MY STORY Oxford Playhouse reaching out over covid

Paul Simpson, participation manager, Oxford Playhouse

The Oxford Playhouse is one of the country’s most famous regional theatres, founded almost 100 years ago, once part of the university and with the likes of Sybil Thorndike, John Gielgud, Rachel Kempson and Dirk Bogarde to Ronnie Barker, Shirley Williams and Nigel Lawson treading its boards. It is now run by an independent trust, has survived the pandemic, and is about to open Michael Morpurgo’s new play, Private Peaceful. But the Playhouse also has a presence beyond the theatre and the stage, working with young and old. 

When did the Playhouse start doing outreach, and have you had to suspend it?

Oxford Playhouse has always played an important role in its community – initially integrated into the infrastructure of the university, as a place for fledgling actors to learn their craft, and now as a cultural destination within the city that belongs to everyone, who can attend a performance, participate in a workshop, take part in a talk or tour, or even be inspired by a work experience opportunity. Our work extends beyond the building into the many communities of the county, through focused projects with vulnerable groups, or curriculum-linked initiatives in schools.

The pandemic, of course, presented a huge challenge to us. Prior to March 2020, creatively, our work did not include remote or online delivery. But our teams at the Playhouse worked with real speed and determination to ensure the majority of our outreach work did not need to be cancelled, just reimagined. Within just three weeks of the first lockdown, our termly youth theatres and adult acting groups were ready to start, albeit via the new platform of Zoom. We continued to adapt all of our regular programmes to be delivered in new ways, and were able to understand new priorities that allowed us to forge new relationships and new projects.


Caption: Getting There is Toucan Theatre and Oxford Playhouse, in association with Deafinitely Theatre and Be Free Young Carers, and pictured here are co-directors James Baldwin (Toucan) and Kelsey Gordon (Deafinitely). Photo Credit: Geraint Lewis


What is the Getting There project, what does it do and how does it work?

Getting There is a project with young carers that was originally planned to be delivered, in-person, in the summer and autumn of 2020, in partnership with Toucan Theatre, but due to the pandemic this has been pushed back to Spring 2022, now additionally working with Deafinitely Theatre and BeFree Young Carers.

The script of the play has been developed in consultation with young carers in South Oxfordshire, reflecting on the experiences they face every day, juggling their school and home commitments, and performed on a moving bus, as a way of signifying the importance of moments between their busy responsibilities.

Performed to secondary school pupils in South Oxfordshire, our project has platformed the very important role young carers play in society, many often hidden and unrecognised.


How is Getting There funded, what is Be Free Young Carers and how is the latter involved?

The project has been delivered as a partnership between Oxford Playhouse, Toucan Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre and BeFree Young Carers, as well as an additional contribution of the use of a bus by Oxford Bus Company. BeFree Young Carers is a charity based in South Oxfordshire, working with community partners, schools and families to refer young carers into support services and activities, building a community of young people, and signposting the important work of their service users.


Does the theatre have other participation programmes with young people, and what is the catchment area?

Oxford Playhouse delivers many participatory activities for young people year-round, including our weekly sing-along session for early years children and their adults, and our term time Young Company for 17- to 25-year-olds.

We are present in Oxfordshire primary schools with our Primary Playmaker programme each autumn & spring term, working with 8- to 11-year-olds to each write their own short play, a selection of which are later performed by professional actors on the Playhouse main stage.

We partner with local charities, including KEEN Oxford, to deliver inclusive drama projects for young people living with disabilities and neurodivergence, and we offer annual opportunities for passionate young people to audition for our winter pantomime.

Our busy programme is open to all young people across Oxfordshire.


You are also linked with Age UK Oxfordshire. How?

During the pandemic we identified the need to connect with those most vulnerable, and specifically those most at risk of being isolated. In partnership with Age UK Oxfordshire, we developed a programme called Tea Talks, identifying later-in-life participants to become involved with the project.


When did the Tea Talks project begin and how does it work?

Tea Talks has now existed as two iterations. Our first project lasted from June 2020, culminating in a sharing in December 2020. Our second, similarly, lasted from June 2021, ending in December 2021.

The project exists in two halves. The first half consists of a weekly phone call with a member of the Oxford Playhouse team, sharing memories and stories, and developing new intergenerational connections. The second half invited members to develop these memories and stories, ready to share as part of a recorded radio play. In this half, we look to reignite creative passions and build a community of people, who might otherwise be isolated, to come together to create the piece. We've been pleased to work with Age UK Oxfordshire and local social prescribing services to accommodate all participants.

In the future, we're looking to see how Tea Talks can encourage our participants to come together in person, with similar ambitions of sharing stories and being collaboratively creative.


Many public-facing arts organisations have had to curtail their community programmes. How have you been able to maintain yours?

We were thrilled by the determination of our communities to continue working with us during the pandemic. Working remotely allowed some participants who had been unable to previously attend our activities, to finally be able to do so, owing to the flexibility of online and Zoom working.

The people of Oxfordshire donated generously to our theatre during this time, and with this we were able to continue working with artists and freelancers to deliver new and exciting work.

Oxford Playhouse also commits to placing our work with the community at the forefront of what we do. This does not sit as an additional provision - it's very much part of the DNA of our organisation, and our accountability to the communities we look to serve.


How important has online communication been to what you do?

Working online presented so many new opportunities. We were able to find new participants - some dropping into our Zoom sessions from as far as Australia. We were also able to connect to those who are most vulnerable, over the telephone and video calls. Our website and social media became the voice of our work, and we were very pleased to be supported through the development of a brand-new website. Additionally, digital and live-stream performances will continue as an important and exciting part of our programme, and we're excited to see where our partnerships in these areas will develop in the future.


Will your experiences with digital operating allow new projects?

We have invested in live-stream technology, and look to be able to offer many more online performances for those unable or still uncomfortable to attend our venue in person. The digital world has also opened up a new world of possibilities of ways in which to tell stories, and we're excited to explore these with our audiences, artists and communities in the years to come.


Do you still have an association with the university and the Oxford University Drama Society, and do they get involved in your community work?

We worked with the recent president of OUDS to develop ideas of outreach and community projects, attached to their work. OUDS has a wonderfully rich history of working in our building, and the pandemic equally presented the student drama scene with an opportunity to identify new ways of working. The local students embraced this opportunity, reaching out to schools and community partners, and we have been pleased to support and mentor this work as it continues to develop.

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