It is incredible to believe that a whole year has passed since our Excellence in Inclusivity was celebrated at the UK Theatre Awards, surrounded by our industry friends and peers.
The Mercury was recognised for embracing diverse casting, supporting national initiatives, and building strong relationships with the community through our learning and participation programmes. We were part of a national initiative, The Sustained Theatre Regional Associate Producer Placement (STRAPP)’ led by Tamasha and funded by the Arts Council England, to ensure that we placed diversity in our decision making roles and our regional Associate Producer Dilek Latif expanded our thinking and reimagined the way in which the theatre delivers its programming and engagement activities across the communities we serve. Dilek chose to produce two shows in 2019 that appealed to communities where we had previously seen lower engagement with our work.
The second of these productions, performed in our main house, was Ain’t Misbehavin’. The 10 strong cast and band were all artists of colour, but Dilek ensured that the creative team was equally diverse. It was Tyrone Huntley’s first directing opportunity (and gained a well-deserved The Stage Debut Award nomination) Oti Mabuse’s first theatre show as choreographer and a young member of the Mercury staff of South Asian heritage was offered a paid mentorship as Associate Lighting Designer. Thanks to arranging a co-production with Paul Taylor Mills Ltd, the show transferred to Southwark Playhouse and was nominated for five awards. Both this and Silence, a play about the polish community by Nicola Werenowska that toured following its sell-out run in our Studio, were productions that the Mercury and all its local communities can be truly proud of.
Winning the UK Theatre Award was wonderful recognition of all that we had been doing to make our work accessible to as many people as possible both on and off stage. However, we made a very public promise on that day that winning this award was just the beginning of our journey and we have always acknowledged that we still have a very long way to go to continue improving in the years ahead.
Although no one could have predicted how 2020 would evolve, this anniversary is a poignant time to take stock of our achievements and celebrate that we have successfully continued to make progress in actively engaging and including communities, as we have sought new ways to maintain our relationships with young, elderly, and diverse communities across the region throughout the delivery of our free online activities, including a diverse selection of BSL signed Masterclasses and professional training for playwrights and emerging artists from all backgrounds .
We have formed strong relationships with representatives from the minority communities around us and continue to support professional artists, writers, and performers at the Mercury to enhance awareness of cultural and faith contexts and building trust and communication. This enables us to play an active role in the community and identify and undertake any training needed to assist other professionals and develop our own understanding, work and sharing.
We have held Scratch Nights for underrepresented artists, where most recently we invited 20 ethnically diverse seniors to work with us to hear their stories performed on stage in a project called #OneOfUs. The community were interviewed discussing their relationship with Colchester. Mini stories were then put on takeaway boxes/coffee cups and given out to members of the public inviting them to share their story. The project ran to celebrate unheard voices and tell untold journeys from people in Colchester. The stories reached at least 12,000 people promoting inclusivity and fostering a sense of belonging.
Our Aspire Club Nights – designed for young people aged 7-18 with special educational needs and disabilities proved a success; we delivered exciting debating and public speaking workshops to the Afriuk Youth Group, celebrated International Mother Tongue day and joined the committee for the annual Rice Festival, which is a wonderful opportunity for all the community to come together to celebrate cultural diversity.
Dilek Latif has continued to engage in cultural organisations across the county and became a representative for the Uhuru Women’s Ambassadors group; supporting young women and girls who are vulnerable and isolated through barriers of language, gender inequality, knowledge of rights and resources, power imbalance and lack of trust. The group provides access to vital information and support. It seems timely that as we look back over this year, earlier this week Dilek, the theatre and Uhuru have all individually been awarded a Mayor’s Community Recognition Award for making a positive impact within the community from Councillor Nick Cope, Mayor of Colchester.
2020 was meant to be a really exciting year for our theatre, and whilst it may not have culminated in the huge celebration we had planned to reopen our fully accessible new building, this time has enabled us to continue to develop our work with organisations like PIPA and establish new partnerships and collaborations that will ensure that we provide a welcoming and inclusive space for all, for many generations to come. Working with the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch to host Black, Essex and Here, giving some charismatic and thought-provoking Essex artists a platform, is just one example.
As we plan for our reopening in Spring 2021 we do so with a refreshed perspective and determination of how we do so with exciting work that will continue to engage, challenge and entertain the diverse communities we work with across Essex and the region and a commitment to continue to listen, learn and improve. We are still only at the beginning of our inclusive journey.
We have a renewed vision of what our theatre is here to achieve: To connect. We connect by putting inclusivity, accessibility and empowerment at the heart of everything we do and we connect with the diverse communities that surround us through our participation programmes, which celebrate creative potential by providing people with everyday opportunities to be artistic and innovative.
These connections lie at the core of all of our dreams and commitments to you for when we return to the newly refurbished and fully accessible Mercury in 2021. We are a vital, vibrant, welcoming centre of Colchester and we welcome everyone to watch, play and work with us.
We cannot wait to see you there.