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How drama and theatre-making are helping to transform care leavers and at-risk young people’s lives thanks to The Big House and their Open House Project.

The Big House (TBH) is a charity that helps transform the lives of care leavers and at-risk young people through the power of performance. Based in Islington, London, they run a programme where TBH members can participate in the making of theatre to help them find their voice and unleash their potential.

The group produce a number of productions that star their members, who often go on to build careers in the creative industry, and this year – as part of their 10-year celebrations – they’re bringing back their production of Redemption.

We spoke to The Big House’s Engagement Manager Megan Taylor and some of the current members and actors who have recently performed in their productions to find out more…

Tell us about The Big House and how it got started.

Megan Taylor: The Big House was founded by Maggie Norris and 2022 is our 10th Anniversary! Maggie had a career in the industry as an actress, writer and then as a director. Whilst directing Bad Girls at West Yorkshire Playhouse and then at The Garrick in the West End, she did significant research for the project and discovered a huge over-representation of care leavers in the criminal justice system, and a marked lack of support for them in the community once they had left care. She set up The Big House to address this problem.

The Big House offers projects which could transform the lives of care leavers and young people who are at risk, through drama, skills development and long-term support. This results in authentic and original work, which explores the collective experience of young people, whilst safeguarding their individual stories.

We build resilience and confidence, leading to successful transitions into independence. 80% of young people gain employment or training after an Open House Project, of which 60% move into the creative industry and 24% move into university-level education and accredited drama schools.

TBH Member: The biggest thing that they like to teach us at The Big House is that our life and our experiences are our greatest assets.

What can you tell us about the Open House Project?

Megan Taylor: We deliver two Open House Projects (OHP) each year. The OHP is a bridge project designed to facilitate a supportive environment for young creatives who are not emotionally or practically prepared to access education, training or employment. It is a 12-week intensive programme for young people aged 16 – 25 years which culminates in an original theatre production followed by 12 months of tailored progression support.

Counselling and pastoral support are provided throughout, which can include support with housing, CV writing, accessing benefits and planning options and goals for the future. This shared experience, with the discipline of developing a theatre production, builds employability and life skills alongside trust, support and life-long friendships. Once the productions are over, participants join the growing membership of our TBH family accessing ongoing employment and skills development opportunities, peer support structures and social events.

What do the performers get out of putting on and performing in the shows?

TBH Member 1*: I enjoyed meeting new people, rehearsals and unlocking new talents that I was too embarrassed or shy to show people outside of my family. TBH allowed me to show anyone and everyone that came to watch the amazing show, with an amazing cast and amazing support team.

I learnt that TBH is not only about acting but helping individuals like me. They hugely supported me with real life and being able to get a job. They taught me even more about the acting industry, from self-tapes to my improvisation skills. TBH also supported me in being proud to be me and not going into a shell and always trying and being my best.

During my performance, I was talked about highly by an amazing casting director that really enjoyed the show. Since then, and thanks to TBH, I have been put forward for more castings and have landed roles in feature films and shows as well, so I have not only been busy but my career is getting better and more recognised. The difference it has made to my life is massive. I came to TBH with pain and confusion and as a young man doubting himself and his abilities in not only acting but in everyday life. I left, happier, stronger, fitter and most importantly proud of where my career will go and what I can do to elevate that potential and turn it into skill.

TBH Member 2*: As well as it being lots of fun, there’s also a real sense of community on the projects and overcoming different obstacles together helped build my own resilience whilst building my trust in others.

I enjoyed performing every night, that lit a real fire in my belly and assured me that acting is all I ever want to do. My temper and inability to control my emotions have held me back and often got me in serious trouble my whole entire life. TBH is the first and only place I’ve ever been where rage or tears can dissipate into joy after taking part in an acting workshop. It gave me a space to be angry, it never held my outbursts against me but it also forced me to address them, channel them and find a way to make my emotions work for me.

I was always held accountable for my actions but with love. I had to accept consequences for my behaviour, but knew I’d always be welcomed back with open arms. Their support has been invaluable to me really. TBH accepts me for who I am whilst always pushing me to be better and that is something I’ve never had before, ever. I’ve achieved so much since coming to TBH.

As a performer, how do you deal with your pre-show nerves?

TBH Member*: Realising that this is what I want to do was such a big moment for me – it felt life-defining. And then I had a moment where I was reminded that ‘it’s a job’ and that has really helped with my fear, and I can access the excitement about it more than the fear. The evidence really came when I had my first audition. I didn’t want to die on the way there – I had nerves but I felt ‘I can do this’! I’ve had multiple opportunities I never thought I’d have, and it’s changed my whole outlook about people and myself. I just feel I’m not recognisable anymore!

Do any of The Big House members decide to become professional performers? If so, what support is in place to help them with that?

Megan Taylor: In short – yes! Lots of members of The Big House have gone on to work in the creative industries as exceptionally talented actors, and also as writers, directors, technical teams or creatives. We offer support for early-career creatives, with opportunities to work with us as Associate Artists, to create projects and engage with a network of creative professionals to boost career opportunities.

We employ our members as professional actors, across OHPs and professional productions as well as offering employment as workshop facilitators. We are now Spotlight accredited and are proactively seeking casting opportunities for our talented performers. We have members of The Big House cast in TV and film across Netflix, BBC, ITV, Sky Atlantic and Channel 4 as well as in short films, commercials, theatre and more.

We also collaborate to find paid work experience, internships or apprenticeships in the wider creative industries, including in theatre, television and film as well as events and marketing. We have partnerships with a variety of brilliant organisations including Autograph Sound, Vault Festival, Bearded Kitten and a Netflix TV series.

What production(s) are you currently working on?

Megan Taylor: Due to popular demand, we are bringing back our sell-out production of Redemption, which we originally produced and performed in late 2021. We’re currently in rehearsals for the show, which is a fully professional production with investment from 42 Management. The show opens on 29th June and runs until 13th August so grab your tickets now while you can!

Directed by The Big House Artistic Director Maggie Norris, written by James Meteyard and composed by The Last Skeptik, with Jammz as Musical Director, Redemption is a powerful new play-with-music exploring family and forgiveness with a music industry backdrop.

How do your members stay involved with The Big House once they’ve been through the programme?

Megan Taylor: Alongside our drop-in workshops, which all members are invited to attend, we offer a wide range of activities to get involved in. We run additional, upskilling projects which are only open to our membership, including Hot House for new and developing writers and directors, workshops to build screen acting techniques, as well as The Big Mouth – our new digital platform which is currently in development.

We are fortunate to regularly be offered free theatre tickets so we can take our young people to theatre productions all over London. We have wonderful industry professionals coming in to do Q&A sessions – thank you to Josh Woodford at Hamilton Hodell and Jessica Straker for coming in earlier this year!

We have social events throughout the year and all members are invited to watch our productions for free. We offer lots of employment opportunities including as actors, peer mentors or workshop facilitators, depending on their interests. We deliver performances and workshops across the UK led by our members.

How do young people get in touch if they think The Big House can help them?

Megan Taylor: Young people are referred to us by 200+ referral partners including Leaving Care and Youth Offending Teams, Youth Organisations, Virtual Schools and Homelessness Organisations. We have developed these partnerships over 10 years and often receive more than twice the amount of referrals we are able to take on for each OHP. I ensure the young people are selected on a needs basis and welcome them to an initial introductory meeting at The Big House.

No one at The Big House is auditioned. If there are young people reading this who think they could benefit from the support of a project at The Big House, please get in touch! But remember that we are not a drama school, we offer long-term support to marginalised young people who have faced adverse life experiences. You can get in touch with me at megan@thebighouse.uk.com to hear more and talk through the projects.

*We have omitted the names of TBH members to protect them in line with The Big House’s safeguarding policy

Thanks to Megan and The Big House members for taking the time to talk with us!

The Big House is always looking for help with Front of House and for specific volunteers to help with the venue, workshops and projects – if you’d like to get involved you can contact info@thebighouse.uk.com.

They also run successful team-building days, immersive experiences and workshops for corporate training. You can find out more by visiting The Big House Means Business initiative.

Image by Orlando Gili