University of Westminster’s ‘Found Theatre and Poetry: Disrupting the Everyday’
By Matthew Morrison, senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Westminster
Matthew Morrison from the University of Westminster reflects on his fantastic event ‘Found Theatre and Poetry: Disrupting the Everyday’ which he organised in partnership with Hannah Bruce and Company, Live Canon. Matthew explains what it meant to find a lost theatre and open its doors to the public again for lunch time performances and discussions. This project was funded by a Being Human Small Award.
Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?
For Being Human 2017, my co-curator Guy Osborn and I programmed a series events for the ‘lost’ Soho Poly theatre, a tiny subterranean venue in the centre of London. Between 1972 and 1990 this had been the home of the Soho Theatre, a radical pioneer of ‘lunchtime’ theatre. All our events – live poetry, talks about the history, a newly commissioned piece of ‘digital’ theatre – aimed to honour the venue’s original impulse to disrupt the working day with arts and culture.
The Being Human 2017 theme of ‘Lost and Found’ was pretty irresistible. The Soho Poly venue had been completely neglected since the Soho Theatre moved from the premises in 1990. I’d been doing academic research on it for a book, but here was an opportunity to explore its theatrical properties in a practical way. And that chimed really well with the philosophy behind Being Human: to bring humanities research into the public arena. The University of Westminster has a long history of supporting poetry, and by inviting poet Mike Garry and the collective Live Canon to perform, we were able to reference that history too. Most important to us was the idea that visitors to the festival would feel enriched by experiencing arts and culture in the middle of their day. Rather than seeing the arts as a luxury or leisure activity, we wanted to show how it can be part of the daily fabric of our lives.
How did you make your event appeal to your target audience? How did you go about spreading the word of the event?
We knew that people who remembered the old theatre would be interested in a walk down memory lane. But we also made a particular effort to reach out to the local community. We marketed directly to places like the local Fitzrovia news, and we were delighted that quite a few of our attendees had heard about the events from that source.
We had some fantastic feedback, with people really responding to the venue itself and the chance to have their day (positively) disrupted! Fred Proud, the theatre’s very first artistic director, wrote that: ‘it was clear last week that the same old magic was not so very far away.’ More of our positive testimonials can be found on our University of Westminster page.
What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event? Did you face any challenges?
The historic nature of the venue provided our events with a great focal point. We also had some wonderful volunteers who brought a real sense of excitement and anticipation to our preparations. In that sense, the whole enterprise felt suitably ‘theatrical’ – almost as if we were gearing up for a show. As is always the case, the experience was also made by the collaborations we formed.
We were lucky at how smoothly things ran, but there were quite a lot of logistical things to sort out. That was particular true with respect to the venue, which had a lot of health and safety bars to clear. And in the end, we probably didn’t quite bank on it being so cold in our tiny basement!
What was your motivation for getting involved in Being Human? How useful did you find it to be part of the festival?
The involvement with Being Human was hugely important. It lifted the profile of the event but also helped to shape the ‘message’ that we wanted to put across – about the creative ways in which (lost) history and new ideas spark off each other. Equally important was the opportunity to feel part of a much larger celebration of the Humanties. And with that, of course, came the chance to make some brilliant new contacts.
What impact/outcomes has your Being Human event had?
Back at Westminster we’re now planning all sorts of new events on the back of the success of Being Human 2017. But just as exciting is the fact that many of our partners and collaborators, who didn’t know each other before the festival, are now independently setting up projects amongst themselves.
Do you have any top tips for future Being Human event organisers?
1. Collaborate! Guy and I had the initial idea, but things got so much more exciting once we’d invited Hannah Bruce and Company, Mike Garry, Fred Proud and Live Canon to get involved.
2. Keep pushing the marketing until the last minute. Social media in particular really helped us maintain a buzz around the events.
3. Think how a Being Human idea might fit into other plans you’d like to get up and running. We’ve found being involved in Being Human 2017 has given a real boost to other projects.
This project was funded by a Being Human Small Award. To be part of Being Human 2018 and apply for a Small Award please visit our ‘get involved’ page.
Image copyright: the entrance to the Soho Poly on Riding House Street, c1980. Image courtesy of University of Westminster archives. Matt Morrison at ‘Found Theatre and Poetry’ for Being Human 2017. Image courtesy of Twitter/@annamcnally.