Equitable Spaces

Using theatre to tell Grenfell’s deeper history

Dr Eva Branscome has been working with the award-winning SPID Theatre Company as it engages with west London’s post-war architecture.

Four young people on urban estate hold placards reading 'restore'

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.

Protester, with placard in the background reading "No new homes on Goldfinger footprint"

After helping groups of young people tease out the history of the Grade 2* listed Kensal House in 2017, Branscome helped them explore the history of Trellick Tower, Ernӧ Goldfinger’s monumental listed tower block, not far from Kensal House. Evolving public attitudes to Trellick Tower can be understood as a microcosm of the fate of Brutalism not just in the UK, but globally. “As well as helping explore the history of the building we ran sessions on how to stage their performance and where,” says Branscome.

She also helped them explore the important questions of what kind of stories they wanted to tell through the building; a question she felt touched on her own teaching at The Bartlett. “How I understand history is through buildings: buildings are important evidence. They are a built archive. I’m interested in cultural studies and theory as well, but I am primarily interested in buildings as evidence.”

“I really love working with SPID. It can be difficult because the workshops are free and sometimes young people would drift in and out of the projects but the way it comes together in the end and the results are fascinating.” With the theatre group, she began exploring the wider history of social housing in what is supposed to be one of London’s most affluent boroughs, but which contains pockets of extreme deprivation. “The area is famous for the film Notting Hill, so is also very interesting in terms of media-driven gentrification.”

This research in turn informs her academic work. “I let these topics return into my knowledge and teaching at The Bartlett. It is such an interesting feedback loop. Over the years it has also really helped me develop as a teacher.”

Young woman stands outside building, on the wall behind her it says "With the site of Grenfell?"

And then Grenfell happened.

The issues that caused the fire which killed 72 people, just 10 minutes from SPID’s base at Kensal House and which haunt its replacement, are utterly germane to the theatre company’s existence. They produced an award-winning play from interviews with survivors called The Burning Tower, which views the event through the lens of a history of social housing. As shocking as the event that gave birth to it was, the show itself was a natural evolution of SPID’s work with residents and young people to explore their shared heritage. It was only a part, though, of the company’s wider Grenfell Matters campaign.

Branscome has helped those who work with SPID to explore the next step. “I was intrigued about what’s going to happen to Grenfell, so I helped the young people to talk about this. What should happen to this building? Should it be preserved? Should it come down? Should it be replaced? What should happen to Grenfell Tower?”. The questions she has pursued with SPID in this instance are informing her academic work to an even greater degree now. She is planning a symposium and a book in 2022, addressing the increasingly relevant issue of contested heritage.


Dr Eva Branscome

Associate Professor, Architectural History and Theory, The Bartlett School of Architecture

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