“Tread carefully: imaginations running wild. Welcome to Pegasus.”
Rooted to the floor of the foyer of Pegasus Theatre is a giantic metallic tree. Its branches stretch up to the floor above and its roots plunge into the concrete beneath. Like so much at Pegasus, the sculpture is impressive from a distance, but the real beauty and joy is found when you get closer. The individual leaves of the sculpture are, in fact, clear glass roundels, each inscribed with a different message. Some are as well known as Ghandi’s “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive” and Jimmi Hendrix’s “Knowledge speaks but wisdom listens”. Others have a more personal connection from members of staff, friends and children associated with the theatre and range from “Suspend your disbelief here (you can pick it up again on your way out)” to the touching and poignant “Where the heart and the mind meet is a place called Pegasus ”. As a welcoming image, the tree provides an apt metaphor for the organisation as a whole, reflecting both the theatre’s canopy of arts provision and the structured support that is offered to young artists by the East Oxford theatre.
At the heart of the organisation is the Pegasus Trilogy: a professional event programme; participation projects with young people and the community; and the development of emerging artists. As Yasmin Sidhwa, Head of Creative Learning, makes clear, no area is more important than any other; the power of “the three together is what makes it unique.” This tripod structure evolved from Pegasus’ origin as a youth theatre. Artistic Director and CEO Euton Daley emphasises that ” we actually started as a youth theatre organisation, but then grew professional work” in an inversion of the common model of developing initiatives alongside an established professional programme. For Pegasus, participation and development work are the central foundations of the organisation.
A canopy of arts provision and roots in the community
Despite coming last in Pegasus’ evolution, its professional programme is impressive. Its guiding principle is to focus on the (dis-) equilibrium between those going to the theatre and those represented on stage. “A starting point for me is who consumes art and who is portrayed in any art and culture,” says Daley. “I know that my driving factor in the work that I have done over the years is to actually try and address that balance. If there is an equal pitch between two things and one delivers an area of work or an audience development that you want to pursue then that would take dominance. However, that would not take dominance over the quality of the work.” This principle has resulted in an exciting and eclectic programme. Next season includes a new adaptation of The Jungle Book; a photographic exhibition celebrating Black History Month; a production of A Doll’s House; and a concert with Radiohead drummer Philip Selway. This clearly reflects Daley’s standard that while work should draw from an assortment of different styles and forms of storytelling and be aimed at different audiences, the goal of diversity must be matched by a drive for quality. At Pegasus, these are mutually affirming attributes.
Established in 1962, Pegasus turns 50 this year. In a theatre-rich city like Oxford, such longevity is no small achievement and can be explained, at least in part, by Pegasus’ efforts to engage with non-stereotypical theatregoers. Sidhwa explains, “we’re in the most multicultural area of Oxford, where there is also a mix of socio-economic backgrounds. We want that mix in the building. We want to be part of that community.” Community engagement in general is, on occasion, criticised as thinly-disguised funding chasing, but Daley affirms “that even if we lost funding today it wouldn’t change what we do.” The quality of work they produce is higher because – not in spite – of the diverse local community.
Support of young people
“The participatory youth and community work we have at Pegasus is absolutely central to the organisation,” says Cathryn Baker, a Youth Arts Leader. “We have a really strong belief that every young person has the ability to be creative. It’s about channelling that creativity and giving an opportunity for any young person to use that creativity.” The theatre runs more than 30 community and youth projects which bring over 500 children and young people to the theatre each week. Courses in drama, dance, puppetry, writing and design give young talent the tools to flourish, and the main stage is used as a platform for young members to gain performance experience. There are also opportunities behind the scenes from marketing and fundraising to set design and even programming. Sidhwa recognises that “it’s not just participation in terms of joining a theatre group, it’s participation in terms of having a voice in decision making in an arts organisation.”
Pegasus has taken this further still by inviting young people to serve on the theatre board. Baker explains that those who do have “gone through a path of being part of the theatre company, being part of Pegasus, so contributing to the decision-making process and the board is the next step. It’s not out of nowhere. They know it’s not token; they understand and know that their voice is valued.” In a natural extension of their involvement with and loyalty to the theatre, young people are able to contribute meaningfully to the running of the theatre and play a key role in its development as they themselves develop their own interests and ambitions. “Part of working with young people is about the long term engagement with them and it’s only over the course of that long term engagement that you see real change,” notes Daley. “You’ll find a lot of young people here who have been associated with the theatre for 13 or 14 years.” Young people’s projects at Pegasus last for a minimum of five months, and many come back numerous times to work on different projects, and in different areas of the organisation. This dedication and supportive ethos is mirrored in the Pegasus Supported Artists programme, which offers free rehearsal space and marketing assistance to new and emerging artists.
Youth participation is woven into the fabric of Pegasus, which allows meaningful, long-lasting support for young practitioners and artists to thrive alongside a vibrant professional programme. The Pegasus catechism, then? Baker explains, “we create theatre with, by and for young people. But the for came as the last one of that trio rather than the first. Our work with young people and by young people was first, and then it was for.” And this remains true after 50 years. Shining a spotlight on Pegasus highlights its arts provision for young people, but also reveals how this is supported by the growth of creativity and development with those young people. A reminder, perhaps, that whilst the eye-catching blossom is important, it is the roots and the trunk of the tree that allow those leaves to flourish.
 A motto written on the wall as you enter Pegasus Theatre via the Stage Door.
For more information on the theatre, visit its website here.
Photography by David Fisher © David Fisher and Pegasus Theatre