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Interview with Gbolahan Obisesan: What if Alice in Wonderland was Set in Brixton?

This holiday season Brixton House and award-winning company Poltergeist come together for a new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, packed with flavours of Brixton. Set in an underground station, this alternative Christmas show weaves storytelling, rap music and comic book visuals with the heart and spirit of the Brixton community.

Writer Natalia Knowlton spoke with the Artistic Director of Brixton House, Gbolahan Obisesan, about adapting Alice in Wonderland for a London audience, becoming artistic director in 2020 and Brixton House moving to a new home.

Natalia Knowlton: This sounds like a thrilling retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. How did the idea come about? 

Gbolahan Obisesan: Through various creative conversations with Poltergeist theatre company, whose work I admire for their inherently playful and theatrical ideas. We spoke about a few fairy tales but, at the time, Alice in Wonderland felt like the most robust story that offered lots of exciting possibilities to be reimagined for a Brixton audience. 


Natalia: This is your first time working with Poltergeist. What was the devising process like?

Gbolahan: Devising is always a wonderfully freeing experience for actors, as well as a focused process of honing in on the creative inspirations you want to try or explore that are inspired in the room. This devising process has been led by Poltergeist and the show creatives working from the original story and considering ways in which some of those story beats and characters can be made relevant or realised for families in contemporary and refreshing ways. 


Natalia: What excites you about this adaptation?

Gbolahan: This adaption really champions a free creative spirit in Alice and a fearlessness to navigate through challenges. The Poltergeist approach to making the show has also been incredibly collaborative from the beginning, infusing the way the story evolves with fun ideas that audiences will appreciate and enjoy. It is our belief at Brixton House to support and trust the instincts of our artists and theatre makers with their vision for the work they want to make, which has really allowed the adaptation to flourish. 


NataliaYou joined Brixton House as Artistic Director in 2020 during the pandemic which must’ve been a real challenge. How did you settle into your new role when there was so much uncertainty?

Gbolahan: We all did not know what was coming at all. The initial challenge was getting the building completed as the pandemic caused so many delays that were beginning to deplete our capital fund. We then had to start putting together a team that believed in our vision. People who wanted to contribute their knowledge and expertise towards establishing Brixton House for our international community. But the arts sector has been so close to decimation. Finding funding, finding and retaining staff has made it difficult to feel settled. With all the love and enthusiasm our communities have expressed towards the fact we are now open and our arts programming, it remains difficult to determine our audienc behaviours as our communities are preoccupied with the inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. Encouraging people to prioritise theatre as part of their mental health and well-being practice is more important than ever, otherwise our survival and future is honestly uncertain. 


Natalia:  You also have a successful career as a writer and theatre director. What inspired you to make the change and run an arts venue? 

Gbolahan: Honestly, being an artist was becoming unsustainable and it wasn't always clear if the industry I was part of valued my talents, perspective or presence. So the opportunity to apply and possibly fulfil my aspiration of becoming an artistic director felt imperative and I'm grateful that Brixton House was open to what I could bring. I am inspired to look at the best ways to offer opportunities to artists, members of the community and others who have felt themselves being pushed out, neglected or ignored. My visibility also inspires young immigrants with culturally distinct names to know they all can belong and be seen in this industry I love. 


Natalia: Congratulations on moving to a new building this year! What do audiences love the most about your new home?

Gbolahan: Thank you, our Front of House family are our unsung heroes, they are friendly, and always willing to assist people in having positive experiences in our home. We also have a bright pink central stairs that is often said to brighten up people’s day. 


Natalia: One last thing: who’s your favourite Alice in Wonderland character? 

Gbolahan: Alice, The Mock-Turtle and Chatter are irresistibly charming and just brilliantly hilarious to watch and listen to as they navigate and proclaim their discoveries.


Catch Alice in Wonderland at Brixton House from December 1 – 31, 2022.

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