Common Wealth Immersive Experience. A woman sits in a booth holding a light and surrounded by a circle of rainbow coloured lights

Experience: Common Wealth

Off the Curriculum, Knowledge Library 

Common Wealth are based in Bradford and Cardiff and work across the UK and internationally. We’re called Common Wealth, 2 words, because we believe in the wealth of being Common, of being poor. Working class people are often told they live in ‘deprived areas’ but we know first-hand how rich these areas are with ideas, opinions and intention to change things. 

Transforming our building

In Bradford we inhabit a building, Common Space, which is due to be demolished in 2026. For us, this represents an opportunity; if the building is to be knocked down then that grants us creative potential to do something transformative within it. The building is a former ‘Youth Opportunity Centre’ – again there is something symbolic about transforming what this means in our context as Common Wealth. We’re a site-specific theatre company, so we never put a play on a stage, we are excited by creating immersive environments and our own building gives us the best opportunity to have the autonomy to do that.

Class and working site-specifically 

Our aversion to theatre buildings and traditional institutions is central to our aim at Common Wealth – we want to engage working class audiences and know that theatres come with a set of codes of behaviour that often exclude people right from the start. We are also wary of traditional end-on staging as the audience often becomes a passive captive, trapped in the dark, trying not to make any noise and be as polite as possible. It’s never felt very activated for the political change we want to make. We try to create environments where audiences feel relaxed, they are usually close to the action and we don’t police behaviour by making people turn off phones, not eat, etc. We know so much of life can be navigating places which make you feel you’re going to get told off and for us live performance and working site-specifically is about creating more utopian spaces where people can feel free to be themselves, to imagine how things could be. 

Off the Curriculum 

We wanted to create this space of artistic potential and freedom in our own building. Young people we work with are constantly telling us how stifling the school experience is, how regimented, getting a detention for dropping a ruler, that kind of thing. It felt really important that young people get the experience of freedom that we’ve had, to play and imagine and dream in a building. We started to think, let’s make something that is a comment on our education system, working from the best of children and young people – from their wealth – imagination and voice which transforms our building at the same time. So we came up with the idea of Off the Curriculum; what if we take subjects we don’t get taught at school and combine them with art forms we don’t get taught at school, and children and young people dream up how these combinations could work, to create immersive spaces for us to inhabit. 

We worked with 60 children and young people who came up with collisions of subjects and art forms and designed each room based on these pairings. We have 17 spaces in our building which we transformed to explore – Capitalism x Graffiti, Jewellery x Time Travel, Great Zimbabwe x Projection, Pottery x Self-Care, Deep Ocean x Puppetry, Kurdish Culture x Sculpture, Nature x Drawing, Natural Disasters x Clay, Climate Change x Den Building, Phones x Poetry, Arms Trade x Electronics, Origami x LGBTQI Rights, Gravity x Collage, Video Games x Fashion, Robots x Plants. Amazing combinations! 

Young people’s process 

The children and young people researched the art form and the subject and worked together in groups to develop the design ideas, which professional set builders and artists then brought to life. We created this wild immersive festival where you travelled through the building and these installations. Each space was facilitated by the kids and young people who designed them and they would explain the concept and hang out with audiences who in turn became participants. 

We also built a ‘New Parliament’, a debate space in the heart of the building where young people discussed subjects they chose, like ‘is the education system racist?’, or ‘should school uniform be banned?’. We alternated between a debate every half hour, and a DJ set where we worked with other young people to come up with music based on their own Off the Curriculum subjects including the LGBTQ roots of dance music, the cost-of-living crisis and music histories. 

We thought people might come and spend an hour in the space, but some people came and spent the whole day, taking different journeys, having different experiences and interacting with the installations in new ways.

Our immersive working building 

We’ve kept most of the installations up (except for the maze in our rehearsal room exploring Deep Ocean x Shadow Puppets, and the Climate Change x Den Building in our office). Young people meet in our building most nights, for our Youth Theatre Lab, Speakers Corner, or to work in the music studio with All Star. This is a space that is full of art, ideas, potential and it’s theirs, it’s not a clinical, formal space like school, it’s a completely different building of imagination that young people can come to for a few hours to breathe out, immerse themselves in and make it feel part of their ‘normal lives’ in in the best possible way. For young people to imagine a different world.

Film Created by Jack King, Photos by Nathan McGill
Date of article - March 5, 2024

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