by James Yabut, Community Reporter.
Think “theatre” and what comes to mind?
If your first response wasn’t table tennis, Arabic lessons and the giros and ochos of the tango, that’s only because you are unfamiliar with Chelsea Theatre.
Since 1977 the theatre, located in the south-west corner of the borough in World’s End Place, has been offering local residents a combination of arts, education and community activities. According to Michelle Abbey, community manager for the last four years, the theatre is not just a space for contemporary performance, but a place for “breaking down social barriers”.
The depth and breadth of the weekly schedule is, not surprisingly, reflected in the ages and backgrounds of the visitors to the theatre.
On the day of my visit, ex-postal worker Dennis Miles, 88, of North End Road, tells me he drops in at least once a week for a cup of tea and a chat, or to join the classic film club. “It’s fantastic. You can meet people or have a cup of tea – it’s very reasonably priced. I don’t think you could better this place to be honest.”
Sulay, from Colombia, regularly attends the massage and jewellery classes: “There are lots of activities. It’s good for the community. You have no time to feel depressed and it helps with isolation.” Her friend Josie, who attends the Sing to Live class, is equally enthusiastic: “It’s a lively group and you get a chance to meet people and to relax and to enjoy singing. And the teacher is brilliant.”
The theatre’s staff speak just as warmly; artistic director Francis Alexander says: “I am inspired by my job. Chelsea Theatre is a lively hub for entertainment, learning, health and wellbeing. We balance this with exciting work by artists from all walks of life and are able to showcase these talents to people from the local community and beyond.”
The theatre is funded by a combination of earned income and voluntary donations; operational costs and many of the classes are grant-funded so attendees will only pay a small fee. “Each year we work hard to balance hosting affordable activities and events for the community with increasing earned income” Francis explains.
The theatre is run by a team of five full time staff and 18 volunteers, and Michelle is evidently proud of their achievements: “We all work together. Everyone mucks in and that makes this place a success. We are all on the same page. If I’m not here, I can guarantee the work will get done.”
Barbara Ofori-Boateng, Volunteer Coordinator, tells me about the benefits of the Community Champions programme she runs which gets volunteers to share important messages about health and other local services with family, friends, and neighbours.
It is a simple and effective way to strengthen ties throughout the community and to confront the evils of ignorance and loneliness. As well as providing participants with a boost to their confidence and skills, the programme has seen many previous volunteers go on to find paid employment within the health sector.
Michelle reckons the theatre can only go from “strength to strength”, and next year will see the start of redevelopment work to expand the building and improve accessibility. As Francis says:”Thanks to voluntary donations we have reached our fundraising goal for our capital project. We’re planning on making the building more welcoming, with more family friendly facilities, a large new room and a better more welcoming cafe. Watch this space!”