We chatted to the Artistic Director of Playing ON Theatre Company about reaching its 10th anniversary….

Hi Jim, thanks so much for talking to me. Congratulations on the 10th
anniversary – how does it feel to reach this milestone?
Reaching the ten-year milestone in itself is an achievement, having started in the
aftermath of the financial crash of 2009. Over the years, with each project our confidence has grown, and we have cemented many valuable relationships, expanding the Playing ON community with associate artists, external partners and other kindred spirits. Lots of these people sent in videos to celebrate with us and it was very special to look back at so many projects through the eyes of the people involved.

Could you tell me a bit more about the background to the company and how it came about? When I was working at the National Youth Theatre, I created a programme of learning called the Playing Up course for young people not in education, employment or training. I joined with Philip Osment and after extensive research in young offenders’ institutes around London, he wrote the play INSIDE for students who had graduated the programme, several of whom had direct experience of the criminal
justice system. In the short term, we wanted to provide professional development for the cast. We had received Arts Council funding to produce the play at The Roundhouse in Camden, with some additional funds to deliver a theatre engagement programme with MAC-UK, a local mental health charity for young people at risk of gang involvement. In order to realise this, we needed to create a company, so in 2010 Playing ON was born. Our longer-term vision was to create a permanent theatre company, which would enable disenfranchised people to have their voices heard in community spaces and in theatres. Philip sadly passed away last year, but his legacy lives on and his contribution to the way we have grown is at the centre of everything we do.

What would you say has been the company’s biggest achievement to date? After the success of INSIDE at the Roundhouse, we were asked to speak at the House of Lords, where they were discussing a recent white paper on prison education reform. I think they wanted a panel discussion from us but we jumped on the chairs and performed a loud sweary scene from the play. Fortunately for us they appreciated the pathos and beauty of Philip’s writing so it went down a storm, leading to a lively and insightful discussion.

During a residential programme which we delivered at the Maudsley Hospital,several of the patients were discharged on the strength of the improvisation skills they had shown in a performance. One of the patients said when attending rehearsals; “I’m off now to be mad and I don’t have to be sectioned for it.” It was nice recently to be nominated for a Children and Young Peoples Award for our Drilling Diamonds project which we ran with young people in Tower Hamlets during lockdown. On a personal note, I received a nomination for an Off West End Award for best director in March for Can I Help You? which was Philip’s last play before he died. It means a lot that someone thinks I have done his work justice as he was the most incredible writer and theatre maker. His work deserves to live on.

How do you use theatre to help people? We bring together experts by experience and experts by profession through innovative workshops and training to explore new relationships, transforming lives and improving the well being of all. By imagining, sharing and embodying fictitious characters drawn from truthful situations, participants explore sensitive issues
through the prism of our theatre making process. Positive relationships within the group develop as people at opposite ends of the care spectrum feel empowered to bring a greater openness about their lived experience.
The work we do can help people break down personal barriers and learn things about themselves and others. There is a strong feeling among many that people’s voices are not heard by those who have the power to affect change and our methodology offers a very immediate way to provide a platform. The only equipment needed is people and the desire to communicate. Meaningful engagement with community groups is also important so that our professional productions are infused with the authenticity. It has to be more than a bit of outreach work and a couple of post-show Q&As. Our community events carry as much weight as our theatre performances so that we can open up meaningful dialogue.

Why would you say that theatre is such an important source of support for people? I think the simple answer is that it can help people break down personal barriers and learn things about themselves and others. Of course, this can also be said about other creative pursuits, but theatre is the most immediate and accessible of the arts. There’s something about the communal act of creating together in a room, or Zoom room, that is impossible to find elsewhere. If theatre is to offer something which
Netflix cannot, it must explore its potential to open up conversations, which the community is invested in.

What are the company’s future plans? We are just finishing a project with East London NHS Foundation Trust building on the film techniques we discovered with our Tower Hamlets Drilling Diamonds programme during the first lockdown. The final product will be used as a training
resource for junior doctors and will hopefully inform the next stage of our relationship with the trust. We are keen to deepen and grow our NHS partnerships, we know our process is impactful, it is now about bringing it to multiple trusts. We are also raising funds to run another Drilling Diamonds programme with young Londoners, helping them to tell their stories through improvisation, music, film and theatre. Following a successful pilot earlier on in the year, we hope to partner with national youth charity Leap Confronting Conflict and bring our interventional drama programme to young care leavers. We are formalising our training offer with a manual which describes our methodology
and a two-day training programme for all practitioners wishing to work with us or use our techniques in their own practice – If you book before the end of the year you can get the training for a tenner!

By Emma Clarendon

To find out more about Playing ON visit: https://www.playingon.org.uk/