How Wac Arts supports young people and their performing arts careers

 11 May 2017

Renowned actor Simon Callow is a patron of performing arts organisation Wac Arts, who aim to empower young people to change their world. He explains more about the organisation and how they are fully inclusive and diverse, as well as his own journey into theatre.

"They were called the Weekend Arts Course. Ballet, jazz and drama classes began in 1978; soon they offered a whole range of performing arts"

Getting acting training

I got a place at the London Drama Centre in the spring of 1970 and at the time I was working in the box office of the Aldwych Theatre, selling tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I immediately applied to the Inner London Education Authority (the long-lamented ILEA) for a grant; I completely bungled the interview, and was rejected. What to do?

My mother had been very clear about how she felt about my running away from university to become an actor: if I had to do it, I had to, she said, but she would not be paying a penny towards my training; nor did she. I decided to go ahead: I had to know whether the glimmers of talent people thought they had seen in me meant anything.

I contacted the Drama Centre, who generously offered to reduce my fees, and I volunteered for as much overtime as the Aldwych could offer me. In due course, with a decidedly finite sum of money amassed from working round the clock, I started my training, but money was a problem which wouldn’t go away.

How can actors hope to give a full representation of human life if we are drawn only from the well-heeled?

Just eating and paying the rent were daily challenges. During my first term, I moonlighted in various box offices, totting up the nightly take, and at weekends I worked as an usher at the Old Vic.

This had the enormous advantage that on Saturday night the kindly bar staff used to offload all their uneaten sandwiches and un-scoffed cakes on me, which kept me going through the week.

All I actually bought from the shops was a half a dozen eggs which I boiled at the beginning of the week and slowly chomped through, with disastrous effects on the regularity of my bowels. Meanwhile, I was trying to find out how to act.

The Drama Centre was famously exigent, physically, mentally and emotionally. It demanded total commitment. I struggled to keep focused or even awake through classes which began with Movement at nice and ended, hundreds of exercises later, at seven, eight or nine at night. The whole thing was a bit of a blur to me.

Finally, aware that my meagre savings were now about to run out, the school arranged for me to present myself again to the ILEA, and this time – perhaps out of pity – they gave me a full and rather handsome grant, which kept me going for the rest of my training.

Had I not received that grant, I would have had to leave not just the school, but the profession. Mine was not a God-given talent; I desperately needed training.

A fair access problem

More and more potential performers find themselves in the situation I was in then, with the rather crucial difference that the cost of living, even allowing for inflation, is vastly greater now.

Also, I was a grammar school boy from a middle class, if impoverished, background, with a posh voice and a certain sense of entitlement. I had been brought up to believe that, with hard work and wit, I could end up running my own business, teaching at university, standing for parliament.

Despite my mother’s aversion to the theatre as a profession, I had received encouragement at every turn.

What if I’d come from a different sort of background, disadvantaged not only financially, but socially, discouraged from expecting too much out of life?

Almost everyone else in my class at the Drama Centre was there on a grant – but they were overwhelmingly middle class. There was one black actor out of the thirty in my year. And this was in one of the most radical drama schools, in 1970, when we were all still intoxicated with the revolutionary transformations of the sixties.

A new inclusive training programme

As it happens, just five years after I left drama school, at Acland Burghley, a comprehensive school in Camden Town, two remarkable women, Celia Greenwood and Teresa Noble, part of the first Creative Arts Team in the country, confronted with the frustrated artistic aspirations of their racially and socially mixed pupils, started something which offered a way out.

And something beyond the school curriculum. They determined to offer their artistically-inclined students training at the weekend.

But Wac Arts is not just therapy: it's training, a discipline, an education

Looking for a venue, they had the luck to cross an extraordinary man, an impresario of the impossible, the great ‘Professor’ Ed Berman, the grand-daddy of social entrepreneurs in this country.

An expatriate American, he had been funded, to create an outfit called Interchange, dedicated to exploring new forms of creative programming for the Inner City and new ways of motivating learning.

It was swiftly acknowledged to be the most exciting community education agency in Europe, housed in an open framework of fabricated buildings, part of which was a residents’ community centre.

The main building was designed by the maverick architect Cedric Price; the site also included a log cabin for under 5’s, a gift from Norway in appreciation for Interaction’s ground-breaking work, a city farm, a company of actors called ‘Dogg’s Troupe’, a print house and a friendly snake named Semolina.

The creation of the Weekend Arts Course

A large part of the centre was empty on Sundays, so Berman handed it over, free of charge, to Greenwood and Noble, who managed to persuade fellow artists with whom they had trained to offer their time for little or no money.

They called themselves the Weekend Arts Course. Ballet, jazz and drama classes began in 1978; soon they offered a whole range of performing arts. Prices were around 50p.

This programme grew in size to hold 2 resident youth groups – Fusion (dance, drama, singing) and The London Fusion Orchestra.

For over 15 years, both groups represented London nationally and internationally. Saturday WAC was next to develop, focusing on younger kids, between the ages of 5 - 14; within the first few years of its existence there was a waiting list of up to 200.

Some evening provision was made available on a drop-in basis which soon spread to include working with young people with disabilities.

In 1998 WAC were among the first to pioneer a full time inclusion programme. This programme – Arco – used the arts and multimedia as a way of re-engaging vulnerable and disengaged youth.

Developing into Wac Arts

The Kentish Town Interchange building had been erected as a temporary structure; by the mid 90’s it could no longer answer to the needs of the ever-more vibrant organisation.

Camden Council was looking for a use for the Old Hampstead Town Hall in Belsize Park; they might have preferred to turn it into a casino or a swanky hotel, but the building was protected by an Act of Parliament, and WAC, to the delight of the Friends of the Town Hall group, duly moved into its magnificent new home.

Within the first few years of its existence there was a waiting list of up to 200

Here it continued to expand, eventually adding a full-time diploma course to its portfolio of  accessible options, housed in a superb extension to the Town Hall.

The building was opened on July 11th 2000 by Prince Charles, and the organisation renamed itself Wac Arts.

Anyone who has sat in on a class or even been within the ambit of Wac Arts is moved and inspired by the way in which it has liberated the creative potential of so many young people who would otherwise have no outlet for their artistic impulses.

As the school system seems increasingly to turn its back on the arts as a central pillar of education, it is wonderful to see these young people, 78% of them from Black, Asian and ethnic minorities, 20% of them with disabilities, flourish and rejoice in their newly-liberated skills.

But Wac Arts is not just therapy: its training, a discipline, an education.

Why are organisations such as Wac Arts so important?

Not everyone who joins Wac Arts intends to become a professional performer; but at least a fifth of them do go on either to further training or to work in the arts.

And we need these people! How can actors hope to give a full representation of human life if we are drawn only from the well-heeled?

Wac Arts exists for them, extending a hand-up into the world of the performing arts for young people who are passionate to learn, offering them a many-layered and demanding training – requiring and receiving serious commitment on their part.

The results are remarkable. The roll-call of alumni speaks for itself: actors like Danny Sapani, Martina Laird, and this year’s Evening Standard Best Actor nominee, O T Fagbenle; singers like Ms Dynamite; writer-actor-directors like Che walker and pianists like Julian Joseph.

Needless to say, the better the work, the less public money is received, so Wac Arts has rather come to depend on its fundraiser events.

But they are not simply about raising money (vital though that has now become): they celebrate the phenomenal achievements of the staff and the students.

The one I directed in 2016 gives a pretty good idea of the support that exists for Wac Arts within the profession – Vanessa Redgrave, Frances de la Tour, Ann Mitchell, Don Warrington, Jacqui Dankworth, Indra Ové, Sheila Atim,all gave up their precious Sunday to celebrate this life-changing, heart-warming, indispensable organisation.

It must be allowed to flourish. It is among the most socially valuable organisations in the country.

To find out more about their full range of programmes visit www.wacarts.co.uk.