13 September 2021

London Wonderground becomes training ground for local talent

The Underbelly Training Academy opened its doors on August 16th to fifteen young people in search of the skills required to work in the festivals and events industry. We caught up with Haith Ridha, Underbelly Creative Producer and team lead on the project, to see how the group of locals faired over their month-long training – and what might lie in store for them.

Ten years ago, festival and live show producer Underbelly ran a Training Academy for local people living close to London’s Southbank Centre. The company had been contracted to run its now famous summer festival and wanted to extend the benefits further into the community.

Fast forward to London Wonderground 2021 at The Earls Court Development Company site, and a new generation of young people are being given the chance to see how festivals work from the inside.

“There was something about the London Wonderground site, about its location, about the fact that it crossed two boroughs and was residential – even more so than the surrounding areas of the South Bank – it just seemed the right way to interact with people,” says Haith Ridha, Underbelly Creative Producer.

“The Earls Court Development Company were really keen to increase opportunities for local residents, so we thought if there is a way to upskill residents and give them insight into how events and festivals happen, that was something that we should try and do.”

Underbelly’s Training Academy received 15 “very, very good applications” through an online process pushed through local associations and residents’ groups Ridha says. Open to people between the ages of 18 and 25, its month-long programme was designed primarily for those without events, festivals, arts, or even drama experience. “The idea was that young people might have been to a festival but would really have no understanding of how one is organised, or how one would write a risk assessment, or choose an act,” he says.

“We just opened it up to anybody that might want to apply and partnered with the Young Lyric Team at the Lyric Hammersmith to help us deliver the programme. The first two weeks was classroom-based, where we ran through everything from scratch. From what an event or festival is. What a risk assessment looks like; a site plan. How we choose our programme based on times of the day and where we're located to attract audiences. And then it moved through to marketing and promotion as well. It was literally everything that you would need to know to put on a show.”

The result is that – working as a single team – the group has programme its own show for Sunday 19th September. Called Express G&S, the show is a 60-minute, whistle-stop tour of every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, combined with an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.

“I'll be interested to see how they fit all Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opera into an hour with murder mystery on top,” says Ridha. “But that’s where they arrived from doing all the research into the different kinds of shows that they can do, and what they thought would work in the venues we have.

“We didn't hold them back. They had cabaret shows. They had drag shows. They had circus. And they contacted the management companies for all of these different acts to find out availability and fees. They've programmed it right through to stage. They've designed the flyer, they've designed the online content, and they've been pushing it out through Instagram and Facebook.”

After all this work, will any of the participants be offered work in the future? “Absolutely,” says Ridha. “Out of the 15, probably half have at some point come to say to me, ‘I feel I was sort of floating along with no real purpose and I feel that this is it. I’ve found my calling’. That combined with some natural skill? Yes, we would offer them jobs next year.

“We very much didn't see this as a box ticking exercise. It wasn't ‘Let's do some community engagement’. It's actually been working out how can we do this so that it really inspires some kids that might not know what they want to do with their lives. Or maybe they do and they just don't have the confidence. There are a couple that did want to work in events or festivals because they've been to them. But at 18, 19, 20 years old, they're scared. They don't know how to get into it.

“One of the first questions on the first day was, ‘You've got all of this experience. How did you break into it?’ Well, you just have to do it. Don't think about doing things wrong. I've been doing this for 20 years now and I'm still learning every single day.”

To book tickets for Express G&S at the big top on Sunday 19th September, click here.