Sheffield-based African theatre company Utopia launch creative hub in the city

Back in September Sheffield-based African theatre company Utopia Theatre opened up an exciting new artspace, the first of its kind in the city.

The Utopia Theatre Creative Hub is the vision of Utopia’s CEO and artistic director Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju who founded the company in 2012 with the aim of bringing contemporary work celebrating elements of African life, culture, language and traditions to the British stage. Located in the heart of the city, the Hub is a space for professional creatives to meet, network and try out new work as well as an inclusive, welcoming place to inspire and encourage as many people as possible to engage with theatre and the arts.

The idea of setting up the Hub partly grew out of thinking about marking the company’s first decade. “We decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary and we realized we needed a space where we could connect with our communities,” says Kareem-Elufowoju. “We also set up our Youth Academy where young people could meet, so we started looking for a permanent home. We had an offer of a shop that used to be a salon and we have transformed it into a creative hub and lab where people can have the opportunity to find their voice and tell their own stories. We have an open mic night once a month to encourage creative professionals to share their work and as a platform to create new pieces.”

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Two months on since the Hub’s opening, Kareem-Elufowoju is delighted with the response to it so far. “It is already doing more that we than we ever hoped it might,” she says. “We have a book where people have written of their experience of the space and they have been saying how it makes them feel happy and joyous and that they can feel the vibe of Africa. We have lots of opportunities for people to come in.

Utopia's production of Anna Hibiscus’ Song over the summer. Picture: Chris SaundersUtopia's production of Anna Hibiscus’ Song over the summer. Picture: Chris Saunders
Utopia's production of Anna Hibiscus’ Song over the summer. Picture: Chris Saunders

There is a gallery space with local artists selling their work and people can come to see film, theatre or visual art. The idea is that the space will be used in a multi-disciplinary way.”

This year the company became a National Portfolio funded organization with Arts Council England. That is a significant step – with regular, secured funding it means Utopia can continue and expand its remit of staging work nationally and internationally and further develop its valuable, important work empowering and engaging African communities, supporting emerging artists and inspiring the next generation. “Already 60 young people who have never had any experience of being involved in theatre have engaged with our Youth Academy,” says Kareem-Elufowoju. “It is an opportunity for them to be inspired by stories of African heritage, taught by people who look like them and sound like them.”

Kareem-Elufowoju and her team have big plans for the future including major projects in the pipeline that she hopes will “take Utopia to the next level and allow us to build on our success to date. It is an exciting time for us and we would love to hear from artists and businesses who might like to be partners with us as the company grows.”

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Their most recent production, Anna Hibiscus’ Song a stage adaptation of Atinuke’s popular children’s book, told the heart-warming story of childhood, family, self-discovery, love and happiness through music, dance, puppetry and traditional African storytelling. The show, a co-production with Sheffield Theatres, toured through the summer, delighting families around the region, and is set to tour again next year. The company’s association with Sheffield Theatres began in 2016, the year that Kareem-Elufowoju presented her brilliant version of Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. In Iyalode of Eti, John Webster’s powerful drama of love and betrayal was transposed to a West African setting. It premiered at Leeds Playhouse to much critical acclaim. “On the back of that, Sheffield Theatres invited us to become a resident company,” says Kareem-Elufowoju. “They have been so supportive and we are always so excited about working together – it’s a very fruitful, mutually respectful relationship.”

Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju in rehearsals for Anna Hibiscus’ Song. Picture: Chris SaundersMojisola Kareem-Elufowoju in rehearsals for Anna Hibiscus’ Song. Picture: Chris Saunders
Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju in rehearsals for Anna Hibiscus’ Song. Picture: Chris Saunders

The company is justifiably proud of what it has achieved so far. In ten years it has engaged with more than 35,000 people and staged over 20 unique performances, with their outreach work in schools and communities enriching the lives of many. “We have done a lot in a relatively short time,” says Kareem-Elufowoju. “We are striving for excellence and showcasing the breadth of work and different artforms that celebrate African culture and heritage. We also feel that Yorkshire is a big part of who we are. We love Sheffield – we have really been embraced by the city as part of its diverse cultural landscape.”

Utopia Theatre’s Creative Hub, Rockingham Gate, Sheffield.