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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

By El Hunt
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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.’

Now meet more incredible Londoners

Samantha Smallwood, professional mermaid
Photograph: Andy Parsons

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