02 Oct OCTOBER 2023 – ARTISTIC DIRECTOR MATTHEW XIA WRITES ABOUT THE 2023 TRANSFORMATION SEASON
Earlier this year, in September, we co-produced one of the most ambitious projects ATC has been involved in: The Architect. Five writers and eight performers co-creating an immersive experience which took place on a real London bus as it travelled across South London – inspired by Stephen’s ambition to become an architect.
2023 would have been Stephen Lawrence’s 49th birthday, instead we find ourselves commemorating his death 30 years after a senseless racist attack whilst he simply waited at a bus stop in Eltham, Southeast London. He was a teenager when his life was cruelly stolen from him, I was 10 years old when the murder happened, and it shocked me to my core. It was one of the first times I realised I could be a target for hatred and wanton violence because of the colour of my skin.
At the start of this year, we were approached by Bradley Hemmings, artistic director of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, and asked how Actors Touring Company would like to respond to this 30th commemoration. Initially I declined, the sense of responsibility was too great, the pain and anger still too raw, but after speaking with some artistic collaborators and friends we realised that there was a way of coming together to create a respectful, uplifting, and hopeful experience.
The first person I spoke with was Mojisola Adebayo, born and raised in South-East London at a similar time to Stephen, Mojisola has an incredible understanding of the environment that Stephen would have grown up in. It was Mojisola who first suggested that the play could take place at a bus stop – such an ordinary and everyday setting. After riffing on this location, and the idea of perpetual waiting I suggested that it would make sense to end the wait, for a bus to arrive… and for us, the audience, to step aboard. At some point early on in our conversations we invited the prolific Roy Williams to join the project. When Roy enrolled on the playwrighting course at Rose Bruford College in Sidcup in the early 90s he was given a list of pubs in Southeast London to steer clear of, BNP and National Front strongholds. Roy’s body of work from No Boys Cricket Club in 1996 through to Death of England – Closing Time (opening at the National Theatre this month) is like a 30-year record of evolving race relations in Britain.
We agreed that even with theatrical stalwarts Roy and Mojisola at the helm we needed more voices – this essentially had to be a community response to this seismic event in British history – no single artist could respond to this moment alone. Mojisola suggested Dr. Vanessa Macaulay, who was born on the night Stephen was killed. Her work explores physicality, safety and how physical safety is compromised or negated in public spaces. It was thinking of and working with Vanessa, that unlocked the overriding themes of the production: Black Lives, and the hopes, dreams and ambitions that accompany them.
Across 2023 Actors Touring Company have produced a season of work called Transformation Season: three productions which respond in different ways to the same question, can we transform the painful legacies of history into a future of hope and possibility? The Architect was the final production in this season, and with the writers mentioned above plus Bola Agbaje, Dexter Flanders, designer Natalie Pryce, sound artist Xana and a brilliant cast, we created a bus journey – taken in Stephen’s honour – which explored the rich potential of Black Lives, hopes and dreams. Mojisola summed up the sentiment of the piece by invoking the Sankofa bird, “[it’s] a performance and remembrance that uplifts people and gives us joy. That is Blackness. It is beautiful. Like the Sankofa bird we look back and fly forward. Even in sorrow, we create something that moves and keeps the movement moving on.”
So, our immersive theatrical bus ride, The Architect, was an exploration of possibility and potential, of expectation and ambition. Our writers responded to broad concepts that in some way related to Stephen’s life and legacy: the wait at a bus stop, a mother’s expectations, the dreams inhabited by young, people falling in love, the independence that teenagers begin to carve out for themselves, athletics, and in relation to Stephen’s wish to become an architect – architecture, the ability to imagine, plan, design and build what doesn’t exist – literally and metaphorically.
This show wasn’t the easiest of productions to create, making a show in a fully resourced theatre is hard enough – the challenges of staging an immersive show on a moving London bus are came thick and fast. We were limited in capacity, as a double-decker can only carry 55 passengers per trip (less once stage managers, sound and lighting operators – plus their kit, and the actors are on board), so to increase capacity we ran two trips per day (three at the weekend), and also created a free standalone event called The Architect’s Dream for anyone who didn’t manage to get a ticket for the journey but still wanted to experience a sense of the show. Over 100 people turned up for each iteration of The Architect’s Dream. Further challenges existed in the minds of our production manager and producers where I can only imagine red routes, parking bays, traffic management, support vehicles, medics, and the stipulations of riding a bus (no standing on the upper deck!) must surely have kept them awake for weeks on end.
It’s important to state, this was never intended to be a biopic, nor a play about Stephen, or the life he may have gone on to live, this was a celebration of the myriad Black lives across the UK, and in London specifically – vignettes, moments of life, snatched conversations – overheard on a bus. We worked closely with the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation to ensure that they were happy for us to go ahead with the project and that our ambitions for the show were in alignment with their hopes for Stephen’s legacy. Together we are imagining a vision for a different city, one devoid of intolerance and hatred and instead, filled with love, togetherness, and joy.