Entertainment & Arts

Theatre group transforms troubled young lives

Knife Edge couple Image copyright catherine ashmore
Image caption The young cast perform a story based on their difficult pasts

The Big House Theatre company is helping to transform the lives of young adults with troubled backgrounds, including the Bafta-winning actor Adam Deacon, by encouraging them to perform the story of their own experiences. Some of the young performers share their stories of how involvement with the group has produced positive results.

"We've just got five stars!" shouts a young actor punching the air, referring to a review of the play she's in entitled Knife Edge.

Such feedback would be an achievement for any production, but when the background of the actors in Knife Edge is considered, it's more remarkable. The cast have either spent time in care or had a difficult childhood - and some have committed serious crimes.

The one professional in the group is Adam Deacon, who despite being a Bafta winner and star of the film Kidulthood, has faced his own challenges, having been in trouble with the police and sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Deacon and his fellow Knife Edge performers are part of The Big House Theatre company, a charity based in north London, which largely uses drama to help young people pursue and achieve a more positive life.

The founder and artistic director of the charity, Maggie Norris, is a former actress and used to work in prisons producing plays.

"I very quickly found that drama was an amazing tool to address low self-esteem, confidence issues and help with trusting others," says Norris.

She also discovered that many prisoners had spent their childhood in care.

Image copyright Catherine Ashmore
Image caption Adam Deacon won the Bafta Rising Star award in 2012 and has starred in films Kidulthood, Adulthood and Shank and TV police drama Babylon

"There's very, very little out there that focuses on the wellbeing of the care leaver. So we give wrap-around support to each individual who comes to the Big House. We get to know them incredibly well, we see where their vulnerabilities lie and we support them in every aspect of their lives."

Those who join embark on a three-month course called the Open House Project which offers counselling, advice and mentors.

The young members' own, often painful, life stories are used to create a play which they then perform - a work such as Knife Edge, described as "a play about fear, food and family that begins with a murder and ends with a feast".

One of the group, Tiff, didn't grow up in care but says she had a difficult childhood.

She was uncomfortable at first with the acting part of the course, saying: "All of us felt like, I'm not doing that, it makes me look stupid.

"Then, playing the character and getting into the character, you let go and indirectly it makes you let go of other things; I can't even explain it. I feel like I'm living now."

"We produce theatre work at a high level. And the reason we do that is because the youngsters we work with are amazing," says Norris.

Image copyright catherine ashmore
Image caption Acting becomes therapy as the young performers reveal their individual traumas

"In order to inspire them and to build their aspirations for the future, we want the work to be as brilliant as possible. It also shows the audience what they can do given the right kind of support. That inspires them to step forward and to offer opportunities."

Another performer, Dilan, spent a short time in care after a few difficult teenage years and says the theatre group has been a big boost to her life.

"My self-confidence has just risen since the first day I arrived," she says.

"I don't think it's just the acting. It's finally feeling there are people who understand what you're going through: feeling unloved, feeling unwanted and uncared for. We all understand each other. Finally in my life I feel that people care and it's a nice feeling."

Once the show is over, the young people become members of The Big House.

They're given a mentor to help them with life skills, finding employment and a comfortable place to live. There's also a drop-in service twice a week.

One former member is now at university, another has a job at City Hall in London and a very early member has become a professional actor.

Norris is certain her mode of therapy gets results.

Image copyright catherine ashmore
Image caption Adam Deacon is part of The Big House Theatre company

"When the youngsters come to us they're getting up at maybe three or four in the afternoon. They may be smoking a lot of weed. They're not focussed, they're not disciplined and they don't trust anybody," she says.

"What they learn with us has huge transferable skills. If a young person can deliver a monologue in a play in front of a 100 people, that stands them in very good stead when they are going before an interview panel to find a job.

In Knife Edge, the main female character is called The Girl With No Name, played by Tezlym.

"Here is home for me," she says.

"I know from previous members that people still stick together, we are always there for each other, no matter what.

"I didn't know my options before I came here. Now I either want to do drama psychotherapy, or I might want to find out what's going on with musical theatre. I'm researching scholarships right now.

"Most importantly it's taught me that family doesn't have to be blood."

Knife Edge is on at The Pond in Dalston, London until 12 June.

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