I spent part of Tuesday in the acta community garden, helping local volunteers clear the huge pile of ivy and debris left from a catastrophic fence collapse earlier this year. Their enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to help the company was inspiring, and it reminded me how important volunteers have been to acta all the way through the last 34 years, especially in the first few years.
When acta began, we had no core funding, just what we could earn from doing projects – usually through Avon County Youth and Community Service. It wasn’t easy, but was made possible by the generosity of a group of volunteers, some of them ex-youth theatre members, and students/graduates from Bristol University Drama Department. Something about acta’s approach caught their imagination, and they signed up to help in all areas of the work we were doing.
In 1986 and onwards, one of our key priorities was to develop a youth theatre network across Avon, concentrating on areas where there was particular need, and also where I had contacts from my time with Avon County. By the end of 1986, we had set up groups in Easton, Knowle West, Kingswood, Central Bristol, Yate, Radstock, Lockleaze, and on the Bournville estate in Weston Super Mare. They all flourished, and over the next few years involved hundreds of young people creating and performing their own original – mostly wacky – shows. We were (and still are) amazed by the inventiveness and imaginations of the young people let loose on theatre, as they responded to the question ‘what do you want to do a show about?’ Once they had realised that we weren’t going to do Grease, and it had to be original, there was no stopping them. Shows about giant spiders loose on a cruise ship, Victorian orphans, teenage runaways, dystopian futures, divorce, death, and women’s history – an incredible breadth of story and creativity – and our volunteers played an enormous part in achieving all this, on a shoestring budget.
I particularly remember working at the youth centre on the Bournville estate in Weston Super mare. I’d done some work here myself before acta, and knew what a great need there was in the area for youth activities. We would arrive on the Bournville estate in our minibus (courtesy of the Greater Bristol Trust – now Quartet Community Foundation), with seven facilitators to lead youth theatre sessions – a completely new experience for the local young people. We worked with a large, challenging, engaging and diverse group, and worked towards creating a new show with them. It was clear early on that their focus was on their own experiences, their own stories; and they wanted to tell people what life was like for them – living on a council estate less than a mile from a sea-front none of them visited. The resulting show – Weston in Winter – spoke with humour, determination and honesty about their life, and what happened when the holiday makers left the town. It could have been bleak, but it wasn’t; just full of fun and resignation, and hope.
We carried on working on the Bournville with young people for years – even taking our Kids Theatre group for a two week summer residency to work with the local young people to create ‘Wish you Were Here’, a play in two weeks, which really deserves it’s own chapter (see https://www.acta-bristol.com/wish-you-were-here-1986/)
Eventually, in the mid 1990’s, we worked with local people to create a community play, Shining Through, with a huge cast which included youth theatre members; and of course, large numbers of local volunteers, all wanting to tell the story of their estate, giving their time for nothing to make it happen.
Doing it for love.