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Opening up the arts to under-represented groups has to be the priority

Through its Creative Hub, Utopia Theatre is using the arts to build self-belief, community and a sense of belonging in Sheffield, writes Artistic Director Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju.

Utopia Theatre team Mojisola Kareem Elufowoju centre

The Utopia Theatre team outside the Creative Hub.

Utopia Theatre

Raising aspirations and embedding inclusivity is about more than having access to good education. While that’s a solid foundation, it’s also essential that everybody feels part of something and has the chance to develop their independence while knowing they have a trusted network, role models and mentors in their lives, and the ability to express themselves.

Access to theatre, arts and cultural organisations can do all of that and more. That’s why at Utopia Theatre we have opened up a Creative Hub in the heart of Sheffield, which is all about giving people of African and African Caribbean descent, alongside all under-represented groups, the chance to access support and learn new skills in a space which is fun and welcoming. Adults and children can join sessions, workshops or just call into our vibrant space on Rockingham Gate to feel a sense of belonging.

We were named a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) by Arts Council England earlier this year, which has given us the ability to open this first-of-its-kind space in Sheffield, on Rockingham Gate. This marks a pivotal moment for our organisation, which is all about using African theatre and storytelling to widen participation and provide inclusive opportunities in the city. We very purposefully highlight important themes linked to African heritage to entertain and inform, providing a voice and platform for people who may otherwise not get the opportunity.

Sheffield’s multi-cultural spirit is to be celebrated

Sheffield has been Utopia Theatre’s home since we launched a decade ago. It’s a city full of vibrancy and I absolutely adore my home. But there are still communities in which people don't feel they belong in a cultural space, or even that it’s out of reach in terms of affordability. That just should not be the case in 2023.

I’d like to see our new space bring people together as much as possible, showcasing the fact that arts and culture is anything but an elite club. It’s a place where participants can meet like-minded friends and share worries or issues while discussing how to address them, head on and with conviction. Building up this network for people who are new to the city, or those who have been here for longer, is a massive driver for the Creative Hub’s existence.

I live and breathe theatre. It's my first love and something which has helped me connect with my own past and collect my thoughts. It’s something I came to later in life as a career, after raising my family and working in law, before which I’d always enjoyed theatre as a hobby.

Representation in the arts needs to be addressed properly. While things have no doubt moved on in recent years, without continued investment and energy in grassroots theatre and arts we won’t get the right talent in our industry or enable people of all backgrounds to feel accepted.

Our Creative Hub celebrates local talent at every opportunity for this very reason. It hosts a gallery of work by local artists and sessions including adult African dancing, open mic nights and salsa classes. We also have our Youth Academy, which runs performing arts classes and workshops for 9 to 19-year-olds, paired with a programme of mentoring and training. No acting or drama experience is necessary, just an enthusiasm to take part. By breaking down barriers, we are helping to boost confidence and self-belief.

Utopia Theatre Creative hub performers

A musical performance at the Utopia Theatre Creative Hub opening event.

Utopia Theatre

What’s next for Utopia Theatre?

We’re a charitable organisation, motivated by the difference theatre makes to lives. Staging productions which put Sheffield on the map for innovative, stand-out African theatre remains a priority for us. Utopia Theatre will be back on stage with productions in 2024, including Anna Hibiscus' Song, which will be heading on a UK tour to tell the inspiring story of an African girl bursting with happiness.

I have to keep other projects under wraps for now, but all of them will tell stand-out stories about the African diaspora. Keep an eye out for announcements.

Having the support of our community members is vital and we’re always on the look-out for partners to amplify the work we're doing. Consider this is an open invite to come and visit our colourful, vibrant Creative Hub. I can promise that you’ll walk into a place which is filled with music, fun and art which transports you to a whole new place.

Learn more

Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju is CEO and Artistic Director at Utopia Theatre.

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