Big House Theatre: ‘Many people can’t step into the world and take the opportunities that are there’

Henrietta Imoreh in Electric. Picture: Catherine Ashmore

Henrietta Imoreh in Electric. Picture: Catherine Ashmore - Credit: Archant

Ahead of their new show, Electric, Zoe Paskett talks to the company about opening their doors to care leavers.

It’s a week to opening night and The Big House theatre company are dispersed around the basement of the Rio Cinema.

A run through is about to start and the performers stand silently in the tunnels. Professional and talented, it’s impossible to guess what each has been through.

Based on the history of the century-old cinema, Electric is the company’s first site-specific promenade performance.

Leading the audience around the rooms beneath the old moviehouse, Electric tells the story of Faith (Henrietta Imoreh) a young woman doing community service in the cinema. Running from her ex-boyfriend, who has unleashed a devastating revenge porn attack upon her, she finds shelter in the memories of those who walked the corridors before her. With the help of Truman, (Kenan Sweeney-Tisson) who is on the run from the same man, she begins to rediscover her freedom.

Based at the Mildmay Community Centre in Islington, The Big House is an innovative project working with 16-25-year-old care-leavers to inspire, encourage and give confidence to young people at high risk of social exclusion.

Founded by Maggie Norris in 2013 it offers workshops designed to reduce feelings of isolation and develop aspirations for the future.

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“The whole way I work is dictated by their needs. This isn’t an acting school. We’re not training people for theatre. We’re trying to build their confidence to such an extent that performing is just about sharing who they are.”

The actor and director has taken an unusual path to working with care leavers. While directing Bad Girls, a musical set in a women’s prison, Norris spent a great deal of time researching the project first hand. She set up The Big House after noticing the high proportion of young offenders who had been in care. “A lot of the people we work with are so inhibited by what has happened to them that they can’t step into the world and take the opportunities that are there. There are many government initiatives to offer care-leavers jobs but they’re in no fit state to take them. The Big House is a bridge towards that.”

Imoreh, 21, and Sweeney-Tisson, 18, have both had their lives changed by involvement with The Big House.

Sweeney-Tisson joined after moving to London with his family. Three weeks after signing up, he found himself homeless and alone in a city he barely knew. He is now living in emergency housing that Norris organises for him every day.

“I’m in different houses every night. They’re lovely but they’re strangers. It’s scary but I try my best to feel positive and happy. I don’t take out my rubbish on other people.”

Norris is noticeably proud of the change she has witnessed in him over the past weeks, saying he had barriers up when he arrived because of what he has been through. He is now on the youth board at The Royal Court Theatre. She sees “unbelievable” development in all of the people she works with.

Imoreh, now at Central School of Speech and Drama, grew up in care.

“It has brought up a lot of stuff from my past that I’ve never really spoken about. At uni, I keep it to the side and carry on. [The Big House] had a workshop on drugs and it brought back memories of my mum smoking crack. At uni, I would talk about that. It’s very therapeutic for me.”

She is grateful for the environment of trust that Norris provides at The Big House and the comfort of being surrounded by people with similar experiences.

“When you’re used to being moved around so many mums and dads and not having a stable person, this figure in your life is so important.”

Norris’s priority is building a safe space for members to confront what has happened to them and move beyond it.

“There’s a load of stigma attached to being homeless or having a mum who’s been on crack,” she says. “You feel embarrassed but actually it doesn’t define you. That’s something we do a lot of work on: not being ashamed of what has happened in the past.”

Norris is passionate about getting The Big House in every city in the UK. She believes strongly in accessing people when they’re younger and inputting “major change in terms of how this country’s care leavers are supported”.

“I just wish I’d found it earlier on,” says Imoreh. “When I got kicked out of school, I needed something like this.”

The Big House held their first fundraising gala last year. The sell-out event, hosted by Sheridan Smith, raised £22,400.

This year’s gala is on November 25 at Pond in Dalston, with a dinner, auction and screening of a documentary currently being made about the company.

While events like this are important, The Big House needs regular support to carry on.

“We’re really looking to get the local community behind us,” says Norris. “That kind of low level support from a lot of people will mean that we can reach the people we need to. We won’t be able to continue without it.”

Visit Electric runs November 18 – December 12 at the Rio Cinema, Dalston,