2 August 2023

The festival paid homage to the original spirit of the historic Soho Poly, which has stood for democratising access to the arts for all and which has undergone extensive restoration works. It was organised and run by Westminster academics and Soho Poly Creative Directors Dr Matthew Morrison and Professor Guy Osborn, and offered a dynamic week’s programme of events to people for whom the arts are harder to access. 

Supported by Westminster City Council and the Quintin Hogg Trust, the event offered a mixture of community-focussed and free public events, including school workshops, play readings, gigs, exhibitions and open house days. Each event was designed to give a flavour of what the new space will offer and celebrate the arts, identity and untold stories.

One programme collaborated with Unfinished Histories and gave people the chance to perform a play reading of Jackie Kay’s work, Chiaroscuro, a celebration of gay women of colour, which was first performed at the Soho Poly in 1985. The play was then followed in the evening by a gig from UK based singer David Callahan.

Another key event at the Soho Poly was the Badge Café. The event was hosted by Dr Ben Walters and fellow queer and drag artists, who invited members of the public to join them making badges and celebrate queer identity.

Dr Ben Walters said: "For the Badge Cafe, Soho Poly was the perfect playground and testbed to have fun, explore new creative forms and joyfully disrupt the everyday. The space is intimate, versatile and quirky. The Summer Festival brought together a diverse combination of pleasure-seekers who created more together than we ever could have separately. And Soho Poly is a fabulous spot for a party! A privilege to be part of the reopening of such an exciting space."

The focal point of the festival was The Disrupt Your Everyday local business challenge. Participating local businesses uncovered the secret artists among their workforce, by encouraging employees to showcase their artistic talents to their team. The event allowed businesses to discover hidden musicians, writers and painters amongst their employees. For one whole day, across the borough, arts and culture was brought into the very heart of ordinary daily life.

Speaking about the event, Dr Matthew Morrison, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Westminster and Creative Producer of Soho Poly, said: “Our Disrupt Your Everyday local business challenge was a great success. In the run up to the event - held on the 21 June - we mounted a substantial social media campaign to encourage local businesses to creatively disrupt their 'ordinary' days with arts and culture. On the day itself, it was brilliant to have engagement from organisations and charities, including the National Academy for Social Prescribing, Kids, and Fun Palaces, not to mention University of Westminster neighbours like the Cookery School. The Soho Poly also 'took over' Little Portland Street for the afternoon, handing out flyers and inviting passers-by to make badges whilst being serenaded by musicians and drag queens!”

The festival also saw teens take part, with Year 9 pupils from the Lister Community School, a key partner school of the University, visit the Soho Poly for a workshop run by the Komola Collective. The group is an award-winning London-based arts company that uses a range of cultural influences to create theatre to promote female voices and engage people in discussions around a range of topics. As part of the event, the children performed scenes from the Collective’s forthcoming play Indigo Giant, written by Ben Musgrave. 

Daniel Thorn, Head of Drama at Lister Community School, added: “I found it hugely moving all morning being in the space, a place that is obviously so rich and culturally important. I've had the same feelings in some rooms in the Barbican and other taken queer spaces like The Black Cap. The room has seen history being made, and it was a real honour and a treat to be involved in its rebirth - our students don't know how lucky they are!”

Following on from the overarching theme of creativity and the celebration of the arts, the festival also collaborated with partner charities Open Age and the Fitzrovia Centre, to put on a Community Creative Writing workshop for up to 100 older people.

To close the festival, the University presented a photography exhibition to the public, bringing to life the story of Soho Poly’s past and present. This was followed by two concerts that took place in the theatre. First up was Bennett Valuks, an alternative folk singer from south London and north Londoner Ashaine White, who wowed the audience with her combination of alternative and grunge soul singing. Following this was a concert by Awale Jant Band and the Irish band the Labourers.

Speaking about the event, Jules Attanayake, Trusts and Foundations Officer in the Development Team at Westminster, said: “The festival was a huge success, not only setting a benchmark for when the theatre opens more formally in September 2023, but opening up a whole new era for performing arts innovation and community collaborations at the University.”

More information about the restoration of the Soho Poly can be found here.