This interview is with Helen Bryer and Adam Smith of the Access All Areas Black Cab theatre company. Their immersive show Still, Here runs until the 31 October and comprises an audio and walking tour across Hackney. The show explores learning disabled life in lockdown and beyond and lasts aroubd ninety minutes if all stops are visited.
I asked Helen (HB) and Adam (AS) , who co-direct the piece, to tell me more about it. The tour is free and can be done at any time until the end of October. For more details go here.
Congratulations on putting on a performance which engages and inspires audiences. Can you tell me how Still, Here was developed?
AS: We wanted to remind people that as learning disabled and autistic people we are still here, still being creative and still supporting each other. We also wanted to create something that could be enjoyed right now, while there are still lockdown restrictions in place, rather than waiting until we could make a show in a theatre. So we decided to do this through the voices of Black Cab Company performers.
HB: As Adam said, it felt right to create something immediate, and the best way we could do that was through conversations and sound, working remotely with people in their homes. So, through a few weeks of Zooms and phone calls, we worked 1:1 with Black Cab artists to find out what they were missing in lockdown, and what they wanted people to know about their experience of the crisis and their relationship with Hackney. To stay safe, artists recorded themselves on phones and iPads at home and Adam and I have worked together as directors to stitch it all together.
You have the option when following the map of stopping at as many or few places as you wish. What can audiences expect as they move around?
HB: Each stop has been created by a different community artist, so they’re all a slightly different experience in terms of tone and style. We’ve ended up with a glorious mixture of content, from performance poetry to sound effects to verbatim phone calls. Each stop also features original music from our sound designer John Kelly. The stops stand alone, but if you do the whole walk you’ll hear the same ‘guide’ voice at the beginning and end of each stop, helping you take in the sights and sounds and gently letting you know where to go next.
AS: As audiences move from stop to stop, they will have the opportunity to reflect on what they have heard and perhaps think about the places they themselves have missed during lockdown.
The artists involved are learning disabled and autistic. How important has it been to ensure their voices are heard?
HB: Really important! Since March we’ve shifted the way we work to include regular phone calls and online sessions with all of our community participants, and through these interactions we’ve seen how important it is to give space for learning disabled and autistic people’s stories to continue to be told, especially throughout this crisis.
AS: This pandemic has been very difficult and isolating for learning disabled and autistic people. Even before the pandemic they may have already felt quite isolated but the pandemic has made that feeling even worse. So it is really important that our voices are heard and that we are not forgotten, especially as we start to return to ‘normal’.
How did you decide on which places to include in Still, Here?
AS: We knew we wanted Hackney Town Hall from the very beginning. That is because we’ve been part of Hackney Carnival there since 2017 and we wanted to pay tribute to that even though the event cannot take place this year.
HB: We talked a lot with the whole of Black Cab Company about their favourite places in Hackney, the places they were missing whilst stuck at home. Some places- like London Fields- were popular with everyone, so we knew they should be included. Some places allowed us to talk about bigger themes like the NHS and social isolation. And, of course, we wanted to ensure it was an enjoyable, accessible route with some interesting sights along the way!
How as lockdown been for you as artists and creatives?
AS: It has been a challenging time, and I have missed out on a lot of opportunities I had coming up. I have missed out on performing at a music festival in May, as well as performing with my collective “Not Your Circus Dogs” at Edinburgh Fringe. As co-directors Helen and I were due to start work on a new Black Cab show, but all of that has had to change. However, the lockdown has also given me lots of opportunities to learn new things like facilitating workshops over Zoom and creating videos and resources for participants at home. I was also involved in a music video called “Just stay At Home” by Johnathon Kitching with a number of other artists, and that wouldn’t have happened without the lockdown.
HB: At the start of lockdown I feel like we had to work really quickly to ensure we were still reaching people in our community, but like Adam says, it’s allowed us to think creatively and find new ways of doing things too. I’ve tried not to give in to the pressure to learn a million new skills during lockdown, but I’ve attempted to use the time to take stock and work out what we’ll do next.
What does East London mean to you?
HB: As a company, it’s been our home since 1976- we started out in Hoxton Hall as Rainbow Drama Group. So our identity as an East London theatre company is really important. I love Hackney because it’s such a contradiction of old and new, functional and artistic, grubby and shiny. It’s also got the best people.
AS: I love working in East London because the combination of old and new buildings and churches makes me feel as if I am in a magical, mysterious place. It’s full of inclusive venues and it’s somewhere I feel safe and supported to be creative.
What is your hope for ‘the new normal’?
AS: I hope that theatres can reopen safely, and that accessibility is put front and centre when they do. I also hope that people might remember what it was like to feel isolated and stuck at home for a few months, because how some people feel a lot of the time.
HB: There’s plenty I won’t miss about the last few months, but I do hope that the spirit of community that’s come out of all of this won’t be lost. I’d love for people to continue to check on their neighbours and remember those around them. I also think this could be an opportunity for change as we start to rebuild theatre and the arts- the ‘new normal’ needs diverse leaders and equality of opportunity.
Many thanks to Helen and Adam for this interview, and to Kim Morgan for organising.
Header image: Daya Koleosho, actress for Access All Areas. Credit to Caroline Moore.