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Reaching Out – Into the Community

Reaching Out – Into the Community


By Cormac Richards

On the banks of the River Plym sits a vast, non-descript building. Anonymous. Slightly forbidding. A government office maybe, or a secret scientific development outpost. Little tells you what it is, apart from the mysterious sign ‘TR2’. There is no passing traffic here – it is at the end of the road geographically speaking – but for many this can be the starting point of a journey which will place them in front of the public across the country and, maybe, across the globe.


So, what is there inside this edifice of mystery? ‘TR2’ is the Production and Learning Centre of the Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP). A hub of creativity, development, education and inspiration. It is an extraordinary facility, unknown to the majority of people who will be attending shows at the main theatre in the City Centre, but its influence on what they are watching is important and impressive.
I am here to meet Ben Lyon-Ross, the Talent Development Producer for the Theatre Royal Plymouth who is behind the new Platform showcase which is being run in The Drum auditorium. The showcase is just part of the growing development programme TRP has brought to South West England – and, believe me, it’s mightily impressive.
TR2 provides many services. Here there are some of the backroom functions, the finance department, the education Engagement and Learning department – another jewel in the crown. Three rehearsal rooms dominate the floorspace – one which replicates the vast stage of the Lyric and a smaller one which is in the same size as The Drum, a third provides extra space.
Inside the largest of the three, a group of actors are rehearsing a piece called Alright Petal – a story of flowers and the beauty of the black woman. Performed by Beyond Face, the director, Alix Harris, tells me that their association with TRP is providing them with opportunities that are either less available or far from easy to access. Indeed, two of the Company, have relocated to Plymouth from London and Bristol respectively, in order to make the most of the opportunities that they are being offered.


Alright Petal is one of the four pieces chosen to be performed at the inaugural Platform showcase this summer. The aim for groups, like Beyond Face, will be to be recognised as a talent in the South West and offer up a pathway forwards in the theatrical world.
As the rehearsal continues at TR2 another of the four productions is about to open on the stage at TRP: more of which later.
Artistic development is seen as an enormously high priority in the work of the Theatre Royal Plymouth; their creation of a programme which offers performance opportunities as well as training, guidance and artistic input from industry experts, is the envy of many other regional theatres. Whilst participating in any of the schemes which are offered, the artists can also benefit from infrastructure guidance and HR backup; different needs will be required by different artists and so the support is flexible and bespoke. It is a holistic approach and Platform is providing another link in the chain of assisting young artists up the theatrical ladder.


The Young Company provides opportunities for those from as young as 5 to 25 years old to gain knowledge and experience in a professional environment and mount productions along the way; there is a raft of experience which can be gained from membership of this scheme. Their most recent work, Influence, used movement and visual effects to tell a story of personal data theft and how social media helps programme our minds. A dynamic and enthusiastic production.
Reaching young people, getting them interested in the theatre is vital to TRP and they regularly deliver workshops to the youth of the Region, particularly in areas where access to the theatrical experience is limited. They sow the seeds for the future.
The Lab Company was set up to provide a year-long training programme for artists between 18 and 30 years old; they are offered workshops from theatre professionals, enabling the development of skills and ideas. This culminates in the production of new work in the 50-seater Lab Studio deep in the bowels of TRP. The training is intensive and comprehensive, vital and inspirational.
So, Platform, takes up the running here and the first showcase has been widely praised for its breadth of subject and originality of its ideas. The Narwhal Ensemble is a group of nine artists who were part of the Lab Company in 2017 – their successful show, Whey Down South went on to be performed throughout the South West after its premiere in The Drum. The Ensemble have remained in touch with TRP resulting in them becoming one of The Lab Associates and presenting their latest production – 2021: A Cornish Space Odyssey as part of Platform.


Ben explains that, as a new venture, the best way to set the project up for its first year was to invite artists to take part who TRP have either worked with before or knew by reputation and would fit into the criteria for Platform; “The artists need to be based In the South West and we need to know they will deliver the objectives we set out. In future years there will be an application process. We are looking for artists who have reached a stage in their development where they want to expand what they are doing; artists who have something to say; who are bold and challenging. The Platform showcase needs to have variety and be able to underline the need for theatre to be something for everyone.” The sheer variety of work carried out at the Theatre is pretty astounding and a very careful path is trod between what is daring and what is commercially sound; variety which is self-evident in the specific programme Ben is overseeing.


So, this year’s Platform has included the following;

Moist, Moist, Moist by Chris White – a spoken-word show about falling in and out of love and falling in and out of the sea – told in a most unique way.
2021: A Cornish Space Odyssey by The Narwhal Ensemble.
Miss I by Jane Spurr – a raucous, anarchic journey through time to see how events can shape and mould our future ideas of self.
Alright Petal by Beyond Face.
All the plays are performed in The Drum and the project takes place over two weeks. The performers have access to all the facilities TRP has to offer both at the main theatre, and, as I have seen, at TR2.


Nothing happens without money and funding for the whole theatre comes from a variety of sources. Some projects are core-funded, some by individual donors and some through the on-going fundraising work of the Development Team. Platform is benefitting from financial input from Arts Council England and Plymouth City Council. It may sound easy, but funding for the arts in the UK is a struggle whoever you are.
So, what happens after the showcase has ended; “We don’t just set the artists adrift” says Ben, “we want to maintain the relationship and provide further development and support if we can and if it is wanted; we aim for a lifelong connection.” Ben enthuses about the commitment to the on-going quest to discover and nurture talent throughout the Region.
“We want TRP to be seen as a community resource; working with and for the people of Plymouth and far beyond; creating access points to our services and being guided down the series of pathways which we have built and continue to develop.” Ben goes on to explain how all those come to work at the Theatre are treated the same, whether they be a local community group or a vast commercial company.
As I continue my tour around TR2 I take in the large costume production department and the cavernous set-building and painting area – a veritable cathedral to theatre design – for building work is carried out here not exclusively for productions at TRP; in one of the offices I meet a draughtspersondesigner at work on the set for the new version of Mary Poppins which will be built here and be flying into London’s Prince Edward Theatre in October. It is an impressive credential for Plymouth.


From TR2 I venture to The Drum for the opening night of The Narwhal Ensemble’s 2021: A Cornish Space Odyssey. The audience enter onto the stage where we are guided around a series of exhibits displayed on cardboard boxes – all is explained by the members of the company. What happens thereafter is a tale of derring-do with tragic consequences – an innocuous fantasy story which reaches deep into our hearts as the performance explores the effects of sudden death on those who are left behind. Thoughtful, original and intelligent. This is Platform at work and one can only sit back and admire and think rather deeper than one might have expected to.


Ben Lyon-Ross describes those who work at TRP and TR2 as “passionate, enthusiastic and inventive” – as my guide he has demonstrated the same qualities in what he is doing and in his hopes for the future.
There can be little doubt that Theatre Royal Plymouth takes its part in the City and Region enormously seriously and the development of programmes such as Platform is just another example of how they are building on their commitment to theatre and to inclusivity through inspirational leadership and original productions. With a structure in place for putting fresh talent in front of audiences and a back-up team nurturing and developing, the future holds opportunities and excitement for artists and theatre-lovers alike. Platform is very much a part of this structure. It is a commitment to shout about.

Please contact the Talent Development team at Theatre Royal Plymouth: