TBB Talks To…Suzann McLean Artistic Director of Theatre Peckham

In May Theatre Peckham launched the Peckham Fringe, bringing an exciting new festival to South London throughout the month. 

Across 5 weeks, 27 visiting companies took over the main theatre and studio space with theatre, spoken word, live music, multi-media performances and live cooking on-stage, Peckham Fringe will come to an end this Sunday 5th June.

Suzann McLean is an award-winning screen and stage actress, McLean took on the role of Theatre Peckham’s Artistic Director in September 2018. McLean is the founder and director of the award-winning theatre school, Young & Talented. McLean is Associate Artist at York Theatre Royal, an associate of Pilot Theatre and associate of the young people’s work at Theatre Royal Stratford East. She has directed stage productions and was asked to be a torch bearer at the 2012 Olympics.

We spoke to Suzann about the Peckham Fringe, what it means to the community in the borough and her plan and vision for Theatre Peckham for 2022 onwards…

Please introduce yourself..

Suzann McLean Black British Caribbean (Bermuda and Trinidad)

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now…

Blessed

You are artistic director/CEO of Theatre Peckham… what does ‘artistic director/CEO’ actually mean? And how do you go about reaching your goals as an artistic director/CEO?

I set the strategy and vision for Theatre Peckham and am responsible for building the team that has the talent to deliver the strategy, and making sure that there is enough cash in the bank so that we are properly financed to reach our goals. I also set the culture of the organisation; at Theatre Peckham we are values-led and collaborative, this means that every team member, no matter their role, has agency and the ability to positively influence our work.

Theatre Peckham values its community and especially the young people there, how does the building serve its community as well as its arts interested patronage?

Young People are at the heart of everything that we do at Theatre Peckham. To authentically serve our community I believe that it starts with the team. Our internal inclusivity demonstrates the value we place on lived experience and the importance of representation. This naturally leads to authentic work which builds new local audiences which in turn reach regular theatregoers. The diverse lived experiences of our team mean that we understand how to overcome barriers to participation as well as what shows/events/experiences they want to see.

Do you feel things have changed, improved or have remained stagnated since recovering from the pandemic, how do you see the theatre moving forward from this point onward?

The pandemic reminded a lot of people about the beauty of community. For the longest of times, I think theatre became about artists making the work that they wanted to make for the people who they thought were most likely to attend. During the pandemic creativity came back to its core -telling stories, engaging with people, and exploring and reflecting the human experience. Theatre is supposed to be a universal language, it is supposed to be a means of connecting with everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or ability. It’s about authentic conversations irrespective of status or power. The pandemic offered a re-set button and every theatre has been forced to consider how they are representative of the world in which we live. I think it’s possibly too early to tell if this change is forever, but there has definitely been a wake up call and I pray that it is upheld.

Tell us about your plan and vision for Theatre Peckham for 2022 onwards and how the productions you have chosen to show at the Peckham Fringe showcase this?

Our programme represents and reflects life as experienced by our community in Southwark. We support emerging artists from underrepresented backgrounds to flourish, providing a springboard for the future. We believe that art forms are enriched by creatives who have new perspectives, tell untold stories, and push the boundaries of form.

Peckham Fringe is a festival of dynamic, brave, and provocative stories enabling artists and companies to try out new work in a supportive setting. It was curated by our Associate Director Phillippe Cato who has intentionally programmed pieces that reflect the lives of our hyper-local community. Beyond the festival we wish to further broaden our local impact so that people in Peckham & Camberwell feel more invested, represented, and central to the programme we present.

The programme tackles and explores an array of subject matters affecting Black Lives including Black freedom on British soil in The Pocket, Black transgender immigrant in NO ID, and more. How important are these subject matters to you and in what ways do they fit in with Theatre Peckham’s core values?

Theatre Peckham is a Black-led theatre deeply embedded within its diverse South-East London community. This change in leadership in 2018 has naturally led to a significant shift in Theatre Peckham’s core values. We amplify underrepresented voices and enable the most exciting artists to stage stories that are authentic and relevant and platform topics that excite, encourage and challenge audiences. Central to this is the staging of stories that highlight the nuances of the Black British experience and celebrate the reach and legacy of the African diaspora. The Black stories within the fringe are subject matters that affect the lives of people across the borough and London, nation and worldwide. They are stories that need to be shared so that we can understand and do better with how we live and act as a society.

Which of the shows of this season of Peckham Fringe are you most proud of?

I am super proud of Sunny Side Up by David Alade. I have directed this piece and it has been an incredible experience. It’s a very personal true story about David’s life and the passing of his father. My own father passed in 2011 and my mum passed last year as one of the many Black elders to lose their life to Covid-19. When our producer handed me the script I honestly didn’t think that I would be able to get through it. But meeting David, sharing and connecting, it became a dream project. The play is heartwarming, tear jerking and honest but it is also political and demands answers for how society shapes the masculinity of young Black boys.

There are also a series of events curated by Theatre Peckham called Fringe Features. Can you tell us a little more about this and what audiences can expect?

Fringe Features are a bunch of one-off events that give that real fringe appeal. We have had a New Writing Scratch Night that showcased the writing of three Black female playwrights, and a Black Musical Theatre Night that celebrated some of the best songs from hit shows, we had our Comedy Night headlined by Travis Jay on the 18th of May and our Music Night Hosted by queer rap artist Jak Traded on 1st June.

Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

I’m directing a series of to-camera learning films in partnership with Words of Colour that use theatre and digital as creative vehicles to tell the true stories of Black people with lived experiences of severe mental distress. I am also working with UK rapper Ragz CV to create a new piece of music theatre about the mental health experience for Black men called Men-Tall.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

  • A book you have to have in your collection?  Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde

  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Dance with My Father by Luther Vandross

  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Set it off

  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)?   Black Mime Theatre Women’s Troupe in the 1990’s. Directed by Denise Wong this was the first time that I understood the power of theatre. I saw my life on stage for the very first time and it was captivating.

  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad, Mad, Glad – I went through all three of these emotions this week directing Sunny Side Up.

Peckham Fringe runs until Sunday 5th June

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