In this column, I’ve sometimes bemoaned the lack of time I have to read. However, the Christmas period brought some respite. Like the rest of the world, it seems, I devoured Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming.
While her honesty about marriage counselling and IVF was disarming, it was another story that stayed with me. Obama grew up in a working-class family on the south side of Chicago and, despite the odds, won places at Princeton and Harvard Law School.
She began her career back in her home city at a highly respected law firm, which offered her a great salary, a car and an assistant. Despite the success, Obama candidly shares her revelation that, after a few years, she realised she was in the wrong job. She knew her heart belonged in the non-profit sector – and she made a change to a job with half the salary, many fewer perks but with huge personal rewards.
It so happens that I was reminded of Obama’s story as I met and talked with friends over the holidays. These working people give their time and talents to the charity sector alongside their professional engagements. I’m thinking in particular of a friend who runs a theatre but does the weekend late-night shift for a mental health phoneline, and a primary school teacher who helps a refugee group with their English in south London on a Saturday morning. They are inspirational people whose sense of altruism is making a meaningful contribution to social cohesion.
There are times when we can lose sight of the fact that this, too, is one of the functions and benefits of theatre and the arts. Yes, of course, our business has its shiny side – the first nights, the award ceremonies, the power lists – but nothing feeds the heart more than our collective work, up and down the country, which contributes in immeasurable ways to the social well-being of our communities.
For me, there’s nothing like watching a group of young carers immerse themselves in the joy of a workshop, away from their daily duties at home, or reading the exceptional poems of our mental health group participants.
It’s equally inspiring to watch a relaxed performance where the informal atmosphere allows families to experience theatre without the worry of disturbing others, or hearing the dementia-friendly choirs learning new songs – or watching our youth theatre members blossom as they form new friendships and develop a sense of belonging.
These stories don’t always make the headlines. But they are just some examples of how our theatres truly transform people’s lives.