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239-tiata delights 2019 - photography by Aaron Imuere

i make friends for a living and it’s fabulous

The title ‘Friendship Producer’ is one that I wear with pride – a pioneering role with love and consideration for people at its heart. As soon as I read the job description and Natalie Ibu’s blog post ‘you gotta get with my friends’ I instantly believed in her vision for the future of the industry and knew that I had to be a part of it. The role of Friendship Producer spoke to me because of the importance placed on really connecting with people; running into them at the supermarket, chatting over a quick coffee on their lunch break, and checking in with them to make sure they’re well. We celebrate achievements together, commiserate hardships together, and give back to our community, whether that be by offering free workshops at the local women’s centre, or making sure we buy food from local independent black businesses on our lunch breaks. If I were to simplify what the role means to me, I could sum it up like this – I make friends for a living, and it’s fabulous.

When I first started in the role, I had no idea what I was doing. Facts. I was given a database of people in the local area to connect with and off I went on my merry way to find out what the black people of Watford were all about. I was extremely nervous; I had never even stepped foot in the town before my first day and here I was clutching a list of names and addresses like a blanket to a child as if they could shield me from the sheer terror of walking into a place of business and striking up a friendship out of thin air. I needn’t have worried. Turns out I was a natural (who knew?!) and before long, people were giving me names and numbers of other individuals or organisations that they thought would want to meet with me. I started to get invites to represent tiata fahodzi at various community meetings and members clubs where I met people of all ages, most of whom hadn’t much of a relationship with theatre before we engaged.

This all led up to the first show of my tiata fahodzi experience – good dog. We thought of it as our housewarming party and a proper introduction to our new friends. We gave out formal invitations and they were hosted for free as our guests. It snowed that night, but the community showed up and showed out! We had delicious West African food, amazing music, a buzzing atmosphere and of course some world class theatre to boot! It was such an amazing experience – elderly women from the local church group happily smacking their lips as they savoured a taste of home, people who’d never had a relationship with theatre showing gratitude that they were invited to watch such an important story unfold, and a room full of African heritage people dancing to colourful music that had them shaking a leg all night long.

My role takes me to so many different places, and I meet people from all walks of life. As a friend in my personal life, I wear many hats – sister, carer, counsellor etc. It’s quite similar in the role. People constantly confide in me, and often the information they disclose can be quite sensitive and private. Sometimes I engage with people with severe mental and emotional health issues and I have to hold the space without taking responsibility for anyone, as that wouldn’t be appropriate. The more I connect with people, the more they put their trust in me as a friend and confidante and they will invite me into their homes, introduce me to their families and attend our community events to support me as I support them. This is a huge responsibility and so I chose to have some training from Samaritans in order to better support the work. Samaritans place emphasis on empathy over sympathy and their job is to listen and support, not to advise. I would always recommend asking for some extra assistance when it comes to dealing with other people’s emotions and disclosures. It can be difficult to hold it all and sometimes you need a breather, and that’s okay.

One aspect of my role that I love is producing events with/for the local community. I produced a coffee morning for black women to meet each other and network in a positive environment. I also delivered a workshop series for Watford Women’s Centre called ‘handle with care’, a self-esteem and confidence building workshop that was a hugely rewarding experience. The women I was working with reported that they found the workshops really helpful and they learned a lot about themselves. The workshops were very dear to me, partly because of the way they came about. I was having coffee with member of staff at the Women’s Centre, and she was in despair that their funding had been cut and they didn’t have a support group. She asked if I could run one, but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to offer the workshop series as an alternative. This felt so important, as we were able to do something to meet a need, even if it wasn’t the original request. That’s what friendship is – doing your best to positively affect someone’s life because you care about them. You may not be able to attend the birthday party, but at least send a card.

My job is rewarding across the board, but it’s not without its challenges and for me, travelling to new localities is one of them.  seeds took me as far as Leeds and, although I love seeing new places, I felt like that new girl in Watford –  knocking on doors and not really feeling confident in what she was doing. Needless to say, when I arrived on a freezing cold day in October, armed with some names and addresses and some hope in my heart, I was off. The first time I went I met with two community leaders in hopes that they could point me in the direction of some key players within the black community. One was a useful lead, one wasn’t. I felt disappointed and nervous about how the next chapter would unfold, but the list of names I was given from the second community leader proved to be quite fruitful, and from there, I started to gather warm contacts, and, eventually, make friends. The plan was to host 75 new friends from community groups in Leeds at the show and put on a spread. We had delicious Caribbean food, a free drink each and obviously they got to see a theatre performance, which a lot of them were doing for the very first time. Even though it was tough when I first arrived, I loved spending time with community groups in Leeds. I met unbelievably interesting people that I would otherwise never have crossed paths with and some community leaders who were doing incredible work and making a real difference to people’s lives. We ended up buying 120 tickets because so many people wanted to come. I’m extremely proud of my work in Leeds, and I’m very inspired by the amazing community work going on there.

I am the first ever Friendship Producer. I have had the most incredible opportunity to make a difference to the theatre industry and also to people’s lives. I have laughed, cried, been frustrated, challenged and supported, and I am so grateful to have crossed paths with the beautiful people I’ve met. I’ve learned the importance of community, I’ve worked in an all-female team which is great, and I’ve challenged myself in ways I never thought I would. My main lesson – listen. Listen, and people will tell you who they are, what they need and the best way to engage with them. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, people know that you’re human and they appreciate that. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things. Trial and error with the right attitude manifests into trial and improvement. We revisited plans and made changes and cut things and added things and it was a really important part of the work. Lastly, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re struggling with something. I’m the type of person that says, ‘sure I can do that’ and then loses sleep trying to figure out how. Even if I deliver something fabulous at the end, I need to learn how to better ask for support, so that the process doesn’t exhaust me – I want to enjoy the journey and not just the destination! When I look back over the first year of my role as Friendship Producer, I am filled with warm thoughts, funny memories but above all, gratitude. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity, but even more grateful that a role like this exists at all.

kiki brown is the friendship producer for tiata fahodzi. With a background that also encompasses acting and community theatre, she has co-run two small-scale theatre companies, is a drama facilitator and a singer/songwriter.

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