A company of over 100 community members, professional actors and performance groups from across London will come together to perform a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It from 24 – 27 August.

Following triumphant performances of Pericles at the National Theatre in summer 2018, this is the second Public Acts production and will take over the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch stage.

Public Acts Director Emily Lim for the National Theatre talks about her involvement in this nationwide initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community.

How did you first get involved with Public Acts?

I was part of the team who created the programme at the National Theatre two years ago. It’s been a brilliant experience so far putting lots of dreams into action! 

Did you have any experience in working in community theatre before?

Yes, I’ve spent most of my career to date working in community settings, exploring how theatre making can be a form of community building and activism. I’ve worked all over, both in the UK and internationally, in hospitals, schools, playgrounds, daycentres, and, of course, theatres. I’ve been very inspired by the work of companies like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuala, Company Three, Slunglow, Rimini Protokoll, Commonwealth and the amazing Public Works programme in New York who have heavily influenced and supported the development of Public Acts – artists who show that participatory, inclusive work can be both artistically excellent and drive meaningful social change. 

What was your favourite moment from Pericles?

Such a hard question – there are too many to choose from! I’ll never forget the moment we first ran the show from start to finish as a whole company in rehearsals. The feeling was totally electric – everyone suddenly realising the fullness of what we’d made, understanding for the first time how everything pieced together, and everyone’s role within it. There were a lot of tears (the joyful, overwhelmed kind!). I also loved our first potluck lunch where everyone brought in food to share, a proper community feast and a really beautiful celebration of our commitment to one another as a company. 

How did you find working on such a large-scale production?

It’s the biggest thrill and the biggest privilege working with such a huge company of wonderful, giving, passionate people. It’s also, of course, exhausting, and there are too many spinning plates to keep count of, but that’s part of the fun! I always say that the logistics are inseparable from the art with this kind of work, and attention to detail is everything. We have to make sure every person in our company feels as cared for and as valued as possible, whether that means co-ordinating a surprise delivery of ice lollies half way through a very hot rehearsal (as happened last year when we ended up rehearsing through a heatwave…), or helping someone to work out their travel or childcare arrangements. It’s an enormous group effort – it doesn’t work if people aren’t willing to really come together, and we have an incredible team of people working day and night to make it all happen. 

How has the process been different working on As You Like It compared to Pericles last year?

We’re working on existing material this year, which means there’s been a very different development process compared to last year when we were commissioning an original piece. Laurie and Shaina’s adaptation of the original text is so fantastic, and there’s something really lovely about knowing all the songs off by heart before we get to rehearsals – I’m going to have to stop myself singing along! We’re also welcoming lots of new people to the company for the first time, which is wonderful. 

What are you most looking forward to on this production?

I think I’m probably most excited about rehearsals, and getting to spend the summer with our extraordinary community again. It’s a company of the most huge hearted and inspiring individuals; every time we’re together I come away feeling affirmed about life and more hopeful about the world. It sounds like an exaggeration but it’s true! 

What have you learnt through your experience with community theatre and Public Acts?

So much, I’m learning all the time. A few things that feel the most relevant at the moment are:

1) Two of the best and most binding things a group of people can do together are dance and eat. (Not at the same time – though maybe we should try that!?)

2) High expectations go a really, really long way – handled right, ambition can be one of the most empowering and dignifying forces.

3) Alot of the principles that make great theatre make great community: being open, being kind, being patient, being brave, listening hard, putting yourself second, and looking for the promise in any given situation and any person.

4) Long cycle rides home after rehearsals are the best way to decompress, unwind and process what on earth just happened!

5) Unity through radical joy. That’s one of the mantras from the Public Works team, and the one I try and hold onto tightest of all, in work and in life. Joy shouldn’t be radical, but often it is.

What’s next for Public Acts after As You Like It?

We’re so excited to be heading up to Doncaster next year in partnership with the brilliant Cast Theatre. We’re in the process of finalising which community partners we’ll be working with and are assembling an amazing creative team of artists to lead the production there in 2021. Work starts in earnest in September, we can’t wait! Beyond that we’re cooking up plans for what happens in the future, trying to learn as much as possible from these first two years and think about what the most impactful and exciting next steps for the programme can be, as a social and artistic movement.

As You Like It runs from 24 – 27 August at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. For more information about As You Like It, Public Acts and to book tickets click here.

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