The residents of Shepherd’s Bush might have noticed something strange in their neighbourhood a couple of Fridays ago. They may have heard poetry coming from a launderette or applause sounding in car parks; they may have seen an alleyway covered in chalked words or had a poem posted through their letterbox.
Such occurrences are typical of one of Inua Ellams’ Midnight Runs – after-dark creative rambles through the capital that encourage participants to devise poetry and theatre in response to their surroundings. The 29-year-old performance poet and playwright has been leading these since 2005 and what started as a bit of fun between friends has blossomed, with Ellams curating runs for arts venues and festivals. The one I attend is a collaboration with the Bush theatre – hence the location.
As Ellams explains, the purpose of the runs is to encourage busy city-dwellers to take a different perspective on the environment they spend their lives rushing through. “It’s about discovery… and [undermining] the predominant narratives about the city [by getting out there at a time] when it is supposedly most dangerous,” explains Ellams.
The event is interactive, but gently so; anyone who’s ever done drama workshops – or team-building exercises – will recognise the get-to-know-you games we kick off with. Within minutes, I’m hugging strangers and telling stories about myself. For one night, the 30 of us are a collective. Bundled up in hats and scarves, we head out to talk to local shopkeepers about their days, weaving their answers into improvised scenes which we perform for each other in a playground, using park benches or climbing frames as our set.
The first Midnight Run was born of happy accident. Ellams was waiting for a bus in Battersea that never arrived, so he and a friend started walking. And kept on walking until morning: through South Kensington, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park and down to Victoria and Vauxhall... “It was disarming how honest an interaction it was: just to walk, and talk – and sing and dance and eat and play games on the street,” says Ellams. “I thought there must be more people who would get a kick out of this.”
He began to send invites to his poetry mailing list; each time, he’d visit new bits of London. Nigerian-born Ellams lived in Dublin and London as a teenager, and his writing – including his one-man show Black T-Shirt Collective, which enjoyed a sold-out run at the National Theatre – often interrogates the intertwining of personal identity and place.
He began to document the runs, inviting film-makers and poets to come along, and slowly they morphed into multi-media affairs. Now, he gets in touch with artists from the area in advance, asking them to perform their work and lead exercises during the night.
At this run, the poet Yrsa Daley-Ward reads her work in a launderette, and Rudy Perkins talks about black history in his African bookshop. We’re given simple writing tasks, asked to jot down in our notebooks colours we’ve seen, emotions we’ve felt, the name of a friend we’ve thought of. Later, we chalk these observations on the brick walls and floor of an alleyway, forming a temporary but rather lovely impression of our evening.
It’s all good fun for the participants, but the Uxbridge Road is hardly deserted on a Friday night; we can’t help but attract attention, and there’s a frosty response to an impromptu banana-eating flashmob inside a football-showing café – intended as a zanily spontaneous performance, it threatens, I fear, to cross over from playfully exploring a space to invading it. Outside, a drunk gets aggressive; it’s an awkward moment – the sort of interaction you usually flinch from at night – but one the ever-flexible Midnight Run is able to accommodate. After a bit of conversation, he goes peaceably on his way. “I think he really lacked company – which is one of the reasons why I do the Midnight Run,” says Ellams.
Ellams will be holding a special Christmas “mini run” around the Southbank on Friday, exploring the themes of charity and goodwill. Beyond that, his aim is to (midnight) run the world: he has already held rambles in Milan, Florence and Barcelona, and has more planned for Paris and Rome.
Meanwhile, as inspiring as they are, the runs also highlight a depressing development in urban life: over the eight years he has been leading them, Ellams says he’s noticed a negative shift in attitudes towards “playing” in public, from security guards and property owners but also the general public. “Each time you have to negotiate the increasing privatisation of public spaces,” he says, with some heat. “It’s a conversation we aren’t having. How can you live in a city and feel there are places you can’t go to by default? Not that you’re told; you’ve just internalised it. We’re compartmentalising ourselves, and the spaces in which we feel we can be ourselves.”
However, Ellams is resisting such restrictions, and encouraging us to do so too, whether that’s by staging drama on the swings, poetry on the pavement, or just walking and talking through darkened streets. “I still walk through London as if I am the mayor. Until I am told otherwise, I have a right to be there.”
The Midnight Runs make inhabiting our streets not just a simple right, but the joy it ought to be.