Great results back from The Lab

PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 April 2014

The 'Our Space' theatre worshop based in 'The Lab' at The Theatre Royal Plymouth

The 'Our Space' theatre worshop based in 'The Lab' at The Theatre Royal Plymouth

© sghaywood photography

How is a new facility at Theatre Royal Plymouth helping people from all walks of life reach their potential? CATHY SAYERS visits what’s known as The Lab to find out what’s on offer

Photos by Steve Haywood

James Bridgewater at The Theatre Royal's 'The Lab'James Bridgewater at The Theatre Royal's 'The Lab'

The Theatre Royal has a buzz about it when I arrive in the afternoon. People coming and going through the newly revamped entrance hall, others enjoying coffee in the café. What’s called a ‘relaxed’ performance of the panto Robin Hood is taking place in the Lyric theatre for those on the autistic spectrum who prefer to move around during a performance.

But it’s the basement I’m heading for. This is where a newly equipped mini theatre is up and running. The Lab is hosting a group of theatrical talent for whom theatre is a lifeblood. James Bridgewater, 41, explains why.

How theatre helps

Theatre allows self-expression and is a non-judgmental environment in which people can thrive and find their own identities, especially valuable with trauma in real life. A lot of the classes I witnessed were self-led, in other words people taking part developed their own forms of expression. This has given confidence not only to people like James but also fellow participants like Chris, who found it difficult to look people in the eye, and Kevin, who was shy and had a stutter

James fell out of traditional education when taking his A Levels at Plymouth College. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up at what was then a mental institution, Morehaven, on the outskirts of Ivybridge. Things took a turn for the worse and he received a three-year young offender sentence for malicious wounding with intent. From then on, with a criminal record to his name, he found it very difficult to get a job.

Lacking in confidence and feeling excluded from society, James became a member of the Theatre Royal’s Our Space community, which focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable in society. The homeless and those with addictions or mental health issues all benefit from being able to take part in real theatrical productions. And now instead of having to take public transport to get to rehearsal space at TR2 in Cattedown, The Lab provides a more easily accessible city centre location. It’s in effect a mini theatre complete with the facilities of a professional stage set.

As James explains: “The whole process of taking part in productions at Theatre Royal Plymouth has given me confidence. It gives me a chance to act out someone else, the opportunity to express myself.”

"It gives me a chance to act out someone else, the opportunity to express myself"

He became a project officer for Our Space, something which made him feel valued. He’s acted in many of the Our Space productions, including a piece called The Edge based on a story by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, as part of the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s Pop-up Season at TR2, and The Twelve Steps of Christmas which was a series of sketches put on in The Lab.

“The great thing about The Lab is that being epileptic I can get here more easily with my bus pass. We used to go by taxis to TR2 which was a bit of an organisational nightmare; The Lab is more accessible.”

James has also branched out into directing. He is a regular at Our Space and now returns to his group activity, which I have a chance to observe. Exercises are taking place. Participants are asked to illustrate first of all the word ‘propaganda’ by the Staff Director of Learning, Beth Shouler. Then it’s on to ‘misinformation’. After that a mirroring technique is used.

Victoria Allen, the Theatre’s Director of Creative Learning, joins me. She is delighted that Our Space has just been awarded a £100,000 grant over three years.

“We have a huge programme of work, a lot of which is for vulnerable people,” she explains. “Some of the most exciting theatre we do is created by the Our Space community and now we have The Lab as a city centre focus for that work.”

Victoria heads up a team of six full-time staff. The Lab has provided them with a city centre location. She says: “As it’s a fully kitted out performance space we can rehearse for not only low key performances but more formal productions in the Drum. This way we’re engaging with communities in Plymouth. They will get the benefits of what theatre has to offer in bringing out people’s self-esteem which leads to better health and well-being.

James certainly feels the benefit of The Lab. It’s easy to get to, and a creative focus for his life as an independent adult.

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