Audience Engagement, Bradford

With so much talk of ‘who sees art’ lately, I wanted to write about Common Wealth’s mission statement, ‘to make theatre for people who don’t usually think it’s for them’ and how Our Glass House achieves this. I’m going to write about our Bradford show because that’s where the play really did this, it’s where I’m from and where I couldn’t wait to take the show since we first staged it in Bristol.

The play ends with action spilling out on to the street, the people on their street who live in the houses opposite, open their windows, come outside their doors in the snow and applaud the end of the show with the rest of the audience. A car of boys drive past, music blaring and stop their car outside the house as the last scene plays out, they roll down their windows and lean out. They turn down their music and watch and listen to our pregnant character shouting up at the house ‘I will not be with a man who teaches his children to hit, beat, bite, throw.’ The boys in the car watch to the very end and applaud with the rest of us. From that point on for the rest of the run, these lads and their extended group of mates, rock up five minutes before the show begins and ask if they can come in, we always let them. Our next-door neighbour who keeps ferrets and lives with his two twenty-something nephews who get stoned EVERY day with all their mates from the early afternoon, they all come. And all their brothers, their cousins, their mates from the rest of the estate. And they don’t do what we’d expect, they don’t stay with the man who’s a victim of domestic abuse, or the teenage girl who spends the first ten minutes dancing with her pole, you find them leaning against the wall listening intently to the woman who only speaks in Punjabi, staying there for a long time, working it out, really entering another world. We ask them after ‘have you been to the theatre before,’ they laugh. And then they say they want to see more, to be in some, to be actors. They keep coming back; some see the show three times.

Then there’s the sixteen year old girls, who first come in to see the show because it’s snowing outside and they’ve been on the street for hours freezing in their t-shirts. They come in giggling as if they’re trespassing and then they quickly realise, this is for them. They find the teenage character Kayleigh in her room and they stay with her, first glued to the wall, and then gradually make their way to her bed, they sit on her bed in that room for so long that they become Kayleigh’s mates. The ones who Kayleigh mentions in her text, who sit by and keep a distance from the abuse and just see it as a drama, or as one of the young women we interviewed in the making of the play said ‘my mates just thought it was like an episode of Eastenders.’ These three teenage girls who come three times, we finally pin them down to fill out a feedback form, on the question ‘How often do you go to the theatre?’ One writes ‘None. I never.’

There’s many more stories, like the women, our neighbours from the street, who when we went round and said we’re doing a show on your street, in a house about domestic abuse, every one of them said ‘Well I’ve been there’. Every single woman on the street we spoke to said this. And one of them said, ‘I’m completely behind you, do you need any props, I’ve got plenty of crap upstairs’ and then sent their daughter round to help with the set build. Or the men in their forties, who would approach me and Rhiannon as we went to meet audience at the pub and said ‘are you doing this Our Glass House thing? I’ve got a mate who’s hitting his girlfriend and I don’t know what to do anymore.’

So, how did this happen, that an experimental piece of theatre suddenly and directly connects with a whole estate on so many levels? Bradford Council made the show free straight away, which of course, helped massively, they bought all the tickets straight off and it became free. Also, we were working on Thorpe Edge, not the roughest council estate in Bradford by any stretch, a normal council estate in Bradford where everyone we spoke to who came from the estate had never seen any theatre in their lives. Of course, there’s not masses of theatre to see in Bradford but the concept seemed so far removed from people’s lives that they literally would laugh when we asked them. I think it helped that as a kid, my family lived on Ravenscliffe, the estate next door to Thorpe Edge and that Rhiannon grew up on an estate all her life, that we weren’t far removed from the people we were meeting and talking to, that we didn’t consider them far removed.

Which is why I’m massively grateful for support from the Arts Council, Common Wealth had staged three large-scale productions before and never received any funding at all, we’d never even tried, we just thought funding wasn’t for us, in fact we were terrified by the thought of it, the thought that there was all these men in suits judging us. Us with the wrong accents and with no connections and no big names behind us. It turned out the guy from the Arts Council was a bit of a scruff with wild hair like a fraggle. We couldn’t believe that. His name, when it arrived on our letters had been a massive statement of authority, we were too scared to ring him for a year. It seems mad looking back on this, but when you’ve grown up thinking ‘that world isn’t mine,’ it’s very hard not to be afraid to enter it.

We’re taking Our Glass House to Edinburgh for the Fringe now, we’re going to a council estate called Wester Hailes, during our preparations, when we’ve told theatre people in Edinburgh that we wanted to find a house there to stage the show in, some have literally said ‘you don’t want to do it there.’

We finally found our house and visited this notorious Wester Hailes, the director of WHALE, the community arts centre there said she thinks this will be the first time ever that something has come to Wester Hailes that is also part of the Fringe programme. Everyone we met in Wester Hailes was lovely and really interested in the show. Wester Hailes was green and friendly. We really want to do the show there.

(Our Glass House will run in Wester Hailes from the 13th-25 August. Tickets will be FREE. We go up there mid July and will be talking to every local resident we meet, we won’t be flyering on the Royal Mile, we’ll be flyering doctor’s surgeries, corner shops, pubs, community centres, youth centres and our neighbours houses.)