Teresa Early, Theatre Peckham
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The Londoner who set John Boyega on the path to fame

Teresa Early set up Theatre Peckham in 1985, and it’s still going strong – with local boy John Boyega among its alumni


London legend and Hollywood star John Boyega is Time Out’s latest guest editor. We asked who his heroes were, and he told us: ‘For me, Teresa Early is a hero. She developed and built Theatre Peckham, and it’s a place for so many kids from the area to come and have a home. Giving them a voice is really important.’

So we got in touch with Teresa and asked her to tell us her London story…

‘I grew up in Findon, just outside of Worthing. When I wasn’t at school, I was at dance school. On Saturdays, we’d take the train to Brighton: from the age of eight I’d go to watch plays. Later I performed in musicals, and went on to drama school. After that, I moved to west London. I got involved in the ballet scene, doing choreography for the Royal Ballet School graduates.

One day I just couldn’t do it any more: the culture there wasn't quite right for me. The arts are desperately elitist, and often it’s about whether you can afford it. I wanted to give disadvantaged kids the things that more privileged children just get. To earn some extra money I taught English to children from the South Asian community around Southall and Ealing. I really loved them.

So I did a teaching qualification instead. I was head of drama in various schools around south London. After I got married, I ended up in Peckham. I didn’t know anybody. I thought: Well, walk out your door and find out about Peckham.

‘When kids are robbed of self-esteem, the arts are a powerful tool’

Soon I had children of my own. I met so many other kids with huge potential, but there was nothing for them to do with it. I wanted to put something in an area where there was nothing. We opened Theatre Peckham on the North Peckham Estate in 1985. I bagged a church hall, and we made sure it was a safe space.

In the ’80s, that estate was regarded as a no-go zone. The refuse services wouldn’t go there, so there were piles of rubbish everywhere. The kids identified with it. I took a little girl home one day, and she said: ‘I’m very sorry, Teresa, that you should have to walk through all this rubbish’. She apologised for taking me to her own home.

When kids are robbed of self-esteem, the arts are a powerful tool. I wanted to get these children turned on to theatre, and demystify the arts. We’d teach writing from young black writers as soon as we could. We had a hilarious time doing Noël Coward. The kids used heightened RP: high posh voices, like the Queen.

‘John Boyega used to bunk school to come’

In 2001, we did an after-school project at Oliver Goldsmith Primary School in Peckham, and a little boy called John Boyega was there. He wanted to act, and started coming along to Theatre Peckham – you couldn’t keep him out! Later he used to bunk school to come. I had to tell him he wasn’t allowed! There are so many others like John. They become actors, writers, directors, performers, teachers or producers.

People ask: how do you make theatre more diverse? You can’t do a flash-in-the-pan thing with trendy young actors and then forget about it. The kids have got to be given as much as possible.

Often I ask myself: why do I love working with young people? It’s exhausting, worrying… and often they are very annoying! But I just like them. They have brilliant, bright energy.’

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If you’ve read our regular ‘My London Story’ feature in the free Time Out London magazine or online, you’ll know that there’s no end of fascinating, inspiring people in this city of ours. From activists to hairdressers, mermaids to hedge-trimmers and aviators to refugees, we’ve met some incredible Londoners this year. Here are a few of the best.

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