We had a chat with Lynda Brennan, the artistic director of The Tottenham Theatre. She works alongside many local people and Lynda Jessop is executive director. Earlier this year, the Tottenham Theatre put on a show telling stories of people from the local community, Up On The High Road. This was performed at The Bernie Grant Arts Centre, The Antwerp Arms and in a pub theatre in Walthamstow.
How did The Tottenham Theatre get started?
About four years ago myself and another resident Lynda Jessop decided to start it. Fairly quickly we decided we wanted to do something about Walter Tull, the first black footballer to play for a major team. He played for Spurs and then when the First World War broke out, he joined the army and became the first black officer.
We took his play, did lots of preparation, and we got some money from the Heritage Lottery. Then we searched for who was going to be in it and found Bruce Grove Youth Centre. We worked with a group of young people between 17 and 25 who’d lost the grip of their education and pathway so they were considered to be NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training).
They took it on superbly and we did Tull. It was a huge achievement for all of us and then we took it around Tottenham. We performed at Bruce Grove Youth Centre itself, outside of Lordship Hub, and the final performance was in a church, which is home for asylum seekers and refugees, on Mattison Road.
Then we worked with a professional group. We worked with Tyronne Higgins, who worked at the Birmingham Rep, and produced a 20 minute piece about conserving a piece of land in Tottenham.
Two years ago we applied for the Northumberland Park Community Voting Day fund. We had to make a three minute bid to the audience. Most of the other schemes were about health, walking and fitness and I argued that we needed more creative activities to tell our story.
We received the grant and I spent about a year and a half running drama workshops in North Tottenham. In particular, Women With A Voice which brings together women from all over the world who started to tell their stories. It was incredibly moving, one woman was from Syria, one was from Libya, and they all had stories to tell. The groups that I worked with became groups that would tell their stories to each other. There was a real bond and love between us.
We wanted to keep our focus in Tottenham and do something about local people’s lives and journeys. We worked with local writers and historians and produced a historical cartoon type play on the history of Tottenham.
We put on a show called Up On The High Road. It was held together by song and dance. Abe Gibson also contributed poetry and appeared within it and helped me direct. We’ve also worked a lot with Elizabath Lahav of Streetz Ahead, she helped me direct up on the High Road along with Abe.
Each person’s story was separate but also held together by the politics of the area. It was controversial as to whether to put that in because we were obviously one sided and we decided to do it almost like pantomime and make it quite funny. I’d been asked to do a play about the community, and what was on the minds of everybody, plus the visual thing of the building going on, I would have felt bad to have walked away from that. It would have been almost like I was avoiding it.
We wanted to blend what’s going on now with stories from the past. It was naturally coming in and even people who didn’t feel as strongly about it commented on all the trees being chopped down, so everybody had an angle on what was happening to them.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re looking at working with some young people from Bruce Grove Youth Centre. A young woman, Tanesha Melbourne, was killed in that area and a number of the users of the club knew her. I think some of the young people are finding it very difficult to come to terms with it. Her death has affected their lives and their futures too. They’ve started to wonder if it’s safe to go out on their own. Through improv. or dance we’re going to try and explore that.
On Lordship Lane, you’ve got shrines at the Wood Green end and shrines at the Tottenham end. It’s such a big issue and such an important issue. We asked what the two children who appeared in Up On The High Road wanted to do in the future and the first thing they said was they wanted to do something on this topic. It’s in every young person’s mind. What to do, how to look after yourself, how do you grieve when somebody that was there one day is not there anymore?
I had an idea to do Peter Pan Tottenham style with a mixture of young people and adults, but make the central theme about growing up so it becomes a right of passage.
We’re also looking at doing a piece about Priscilla Wakefield. She was a Quaker and was involved in starting Roland Hill nursery, where they refused any physical corporal punishment of any children. What I’m interested in is the five mile rule. Quakers couldn’t practise or preach within five miles of Westminster so settled in the Tottenham village of the time.
I’m also hoping to start a Tottenham youth theatre at Bruce Grove Youth Centre.
How many people were involved in Up On The High Road?
We ran workshops regularly for eight months, and at least 60 people took part. We had about 25 people in the play.
It was a great coming together. One of the stories was the Windrush story – Vilma’s story. It was Vilma herself that argued strongly that the play should be about everybody. That’s how shes thinks of Tottenham. We tried to respect the integrity of people’s stories without one of them overbalancing.
Vilma was really influential and is very active in Tottenham. There were some heart wrenching stories into why people came here. We dealt with abuse in the family. Then there was Haylee’s story that I really liked because she had a connection to the Caribbean – her company goes over there – and how her story was fun as it was fashion and aspirational and she was on a role. Then there were people who joined quite late who had a massive story to tell. There wasn’t any competition between people. There was the story about the Palestinian refugee who had been brought up in a Syrian camp. I think it so emotional for him telling his story and at the same time such an important act to tell to UK people what had happened to him. It was hugely moving.
What are the benefits of people getting involved in workshops and theatre?
I think it can be life changing. We’re a very divided society and in theory we can be quite isolated and feel misunderstood. We can feel we have problems and other people have got fewer problems particularly at the moment with so much austerity. You go on Tottenham High Road you see the signs of real poverty. The workshops provide a safe, non competitive and inclusive space to do something creative that’s very accessible because you’re using your body essentially. That creativity is fundamental to being human. It’s as therapeutic as that – it can come back to making you feel better.
Tottenham is very multicultural and the theatre was very multicultural and it really did bring people together, young and old. It brought different ethnic groups together and that was fantastic and it was open. That was what they wanted to do. Alongside it people probably picked up some skills and confidence. Some people thought they would never be on stage in a million years and then they were and it wasn’t that frightening. The main thing is the creativity and the bringing together of different groups.
If you’d like to find out more, get in touch with Lynda Brennan on 07984190283, email email@example.com or find The Tottenham Theatre on Facebook.