Home » Features and Interviews » Interview: Matt Steinberg tells us about Outside Edge, a theatre company working with addictions
Photo credit @ Darren Bell

Interview: Matt Steinberg tells us about Outside Edge, a theatre company working with addictions

Outside Edge has spent the last 20 years as the UK’s only theatre company and participatory arts charity focused on improving the lives of people affected by any form of addiction; both those with addictions and those around them. When we saw an appeal via Crowdfunding, we wanted to find out more and offer our support. And what better way than an interview with Artistic Director, Matt Steinberg.

What initially brought you to Outside Edge?

Like many Artistic Directors, I spent the first part of my career as an actor turned freelance director. I’m originally from Canada and when I moved to the UK in 2011 I figured I’d be very fortunate if I managed to eke out a freelance career in a new country. It really never occurred to me that within seven years I’d be an Artistic Director. And Outside Edge isn’t just a theatre company, it’s also a participatory arts charity, so to my great surprise I’m now the CEO of a small social welfare charity with health and wellbeing outcomes; I definitely never expected to find myself doing that sort of job in a totally different sector!

A few years ago I was at a tricky point in my career. I had directed a couple of successful fringe productions, assisted a bunch of great directors at great theatres and I had a strong professional network, but I couldn’t make the leap from producing on a project-to-project basis to being hired by a theatre company. I was too old or experienced for early-career development schemes and not experienced enough for Associate Director schemes. Basically, I was experiencing what another director referred to as the early-mid-career bottleneck effect where there are too many equally qualified candidates trying to land a very small number of jobs. 

After a while I became pretty disheartened and wasn’t sure how I fit into the industry. So I applied to the Clore Leadership programme with a pitch that I wanted to drive change in the sector and help artists to develop sustainable careers in the theatre. In my application I said that to do this I MIGHT eventually one day CONSIDER being an Artistic Director. To my surprise the Clore offered me a place on the course. Then shortly after someone suggested that I start to apply for leadership roles, since that’s what I was planning to focus on during my Clore residential. 

At first I resisted the suggestion, but since it was just meant to be an exercise to help me re-articulate my skills and experience, I thought I’d give it a try. The first Artistic Director job that came up on ArtsJobs was for a small theatre company and participatory arts charity that was focused on addiction, so the rest (as they say) is history.

All of this occurred within three months of being accepted on the Clore course, which finished the Friday before I was meant to start at Outside Edge. So when I turned up for the two week residential my question was no longer, “Should I possibly consider thinking about becoming an Artistic Director?”, it was now urgently, ‘How the hell do I actually be an Artistic Director?”

How do the two parts, theatre company and social welfare charity, work together?

Outside Edge was founded 20 years ago by an actor, playwright and director named Phil Fox, who was also a recovering heroin addict and alcoholic. When Phil was in the midst of active addiction he struggled to maintain his creative practice, but through reengaging with his craft he found that he could support his recovery. He was driven to make work about his lived experience, but he also wanted to share with other people how creativity and drama could help them to remain sober. So from it’s earliest days Outside Edge has been both a producing theatre company and a recovery support service. 

We still work from this model, whereby we produce new pieces of theatre about issues related to addiction, which may or may not be created by people with lived experience, and we deliver a series of free weekly drama activities for people affected by addiction. For example, last year we co-produced a play about chemsex at the Soho Theatre using a cast and crew of trained professionals, but we also presented a play at the VAULT Festival that was devised and performed by a mixed group of trained professionals and community participants about their lived experience of moving from addiction to recovery. We really don’t hold a distinction between community and professional artists. At the end of the day the audience judges the quality of the work onstage and not a performer or writer’s background or training.

Now we’re starting to see theatres reopening, what plans have you got for the coming months?

We’re in the final stages of assessing scripts for the Phil Fox Award for Playwriting, which is our inaugural competition for plays about issues related to addiction. It’s a really thrilling moment for us because we’re meeting so many new playwrights and building relationships that will help us generate new work over the coming years. 

Photo credit @ Ali Wright

In the short-term, we’re focusing more on growing our participatory arts offer. We’ve had a 40% increase in need since the start of lockdown for our arts-based recovery maintenance activities and we don’t anticipate this will decrease any time soon. We’ve gone from delivering 5 weekly groups (and a Drama Taster Session project in treatment facilities) before lockdown to 9 weekly groups over the course of this year. We’ve just expanded our activity offer from West London into South London and we’re about to partner on a dance/creative movement group with the incredible Fallen Angels Dance Theatre who also work with people affected by addiction. So we are busier than ever before, but any work we present on stage over the coming months will be created by people with lived experience of addiction while we build our pipeline of new work as a producing theatre company.

How have you coped with an increase in people approaching you for help?

The average number of people attending each of our sessions has increased by almost half since the start of lockdown. Considering that we’ve practically doubled the number of weekly sessions we offer shows just how much people need a stable, consistent recovery maintenance activity during this challenging period of time. One of our participants told us after one of our drama sessions that he was, “grateful for this safe space. It’s keeping me sane. It’s keeping me alive.” So we knew almost immediately that for some of our most socially isolated participants we would become an important lifeline for the foreseeable future.

We’ve always offered pastoral care in addition to our creative activities, but we never expected this part of our work to become as central as it has been during the Covid-19 crisis. Many of the people we support are incredibly vulnerable and have a range of very complex needs. From the start of the pandemic we had to refocus a lot of our resources on making sure people were safe, had enough food to eat and were able to connect with services in the local community, including their recovery support network. We discovered very quickly that a lot of our beneficiaries were digitally excluded or had poor digital skills, so a significant amount of work over the past six months has been around getting people online and fundraising to keep people connected. This was urgently necessary because, like most other organisations, we moved all of our activities on to Zoom in the space of two weeks.

Because of this increase in demand for one-to-one support, we’ve had to hire another staff member to help us continue to operate smoothly. We’ve also become much more sophisticated with how we use volunteers. In many respects Covid-19 accelerated plans we had for expanding our participatory arts and pastoral care offer, we just didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly!

You’re currently crowdfunding, with a target of £2,500, is this funding for a specific project?

Our current campaign is to help us cover some of the unexpected costs associated with this increase in need we’ve seen due to Covid-19. As social distancing measures continue, and with the possibility of stricter lockdown rules on the horizon, we’re especially focused on continuing to make sure our activities remain accessible for as many people as possible. This means that we need to be ready to supply more digitally excluded people with technology, mobile data plans and other types of support to make sure that they can remain connected to our activities and their wider support networks.

There has been plenty of talk recently about how the arts need to rethink how they work in and with the local community, what could they learn from Outside Edge?

Everything we do at Outside Edge is done WITH our beneficiaries. This means that the people accessing our activities play an active role in designing our offer. For example, we undertook a consultation process at the very start of lockdown with our participants about what they wanted from us and what they needed to feel safe. The feedback and suggestions we received allowed us to work in partnership with them to meet the needs of the community and to design new activities that were actually effective in addressing their needs. This produced a weekly Theatre Club that allows participants the chance to socialise online to discuss a streamed production (with amazing Q&A guests such as Michelle Terry, Roger Allam and Rupert Goold!), a Peer-led Check-in every week where they can support each other in their recoveries and a group that will get people physically moving through dance/creative movement. We would never have come up with these ideas without an in-depth consultation process and by creating space for the beneficiaries to speak with each other and with our staff. The result is that together we were able to come up with some wonderfully creative and very innovative solutions!

I should say that one of the challenges we face is that it’s very difficult to co-produce arts activities with our community because many of them don’t come from a background where they were exposed to different forms of art, let alone different types of theatre. When we recruit people from drug and alcohol treatment facilities we usually find that about 50% will tell us that our Drama Taster Sessions are their first time participating or engaging in drama or theatre. Over the past couple of years we’ve started to arrange lots of free Theatre Trips for our participants to attend a broad range of productions so that they have a wider vocabulary to use when we ask them what they would like us to offer. This has led to some really unexpected projects, such as a module in Acting Through Song that we designed with them following a Theatre Trip to see a musical at LAMDA. 

And is there anything you’d like to see Outside Edge do that right now just isn’t possible, maybe because of time/ resources? 

Outside Edge is experiencing a really thrilling period of growth and, as a very small organisation, we’re all enjoying the challenges associated with punching above our weight. With the Phil Fox Award for Playwriting it feels like the first time we’ll be in a position to identify a pool of plays that we want to develop and build seasons around. As an Artistic Director this opportunity to discover new stories, build interesting creative teams and develop new audiences is a dream come true. 

In terms of our participatory arts offer, we really want to continue to build on the incredible ideas that have come out of lockdown and maintain all of our new groups. Thanks to our online offer we’ve enjoyed meeting more participants from outside of London (and even outside of the UK) and we’d love to do more work across the country so that access to our activities isn’t based on a postcode lottery.

There must be so many great success stories, is there any in particular that you think epitomises just what Outside Edge is all about?

One example of Outside Edge’s ability to nurture new talent is a vivid story from eight years ago when we toured a production to a drug and alcohol treatment centre. The play presented was about a mother whose children were being taken away from her due to her addiction. In the final moments of the production, a client named Sonya Hale who had been in and out of the criminal justice system her entire adult life stood up and said, “That’s me! That’s my life!!” Sonya had not encountered theatre before, but once she left treatment she started attending our drama workshops, performed in our productions and eventually began to write plays for us. 
Eight years later Sonya is sober, her son has been returned to her and she is now an acclaimed playwright whose plays have been performed at The Southbank Centre, The Big House, Latitude Festival and East15 University. Rehearsed readings of her first play Glory Whispers were performed at Theatre503 after winning Synergy Theatre Project’s national prison scriptwriting competition. Her monologue play Dean McBride was a finalist in the inaugural Heretic Voices competition, and was performed at the Arcola Theatre. Sonya’s story has been featured in the Evening Standard and she received a Jerwood Arts commission from Clean Break Theatre Company and HighTide Theatre Festival. Sonya is also an Outside Edge Theatre Company Associate Theatre Facilitator and leads our writers group. She said of her time as a participant, “Outside Edge, more than anything, has given me the greatest gift ever. Belief. Belief in myself and in the wonder of life itself.”

Finally, what would you say with someone with an addiction, or those close to them, who think theatre just isn’t for them?

They should just listen to one of our participants who is in recovery themselves: “Definitely go for it! It can be daunting to let your guard down and be silly, I found it difficult too, but as a result of stepping out of my comfort zone I’ve gained so much.”

Our thanks and appreciate to Matt for taking time out of what is clearly a busy time for Outside Edge to talk to us. An organsation that we believe deserves as much attention as possible.

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