THE BIG INTERVIEW: Unlocking Potential  

Darren Raymond, artistic director of Intermission Theatre in Knightsbridge confounds every stereotype. Any preconceived idea of what a theatre director “should” be evaporates as soon as you meet him. Susan Elkin did.

For a start Darren, 37, is employed by the Church of England and Intermission Theatre is based at part-converted St Saviour’s Church which has given over much of its space to Intermission Theatre while still running services and traditional parish activities.

Darren and his four colleagues work with 25 young people each year. These are all people who “want to grow” as Darren puts it. He dislikes labelling them but tells me that – for funding applications he is obliged to use terms such as “lacking opportunities” “disadvantaged background” and “at risk of offending”. Some of his participants, who come from all over London are offenders and ex-offenders. “But it really is best not to categorise them” he says. “We’ve all got problems.”

Intermission members learn acting and other transferable skills. And they stage plays, usually written/adapted and directed by Darren, in the theatre upstairs at St Saviour’s. It’s mostly Shakespeare because that’s what Darren finds works best. Intermission also does outreach work in schools and for young offenders at HMP Feltham. Mark Rylance is one of Intermission’s patrons and a great supporter.

A lot of Darren’s “mission” – not a word he would use – involves helping young people to turn their lives round and/or to make good decisions about their future. And given his background they couldn’t have a more powerful role model than this thoughtful, articulate man.

“I grew up on a Hackney estate. My mum, a single parent who did a grand job, really wanted the best for us and recognised that education was key. She sent me to Westminster City School, which primarily caters for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds because she didn’t reckon the local schools.”

It didn’t work, though. Darren needed to belong. “The contrast was too difficult. Near school I’d see all these suited types hurrying to work and then go home to the lure of the local estate.”

Nonetheless he did his school work. He admits he often behaved badly but was “clever enough to get away with it”. Having passed both GCSEs and A levels he started at Middlesex University. “I knew it wasn’t right for me, but it seemed to be my duty”.

By the time he was 19, Darren was in prison. His offences were possession of Class A drugs with intent to supply and money laundering. He talks about this with admirable matter-of-fact openness stressing that the life he led was all part of the environment which surrounded him. “It was so easy. The city, where there was money to buy the drugs was close by.”

He recalls soberly: “You quickly become very institutionalised in prison. There is nothing ‘normal’ to talk about. You just chat about life on the wing and what’s happening around you”.

One day, his cell mate signed them both up for a drama class on the “something to do” principle. “Of course, I didn’t take it remotely seriously. I just went for a laugh,” says Darren.

The class was run by Bruce Wall of London Shakespeare Workshop which specialises in taking young professional actors into prisons to run workshops and sometimes to stage shows. “I messed about for half an hour and made fun of Bruce”, Darren recalls and then realised that I was stuck there for two hours anyway so I might as well join in. It was fun! Drama games made me feel as if I was recapturing the missed childhood in my life. And, liberatingly, they called us by our first names. I suddenly felt like a human being and that’s rare in prison”

He adds: “I’d already been inside for 9 months and was feeling like a very unworthy failure. You lose your identity in prison. You’re just a statistic in a confined space.”

Darren’s turnaround was underway. More classes and workshops followed. “Bruce was very encouraging and told me he thought I had talent – and it was all something to talk about back in the cell”. In time there was a production of A Winter’s Tale to which family and friends were invited. And that included Darren’s mother and his then girlfriend, now wife – mother of his three daughters – who has stood by him for twenty years since he was 17.

Heady stuff. “Then we did Othello and I was cast in the lead.” But then the authorities said he was about to be moved to a Category D prison.

Darren had to explain the implications of this to me as we sat comfortably on sofas sipping water on a very hot day in the foyer area at St Saviour’s. Brixton is a Category B prison. Category D is an open prison which would allow privileges such as home visits. “I told them I couldn’t possibly go because of Othello. I was playing the title role and I couldn’t let the rest of the cast down. Anyway, I really wanted to do it”.

He chuckles. “It’s absolutely unheard of for an inmate to argue against a Cat D transfer.” After much incredulity and being told that he couldn’t choose, the Governor got involved. “Finally it was agreed that I could stay. I served my entire sentence at Brixton – just because of Shakespeare!”

He continues: “At one point I had a ROTL – Release on Temporary Licence – negotiated by Bruce, to perform it outside the prison too.”

Then of course came release. “The temptation of the estate was strong still and I could easily have slipped back. More decisions and turning points”. After a few months, Bruce rang and said he was taking Othello on tour. Would I like to play the lead again?”

Not quite sure it was really what he wanted even then, although it was a paid job, Darren agreed to do it. “Partly because it was a tour which meant you got to stay in hotels and that was useful because I was homeless”, he recalls cheerfully adding more seriously that it also took him around Britain. “It was mind-widening. Before that I really only knew Hackney and Brixton prison” he says.

One of the venues Othello played in was St Saviour’s Church where he got talking, not for the first time to Rob Gillion, Rector and a former actor. “Rob asked me to set up a theatre company here” says Darren, who then worked with Rob and his wife Jeanine, both now retired, to make Intermission what it is today. That was twelve years ago. Today Intermission is just completing its first decade in its present form.

I comment on the company’s punning name: a theatre interval and an activity which has a mission to intervene. “Mission” of course has religious overtones and we’re in a church, so I ask Darren whether he’s a practising Christian.

“Yes, I am” he says, simply telling me that all the staff who work with him are too. “I went to church with my mum as a child but then I got a brain and gave it up. Through conversations with Rob who is totally unstuffy, I gradually came to realise that there was something there for me. And I began coming to Sunday services at St Saviour’s.”

All Intermission rehearsals begin and end with praying together. “No one is, or can be, forced to join in, obviously. I ask them to stand quietly with us out of respect if they don’t feel able to participate” says Darren. He adds “I’m probably an unusual Christian because I don’t believe my way is the only one. There are many routes to peace and happiness. For me it’s through Christ. Others find different ways.”

Intermission has made a huge difference to the lives of hundreds of young people. Many are transformed and find their way back into education (which may have rejected them) with prospects of a decent future. Darren and I talk, in general terms – for example – about one young person who got involved with gangs and was badly treated by adults. Self-esteem and confidence restored by Intermission, it was a top university and a promising career which followed not prison, mental health problems and the like. Quite a success story and Darren’s got lots of those. If there were more funding he’d dearly like to double the cohort to 50 so that he could run two groups concurrently each year.

Meanwhile he talks rather movingly about the part of his own past which pre-dates prison. “I think you are, in the end, the product of your upbringing” he says. “I’ve finally come back to being the person my mum meant me to be. She is now very proud of me”

Darren also tells me that his old English teacher, Colin Nash came to a show at St Saviour’s in 2011. “He and I have been in touch ever since and that’s lovely. He says that when he left I wrote him a poem which he still has framed on the wall”.

Darren still acts too. Last year Intermission did some collaborative work with the RSC which led to his being asked to play Prospero in the production of The Tempest which toured to schools. More role modelling for the young people who come to Intermission and a terrific fillip for the company.

Before I leave he hugs me with real affection, having turned the interview around for a bit and asked me warm, interested, unhurried questions about my own life. Very few interviewees do that. It is testament to the caring, human warmth of the man. The Church, Intermission Theatre and its members are very fortunate to have him.

www.intermissionyouththeatre.co.uk

IMAGE ABOVE: Workshop with Darren