On Friday evening locally based artists took centre stage at the Old Town Hall Stratford, when we hosted the Not-So-Private View of the Together! 2016 Open Exhibition and the second ever performance of Act Up! Newham’s new devised production Outside the Box.
The Together! Open Exhibition is unique in bringing together work by more than 50 amateur, community, semi-professional and professional artists, selected by the artists themselves for a family friendly audience. All we ask is that the artist identifies as having some form of impairment – a learning difficulty, physical or sensory impairment, mental health difficulties, long-term health condition etc – and a current or past link to Newham, whether this is living, working, studying or volunteering in the borough. This results in a show which is always vibrant and wide-ranging. The Open Exhibition includes work from a range of art groups and classes across the borough – Rosetta Art Centre, the Art Recovery Group, the Watercolour Class @ Chargeable Lane, Powerhouse and the Mighty Mega Club – as well as the individual entries. Artists range in age from pre-school members of the Mighty Mega Club to the over-80s in the Watercolour Class @ Chargeable Lane, and come from across the community. As always, the show proved very popular with the venue staff as well as the audience.
Act Up! Newham created Outside the Box with writer-director Trevor Lloyd, combining the lived experiences of cast members with the classical myth of Pandora’s Box. In turns comic and tragic, and always fast-paced, the production highlights the institutional and personal abuse and discrimination experienced by many disabled people on a daily basis because they are “not normal”. The cast point out that this is true: instead they are talented, respectful of others and ambitious. Disabilism is not the only issue tackled; for example, Grace Fundu challenges personal criticism with “Didn’t you know there are lesbians in Africa?” When “all that is left in the box is Hope”, the cast declare that this is not good enough: they demand justice, respect, visibility, being listened to and being able to socialise too. Outside the Box was performed to a full house, with the audience ranging from children to over-80s.
Act Up! Newham are a developing company; Outside the Box is their first production working with a professional writer and director, although the company have been devising their own performances since before 2012. The company was founded by Yvonne Brouwers in response to lack of opportunities for her daughter, Sterre Ploeger, a passionate artist who has learning difficulties and speaks in Sign. Sterre fought a long battle with Newham College to be allowed to study for a BTEC in Performing Arts, but eventually gained her Level 1. She continues to take professional classes on a part-time basis, as well as performing with Act Up! and Blue Sky (whose pantomime takes place on 4 December at Stratford Circus). Glory Sengo and Grace Fundu are still studying too, while Paizah Malek is a highly experienced performer who includes Graeae theatre company on her CV, and Abdul Qureshi formerly performed in Bollywood. Meanwhile Jade Sempare gained an HND in Performing Arts in the Community as well as taking the Candoco Foundation course in dance, and now performs with a range of groups. Act Up! Newham took part in Aliens on 22 November and will be participating in the Paracarnival Parade at Gallions Reach Shopping Park this Saturday 3 December; they also perform regularly in central London with professional company You Me Bum Bum Train.
As the #OscarsSoWhite campaign highlighted, actors from BAME and other ‘minority’ groups still face huge barriers to working in the mainstream. Act Up! Newham, whose cast on Friday night all came from BAME backgrounds, demonstrate that this is not due to lack of training or talent. All it would take to put diverse talent in the spotlight is for commissioners and casting directors to think ‘outside the box’ too.
Many thanks to the Exhibiting Artists; the cast Paizah Malek, Glory Sengo, Grace Fundu, Sterre Ploeger, Abdul Qureshi and Jade Sempare; technician Abigail Darton; lighting operator Crin Claxton; writer-director Trevor Lloyd; Hannah Facey, Yvonne Brouwers and all at Act Up! Newham; SLI Sarah Wickens; the Together! crew especially Alison Marchant, Sarah Hughes, Blake Jarrette Gibbons and Kathleen; my PA Shirley Skinner; Active Newham Volunteers Deborah Larbi, Carl Simela and Chloe Simela; and Pam Brown and the staff of the Old Town Hall. And as always many thanks to Arts Council England, whose support made the Festival possible.