I’m at High House Production Park at Purfleet in Thurrock, a stone’s throw from the Dartford Crossing. And if you think that sounds like an industrial estate full of car mechanics and small factories you can think again because this is “the UK’s first ever national centre of excellence for the performing arts” and it’s beautiful.
Not only does the 14-acre site house the vast and impressive new Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop where Royal Opera House sets are now made, and where National Skills Academy Creative and Cultural Skills will be based in a large new building next year, but it is also the base of ROH’s Thurrock 11-person Education Team.
The education team has been in Thurrock since 2007 where it has been running the Creative Partnership scheme in 100 Essex Schools with 20,000 pupils since 2008. For example, opera Director Tom Guthrie, librettist Stephen Plaice and composer Richard Taylor led a weekly series of drama workshops for 8-10 year olds at Purfleet Primary School. They developed a story based on a local incident of heroism in the 1914-18 war which was eventually performed to an audience of family and friends.
Creative Partnerships has now been cut, but its replacement will mean that the ROH education team will soon be working with schools in South Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and North Kent once they have worked out the details of the best way of doing it.
The education team also sets up community projects which allow local people of all ages to perform, design and make scenery, costumes and props. “The Purfleet Opera: Ludd and Isis” involved over 1,000 people last year and was performed to mark the opening of High House Production Park - with children from Purfleet Primary trained as a children’s chorus because their work had been so impressive.
Professional development and training goes on here too. Because the site - a former 17th manor house and later farm - has been so sympathetically restored that there is a lot of accommodation, including two splendid barns and a number of smaller meeting rooms in the old cart sheds. The site also includes an excellent café which, like the delightful walled gardens and the new children’s play-park, is open to the public.
Thurrock - with its Thames estuary frontage - has a long and distinguished industrial history. Sadly its fortunes have declined in recent years because of the changing nature of industry and the national economy. The thinking behind the work at High House Production Park is to link the local industrial heritage to the cultural heritage of ROH and to create lots of opportunities for people from all backgrounds and abilities to take part. Or, as Matt Lane, Head of ROH Thurrock and Thames Gateway, put it to me more simply “to take ROH out of Covent Garden.”
It’s all rather inspiring and encouraging. Go and see it. You can picnic in the walled gardens or pop into the café (run by Essex College - more education and training) to get the flavour of what’s going on without even making an appointment.