Torbay in Southwest Devon, UK, is known as a holiday destination although it supports other industries such as fishing. Yet its tourism industry has been in decline, there have been significant job losses in the manufacturing industries and child poverty is on the increase. Its three towns, Torquay, Paignton, and Brixham form what is commonly referred to as the English Riveria and its theatre scene is made up of tribute acts and amateur dramatics. Arts education in the area’s schools, including drama and music, also face cuts: eighteen-year-old school leaver, dancer and Doorstep Arts participant Maya Adams who attends KEVICC community college in nearby Totnes says, “My old dance teacher was made redundant, some of the music and drama teachers are leaving this year, departments have had to compress the arts.”
So you might think that not much is happening in this sunlit part of the world that, like many parts of Cornwall, is, albeit quietly, a poverty hotspot and lacking in cultural impetus and investment. You’d be wrong. Doorstep Arts, a theatre initiative working in partnership with Torbay Cultural Board and Battersea Arts Centre’s Collaborative Touring Network (CTN) has been hard at work since 2013 bringing theatre and art to the region through week-long festivals whilst encouraging local people with year-long workshops to band together to devise their own work and to be their own audiences. Doorstep also works in schools, prisons, and pupil referral units, which are a type of school that provides education for children who can’t attend mainstream schools.
Looking at sleepy Brixham, where even on a Saturday the last shops and cafes seem to shut around 5 p.m., this is hard to imagine. In Torbay’s hot, palm-tree-filled streets one can see youths admiring tourists driving fast cars, families parading around the quays with melting ice creams whilst their kids crab, and late at night, members of the local community chugging back to port in their trawlers against a backdrop of rusting ships no longer commandeered to sail the high seas. If theatrical art takes place here, where is it? And how can and does the community support it?
The answer to that is in the back streets, the churches, found spaces, and Torre Abbey, a medieval community meeting place in Torquay founded in 1196 as a monastery for Premonstratensian canons.
“Nobody’s pretending there is money around; I am sure there isn’t,” says Nathalie Palin, responsible for development work and one of Doorstep’s festival producers, “but I am not sure those numbers equate with the idea that there isn’t a real commitment to it.”
We sit talking in the quietest room possible at Torre Abbey surrounded by suits of shiny armor to the background of the beats of Grinagog Festival, a music event Torbay Council is running at the same time as Doorstep. The atmosphere is heady, slightly surreal. Palin is a soft spoken yet determined entrepreneur who relishes the challenge of finding audiences for touring shows like Shannon Yee’s pithy hi-tech work Reassembled, slightly askew that is showing at the same time as Grinagog .
“We always have that thing of ‘oh God, what is it going to be like?’ It does feel like one has to hold one’s nerve,” she admits. But then she lets me in on Doorstep’s secret: “The number of tickets sold this year is remarkable—audience development is integrated through participation.”
One of Doorstep’s directors on the all-female leadership team, Jade Campbell, elaborates more on Doorstep’s unique marketing methodology. “How do we change the culture in Torbay and get people to see new work? Well, if we work with young people, the parents will stay. Erin Walcon (another co-director of Doorstep along with Meghan Searle) and I are theatre educators, we believe that it is not important for young people to act out preprepared scripts, but that it is important that they create their own stories and then learn to shape their own lives.” Jade’s sister, Victoria Campbell, who has lived in the community since she was eight, is also proactive in community-building in Brixham and is a town councillor and yoga teacher. This means the networks and connections are already in place—there isn’t a problem about reaching out to the libraries for example and getting them to promote Neverland, a show for parents and babies, to its users.
It works, too. When I visited a performance of Neverland in a side room in a church on the back streets in Paignton many of the parents I met said this was their first visit to a theatre, and that they heard about it through their local library. They were a mix of couples and single mums, some had been born in the area, some had moved down.
But this is not the only side effect of Doorstep’s terrific rootedness within the community. Walcon is an associate lecturer in Applied Drama and Theatre at Exeter University, some twenty miles away. Exeter, a place where I also studied and where I was artistically proactive for a while, is a whole other world: it supports a vast higher education community, and being filled with global students, is ensured of a rich multiculturalism and investment. In 2014 Exeter Council spent £0.53 per person per week on culture; the national average was just £0.16 (Torquay council comes in at £0.14). The downside is that this means Exeter’s residents might live in a cultural bubble, ignorant of the lack of opportunities only a few miles away down the A38. “Doorstep means that we can draw on students as interns and bring them to Torbay and make them realize their own privilege,” says Walcon.
Adams agrees about how Doorstep opens people out. She is a local girl but was unaware of the communities or local people who live in Brixham until she started working with them. “I remember doing my work experience when I was fifteen with Erin and Jade. I did community building with Jade in Brixham in and around the harbor and with people around where I lived that’d I’d never met before who lived very different lives from me,” she tells me.
Certainly Doorstep is good at connecting people with people, something an outside arts organization would not be able to do. “Doorstep reaches out to all the different groups already doing things—Ocean Youth for example—and brokers relationships and acts as an umbrella to allow organizations to work together,” says Mair George, a co-producer of the festival. “People can take advantage of workshops, learn new stuff. It is about how Doorstep can help.”
An example of this is only too clear: I meet Ricardo Burt, fourteen, and Jason Hume, thirteen, two boys who are at Torre Abbey for Grinagog who will also interview Reassembled’s Yee for Ocean Youth, a local radio initiative where young people present and broadcast their own shows. Because of age restrictions neither of them have seen Reassembled but this is not the point. Seeing an opportunity, Doorstep linked with Ocean Youth to work together to advance young people’s skills. I ask the boys what Ocean Youth has given them since they started on their program when they were in primary school. “Confidence,” says Hume, “and being able to talk to people.” “I could use my skills to help younger kids with anger management,” says Burt, rather incredibly. What bowls me over are the boys’ enthusiasm and passion which is emboldened by their sense that they can achieve things for themselves. I used to go to school in Torbay and such a thing then would not have been possible, in fact, I would not have known that such opportunities existed.
But that’s the thing. “How can you know what you want when you haven’t been exposed to it?” says Campbell as we chat in Brixham’s The Edge, the town’s local community centre. She compares the cultural life she was exposed to in Nottingham until she was eight years old with her move to Devon where suddenly cultural opportunities seemed to dry up. It is a whole different ball game now.
“It is all to do with resilience and the confidence of an area,” says Palin. We are comparing places like Plymouth, which, whilst its emphasis is more on the visual arts, has a great web of networks. But this is not to say that Torbay is not showing these sparks of resilience, confidence, and networking. Neverland’s performances were rubbing shoulders with yoga groups whose users, simply by being in the next room, were interested in what was going on. At Torre Abbey, the stewards and coordinators of Grinagog had to work with Doorstep to ensure minimal noise impact on Reassembled. The council, in their rush of enthusiasm to program in both a music and theatre festival, had not factored in the noise bleed.
But can Doorstep Arts, with its activism in community theatre at a grassroots level in combination with programming challenging work from outside the region with Battersea Arts Centre’s help inspire their participants and encourage and create theatre that is to a technical high standard?
George says she thinks that this is where Doorstep could do more: “Young people have aspirations or are a certain standard already and we could be doing more with those people,” she says. The next day though I observe a workshop run for youngsters by Nir Paldi, director of Bucket List, and co-artistic director of Theatre Ad-Infinitum. The workshop takes around ten teenagers ranging in ages from about thirteen to eighteen through some basic Lecoq methods. If Doorstep needs to raise the bar then they could not start in a better way. It is mad that I can look out of the window and see fisherman coming back with their day’s haul and watch a Lecoq workshop going on at the same time, it would have been inconceivable even ten years ago to think that such cultural incongruities would have the chance to rub shoulders.
“A lot of drama teachers use a lot of the basic exercises now as a method within the UK,” says Paldi wondering at my surprise.
Adams agrees that Doorstep has helped and encouraged her to aspire to things beyond Devon, though her sights as a dancer are not necessarily set on London, a measure, perhaps, of just how embracing of the world Doorstep is encouraging its participants to be. “I don’t think you have to go to London anymore,” she says confidently. “I know a friend who went to Leeds and he now has his own dance company.” A more exciting opportunity now awaits Adams though: the chance to take a year out and go and work with a Japanese circus company.
Because of a lack of spaces (a measure of the cultural activities that Torbay are putting on and investing in) Bucket List will be performed in Brixham’s only theatre and the team has encountered some resistance. The theatre is usually the hub of amateur dramatic productions and there has been an issue over the theatre displaying Bucket List’s posters on their billboards for tonight’s show. However, everything seems to go off with good cheer. The audience, for a small sleepy fishing town, put in a reasonable turn out of around 200, which is not bad for an experimental bit of theatre about Mexico, corruption, and murder.
Campbell and Walcon insist that Doorstep Arts can do it best: they know what people in the community want to make shows about: a community show about Brexit, 50 Articles, came out of the Choral Engineers working with a Trio of Men and Geo Opera, all experimental groups run by local people. They also know who the people are in the community who are in need. “One young person I work with has autism and ADHD, he thrives in being able to perform and do drama where he is in control of his story and can develop a character—they don’t have any options for him at school now and his mum said to me ‘What will I do?’ But Doorstep is trying to support him,” Campbell tells me. They also have a unique connection to their audience. Campbell cites an example of a father who came to pick up a gaggle of young people from one of their workshops to transport them to a related performance that night. “He said I will sit outside and wait in the car until it’s over. I said why not come in and experience it, so he did, and was laughing and crying, but he loved it.”
All in all Doorstep is giving back to the community by including them, by bringing in parents with kids to workshops and then commandeering them and their networks as audiences for professional work that is being made outside the region. It is a simple but effective way of giving ownership, building communities, and teaching skills and encouraging aspirations without alienating them. “For young people to come and do workshops and for their parents to see their shows and shows brought by BAC—they are owning it, it’s theirs, there’s a sense of entitlement in a good way,” says Campbell.
Do people have to leave the region to become theatre practitioners and make a career, I ask Walcon? “It sounds cynical, but I’ve seen a lot of struggling makers and they cannot get their faces known, it is a geographic disadvantage reality because you work with the existing five organizations that are here but you need to grow and expand. That is one of my biggest frustrations; we have some amazing graduates but they just can’t stay, they can’t make it.”
This might not continue though. Doorstep’s investment might eventually contribute to an arts industry that not only keeps its local people but attracts other artists and can provide long-term career paths.