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Interview ‘People are catching up to what Wac Arts has been doing’

CHE WALKER talks to Lynne Walsh about a unique training project in performance and media which is a beacon of diversity and innovation

THE PERFORMING arts in Britain are in flux. Nothing new there, but the gaps between the income-generating and the risk-taking is possibly more marked than ever.

And if you want to make a career in creative media, performing or writing, how on earth is that possible without a private income?

One charity answering that question is Wac Arts in north London. For four decades, as their mission statement has it, they’ve been “empowering young people to change their world through the arts” and, from July 26-28, they’re holding a special weekender to celebrate 40 glorious years of existence.

With its wide range of training programmes in performing arts and media for all ages,  there’s something to suit everyone. Annually, it works with over 1,000 5-30 year olds, with 1,200,000 people passing through its doors.

And Wac Arts is blessed with alumni — many are familiar faces on stage and screen —  who do not forget their roots. One such is award-winning writer, actor and director Che Walker.

Yes, he’s named after that iconic Cuban revolutionary thanks to his mother, renowned actress Ann Mitchell, and his father Robert Walker, who ran the astonishing Half Moon Theatre in the East End of London. 

His loyalty to Wac Arts borders on devotion, though he claims that this is not unusual for the north London-based company. “It has a lot of people working in the industry who come back to teach,” he explains.

“That’s not unknown but again, it’s not that common. Alumni come back, so there’s that sense of longevity. It’s a family feeling.

“I’m teaching sons and daughters of people I taught years ago. There’s a great warmth in that.”

Since starting their training programmes in 1978, former students include Marianne Jean-Baptiste, an Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe nominee, Bafta-winner Daniel Kaluuya, TV star Danny Dyer and the superb Sheila Atim, the Laurence Olivier award winner for Girl From the North Country.

There are few businesses, or even charities, these days who can claim to do what it says on the tin. “Empowering” is in many a mission statement but Walker knows that Wac Arts brings in youngsters who have been neglected by the public, private and charitable sectors.

There’s a diploma class, which focuses on young people at risk of social exclusion. That’s not a sentence you often see.

The key factor, he says, is that it’s incredibly cheap. “When I was a student, it was £1 a class. I think it’s £3 now.”

Walker must have great acuity when it comes to his students. It’s signified, for one thing, in his concern when the charity moved to their accommodation in Hampstead’s grand Old Town Hall.

“I was very nervous, about the move to Belsize Park — it’s a very affluent area. But when [the students] come here, they can shed something — not the experience they have, not how they’ve been brought up and what they know. They can move away, for a while, from there to here.

“We cover the gamut here, from people who are very alienated and don’t want to engage at all to  those desperate to try things out.”

Part of his dedication to Wac Arts is seen in the regular Revolution show he curates and directs for the annual weekender, with the alumni playing a significant part, as they have since 2012, though Walker admits: “Everyone got a little bit too famous!” Simon Callow will MC the night at the end of the month.

Walker’s well aware of the commercial aspect of the performing arts: “There's no point in ignoring that, it’s a business. But the overriding motivation is to find new voices.”

The ubiquitous talk of diversity in ethnicity, sex, sexuality, and class is “hugely important,” he says. “I think that people are catching up to what Wac Arts has been doing for 40 years. We need that multiplicity of voices.”

There can be few better suited to ponder on the state of the theatre in Britain. Though he’s in his early 50s now, Walker did grow up in that solid radical theatre background and he’s optimistic. “There’s a similar flowering now. In the 1980s, [left-wing] companies were decimated by Thatcherism, which was an attempt to silence their voices.”

At Wac Arts, those voices are not silent now.

Details of the Wac Arts weekender on July 26-28 are available at Ticket prices are kept low and, for some events, refugees have free admission.


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