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Wac Arts celebrates 40: A look back at the history of Camden’s pioneering arts charity

PUBLISHED: 13:15 11 October 2018

Wac Arts' full-time students in 2018, performing The Wiz. Picture: Wac Arts

Wac Arts' full-time students in 2018, performing The Wiz. Picture: Wac Arts

Archant

When Acland Burghley schoolteachers Celia Greenwood and Teresa Noble were hopefully asking around Camden for a space to hold arts classes back in 1978, they hardly imagined the impact their charity would have on the local community.

Wac Arts students from the past 40 years. Picture: Wac ArtsWac Arts students from the past 40 years. Picture: Wac Arts

Today, Wac Arts calls the historic Old Town Hall in Haverstock Hill home. But 40 years ago it was left to Ed Berman to step in and provide the Weekend Arts College, as it was then, a space at the old Inter-Action site in Kentish Town.

In the time since, the three of them have helped hundreds of young people in Camden hit stratospheric heights in the arts world.

Inter-Action was a social enterprise founded in Kentish Town, where the Talacre Sports Centre stands today.

In 2018, as it approaches middle-age, the charity is still hoping to grow – there’s no hint of an existential crisis here – and, cheekily, it is planning on stretching its birthday across the whole year.

Wac Arts students in a dance class. Picture: Wac ArtsWac Arts students in a dance class. Picture: Wac Arts

It is hoping to find ways to celebrate with everyone who’s ever passed through the organisation, and even those who haven’t darkened its door yet.

Listing the famous names to have graduated from Wac Arts could get tiresome quickly. Sophie Okonedo, Daniel Kaluyya, Danny Dyer and the Olivier-award winning Sheila Atim have all used the charity as stepping stones to incredible achievements.

However, the most important person to have ever taken a Wac Arts class may well have been dancer Martha Stylianou.

Martha was a promising dancer back in 1978, but she didn’t know how to prepare for the auditions that can make or break a career in the performing arts.

A group of Wac Arts students. Picture: Wac ArtsA group of Wac Arts students. Picture: Wac Arts

This inspired Celia and Teresa to find some way of offering classes to young people who might have otherwise never had the opportunity to push into the arts world.

Wac Arts’ communications director Hayley Butler told the Ham&High: “Back in ’78 Martha just couldn’t afford to access the type of traning she needed to audition at the best national dance academies.

“Celia and Teresa saw a gap there, and they wanted to offer classes to help young people like her. She ended up being involved in Wac Arts for decades, coming back as a teacher.”

Looking back and looking forward go hand in hand for chief executive Karen Napier, who took over when Celia Greenwood retired in 2016 after 38 years at the helm.

A group of Wac Arts students. Picture: Wac ArtsA group of Wac Arts students. Picture: Wac Arts

She said: “Since 1978 Wac Arts has been breaking down the barriers that many young people face when trying to access the arts. We’re arguably needed for young people even more today than 40 years ago.”

In addition to Wac Arts’ own history, we can thank the charity for its role in preserving a huge part of the borough’s – the Old Town Hall itself.

When, in 2000, the Belsize landmark was slated for demolition, 140 years of history were imperilled.

Luckily, though, it coincided with Wac Arts’ hunt for a new home, and some lobbying persuaded Camden Council to sign over the lease to the charity on a peppercorn rent.

Wac Arts students from the past 40 years. Picture: Wac ArtsWac Arts students from the past 40 years. Picture: Wac Arts

The Grade II-listed building now plays host to the comprehensive slate of Wac Arts’ activities and lessons.

It even offers a full-time diploma in musical theatre to prepare students for a perfoming career.

Beyond that, though, the Old Town Hall houses organisations that – Hayley said – make for “a really exciting and diverse space”.

Wac Arts also became “parent” to a free school for students excluded from mainstream education in 2014, as it continued its mission to serve Camden’s disadvantaged young people.

Wac Arts' full-time students in 2018, performing The Wiz. Picture: Wac ArtsWac Arts' full-time students in 2018, performing The Wiz. Picture: Wac Arts

Of course, the past 40 years have not been uninterrupted good news for Wac Arts.

As recently as late 2013, it was forced to fundraise desperately to save its weekend programme. Students took part in a silent march, before the Amy Winehouse Foundation stepped in with cash.

With cuts to school arts provision biting, Wac Arts is hoping to treble its intake in the next few years.

The aim is to get 2,500 young people involved with one of the charity’s programmes by 2021.

Wac Arts students in a dance class. Picture: Wac ArtsWac Arts students in a dance class. Picture: Wac Arts

Karen added: “Wac Arts is looking forward to offering even more inclusive arts opportunities.”

Perhaps life does begin at 40, then.

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