To make community theatre takes dedication: there is little financial support and one has to face down indifference on all sides with huge amounts of commitment and energy. Even in this world of passionate, dedicated professionals, SPID (Social Political Innovative Direct) Theatre Company is something exceptional. Founded in 1999 by writer Helena Thompson, the initiative has been based in Kensal House in West London since 2005 – a mile north of the Grenfell Tower – where it makes award-winning shows and films with young people.
Its ethos emerges from the estates the group works in exploring among many other issues, the meaning and purpose of social housing. They aim in a literal way, to improve the communal spaces and buildings where estate life takes place.
Dr Eva Branscome, Associate Professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture, began working with SPID in 2012. She had spent nearly a decade working for the Twentieth Century Society where she helped determine what post-war architecture Britain would preserve (she was caseworker for the Barbican and Lloyd’s Building listings). When SPID approached the Twentieth Century Society to explore the significance of the buildings it inhabited, she became involved with the theatre group. “I think it’s a fascinating organisation, because it works with local young people from underrepresented groups who have no contact with architectural history.”
Branscome was not only fascinated by the end goal but also the means that SPID uses to create theatre. “Initially I was sceptical: What can I teach these young people? But after I saw their first performance, I realised that this is also very much about transferable life skills… young people like acting and like the media and the performing, they’re learning architecture history on the side. And they gain confidence and ownership in their urban environment.” SPID uses interactive techniques to create participatory work that happens off stage and up close in estate community spaces.
Much of the material is learned from conversation with real people, which means that on a pragmatic level the young people - their age catchment is 13 to 25 - learn interview techniques and other practical media skills, as well as the more creative disciplines of acting and directing. These interviews are then woven together into a script.