohort to work across two new projects.
One was a socially distanced film, shot at the theatre and crewed by members of the Peaky Blinders creative team who gave workshops on camera, sound and lighting.
Thanks to the support of a philanthropist, The Big House now own a camera and sound equipment and will up-skill people to make their own films.
The team also began work on The Ballad of Corona V, a play born out of the young people’s experience of the pandemic, and the initial online workshops and debate sessions.
The performance was designed to be socially distanced for actors and audience alike, but it was interrupted by the second lockdown and then again when London upgraded to tier 3 on December 16.
The cohort also performed an extract of Bullet Tongue, a past production about county lines drug dealing, to an audience of 500 social workers over Zoom followed by a Q&A session. “I would have never thought it was possible to do that live on Zoom. We can reach people wherever now," adds Norris.
The Big House also launched an online writing and directing programme to up-skill youngsters wanting to work in creative industries.
“I think what it has shown me is anything is possible,” says Norris.
“Faced with a challenge, we found new ways of working. Keeping the flame of theatre alive is so important, we all have to be innovative to maintain the industry.”
Twenty-one-year-old Nkechi Simms came to The Big House by chance after her social worker became fed up with her “staying at home all the time and not doing anything”.
She had held hopes of acting, but when she became involved in county lines, acting aspirations came second.
“As a care leaver, any form of performing arts was a real chance to escape but life got in the way,” she says.
It wasn’t until she started at The Big House and Norris used her experiences in a play, that she started believing in her abilities.
And it's helped her “develop lots of different areas” of her life.
“This place has definitely opened up all the doors and opportunities for me,” she says.
The Ballad of Corona V was Nkechi’s second production at The Big House. She had quit her job in a clothing shop just before the coronavirus hit because she was due to start acting work on a Netflix production.
“Lockdown came and it is easy to spiral, she says. None of us had any work really, so it was good to have something and we had a lot to work towards.
“The online workshops kept me going throughout the pandemic and gave me a sense of creativity and purpose and I’m really grateful for that and the constant support,” she adds.
“It’s really important to have space and time that is dedicated to something you enjoy. It’s hard to be creative on your own.
“Every Thursday at 3 o’clock we would all get together on Zoom and spend three, four hours doing improvisations and chatting and you still feel that sense of family. For a lot of us, we don’t have that.”
Going through the pandemic with her counterparts at The Big House has strengthened their bond.
“We all missed each other so much. The constant changes meant we all wanted something to come out of it. We all worked double hard, and put in double time and energy and when we were able to get together it just felt much more sacred.”