Emily Lim is the driving force behind the NT’s community engagement programme Public Acts. Its first year’s work culminated in rave reviews for Pericles at the Olivier last summer. Now the flag has been planted, she tells Lyn Gardner that the mission is to engage with partners nationwide, starting with As You Like It in Hornchurch
Some years ago, director Emily Lim had a conversation with someone quite senior at the National Theatre who told her: “You can either make community theatre or you can make work at the National Theatre.”
Lim says: “It lit a fire in me. I left that meeting ready to prove that person wrong because I didn’t believe that should be the case for the National Theatre or any theatre.”
That senior figure has long since left the NT, but it is a sign of changing times and changing attitudes that Lim is now an associate at the theatre where she leads its Public Acts programme, which is exploring how community engagement can sit right at the very heart of the NT’s mission and practice.
Public Acts, which is modelled on the Public Theater Public Works project in New York is, Lim says, Rufus Norris’ way of saying: “Let’s take this work and put it right at the heart of what we do. Let’s see if we can embed community-engaged work and run it right through the bloodstream of this building. And let’s see if we can really learn from deep partnership with other community organisations how we can live up to our responsibilities as a civic institution.”
In many ways, the NT has come late to the party, with both the National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales much further down the line in creating long-term embedded community projects featuring public performances. NTW and Wildworks’ The Passion, created with the people of Port Talbot in 2011 and one of the greatest theatrical experiences of the century, offered a signpost to how engagement and art could walk cheek by jowl.
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director on Blood Wedding at Southwark Playhouse in 2009.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Rufus Norris, but also seeing the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on stage and realising they were there not as an act of charity, but because they deserved a world-class stage. It has really informed my thinking.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Just be yourself. Come into the room with the full confidence that the people in the room really do want to meet you and spend time with you.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
My sister was the head teacher of a primary school and I’ve always thought the most important thing we can do is work with primary-school-age children.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but my preferred place just before the start of a show is on my own eating a Boost bar.
After a pilot project in Blackpool, Lim and the NT’s Public Acts team created eight partnerships with community organisations already on the ground and working with diverse communities across London and committed to two years of working closely with them. “We embarked on a process of getting to know each other,” Lim says. A team of associate artists were embedded with those organisations, and the NT and the organisations became familiar with each other’s work through a series of parties and yoga weekends, meals, workshops and theatre trips. Then the Public Acts team designed bespoke workshop programmes for each group in collaboration with them.
“It was about saying theatre is not our gift to give but theatre is something that needs to serve. How can theatre as a toolkit serve the social mission that you as organisations are already carrying out in extraordinary ways and with vision in your communities?” says Lim. “I look at Public Acts as being part of a constant reinvention of what theatre is and I think we always talk about the programme as a set of evolving and responsive principles. It is not a fixed model.”
Last August, that first year of Public Acts culminated in Lim directing Chris Bush and Jim Fortune’s musical version of Pericles on the NT’s Olivier stage with a cast of more than 200 professional and non-professional actors – including a cheer-leading squad, a gospel choir and a ska band.
“Pericles was a central point to bring everyone together. The uniting around a tangible shared purpose. With theatre, there is a goal you can see in the opening night. It is something easy to get behind.” After it garnered five-star reviews from the national press, Daniel Evans wrote in The Stage that Pericles “was one of those rare occasions when all barriers between audience and actors were banished, and we collectively felt a deep sense of pride in the tolerant, welcoming, generous landscape of the arts”. It felt like a significant moment, a planting of the flag.
But Lim had initially been uncertain if the first production of the Public Acts initiative should take place on one of the NT’s stages at all. “I questioned it at first because I was thinking about how you can make a meaningful gesture of national community that feels as if belongs to and speaks to everyone,” she says.
“I am just very aware and very passionate about the fact that national does not mean London, and I was fighting that and the feeling that Public Acts needed to make a statement of intent to be nationwide. But in retrospect it was the right thing to do and the ways we have learned from it have been profound.”
Even facilitating seven people in wheelchairs on the stage was a learning curve and there were other benefits from the project, involving staff, including security and front-of-house teams, in micro-aggression and unconscious bias training.
When we meet at the National in late July, Lim has recently been in Manchester where she was event director on the Manchester International Festival’s opening event, Yoko Ono’s Bells for Peace. She is also busy with the second Public Acts production, As You Like It, although it is not at the NT and she is not directing.
Instead it is being staged at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, directed by the venue’s artistic director Douglas Rintoul, and features non-professionals from the Pericles company and new community members. But Lim sees it as no less a significant moment as taking over the Olivier and as part of a much longer process of Public Acts engaging with partners all across the country to create long-term projects that have a genuine legacy.
“Doug has always been excited about the impact of bringing people from all corners of London to Havering, an area of outer east London that often feels forgotten by inner London. We’re hoping it will connect the theatre to its local and wider London communities in new ways,” says Lim.
In September, work starts in Doncaster, in partnership with Cast, on a project that will culminate with Slung Low associate artistic director James Blakey directing a new version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It is adapted by Chris Bush, who also adapted Pericles.
The scale and complexity of the Public Acts project may seem daunting, with its need to balance the needs of all the partner organisations and the individuals, but not to Lim who takes it all in her stride – whether sourcing ice lollies for the company when rehearsing on a hot day, or working out how a dance workshop can be tailored to the needs of those who have a stigmatised relationship with their bodies.
“She really is the most extraordinary human being,” says Bush. “Nobody could ask for a better collaborator because she has a combination of sky-high artistic abilities and the biggest heart. We had 230 performers assembled on the first day of rehearsals for Pericles and Emily knew the name of every single one of them.”
Ned Glasier, artistic director of Company Three, where Lim is an associate, co-directed the brilliant Brainstorm – about the workings of the teenage mind – with Lim at the Park Theatre, then at the NT’s Temporary Theatre, also known as the Shed, in 2015. He says: “One of the most important skills in any artist working with people who aren’t professional actors – and probably for any artist anywhere – is the ability to make participants in any project feel special, important and loved. It’s something that can’t be taught, you just have to have it, and Emily has it more than almost any other artist I know or have worked with.”
In 2015, Lim was runner-up in the JMK Award, which has played a huge role in the careers of some of the UK’s most significant directors. She was staff director on Norris’ productions of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Everyman. Though, when I ask her whether she ever hankers after just staging a nice Tom Stoppard play in the Lyttelton she looks genuinely perplexed.
“No, I don’t think so, unless there was a very good reason why it should be me. What I’m most interested in is understanding what theatre can be as a force for social change and do good in a world that feels increasingly divided and ripped apart by social injustice and isolation.”
Lim loves theatre and is clearly a talented director, but she sees theatre as a tool and a means to an end, not just the end in itself. Pericles may have attracted rave reviews, but she is far more interested in the impact on those who took part rather than its impact on the reviewer from the Times.
“Our community partners often talk about their members as people who often have things done to them. This project gives them an active role in their own lives,” she says. “On stage during Pericles, they could feel the heat and the tears and the applause directly coming back at them from the audience, and that gives them a courage and proactiveness in other trickier moments of their lives. That has been a huge lesson for me: you can create this space where people can see themselves differently and we can see ourselves differently in relation to one another as a community and that can give rise to real agency.”
The clue to Lim’s approach may come from her upbringing in a large family that was rooted “in the values of compassion, empathy and responsibility, and hard work and service to ideas and people – we were expected to ask ourselves how we might be of use in the world”. While still at school, she was involved in voluntary work but there was also a lot of playing, with the children putting on their own plays and dressing up.
When she went to the University of Oxford, where she studied Classics, Lim auditioned for plays but when she was never cast she turned to directing. On leaving university she became interested in finding a way in which voluntary work and directing could align and began working with companies such as Synergy, Chickenshed and Half Moon Young People’s Theatre.
“Right from the start I was interested in the social mission and how theatremaking could be a way to achieve that.” But a seminal moment came early on when she was working on a holiday project for a charity, pulling together different bits of material informed by the participants’ own experience.
“I described it to somebody that it felt like a joyful mess, and after the sharing, that person asked: ‘Are you a theatre director who wants to make theatre or are you a practitioner who is happy to make a joyful mess and that is the end product?’ It was very crystallising for me because I went: ‘No, I want to make really excellent work.’
“It was the moment when I realised that while lots of good things can come from making a joyful mess together, and sometimes a joyful mess can be high art. I had almost forgiven and excused the project in a way that didn’t reflect how important I feel the quality of the work is to the experience of the community members.”
It made her all the more determined to cultivate the skills she needed. In 2013, she won a place on the NT Studio’s trainee director course, but even then, she realised her interests were different from many of her peers.
“Everyone around table was talking about the writers they were interested in, and I said that I made work with teenagers and in hospitals and schools and playgrounds and I didn’t normally have a budget of more than 50p and I went to the pound shop to get the props.”
She continues: “I never saw myself as part of that club or saw myself as deserving of doing the NT Studio directing course because even though all these companies like Quarantine and Wildworks were doing amazing work, at that time it wasn’t recognised in the same way.
“It almost had a stigma attached to it. So, I did feel like an outsider, but it turned out to be an amazing space to unpick who I was as an artist and meet a brilliant group of people, and I am lucky to have emerged at a time when the temperature around this work has changed. People are valuing it.”
The NT’s support for Public Acts reflects a growing sentiment that a theatre that does not value its community work is a theatre that doesn’t actually value its community and sits outside society, rather than being part of it. Questions will increasingly be raised over whether those that continue to sit outside deserve subsidy.
For Lim, one of the crucial things about Public Acts is not just about how it has an impact on peoples’ lives but also how it might have an impact on the National Theatre.
“I am wary about making claims to change, rather I’d say it is about making the conditions for change. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of artists creating change when actually the community members are creating it for themselves. But in all our initial conversations the paramount thing was that we were going to make proper partnerships and proper partnerships are about two-way learning. This is not about us going in and telling anyone how to do anything or doing something we perceive as being needed. It is about listening and learning.”
She adds: “The truth of the matter is I think it is going to take a long time for us to understand how and if it has changed this building. It would be a mistake for us to make assumptions, but there has been lots of feedback from those working in the building – that through the project the London they saw outside was for the first time being reflected in the building. There is a genuine commitment to giving over the full resource of the NT to community work, and a real pride that we are trying to do it. People are elated by it.”
Training: NT Studio course (2013)
• The Kilburn Passion, Tricycle Theatre, London (2014)
• Wuthering Heights, Ambassadors Theatre, London (2015)
• Brainstorm, the Shed, National Theatre, London (2015)
• A Declaration from the People, National Theatre, London (2015)
• Pericles, National Theatre (2018)
• The Best Day Ever! A Play about the End of the World, Pleasance Theatre, London (2019)
• Bells for Peace, Manchester International Festival (2019)
• Better Bankside Shakespeare Award (2010)
• Peter Hall Award (2015)
Agent: Macnaughton Lord Representation