SoPA: theater workshops and community life in Brixton (London)
“Being involved with the community” may sound like something out of a beauty pageant rehearsed speech (at best) or a politician’s empty promise to get more votes (at worst).
But in the real world, some people understand, live, and feel this somewhat cliched concept under their skin.
Pedro is one of them, and, together with Matilde, they walk the walk with SoPA.
When I arrived in London, I knew that a simple “let’s catch up” with friends could lead me anywhere.
Honestly, how can you live in a city with 10 million people and not make something happen? (Or let something happen to you).
In the middle of traveling back and forth between Portugal and the UK, Pedro Vaz, an old college friend, shared a Facebook page called SoPA. The acronym stands for Social Performing Arts, and the word it spells means soup in Portuguese.
I immediately thought of comfort food.
In a city where something is always happening, not being familiar with a place, or project, or event, is not unusual. But when we arranged to meet in Brixton, that name rang a bell, not for the best reasons.
A couple of months before, when house hunting, people said that Brixton was not a good spot. They didn’t provide much detail, apart from the stories they had heard about that area in the city not being safe. And yet, when I stepped outside the tube station that day, all I saw was an ordinary, busy neighborhood on a sunny Saturday morning.
Pretty much the same feeling I had had the day before when I visited a friend in Stockwell, nearby. So, what was wrong with this picture?
According to my gut feeling, absolutely nothing. Every neighborhood has its baggage of unfortunate events, of course. Still, at that particular time and space, I didn’t find any reason to raise flags.
We believe that performing arts tools can change lives in general and people in particular. Someone that experiences theater gets to know his/herself much better and that helps people to develop themselves as human beings and as part of the community where they live.
– SoPA (Social Performing Arts)
With a familiar smile and never-ending energy (I don’t think I’ve ever seen him just “chill”…), Pedro welcomed me to his neighborhood.
“This used to be a small village outside the city, but after London grew, it eventually became a part of it.” He pointed to the arches to the tube station’s right, “right there is the market.”
His eyes sparkled, and I knew he felt at home here. At his improvised rooftop patio, we caught up on family, old friends, life, and work. Two years ago, I would have never talked about creative work as a “real job”; nowadays, we speak the same language.
“So, SoPA as in the Portuguese word for soup?” I asked.
“Yes! Because it’s warm, and nutritious, and comforting, and soulful!”
Pedro and Matilde (the other half of SoPA) know each other from Portugal, reconnected recently in London, realized that both worked on similar projects, and decided to work together.
Both of them see theater as a form of expression. Forget stages, performers, audience, last-minute backstage dramas. Shed the skin, let go of everything you think you know and take for granted and get to know yourself.
In a nutshell, that is what they want to help you to do. They are here for the community and hope the community will be there for them. There is not a better place where I could see this happening than in Brixton.
As we approached the venue where these workshops happened, Pedro told me that this would soon be a new housing development site. I understand housing needs. I don’t know why you always have to tear everything down to start fresh.
The old Thrayle House, a former social housing block and now the Brixton Bloc’s temporary home might look like that abandoned place by the skate park on Stockwell Road to some, but all I saw was potential.
It looked like a block party was about to start in the courtyard: the bar on the left, some stands being prepared on the right, and a circus tent in the middle.
Inside the circus tent were mismatched chairs, sofas, coffee tables, and bookshelves found in the apartments. Pedro explained that when the residents moved out of their houses, they left some of the furniture behind; eventually, people using the Brixton Bloc for their activities found a use for them.
Most of the houses still have curtains on the windows – it’s almost hard to tell there’s no one living there. A tent in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by abandoned apartments – you’d think it’s creepy and distressing (it was Halloween that day, after all…), but I felt at home.
I managed to convince Pedro to play the part of the behind-the-scenes character. The workshop unfolded with me as spectator during an unusually warm and sunny Saturday morning.