At the Bathway Theatre in Woolwich, the emphasis is on learning on the job. Part of the University of Greenwich, the theatre is led and run entirely by students, and has been for the past 10 years. Now, Bathway Theatre is opening up to the public and looking for ways to engage and support the local community, writes Holly O’Mahony…

David Hockham is the production manager of Bathway Theatre and also teaches technical theatre at the University of Greenwich. “My role is incredibly broad,” he laughs. “I’ve hoovered up a load of work that wasn’t being done by anybody else at the university, but my professional background is as a production manager and producer.”

David has spent the last four years working at Bathway Theatre. “In the last year, I’ve really started to ask myself: what does it mean to be a theatre in the middle of Woolwich and how can we as a university engage with the community in which it sits?,” he says. “We’re at the beginning of a new phase and conversation.”

Until now, the theatre has been used almost exclusively by students on the university’s Drama course and those who belong to its dramatic societies. This year, the Drama course has begun collaborating with the Film and Television Production course. “We’ve installed a live broadcast studio at the back of the theatre which is a teaching space that replicates the NT [National Theatre] Live studios,” explains David.

“In their first year, students try everything. Then in their second and third year, they find out what they like and we find a way to steer them towards it,” says David, pointing out he’s as much a mentor to the students as he is their tutor. “I teach our students through formal seminars and workshops, but on the shows, when I’m the production manager, we’re equals and we find a way of making it work together.”

While the space at Bathway Theatre is being opened up to the public, it remains a theatre run by students. “What we teach incorporates backstage and front of house skills,” says David. “Now, by bringing in other people, it means our students can have experience of working on other people’s events.” David and the team are currently in talks with partner organisations to discuss ways in which this might work.

“2021 is an exciting time for Woolwich because the new creative district, Woolwich Southbank, is officially opening,” says David. The launch of the district will see a number of the UK’s leading arts organisations and theatre companies, including internationally-adored immersive specialists Punchdrunk, move to Woolwich.

For now, though, the summer at Bathway Theatre continues with Millennium Performing Arts bringing their summer show to the venue on the first week of July. This is being followed by a special, one-off performance of Dead Rabbits’ My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice on July 25, for which tickets are free. “The show just won the Les Enfants Terribles Greenwich Partnership Award, which means it’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer,” says David.

Based on a true story, the play follows an expedition to the North Pole in 1897, undertaken by a group of three explorers. Except, the story is not so much about them but the woman they left behind, who wasn’t allowed to explore because of her gender. “It’s told through her dreams and memories, and is a highly visual, highly physical production featuring lots of music.” The play is coming to Woolwich for one night only, before it plays an impressive 24 shows at the Pleasance Theatre’s King Dome in Edinburgh.

For the past six years, the team behind the university’s Drama course have run the Bathway Theatre Network, a programme which supports emerging companies and artists. “Now, we’re looking to get better at telling people about the artists we support, as these artists might go on to do great things,” says David, who cites the now internationally-touring Hoax Theatre as among the success stories to have used Bathway Theatre in the past.

This May, as part of the initiative to open doors to the public, Bathway Theatre launched its What About Us campaign: eight weeks of music and song, and of spoken word and poetry, culminating in a weekend of storytelling. “We asked people to come in and share their stories, and hear others in the community tell theirs,” says David. “Ultimately, it was a way for us to get people in from the local community and talk to them to find out how they might want to use the [theatre’s] space.”

“What we’ve found is that people want access to space in Woolwich – it doesn’t matter what it’s for,” continues David, adding that priority will go to those looking to use the space for art-based practices.

As a result of similar initiatives, David and his team have managed to link up Woolwich’s Caribbean Social Forum, which has around 400 members, with sociologist and Greenwich University professor Tracey Reynolds. Together, Reynolds and the society are now running a Windrush event.

“People who are studying at the University of Greenwich often have complex social lives,” points out David. “We work with single parents, people who have English as a second language and people who are primary carers,” he says. “One of our biggest challenges is making sure the university is an accessible place. It’s finding ways to teach people who need to navigate a lot of things and finding ways to help them beyond university,” he adds.

For David, the art often comes second to the relationships being built and the confidence people gain through collaborating on projects at the theatre. “If we’re able to look after the people we encounter, to support and mentor them, then they might be able to go off and do great things.”

Bathway Theatre, Woolwich, London SE18 6QX. Visit the website for dates, times and ticket prices of shows coming up this summer.