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Behind the Scenes – Sara Rhodes

Sara Rhodes is the Associate Director of Co-Curated and Outdoor Work at Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Tricia Stubberfield, in her Behind the Scenes series, met with Sara in November to discuss all things community and culture, how Sara found herself in this position and what her advice would be to someone that wanted to work or get involved in community theatre.

Hi! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Sara Rhodes, and I’m in a slightly new role here at the Theatre. We’re in a process of creative renewal, so it’s an evolving role based on the foundations of what I’ve been doing here before, co-creating with the community. The renewal is about focusing on how we can better link up with the community outside the building, not just delivering things here, and highlighting the community aspect embedded across our whole programme.

And what were you doing before this new role?

Before this, I was the Engagement Manager looking after adult work, over 18s, in targeted programmes like Funky Llama, which is ten years old next year, and Our Space, which recently turned thirteen.

Funky Llama is about celebrating the talents of disabled people, and providing creative opportunities for them to participate in the creation of arts activities and large-scale events like festivals and club nights. They allow people with disabilities to engage in something that’s been created with them to remove barriers. 

When it first started it was very much about working with the learning-disabled community and day services, and there was a clear need to offer something age appropriate. We wanted to challenge the tendency to think disabled people should be put in a church hall with a disco and fizzy pop. We’d be working with, say, a 26-year-old Downs Syndrome woman who loves a G and T and loves to party, and wants to be able to do that in a nightclub environment where she can feel safe, have a good time, meet new people and not feel socially isolated. At the time that started, I was 26 and I didn’t want to go to a village hall with my mum – I wanted to go out. It was about providing those spaces.

It’s always had a steering group at the heart of it made up of people with lived experience of disability. They work with us to ensure that it’s as accessible and brilliant as possible, and to programme disabled and non-disabled artists to be part of it. 

The other programme that’s been dominant in my work is the Our Space programme, which started in 2009 and is also a social prescription. It works with adults with lived experience of homelessness, mental health issues, substance misuse, reoffending, domestic abuse or other reasons for social isolation. 

People would sleep rough outside the theatre and some would come inside to use drugs in the toilets. The Front Of House staff at the time started offering them a cup of coffee and then began having conversations with them. That became quite a regular thing, and word of mouth spread, particularly within the homeless community who experience lots of other complex issues including addiction. 

People were really opening up about the challenges they were facing – lack of employment, breakdown of family and positive relationships, and a lack of accommodation, confidence, and self-worth. We knew that doing drama would be a great way to start to tackle these issues, so we invited a creative practitioner into the spaces where those conversations were happening. They started slowly doing drama games and getting to know each other, and confidence started to build. 

Over the last 13 years, the project has become quite a large scale, innovative piece of work around cocreation, putting lived experience at its heart and making work that challenges people’s perceptions. It places drama as a space that enables people to recover and reintegrate into society and build lives for themselves. They build a weekly routine or gain the confidence to pick up the phone and pay a bill.  We support people to fill in job applications and get work here in the building. That’s been a really big part of my work. I started as a volunteer on this project!

Wow! How did that come about?

I was doing a Master’s degree at Exeter around the use of drama in the rehabilitation of offenders, including some time in Exeter Prison. Our Space was only about a year old at the time I started volunteering. I was going out to taster sessions that were happening across the city, and the moment I graduated I became an Assistant Practitioner here working with younger people. 

From then on I did all sorts of things. I went freelance and set up my own company for a while and went across the south hams providing after-school drama clubs. I did a lot of work with school working 1-1 with autistic children, and then slowly started applying for work here. 

I’ve had eight job titles in ten and a half years at TRP! I’ve been a volunteer, a practitioner, an assistant in the office and then an officer, and a producer and then a manager and now I’m an associate director! So I get all of the details of the programme, so I can link that up and bring it back to the management team.

So were you always interested in this kind of work?

I grew up in Cornwall and went to Exeter to study a BA in drama. I’d always set my sights on doing theatre, maybe from about the age of 15 or 16 when I started coming to the Drum with school. That was my moment of going “I think I want to do this” – that was special. I almost left the BA because it was so overwhelming and I was just a girl from a community college in Cornwall. But I worked hard and then I didn’t know what to do, so I stayed on for my Masters which is when the applied theatre work I’d done began to help me. I didn’t want to be an actor so I thought I’d like to be behind the scenes. Then I realised I want to be part of the community, and part of whatever it is that changes people’s lives and their sense of themselves. 

Once you’re in TRP it’s so magical you can’t see yourself anywhere else. My career has been a bit of saying yes to everything and being super hungry for it, and also luck and being at the right place at the right time. You’d probably do that in lots of different theatres if you were based in London, but I’ve been lucky that I’ve found my way in here.

Have you noticed any changes in Plymouth and its cultural scene since you’ve been here?

For a long time, even when I was young, Plymouth was always overlooked, always the underdog. In the last five years, even throughout Covid which was particularly challenging for artists and our community, I would say the creative ecology is really thriving and on the rise. I’ve really felt that shift and change. There are phenomenal community initiatives like Nudge Community Builders, and there’s a lot more creativity happening here and it’s more celebrated than ever before. People are feeling more like they have a reason to stay here, rather than it being somewhere where they’re looking to move somewhere else. 

Lovely coffee shops pop up and they stay because they love the city and people are supporting them. Little things like that mean there are more places where you see artists being artists. It all feels really lovely.

And where do you see that heading?

Plymouth hasn’t always been great at connecting up – people have been so busy doing that there hasn’t been time to connect. But that connectivity feels like it’s happening now so I’m looking forward to seeing more of that, with all art forms and scales of organisation working together. There is some really innovative stuff happening here, from The Box and Ocean Studios to the community groups, and it feels like we have a more national platform than ever before. We can be more proud of who we are, where we are on the map and where we sit in terms of what we do. It’s about how we connect all the dots to make sure everyone can be involved.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to know how to get involved or work in community theatre work?

Get stuck in to as much stuff as possible! I’m super proud of all the offers we have here at Theatre Royal – People’s Company, Young Company, and the targeted programmes. If people have a particular need or are worried that there’s not something here for them, there genuinely is! There’s everything from acting and singing to set building at TR2. But beyond TRP there’s a fantastic amateur dramatics scene in Plymouth, there are fantastic arts programmes and brilliant events. 

Our website has a lot of information, or people can contact the theatre to ask about opportunities, or contact Peoples Company and we’ll signpost through that – we’ll find the right thing for someone even if it’s not with us. We’ve got a mailing list with talent development for example. Or for people who want to be an artist or writer – get added to every mailing list going, there’s an opportunity right around the corner that’s right for you!

Is there anything in your role that surprised you?

I think it’s the sense of community and passion in this building. It’s a big industrious-looking space. Anyone who comes and tours here always says it, and people who take part in our programmes get it, but it’s really hard to see if you only come once a year for the panto. Whether you’re a cleaner, working on the bar, on the third floor in the media department, or building sets at TR2 – the passion that people have for making work and being creative in this building is infectious. I could never imagine not working here.

Sara Rhodes is the Associate Director of Co-Curated and Outdoor Work at Theatre Royal Plymouth.
Sara Rhodes is the Associate Director of Co-Curated and Outdoor Work at Theatre Royal Plymouth.

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