Big State Theatre has made a lot of friends over the years. Formed by a group of professional performers in 1996, it has built a loyal following in such far flung corners as Cairo and Bradford on Avon.
This four-strong workers co-op devises and performs original comic theatre, made to be accessible. In Spaghetti Weston-Super-Mare, for example, characters from classic westerns collide in a seaside restaurant kitchen. Another popular show, the darkly comic Hitting Dennis, explores themes of violence, gangs and murder, with grisly humour.
The company specialises in workshops too, using improvisation in film and theatre to help people develop their imagination and communication skills. During regular trips to the Egyptian capital Cairo, the co-op’s members have helped teenagers in the city create a series of films about their lives. Big State co-director Mark Bishop was delighted when, on a recent birthday, he received a flurry of Facebook greetings from the friends he made there. “It moved me,” he says. “It filled me with joy. We’ve stayed in touch. Last time we were there was just before the revolution. We really hope to go out there again soon.”
Closer to home, the co-op is working with Swindon’s Reach Inclusive Arts to co-create a show which the two companies will perform side by side. The Change Room is about the difficult changes people have to make, and will take the form of a dramatised game show.
“It’s a first for us,” says Mark. “We’ve worked with Reach before but we’ve never put a show on together. It’s an original comedy with some serious bits. That’s what we specialise in.”
Big State is also working on a film — half documentary, half loosely based on The Odyssey — which it is co-creating with young people on the streets of Salisbury
“Our company is based at Salisbury Arts Centre, and they find it really difficult to draw people from Bedminton Heath, the big housing estate nearby,” says Mark. “So we’ve been going down there, finding out who’s hanging out and trying to make them interested in making a film.”
The teenager playing Odysseus is a free runner, which has created exciting footage. And the team has discovered the estate is full of surprises. “One night during filming a horse and cart rocked up in the middle of the street,” says Mark. “You couldn’t have written it.”
Working for Big State is different every day, he says. “One day we’ll be filming, the next day we’ll be developing a show. The next day we could be working with adults with learning difficulties or doing street theatre.
“We like to work with people slightly on the edge of things. We do a lot of workshops with young people and with people with disabilities and learning difficulties. These are the groups that come to the forefront for when we think about love. These are groups that we get so much from. Teenagers often struggle to give ideas and be positive, but we’ve found people with learning difficulties are incredibly positive.
“We run a music and film workshop for young adults with learning difficulties at Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon on Saturdays. I’m often very tired on a Saturday. I give a lot of energy in these sessions. But by the end of the day I’m re-energised. They give it all back.
“Theatre in general is all about love,” says Mark. “It’s all about people. We’ve made hundreds, probably thousands of friends over the years.”