The blueprint we received was extremely simple: Attract thousands of people to Ham House to celebrate their 400th Birthday on the 23rd May. As a group of students in our final year of university, throwing a party didn’t seem too problematic; but the community of Ham and the National Trust’s enthusiasm for the area presented us with an opportunity to achieve something more. We are contacting representatives of the area, of local schools, businesses and social groups, trying to unite them in a celebration of Ham itself. Many participants will embark on a parade through Ham, proudly displaying their contribution to the community. The parade will end in the gardens of the magnificent Ham House, where the carnival atmosphere will reach fever pitch as thousands gather to sing in harmony with local choirs and wish Ham House a happy 400th Birthday. I spoke to Michael Billington, The Guardian’s Theatre critic for over thirty years to get his articulate opinions on the potential of large-scale participatory events.
“Events like this can inspire a community to examine the rich history of their community. There are so many stories to be told that they can reignite a sense of local pride.” The residents of Ham have plenty to be proud of. The area has a well documented and celebrated regal history and benefits from a village mentality which enables it to function differently to many other parts of London – with a large community influence. Like the politicians fighting for control of the country and the local borough constituency, Billington firmly believes in the importance of community. “It is important for obvious democratic reasons; it encourages involvement, which can only ever be a good thing.” Throughout an illustrious critical career spanning over three decades, Billington has witnessed many participatory events and ‘Community Theatre’ shows made by amateur dramatists. He believes they are a fundamental part of British life: “Every town always has its own amateur drama society. It can be completely astonishing and push professional theatre forward. They deal with what is happening around us. They can act as a community focus in a time when City Centres in particular are extremely lifeless. With participatory events, you become part of the evening out.”
On the 23rd of May 2010, residents from the boroughs of Richmond and Ham & Petersham will participate in a parade celebrating the richness and diversity of the community they are proud to be a part of. Given the nature and scale of the event, I asked Michael Billington if he believed the project could work: “Yes, I think it can, because the very essence of the event means that the bulk of people will be participating. There will be very few people merely spectating; therefore everyone will feel a commitment to the event.” Michael Billington’s support and enthusiasm for the event is both refreshingly humble and greatly appreciated. As the day fast approaches, we now need the support and involvement of all residents who are proud to hail from this leafy corner of south-west London and wish to celebrate its immense diversity.