As Icon celebrates its twentieth anniversary, journalist and author Lyn Gardner speaks to the company and creative team about making If Not Now.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s about listening to people and hearing what they are saying. It’s not about us as Icon Theatre deciding what we are going to do with the local community and telling them ‘come and join us, and we’ll transform your life,’ it’s about asking people what they think and feel and what is important to them,” says Nancy Hirst.
Hirst is the artistic director of Icon Theatre, the Medway based company who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year and are doing so with If Not Now amongst other things. It’s a dance and light production featuring up to 175 performers each night of all ages, co-created by local people alongside professional performers and theatre-makers, and performed outdoors at Rochester Castle. “I genuinely believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell. It’s our job at Icon to be quiet long enough to allow those stories to emerge and be ready to hear them when they do.”
Theatre made with people rather than just for people is very much on trend in British theatre. Our great institutions from the National Theatre to the great regional reps like the Royal Exchange in Manchester have started to work this way. They have realised that it makes them more relevant and – in these pandemic times – more useful and necessary.
But Icon has been ahead of the curve in understanding that the arts have a role to play in bringing people together, helping them be heard by telling their own stories in their own way, and in the process creating a sense of pride in place and space.
“There is,” says 17-year-old Tef Mechedou, who has been involved with Icon’s youth theatre group, for a decade, “a ripple effect through the community. The shows create optimism and people who didn’t feel that theatre was for them or that they could be represented in theatre suddenly see themselves on stage.”
When I speak to them, Tef and fellow youth theatre member Will Barnard are still buzzing from a session earlier in the week in which the words they wrote were incorporated by facilitator Lily Vincent-Frankland into the If Not Now production. “Being involved with Icon’s shows is not just something to put on your CV,” says Will, “it makes you feel differently about yourself, and you meet so many different people.”
As Hirst says, everything that Icon does is “about making connections. It’s about communicating with each other and it’s those moments when everything connects which drives us onwards.” That might be between individual participants, between the cast and the audience, or about connections to place through telling the story of that place through productions such as The Chatham Witch, highlighting the history of women in Medway, or Silk of 1000 Spiders, exploring the centuries old history of migration in Chatham. At a time when the pandemic has kept us all apart, that seems more important than ever.
Hirst didn’t set out to be a community theatre-maker but in the early part of her career she had worked with a number of theatres and theatre companies and had always noticed how the education and community work was side-lined and kept quite separate from the organisations’ other artistic offerings. But when she started her own company, Icon, she realised she was guilty of doing the same. Until she created a show called Release, made with ex-offenders and telling their stories, which went on to win a prestigious Fringe First at the 2011 Edinburgh fringe festival.
“I realised working with them that there was just such a difference in the quality of the stories that they told because it was their lived experience. I realised I didn’t want to do anything else.”
“I think from my experience of working on projects, that in some cases when arts organisations work with communities, it is mostly a box-ticking exercise, but that’s not what I get from Icon,” says Jon Beney who is the choreographer on If Not Now. It is the first time that Icon has created a show in which the language is predominantly a visual one based on dance and light.
“I would describe If Not Now as a mass coming together to ignite hope and inspiration for change, for something better,” says Beney who argues that this kind of community empowered performance is in itself inspiring because “bringing people together en masse like this is an act of social change. I really believe that.”
Beney says that “part of the beauty of working on If Not Now with a cast of professional and non-professional dancers is that it confirms my belief that everyone is a dancer. My job is to create movement that people of all abilities and with different access needs can do. It’s about creating a culture where everybody can have a good time. Like laughter, movement is infectious, when people are moving they enjoy themselves.”
It’s not just the community participants but the professional dancers who benefit too.
“We all learn something from working in this way together. I hope the professional dancers come away from it with a greater generosity and when they go into their next job, they remember what it was like dancing with somebody who was dancing for the very first time and take that with them.” He reckons that a project like If Not Now can have an immediate impact on participants, audiences and a locale, but that it has a long tail too. “It’s also about what people take out of the project and pass on.” Both in their professional and daily lives.
For Hirst too although she wants each individual show that Icon makes with the community to be a success – both artistically and in the way it makes local people feel about themselves and the Medway towns – it is about being engaged, embedded and involved in the community over a longer period of time. She says Icon is constantly questioning what they are doing as a company and whether they are being useful.
“We are rigorous in trying to ensure quality. Even audiences with a family member in the cast will know whether what they saw was good or not. They just know. We all do. But It’s not just about the big moments, it’s about being here for the long term and about making people feel respected and listened to and feel that we are in an equal partnership together. People won’t come back if they don’t feel as if they have been taken seriously, but they do come back, and in every production there is an energy that comes when people on the stage are performing to audiences who know the stories the performers are talking about and feeling the same things.”
There is a real power in that, a power that Icon is harnessing for change. Here’s to the next 20 years.
Theatre critic, journalist, author and associate editor of The Stage
Photo credit: Roswitha Chesher