Arts hub in south London brings theatre to diverse audience

An arts venue and cafe in Peckham worked with the Royal Court Theatre to bring its productions into the local community

Wedged between Khans Mobile Accessories and ASH Meat & Fish Centre, the door to 133 Rye Lane is completely innocuous. You enter through a small iron gate and leave the mundane world of shops and traffic behind. A narrow alleyway leads into a tiny courtyard with strange fairy-tale creatures, two storeys high, looking down on you from the walls with beady eyes.

Mickey Smith, the entrepreneur in charge of this magical place says, “it is meant to give you a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feeling.” And that it does.

You are now standing outside Block A of the Bussey Building in Peckham, south London. In its colourful, more than 150-year history, the building has been home to a rifle range, a skating rink, a cricket bat factory and a firearms museum.

Four years ago Mickey got involved with community group Peckham Vision, who saved the building from demolition. Instead of it being turned into a tram depot the size of four football fields, it has become a hub for all things artistic and creative.

Block A is home to the CLF Art Cafe, which boasts a multi-level bar, concert theatre and art and studio space used for workshops, club nights, music and performances.

Mickey’s boundless enthusiasm is very much at the heart of the project. He wants to create opportunities for people in the area to manage their own learning by providing the facilities they need to get involved with the arts and media, and by inviting people who have experience in these fields to share their knowledge.

Partnering with the Royal Court Theatre in October 2011 and using the CLF Art Cafe as the venue for its Theatre Local project was a great way of putting the Bussey Building on the cultural map of London.

An audience as ethnically mixed as the one that attended Theatre Local for the launch night of the play Truth and Reconciliation by Debbie Tucker Green is still a rare thing in London’s many theatres. The play dealt with issues of conflict and justice that are pertinent for a wide range of people and by bringing it to Peckham, the Royal Court hopes to reach an audience that might be reluctant to come to Sloane Square.

The Theatre Local project also included workshops in schools. Actor Ben Bennett says: “The sessions were designed to involve the young people that the Royal Court is trying to reach, to inspire them and excite them. They are trying to build bridges with people who might feel they don’t belong in the theatre.” Ben also found that running the workshops transformed him too. “It really made me realise how much change you can effect in your own life,” he says.