Theatre is not my world

Posted By Helen Tomlin on 31 July 2017

Transforming communities through arts is an important priority for the Arts Council; we’ve published the progress and achievements of activity delivered through the Arts and Communities Programme in this report. Helen Tomlin, Executive Director at acta reflects on her creative roots and acta’s shared vision that everybody, in every communitiy, has creative potential that can be unlocked.

I am an imposter.

Mine is a different story.

Theatre needs different stories.

My own experience of the arts has helped me to engage new people in creating theatre with acta. It is not difficult for me to relate to people who are not sure that theatre is for them.

Helen Tomlin (left) welcomes new audiences into the acta foyer for the Theatre from the Heart Festival, June '16.
Helen Tomlin (left) welcomes new audiences into the acta foyer for the Theatre from the Heart Festival, June '16.  Credit: Mark Simmons Photography.

Most of the interest in our arts and communities programme delivery from students, practitioners, funding bodies, has been in these engagement strategies. Let me explain…

Playing together and sharing in that creative process gave me an ownership and transformed music for me

I played the clarinet as a child, and it became my identity, my focus, my happy place. Socially, I was shy and uncertain, but I found some confidence through the music. It propelled me into new social situations. It became a part of me and changed my life for the better. In new group situations I would always feel inferior or inadequate, but that group was transformed for me once we were making music together. Playing together and sharing in that creative process gave me an ownership and transformed music for me, making it my world too.

I spent a large part of my teenage years fighting the injustices of Thatcher’s Britain, and I developed a strong sense of fairness and making the world a better place through equality of opportunity. I was one of only a handful of young people from my school that got to university, and once there I found just one other person on my course from a comprehensive school. Again, I felt like the imposter.

Moonshine Nights by acta’s Malcolm X Elders Theatre Company, 2016
Moonshine Nights by acta’s Malcolm X Elders Theatre Company, 2016. Credit: Mark Simmons Photography

I found a home in an organisation that believed in creative opportunity for everyone

When I stumbled across acta theatre, I found a home in an organisation that believed in creative opportunity for everyone. This was surprising, as I had little time for drama and theatre, struggling to understand the concept of creating a lie or pretending to be somebody else. It had no relevance to my honest, direct, straight-talking approach. So how can a theatre organisation feel like home to someone with no experience of theatre? For me, the connection came through that shared vision that everyone has creative potential and has a right to participate. This, together with my personal understanding that participating can transform lives, and a commitment to making it happen for others too.

“We believe that the arts take hold of and change us, make us better…. Elite culture has a way of making those who challenge its authority feel small. No one believes in the transcendental power of art more than those who have felt it. They know how it has changed their life and they want to convince others that it can do as much for them. Their mistake … is to think that what they found was in the art when it was really in them.” - Francois Matarasso

Francois sees an enthusiasm to engage people to participate in the arts across the world, but he also understands how “elite culture” can make people feel it is not for them. Community artists in the arts and communities programme have seen how making people and their stories the starting point for new work ensures an ownership, together with a vital connection for new audiences.

man and woman sitting at table
Dream On, Redcliffe Stories, 2017. Credit: Kathryn Hopkins

Ownership is at the heart of community theatre. Theatre created and told by community performers, for an audience who have a connection to these stories. Once participants have ownership of the theatre, we can ensure that they, the theatre makers, understand how much we need them. We cannot do it without them. This is not some special thing that we have, and are kindly sharing because it will do them good. It is not ours to give. There are so many different stories, and it is the people and their stories that are so precious. We just make it happen.

Find out more

Take a look at acta30, acta's film documentary celebrating 30 years of community art

Read our report, prepared by Consilium Research and Consultancy, into the progress of the Arts and Communities Programme

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