Interview: MBE awarded producer Charlotte Cunningham

I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to interview the inspiring and indefatigable Charlotte Cunningham, whose over-26-years of work with her company Turtle Key Arts has done untold good in advancing accessibility in theatre for the disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded.

Below is an edited transcript:


 

I guess let’s start at the beginning, for those who don’t know what Turtle Key Arts is, how would you describe it?

We’re a production company that works in two different ways. One is working with young theatre, dance and circus companies to helping them at the start of their careers, and linked to that, the other one is also setting up new and innovative ways of working with different groups in the community. We work with people with dementia, with younger people and children with autism, with HIV, people with dyslexia, people of interfaith workshops. But all of those using the arts, music as well, and a lot of partnership working with other organisations. The nutshell is a bit of a difficult one since we do a lot of different kinds of work.

What’s been really astounding researching you guys, is the scale – I don’t think there’s a disability group or a disadvantaged voiced which you don’t cover. Which is amazing!

Yes, well we’ve been around a long time, we do try!

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Ockham’s Razor’s Tipping Point

So, what was the thought when you started? Did you ever think you’d reach this scale?

No, I don’t think when we started we had any idea. In the early days – we’re talking nearly 28 years ago now – there was very little going on in the fields of access and disability arts particularly. Particularly most small theatres, the places where most people would start their careers were completely inaccessible. Rooms above pubs and staircases – I mean physically inaccessible – but also say you were trying to work as a designer with hearing impairment it was very difficult. In those days you weren’t able to – you had to write things down if you wanted to make things understood. I f you think about it now you can’t quite imagine it.

A lot of the work we did in those early days was trying to overcome those physical hurdles.  And that’s now changed, you know, into gazing towards over types of hurdles. Whether it’s problems like the one’s I’ve described in terms of communication, or access because you feel different in terms of being on the autistic spectrum. Or later on in life – dementia and the stigma around that, or just the fear of being able to find ways where you can get to – so setting up ways of getting people to art spaces so they can take part.

So, access has taken on a very different aspect 28 years on from when we started. And you know, we have to keep questioning what it is, how we can find other groups or other things that might not have access to the arts, and were we can be helpful and be useful.

 There’re a few things we’d love to go back to doing. The interfaith stuff for obvious reasons. It works really well and there’s a huge need for it. One of the other thing’s we’ve talked about – and talked about a little bit – is mental health in young people, which seems to be not just with autistic young people, but just generally is a runaway thing that we see not just in our organisations, but with people we’ve worked, with and students we’ve come across.

At the moment our capacity is well and truly at its zenith – so we couldn’t do much more at the moment! But it is something we’re interested in because there is a need.

 

“The transformation that happened with some of those kids was incredible. Very emotional. They come from all parts of the country and quite often wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to”

 

How do you go about curating your season? You work with a lot of theatre companies and existing partnerships. Do you approach the companies? Do they approach you?

A bit of both, a lot of people will often come to us. Mostly if they know someone who’s worked with us, or these days have heard one of us speak at a conference or at a university setting. There’s lots of different ways when we’re starting. And is really nice to find people at the point in their careers where we can help. Yes, we do charge and put fees into the applications that we put in for companies, but we are set up as a charity so we’re not making money of these charities. It’s about finding the companies where we can make the most impact.

We like working with people who are like minded with us. So, what often we do is insist that they agree to do outreach as well. We’d like them to think about how they can use their piece of work to do other things, however they see their work helping to open things up a bit.

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Participants of The Key Club

Do you have any themes in how you put together the season?

All the shows are very different. Tipping Point is this weekend at Stratford Circus. It’s a great family weekend show. It’s a very feel-good show as well, and a show that’s been seen by massive numbers; it’s been to Australia and all over the world. Some of our other companies perform in smaller spaces, but they’ve all been very successful in their own right. But as I say, Tipping Point has been all around the world, and is even going to the Avignon Festival this summer. I think it’s Ockham’s Razor’s strongest show to date; they’re an amazing company. This particular show is extremely thought provoking and beautiful, with a real a narrative, which is probably why it’s been touring the world for two years! This is the last chance to see it in London, so people should come see it this weekend! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

 

 

Booking – 
Stratford Circus Arts Centre
Thu 23 & Fri 24 Nov 7pm
Sat 25 Nov 2pm & 7pm
020 8279 1080

 

What makes access in the arts so important?

In terms of live performance and working with the performance skills that you can get from a lot of the workshops we run… I went to a talk at Chatham House – a think tank – and it was talking about 2040 and where we might be. It was all about cyber security and it was all slightly depressing, but one of the big messages from the speakers was that we’d still need creativity and communication, and those are things you get from our sector in a very wide way.

And I also see from our dementia projects for example, getting people out of their houses and back together as a group and how incredibly important that is with all the isolation at the moment.

We have our two Key Clubs which are club for over-16-year olds with autism. One of them has been running for 12 years. And we know some of those kids that we’ve been working with for years and they have no other ways of getting out of their homes sometimes. And even the ones that do don’t have many friendships or ways of connecting with other people. So coming here they’ll be doing some spoken word poetry, they’ll do two hours, and they’ll feel like they’ve achieved something, and they’ll then have a social time for an hour where they’ll then have something to communicate with each other about. They have a great morning, they have a really positive time.  And that, I know is something that’s going to become more and more important as people become more isolated at all ages.

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Art is Key –  a free program for young people with HIV

You must have had so many moments of being able to see the positive change you’re making, have there been any big moments like that?

Well as you said there’ve been so many. There’s constant moments, there’ll been some tomorrow – every time we do one of these workshops. Even the young people with HIV, our last big project (Art is Key) we did last year, at the end of it some of the transformation that happened with some of those kids was incredible. Very emotional. They come from all parts of the country and quite often wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to. So you’re stuck in Northern Ireland with nobody who knows your condition, and you come to the Lyric Hammersmith for a week and… the stories they told at the end of their week….

And so, every single thing we do, the pride of the dyslexic kids when they’re given their book of their play at the end of a whole session, or they see their plays put on by professional actors on the stage at the Lyric or Royal court, we’ve run it in both places. Those moments, there are hundreds. Every single session there is something.

All of our projects are free. We do want to be able to have anyone who wants to come along, be able to come along. We do really enjoy what we do.

 

“Believe in what you’ve doing, and take advantage of people like us.”

 

What are the other show’s coming up at Turtle Key?

We do also have some new writing pieces, we’ve recently been working with an Iraqi playwright called Hussan Abdulrazzak with a play called Love, Bombs & Apples which was up at Edinburgh this summer, is going to the States this year, and coming back to tour a bit in the Spring.

Ockhams are going to be developing a new show, an indoor show AND an outdoor show so some big shows coming out from them.

We have a company called Open Sky based in the Midlands which is developing a new big show.

Joli Vyann is going to be touring again, they’ve just come back from South Korea and are creating a new show.

And a lot of our younger companies, Redcape Theatre doing a new show as well next year.

There’s a lot going on on the creative front!

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Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Love, Bombs & Apples

To finish up, do you have any advice for up and coming theatre companies and producers?

It takes time but that’s what’s exciting. Getting ideas out there, carrying on and not being discouraged by how impossible it seems these days to get in. There are ways.

If you have a strong message keep pushing it. Take advantage of some of the support that’s out there, like the Independent Theatre Council that supports young companies, and they’re trying to make it a lot more accessible to young companies. And they also have a lot of information and help for the hoops you have to jump through to get on the road. How to pay people properly, how to write the right pieces of paper, all that stuff. The annoying but important stuff.

And then just ask for help. If you write emails and no one answers call them, call them, and if they still don’t do anything turn up! Make connections and don’t let people get away with saying no to you.

I always have a whole smoke and mirrors thing. Impressing people. Whatever you can use – “I’m in discussion with so-and-so” – you can be in discussion if you just left them a message!

People are so annoyingly obvious and think: “Oh wow, if they’re talking with so-and-so maybe we should talk to them!”

All those kinds of things.

Believe in what you’ve doing, and take advantage of people like us, and there are other people out there who are very passionate about it and want to help you succeed.

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For more information on Charlotte and Turtle Key Arts visit their website:

 

http://www.turtlekeyarts.org.uk/

 

See their shows, they are doing incredible work. And a massive thank you to Charlotte for your time!

@TurtleKeyArts

Pheonix Rises, The Big House

8 November – 2 December 2017

by Andrew Day
Directed by Maggie Norris

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Photography by Dylan Nolte

Phoenix Rising, a re-staging and re-imagining of The Big House’ acclaimed debut play Phoenix, is the bitter, painful, but ultimately hopeful story of Callum (Aston Mcauley), an 18-year-old just leaving foster care trying desperately to chase his dream of becoming a runner. At his side are his friends Omar and Bready, his trainer Josiah, his girlfriend Nina, and a series of exhausted but well-meaning social workers.

But are they truly at his side? Well, as in life, it’s more complicated than that. The characters of Phoenix Rising behave like real people in a desperate situation: They are frustrated, they make mistakes, they are selfish and cruel and sometimes wonderfully kind. The Big House crafted a world full of hopeful, intelligent human beings constantly beaten down by a system that just doesn’t work the way it should.

Different characters respond to this assault in different ways: Aston Mccauley’s Callum is shown to be an intelligent and sensitive young man who is overwhelmed by rage at the injustice of his situation; Rebecca Farinre’s Hannah is a young mother so overwhelmed by the reality of raising a young daughter alone that she slowly and quietly disconnects from the world around her; and Perrina Allen’s Nina is so frustrated by the lack of prospects for her life that she lashes out at those around he with surprising and bitter cruelty.

A great triumph of Phoenix Rising is that all of these characters feel absolutely real. This is due in no small part to Andrew Day’s excellent writing, which manages to give sparklingly soulful and intelligent voice to the thoughts and feelings of these people. Day’s writing is expertly paced and always deeply human, breaking up the characters’ constant struggle with moments of levity, humour and hope. The play is unforgiving towards its characters, never giving them an easy way out, and constantly tempting them with false hopes; but that just means that when they finally do start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, we the audience know how much that hope truly means.

The acting, though inconsistent in parts, is generally very strong, and in places reaches truly beautiful moments of raw, bitter feeling. There are several moments throughout the play, for example: one in which the normally reticent Hannah pulls Callum into a surprising and much-needed embrace, that seem to spring from such a deeply felt and authentic place that one cannot help but be moved by them. There are many of these stark, human moments throughout the play, and each one is bracing and beautiful. In addition, the chemistry between Callum and his friends Omar (Jordan Bangura) and Bready (Daniel Akilimali) is wonderful, and any scene between the three of them is instantly lit up by an authentic joy and humour. Also worthy of praise is the harrowing, terrifying movement work of Oz Enver, who haunts and torments Callum as a twisted and grim spectre throughout the play.

Supporting all of these elements is the inspired choice of venue. Phoenix Rising is performed in the car park of London’s iconic Smithfield Market, and I cannot imagine a better place to tell this story. The audience is shepherded between the different rooms and environments set up around the car park, and the setting, along with some masterful lighting and set design choices, lead to a very full and authentic atmosphere. The play leads you from scene to scene, treading through the darkness towards an illuminated point ahead of you, a point which holds the secret of what will happen next in the story, as if you too were one of these characters, being pulled around by forces of fate beyond their control.

Phoenix Rising tells a bitter, painful story punctuated by moments of humour and humanity. It is a story that goes to unexpected places, and deals with characters that behave in unexpected but very believable ways. The brilliant writing, rich performances, and well-used immersive elements come together to support an all-too-real tale of young people trying their very best to get by in a system that just isn’t there to help them.

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This review was written by Sam Wells, Theatre Box’s newest contributor!

White by Koko Brown @ Ovalhouse Theatre

15 – 25 November 2017

Created & performed by Koko Brown
Directed by Nicholai La Barrie

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Koko Brown’s White is an autobiographical one-woman show about her experience as a mixed-race young woman. It’s about how being mixed has affected her, the privilege it’s granted her, and how it has alienated her.

The performance is a blend of spoken-word and live vocal looping, creating a moving and musical examination of self.

Brown is an exceptionally charismatic performer. Her musical talents are suburb, and her writing are engaging, clever, brilliant and lyrical. Her energy and smile are infectious. It’s an honest and often vulnerable performance.

However, I wanted the play to go deeper into the small moments. The play’s broad strokes and struggles were told with great clarity and elegance, but I found myself craving more shading and fine points.

Though we experience amazement at The Black Lives Matter march and are moved by the feelings invoked, we don’t find out what the crowd was really like. What were they saying and chanting? Was it the press of bodies that was affecting? The vibe? The banners? When so-and-so said the racist thing, was it a date? Were they confronted and how’d they take it? What did mom say? These details are often what bring me along for the ride, but were often glossed over in exchange for focus on more general themes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many moments where you relive the events along with Brown. I just wanted more of them!

It’s an important, thought-provoking piece, and Brown’s work unearths issues that we need to address.

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The Dark Room, Paperbark Theatre @ Theatre503

8 November – 2 December 2017

by Angela Betzien
Directed by Audrey Sheffield
Paperbark Theatre / Thinking Aloud / Theatre503
(c) Alex Brenner

Photography by Alex Brenner (info@alexbrenner.co.uk)

Set in a depressing motel in the remote Northern Territory, The Dark Room follows six characters haunted by the same brutal crime. Their shattered community is riddled with abuse, police brutality and tragedy, and each character grapples desperately for some sense of salvation.

Angela Betzien’s play is shocking, often charming and incredibly raw. As an audience we’re jammed into the pressure cooker with them. It’s enthralling, powerful, and not always an easy watch.

Australian plays often feel that way to me. I lived in Sydney for 14 years, and this production is true to the best Aussie dramas I grew up with. And like most Aussie writing, it always gives me the impression that it’s been flayed and left in the sun for a few weeks. The stories and narratives overlap, and the timeline is distorted. With elements of a horror/thriller thrown in for good measure, we as an audience are left to puzzle out the twisted events of the play as events unfold.

The acting is superb. As a cast they are unbelievably strong, each bringing a powerful stage presence and truthful performances. Besides, there’s one native Australian among them and you’ll be hard pressed to guess who it is. The Australian accent is not an easy one (trust me), but they nail it.

Annabel Smith (Grace – pictured above in the mask) is terrifying and intense. It’s an affecting in-your-face performance that distils the rot at the core of the play into the shape of an abused teenager.

Her relationship with Anni (Katy Brittain) is the backbone of the piece from the start. As the two tussle they bring out each other’s vulnerabilities in a way which is magnetic and emotive.

Brittain provides a masterclass of acting. It’ s a stunningly sensitive and tender performance as a woman desperate to do right against all the odds and faced with the impossible. She is heart-breaking to watch.

Tamlyn Henderson’s charismatic performance as the weary cop Stephen brings much of the plays charm. His performance swaggers easily between the uproariously comical and deeply dramatic in his struggles with his heavily-pregnant and dissatisfied wife, Emma (Fiona Skinner). Skinner’s grounded and relatable performance gives a great strength to their dynamic. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Rounding off the talented cast is the calm, sinister alpha-male Craig (Alasdair Craig), and the disturbed and victimised Joseph (Paul Adeyefa). They provide high-octane performances that do justice to the play’s themes of abuse and brutally.

Audrey Sheffield’s directing gives life to the piece. Using the design, space, and bodies of her actors to build on the feeling of claustrophobia, while giving the plays humour and charm enough room to breathe.

This play is like sitting *just* too close to a fire. Your skin prickles, it’s a little uncomfortable, and it’s impossible to look away.

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This production was made in partnership with NSPCC, UK’s leading children’s charity. For more information about the organisation and to support a good cause, click here.

 

 

 

No Place Like Hope, So & So Arts Club/Pinpoint Create @ The Old Red Lion

7 – 25 November

by Callum McGowan
Directed by Carla Kingham

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Photography by Jennifer Moyes

No Place Like Hope follows the unlikely friendship between a teenager sentenced to community service cleaning a hospice and a terminal cancer patient she finds in there.

Callum McGowan’s writing comes straight from the heart. Delivered with humour and grace, the play approached the subjects of cancer and mortality in a way that is never maudlin or gratuitous. It’s original writing that, in the words of a fellow theatre-goer, was ‘so true it hurt’. I couldn’t agree more. Elegantly directed by Carla Kingham, the play is as joyous as it is tragic.

If I were to nit-pick I’d say a couple scenes suffered from very occasional pacing issues, going on a touch more than needed before the next emotional beat. Aside from that, this show is as close to perfect as these things get.

All three cast members shine. Max Calandrew (Bri) is a fussy and often detested health assistant, who plays the role with quiet assurance, sensitivity and soul.

Holly Donovan not only played the seventeen-year-old Becca, but also produced the play. Her work has more than payed off. Her performance is often hysterical, painfully human, mischievous and vulnerable.

Lastly, Clare Corbett is simply masterful as Anna, sending us on an emotional roller-coaster from her heart-breaking confessions to her unadulterated joy at smoking a cigarette. Charming, wry, tragic, and raw, it’s a performance that will stay with me for a very long time.

The play had me laughing one moment and crying the next. Corbett and Donovan are terrific leads, their on-stage chemistry is moment-to-moment truthful and endlessly playful. The monologues, when they happen, are spellbinding, standout moments for every performer.

See it. Go book right now.

It’s one of the best pieces of fringe all year.

 

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No Place Like Hope was made in partnership with Victoria’s Promise, an incredible charity filling critical gaps in social, emotional and practical care for young women and their families going through cancer. For more info and to support a good cause click here.

The Black Eye Club, The Bread & Roses Theatre

1 – 18 November

by Phil Charles
Directed by Tessa Hart

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Photography by Lexi Clare

A gay man is denied refuge to a women-only abuse shelter after fleeing his violent partner, but is snuck in by one of the residents. Winner of ‘The Bread & Roses Playwriting Award’, The Black Eye Club is a darkly funny and poignant look at a relationship between two strangers, and is a moving insight into abuse, and the crippling effect austerity has had on some of Britain’s most vulnerable.

Based on the writer’s real-world experiences as a support worker, the highlight of the show is the exceptional characterisation work in both the writing and performances.

The characters are recognisable and touching. Dave, played by Christopher Sherwood, is hesitantly self-consciousness and subtle, and plays brilliantly against Rebecca Pryle’s chatty and airheaded Zoe. Both characters are scarred, deep and compelling, and make for lovable tragic figures.

Cathryn Sherman rounds out the cast as Sharon, and makes the most of her smaller role with some of the play’s most memorable moments.

The play does have a few issues. The third act twist feels slightly contrived, and the main characters are sometimes so opposite that a few intimate moments were hard for me to reconcile with their previous disconnects. In both cases, the engaging performances carry the piece.

Well-directed by Tessa Hart, the play is at its best during its brilliantly vivid moments of dark situation comedy. I have never heard ‘I Will Survive’ sung as movingly, or as badly as in this production. I had tears in my eyes, and I’m not sure if they were from the emotion or the laughter.

It’s high quality work from a theatre worth supporting.

 

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A Diary of a Nobody, Rough Haired Pointer @ The King’s Head Theatre

31 October – 18 November 2017

Adapted & directed by Mary Franklin
Based on the novel by George &  Weedon Grossmith

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Adapted from a Victorian cult-classic, A Diary of Nobody follows the tribulations and triumphs of a bourgeois clerk called Charles Pooter.

The original source material was itself a novelised compilation of a collection of 1880s Punch cartoons. It’s a riotous and joyful romp, a Victorian sit-com. The play has 45 characters, all played by 4 incredibly skilful male actors to hysterical effect, with the show’s creative staging and the comic talents of the cast resulting in an extremely fun 2 hours.

There is no serious love interest or adversary. No mistaken identity or overarching ambition. Rather, we watch how Mr Charles Pooter and his wife Carrie cope with their woe-begotten son Lupin. We watch Pooter’s misadventures with the maid, the new butcher, his boss, his wife’s friend, and his garden plants.

Jake Curran, Jordan Mallory-Skinner, Loz Keystone, and Geordie Wright are engaging and hilarious performers. Some scripted moments are so kinetic they could gave been improvised, and some improvised moments so inspired they should have been scripted.

Adapted and directed by the talented Mary Franklin, it’s a joyous show. The design is wonderful. Modelled as it was on the original Grossmith illustrations, it feels sketched, the simple black and white colour scheme and pencilled-in props lending a cartoonish look that’s beyond perfect for the production.

The faults with the production lie in the play’s structure.

The show is essentially a farce in terms of its energetic, slapstick style and humour, but whereas farce builds continually from previous moments, this play doesn’t. Much like it’s original form as a serial cartoon, the play moves from gag-to-gag as Pooter lives day-by-day.  It results in a funny ‘year-in-the-life’ full of domestic scandal, but the irregular pacing and lack of any character-arcs take their toll. Characters are introduced, and then vanish again never to reappear. Disaster befalls them only for it to immediately be resolved. The show fails to build beyond the current scene and there’s no climax, making it feel a little hollow.

Having said that, if you’re just out for some light entertainment and a drink it’s well worth the ticket!

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