From a distance, in the early evening sunlight you could mistake it for some kind of tribal ritual, this huge circle of people standing under plane trees near a semi derelict church. We are in Southwark Park, Rotherhithe, south of the Thames. This is the London of Dickens, of Oliver Twist. It’s where the Pilgrim Fathers first set sail for New England: a collection of neigbourhoods steeped in history; stories stacked upon stories. Sixty years ago it was the site of some of the heaviest bombing raids of the London Blitz. The ‘tribe’ are all members of the London Bubble Theatre’s latest community theatre production. It’s an open air warm up for their show about the Blitz: Blackbirds.
“Community” and “participatory” are buzz words in the theatre at the moment. It’s a difficult and contested territory. Guardian critic Lynn Gardiner has recently written about witnessing a failed collaboration between theatre and community:
“They (the theatre) needed the community far more than the community needed or wanted them. The community had been around long before the theatre company had arrived and would continue long after the company had moved on to other things.”
Bubble doesn’t have this problem. Years of rooted local practice have blurred the separation between theatre and community: parts of the community have become parts of the theatre. Many children from Rotherhithe have literally grown up with a theatre at the end of their street. They and their families, friends and neighbours have become implicated in the act of making theatre. Kezia Herzog is twelve. She has been a member of Bubble since she was six. She was one of the Blackbirds intergenerational community cast. I met with Kezia and fellow performer, ten year old Ella Fogg before one of the final rehearsals. Ella has been performing with the company since she was five. “There’s people in Bubble from all over the place”, says Kezia: “All different ages”. That’s the reason she has stayed with the company for so long. It’s the diversity of the experience that has captured her imagination.
Blackbirds is a show about the London 1940-41 Blitz. But it’s much more than that. It’s the visible tip of a long and complex process that has involved huge parts of this south London community talking to itself. In Manhattan, ‘Elders Share the Arts’ artist Martha Gildin spoke of the question children asked their seniors: “How do you get through difficult times?” Here in Rotherhithe children and young people have been using theatre to ask the same question. Kezia says:
“People just think of drama as being on the stage and singing and whatever but when you come here (to the Bubble) you’ve really got to think about the detail and everything that’s going on. We really thought about how they felt.”
Bubble Theatre supported younger participants to interview elders from their community who had lived through the bombing raids. Kezia interviewed local resident Brenda Watkinson:
“It was like we were having a normal conversation. But you just had to think about what she was actually saying. You had to think back to what it must have been like if you were five or six and then you was put in that terrible situation, what you would have done. We reflected back on that. We think of those memories and that helps us act. We think that we were in her shoes”
Watching the performance you get that sense of transformation: witnessing these ordinary people from an ordinary neighbourhood animated with an extraordinary common purpose. Some of the most powerful parts of the performance were huge friezes of people weaving together the stories of their forbears. A density of bodies close together like Henry Moore’s wartime underground shelter sketches but animated and in full colour.
I asked Ella why she stayed with the company. Why she keeps coming back. “I don’t know really”, she replied, “I think it just kind of makes me feel alive.”