Ahead of Wac Art’s aerial production, InFlight From Home, their Head of Drama recalls how the centre for performing arts helped him turn around his own life – and reminds us why inclusivity in the arts is more important now than ever.
In 1984 I was a disenfranchised young man. A Hackney boy from an impoverished background, with no expectations or commitment to education or work. I’d had scuffles with the authorities and had no particular hopes for my future. My attendance at school was sporadic at best, but I did engage with a particularly invested drama teacher. He encouraged me to develop a skill he seemed to see in me but the very idea of a future in a world of performing arts seemed as feasible as a new life in Narnia. However, he persisted and suggested I went to Kentish Town to audition for what was then known as the Weekend Arts College, a project that offered a wide range of performing arts programs every Sunday for my age group (and every Saturday for the little ones).
That Sunday, after an uncharacteristically early rise, I travelled to what felt like the other side of the world and found myself on the doorsteps of WAC, and everything changed.
As I entered the building I was dumbfounded. In front of me was a vast array of young people. Casuals, mods, goths and a whole host of folk I couldn’t even explain. They were all just hanging out, dancing, singing, sharing bits of text and talking excitedly and creatively. This was certainly not a world I understood but it evoked a tremendous sense of excitement, a lessening of the grey and even hope of a future not yet dared to be imagined. I tried out the drama class and was then sent to an interview with a member of staff. As a quirk of fate the person interviewing me was Celia Greenwood the co- founder of WAC as well as the drama teacher. She looked me over and asked “Why are you here? What is it you want to do?”
“Join the marines?” I replied.
A few days later I received a letter offering me a place and my lifelong journey with WAC began. Classes were exceptionally subsidised (They still only cost £2.50 for 90mins and scholarships are available). I began with drama but was soon encouraged to take dance and then mime. The classes were taught by some of the best that the industry had to offer as Celia had (and still has) a knack of knocking on peoples’ doors and convincing them to give something back.
Life back home had taken a turn for the worse and I found myself on the streets. The team at WAC came looking for me and offered help. One of the mothers of a family heavily connected with WAC offered to take me in with her family whilst work and accommodation were found for me. This wasn’t simply an arts project that I had stumbled upon; this was a group with a deep commitment to the well-being and empowerment of young people. I was encouraged to apply to drama schools and successfully gained a place at Rose Bruford. Three years later I left as a fully-fledged professional. I have had the privilege of working across theatre, film and TV, received multiple awards and travelled the world. I specialise in physical theatre (and yes those mime classes ignited that flame), which has allowed me to have a wonderfully eclectic career. We all know that life as an actor can be hard but what I learnt as a young man at WAC was that there is actually a wide range of ways that a performers skills can be applied, which has meant that as well as being a traditional actor on stage and screen I have also taught, directed, choreographed, made pitches with advertising companies, devised with corporate firms and even been a monkey on a children’s TV show.
Around 2005 Celia invited me back to direct a show and this was the start of my engagement with WAC from the other side of the road – as an educator. I am now Head of Drama and the coordinator of the same Sunday programme that I visited in 1984. It’s been renamed Wac Arts and also runs evening classes, an inclusion based college, school holiday programmes, a vast array of disability-based projects and a three-year full-time professional training as well as a host of innovative programmes. All with that same mission to empower young people, to allow them to access pathways that they may otherwise be prevented from accessing. 30 years later Wac Arts is needed more than ever. A history of wide ranging government cuts to both the arts world and provision for young people has left an entire generation of disenfranchised youth. It’s not just disappointing, it’s dangerous; we are failing to equip our next generation with all the tools they require to become as good as they can be. There has been much written about the privileged classes going into and dominating the industry and in fact The University of Oxford offers over 1000 hours of drama and music a week. That’s not because they are a dedicated arts school but because they understand that no matter what their students go on to do, their lives and careers will be enhanced by having the arts as part of their development. They get it right. We at Wac Arts believe every young person has that right, not just the ones that go to Oxford.
Wac Arts perform InFlight From Home, a site-specific aerial performance, directed by Leo Kay and developed in collaboration with Upswing and Scarabeus, at the Old Town Hall, Hampstead on Saturday July 23, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. Tickets are available here.