February 21, 2018
The journey that led to Street Factory and an MBE for Toby
From being a teenager practicing hip hop in his local park, to inviting other youngsters to join in with him, to setting up the Street Factory Community Interest Company, to being recognised in the New Year’s Honours List for his work in the community.
That’s some journey for Toby Gorniak, MBE – and it’s far from over yet. Because in 2018, he’s working to transform the Street Factory building in Millbay into the UK’s first hip hop theatre – an all-singing, all-dancing space for local people to learn and perform creative arts using the five elements of hip hop culture: respect, peace, love, unity, and fun.
Toby and his wife Jo established Street Factory in 2007, since when it has grown and grown. Last year, they took over the old Octagon Brewery building in Sawrey Street. The main part of the building is a huge, open space. On one of the walls are the plans designed by local architect Elise Wilkes-Brand, which Toby is determined will become a reality by the end of this year. The plans include space for other arts, media and computer skills as well as dance and music.
A Crowdfunder was launched to help raise the money needed and the project has also had the backing of businesses and leaders in the city: “Everyone has been so supportive,” said Toby. “But we are still looking for sponsorship from organisations that want to invest in our local community, either financially or with building skills.
“This is definitely going to happen in 2018. I want the theatre and all the other facilities to be ready by Christmas.” And when Toby sets his mind to achieving something, he usually does it. You only need to look at his own personal story to understand that.
When his family arrived in Plymouth from Poland in 2001, he was a 14-year-old in a new place with no friends: “I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “I had to learn everything from scratch – the language, the culture – but it’s where all of this started for me, really, because I used to dance every day.
“I just went to Freedom Fields Park and danced! Then the local kids all joined in. They wanted to learn hip hop, so I showed them – and everything happened from that.”
Perhaps the biggest turning point for Toby came as a teenager when his youth worker persuaded him to see a show at Theatre Royal Plymouth: “Plymouth gave me so much when I came here and I have a lot of people to thank. My biggest inspiration was my youth worker. She suggested going to the theatre and I thought ‘no way, I’m not doing that’ because I came from a culture where we never went to places like that. But she took me and it opened my eyes. I wanted to aspire to that.”
Toby had another ‘nudge’ from the community centre at Greenbank: “They helped make all of this happen because they asked if I would teach dance at the youth club. Other youth clubs in the city heard about it so I started to teach there as well.”
Toby was working at the Theatre Royal’s TR2 at Cattedown when he met Jo and they decided to set up Street Factory. It has reached Sawrey Street via previous bases in Mount Gould, Coburg Street and, for a year, at the School of Creative Arts directly opposite where they are now.
Street Factory offers street dance, hip hop, breakin’ and poppin’ classes for children aged 4-7, and aged 8 and over. Street Factory sponsors those unable to afford it and currently, 20 children are being funded. There are also pop-in classes for over-18s – visit the website for all the information.
Toby also works with local schools, colleges and community groups to devise pieces of hip hop theatre that explore issues such as bullying, diversity, equality and self-esteem.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed new techniques and methods,” said Toby. “It’s not just about dance or being creative or musical. It’s about incorporating traditional values. We’ve had literally thousands of people through our doors. Some are now working in the arts in London or in Bristol. Others have set up their own businesses.
“They’re professionals, they’re social workers, they’re plumbers, they’re plasterers, they’re living successful lives, and that’s down to their dedication. I feel super-proud when they keep in touch and tell us how they’re doing.”
The theatre, says Toby, will help to keep talent in the city: “Our vision is that local young people can learn creative arts and get the chance to perform here so they don’t have to move away. And because of the life skills we’re also teaching them, they will have the chance to become our city’s next leaders and our next business owners.”
And he added: “Hip hop saved my life. It’s given me principles to live by. And now Street Factory CIC is doing the same thing for others. It’s transforming lives by giving them the opportunities and the purpose that I was given.”
Street Factory CIC
4-8 Sawrey Street, Millbay, Plymouth PL1 3LA
First published in the Plymouth Magazine – February 2018