20 Feb 2024

A Day on the Doorstep – John Archer Research Placement

I really enjoy coming home to Devon.

When I hear the words ‘Exeter Saint Davids’ come over the train tannoy, and I know I’ve finally reached that stretch of southern coast between Saltash and Torbay, it almost feels like being back in my natural habitat – a sensation often followed by a sudden and undeniable hankering to smash down a giant steak pasty (or two!). I haven’t lived here for a while, having since left to train as an actor in London, then to study creative writing at university in Bath, and now my Mst in the same subject at the University of Oxford, but Devon will always be the place where that creative journey started for me. So, when the opportunity arose to join Doorstep Arts as part of the research placement for my Mst, I was thrilled to come back home again.

In the January of this year I stepped off the train (brushing the multi-pasty flakes from off my coat) and onto the platform of an almost sub-zero degree Paignton station. Waiting for me there was Doorstep’s Pathways Producer, Sam Parker; Sam had kindly invited me that morning to come up to Doorstep Arts’ office in the centre of the city and to meet the team for their monthly ‘heartbeat’ meeting. After a brisk walk, we reached the office – just above a stationary shop on Palace Avenue – and Sam led me up to the small, cosy office on the second floor. It was, thankfully, much warmer than outside, and made even more welcoming by the team themselves. Honestly, you couldn’t wish for a lovelier bunch – I was welcomed in with a smile, the offer of a cup of tea and the promise of a full lunch after the morning’s business had been concluded.

As the meeting started, two things quickly became very clear to me: Firstly, that this was a group of people who really loved what they did, and equally really enjoyed working with each other. And secondly, that this was an organisation at the absolute heart of the theatre ecosystem in Paignton. I was amazed to hear about their endless workshop schemes: From dance-theatre to ancient Greek Drama, all the way to a summer production of Shrek – The Musical (a personal favourite of mine, it must be said). They explained how they were involved with loads of different schools and educational organisations, taking their theatre work out to places that might not be lucky enough to usually have such experienced artists visiting. Throughout this, the team never hesitated in explaining things that I might not have understood, always making me feel welcome and immediately like I was part of the team. I might have been initially surprised how prolific they are as an organisation, but after meeting them, it was no surprise at all.

Then, after a smashing lunch (as if the double-pasty combo wasn’t enough) and after saying our goodbyes, we were back out in the cold again. Not for long, of course – there was a workshop due to be run that evening with Doortstep Youth Theatre that Sam wanted to explain to me over a cup of coffee. We headed up to a cafe, where after regaining feeling in my ears after the frozen walk through town, Sam recounted the previous work the group had done – including a devised piece of promenade theatre in a nearby cave (of all places!) – and explained how they were planning to work on a re-imagining of an Ancient Greek play for the upcoming summer. Like the other members of the team, Sam was friendly and clearly very enthusiastic about his work, and by the end of our conversation I was really looking forward to starting the evening’s session.

Before long it was time to head up to the workshop venue – a beautiful performance and rehearsal space connected to the Palace Theatre called Stage Left. There we met up again with one of the members of the core team – Helen Gilbert, an amazing director and facilitator – and began to set up for the workshop. After opening the doors (and turning the heaters on!) the young actors began to arrive. The friendly community-centred ethos of the organisation had clearly been passed onto them, as just like the team at the office, they instantly made me feel very welcome. That sense of openness continued into the workshop itself, and the work that the group started to make. I was really impressed with all of them – their focus when they were working, their commitment to their performance, and fundamentally a real sense of fun they brought to everything they did. The two hours of the workshop whizzed by, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit disappointed that it was over.

I said goodbye to the group, and to Sam and Helen, and started my journey home back to the station and after grabbing the late train, by slowly winding my way out of Devon again. On the train back, as I heard ‘Exeter Saint Davids’ over the tannoy once more, I reflected on my day with Doorstep Arts, and why I had been so impressed.

Like most theatre people, my love of performing might have begun by watching great plays and musicals, but it was really developed in the drama workshops I was a part of from the ages of about 11-17. When I think back to those times, most of my best memories are in some way related to those groups, and I still carry the lessons they taught me, both as an artist and a person, into my adult life. That being said, it is also currently a difficult time to be a theatre artist, especially post-pandemic. I was worried that the experiences I had as a young artist might not be as widely available to the young folk of today as it was to me.

My worry was clearly unfounded. This is in no small part thanks to organisations like Doorstep Arts and the amazing and endlessly hardworking folk who run them – and I was so heartened to see that the workshops that I loved so much were still alive and well.

As the train crossed over from Devon, I found myself thinking that I really couldn’t have found a better way to spend a day back home. Next time, however, I decided to perhaps just have the one pasty, instead.