For the last four years, I’ve been a volunteer usher, which has involved not only looking after people in the theatre, but helping out on the bar, the box office and checking the tickets, helping out and supporting artists, making sure they’ve got, drinks or whatever. And that they’re made welcome when they arrive, that everybody knows exactly where they’re going to be in the building, and showing people up there to their necessary rooms, making sure that after the performance that everybody’s happy, and that everybody then leaves the area, clearing up the area, just to make it presentable. But the best thing is you get to come and see the shows. I would come and see shows that perhaps I wouldn’t normally go and see. You know there are such a wide range of activities go on here - that’s the thing I love about The Old Fire Station.
You know it would be nice to think that if even one person turns up for a show and buys a ticket that had a lasting impact - that is a really important thing. Because it does offer a different theatre experience than perhaps some other theatres. The types of show they put on here are very different, from the mainstream shows. I think it’s also an awful lot more affordable. We’re quite happy for people to take glasses and things into the theatre, so it’s more relaxed and sociable. Whereas I think people get intimidated by going to theatres and thinking, you know I’ve got to sit right here and don’t rustle sweet papers. And so I think it’s more open to the community, makes it much more open to performers and affordable for them. I know a lot of people who have had the opportunity to put on things, here, that perhaps they wouldn’t have necessarily. I think that’s really a good thing, it makes art open to everybody.
Before I was involved as a volunteer, as a Crisis member I’d come and taken advantage of the free tickets. I would admit that I was a theatre groupie, any tickets that were going - because it gave me a sense of being a person, of having more - something else to think about than my personal situation at the time. And it allowed me escape for a few hours, gave me something to go and do in the evening, gave me a chance to go and be a human being, instead of being a case or a situation.
I think when you are in a situation when you’re in the, for want of a better word, ‘supported housing’ sector, it is quite daunting at times. I mean you’re not at your best anyway, you are at a personal low, to be in that position - they can be quite noisy, quite stressful. I was very fortunate I was in quite nice accommodation, but you’re not necessarily an individual, you’re a case, you’re a client. I was very much told, you can’t possibly work, you can’t possibly get a job right now. A lot of workers, they find that very difficult to accept, that I want to be involved in doing things. I’m not prepared to just sit here in a room or whatever, I want to be out and involved in things. And by coming here you got involved in things. Then I liked the fact that they’re less here dealing with your particular circumstances at the time but offering you opportunities that you can actually add new skills, you can do new activities, I mean I started doing drama, and woodwork, I discovered that I could actually use a band saw and I could do things and I could make things, and I quite enjoyed that. So, it was adding to your - it’s not just your skill set, but your wellbeing. It’s the most important thing.
Because of my involvement here, my commitment I was making to doing different things, it gave me an anchor, and I knew I’d got that. And I’d come in and I’d say, oh it’s not been a good day and somebody would say, well, have you thought about doing this? Have you tried doing that? Have you thought of such and such an area? The would say ah you do such good things here, it made me feel good about myself, and that’s a wonderful experience for anybody.
It made me realise there’s a world outside my own small sphere - there is a wider world out there, even just going to see plays or whatever that perhaps touch on other social, or mental health issues, or different things like that, that make you more aware. You realise, oh yes maybe life’s not so bad.
The reason why I first got involved here as a volunteer, was that I was involved four years ago in a Hidden Spire production, when I was a member of Crisis. And literally I spent five months on doing acting workshops, music workshops, writing workshops, to then actually performing in the show and that was - I mean I had done drama before, but just to be part of a professional theatre company was out of this world. And it did so much for my confidence at the time - because you know I was at the time unemployed, and kind of on the edge. It just gave me something to focus on and that confidence then carried through - I was very, very fortunate that within a month of finishing that production, I was back in full time employment.
Hidden Spire certainly gave me self-confidence which I know I was really lacking and so I had that boost to go out and sell myself. Even silly things like, as part of performing, I’d had sort of training skills on voice and I think that helped then in the interviews to control my voice, handle nerves so that I’m giving a positive impression. And yes, you know they didn’t care at all that I could act or whatever. They were more interested in my professional qualifications - but it gave me that impetus to go and do it. And because I’d been involved five days a week with Hidden Spire for about three months, again you’d got into that routine of going out every day and doing things.
And because I was made to feel part of the whole production, from day one, I got involved in writing workshops here. Then, I went on to study script writing through the Continuing Education at Oxford University, so I’ve done some of that; and I still write to this day. And I got involved in another drama group, and play reading group. I’ve done more acting through them. I’ve appeared in a couple of things in Oxford and in a very short play in London. I would not have done that without having the confidence, and the knowledge about what being part of a theatre group can bring.
I wanted to give something back to The Old Fire Station, and by becoming a volunteer, that really helps. It allows you to get to know people, from all walks of life. And there is nothing better for handling a bad day at work, or maybe difficult situations or whatever, that you come in here, you don your black t-shirt, you take your tickets, smile, you welcome people in, you sit down, you enjoy a show and your mind is totally off what is going on outside. It gives you that breathing space - and then you come out and things look in a different perspective at times, and the stresses of the day dissipate into those lights, as it were. It helps to avoid a temptation to go into depression or whatever.
I think the nice thing of the volunteer programme here, is that you can do as much or as little as you want. Nobody questions who you are, what you do, they’re just very welcoming, that you’re prepared to give the time to come and help. They invite you in and make you part of the team. Everybody’s so friendly, they will never expect you to do something that you’re uncomfortable doing. And everybody you meet welcomes you, it’s good. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jeremy the director, you know everybody will have a cheery word and say hello, and it makes you feel part of the community.
I’m currently relocating, tonight will be my very last shift at The Old Fire Station, I’m moving to Lancashire. But one of the first things I found out in the town that I’m going to be living, I found a community theatre. For me that was important because I thought, right, I know the kind of things they’re going to want, they’re going to need a volunteer. Brilliant that’s immediately getting me involved in that town, so that I can meet people there.