Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Suzann McLean: Young, Gifted & Black

By | Published on Friday 9 October 2020

Theatre Peckham’s second Young Gifted & Black season began last week, but you still have plenty of time to find out what’s going on and then get involved because it continues on until 7 Nov.

Suzann McLean is the Artistic Director of Theatre Peckham. I spoke to her to find out more about what to expect from the Young, Gifted & Black season, but also about the impact of COVID-19 on the venue’s operations, and the challenges it will face in the coming months.

CM: It looks like your Young Gifted & Black season has an eclectic mix of events – can you explain to our readers about what sort of things to expect?
SM: The season brings together a really exciting mix of new writing, spoken word, poetry, performance, panel discussions and workshops. Audiences can join us for a live performance in our COVID-safe theatre or log into one of our digital Young & Gifted Chats examining pressing themes for black Londoners.

CM: Who has been involved in putting the season together and how did you go about choosing what events to programme? 
SM: This year the season has been curated by our Associate Director malakaï sargeant. Supporting and developing local artists is essential to the work we do at Theatre Peckham and I wanted the season to reflect that and shine a light on the lived experiences of London’s black community.

During lockdown we shifted our delivery to online and the season showcases a lot of the creative work that we were doing throughout that time, such as our writing programme in partnership with Brixton-based charity Poetic Unity and our Theatre Peckham REP Company, who opened the season with their sell-out play ‘START’.

CM: Can you tell us about some of the creatives involved in the season?
SM: There are so many exciting things happening, from celebrated Peckham-based artist Varaidzo, who brings her archival project ‘Black British Figures’ to our gallery space; to ‘#ScratchThat’, the staging of work by upcoming young playwrights mentored by directors Emily Aboud and Anthony Simpson Pike; to poet, artist and jazz singer Dylema, energising the season with their artwork, poetry and a live socially distanced session with afro-soul-infused music.

CM: Is there anything you are especially looking forward to? If that’s not too difficult a question!
SM: A definite highlight will be the first sharing of a brand-new play ‘…cake’ by Women’s Prize For Playwriting 2020 finalist babirye bukilwa. It’s the second of a psychological thriller trilogy which delves into the depths of childhood. It will be directed by the aformentioned malakaï sargeant.

CM: You’ve also recently announced a new strand, The Five Pillars workshop. Can you tell us a bit about that and what it entails?
SM: Delivered by Simone Watson, the workshop will dive deep to give an insight into five fundamental pillars of racism with a particular focus on anti-black racism in light of the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement internationally.

It also unpicks the meaning of privilege and the crucial difference between equality and equity when addressing inequalities in society. The workshop takes place socially distanced at Theatre Peckham. It is practical, proactive and honest work. Which is the only way to achieve meaningful change. 

CM: Lockdown has of course had its effects on the theatre world. How has it affected Theatre Peckham?  
SM: Theatre Peckham has suffered insurmountable financial losses and our core mission has been put under threat. Our theatre is firmly rooted within its community so we worked hard and fast to repurpose our activities to bring people together whilst we were all kept apart. 

The government’s £1.57 billion investment in protecting the arts, culture and heritage presented a lifeline until [Culture Secretary] Oliver Dowden announced that the aim is to preserve the “crown jewels” in the arts sector. This was alarming to hear as it obliterates consideration for all the smaller, grassroots organisations with experience of doing the most vital work in their communities.

Theatre is about community spaces, creative classes, youth theatres, grassroots connectivity and development programmes, all of which ignite imaginations and transform the world in which we live.

CM: What about the future? Has the pandemic affected how you are planning for upcoming seasons?
SM: It’s almost impossible to plan for the future without financial support. We have such a strong and impactful vision, however operating on reduced capacity due to social distancing is not sustainable.

Theatre Peckham works to ensure that those entering the creative industries are from representative backgrounds, however we are already witnessing a high number of people from culturally diverse backgrounds being forced to leave the industry, undoing the vital impact which we have made over the years.  

CM: What are your thoughts on the industry in general? Can it recover from the impact of the coronavirus?  
SM: The fantastic thing about my industry is that it is full of creative brains. We innovate and are known for our agility. I am hopeful that we can recover from the impact of the coronavirus, but my greater hope is that we implement some lasting changes as we recover so that representation is embedded. 

CM: What about you? How have you kept sane during lockdown, and what are you looking forward to about a (fingers crossed) post-COVID future? 
SM: The love and support from my family, meditation and finding time for my own creativity. There have been some exciting new project ideas that I have been involved in, such as a digital gaming live performance using Roblox for Mutiny.

Creativity is definitely a saviour for my own mental health and well-being which is why I strongly believe that by supporting local community organisations we will activate local economies, build public confidence and support national health and well-being.  

Theatre Peckham’s Young, Gifted & Black season runs until 7 Nov. All events are listed here.

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