What I would’ve said at Uncommon Ground today

Today was Uncommon Ground, a conference on socially engaged art hosted at the lowry, I was due to speak (see below!) and before our session there was a brilliant discussion in the audience about what does/can a socially engaged theatre conference feel, be and act like. It felt too much of a contradiction to present my speech from the lit stage whilst everyone else sat in the dark. So we, the audience, had a chat about how we could organise things like that differently, which then turned into creative responses to that question, which then turned into a dance. Which was great. I hope some of those chats planted some seeds so next time and the next time after that someone’s planning a conference they might think how do we make this less passive, more active, more about social change – yes this is what we want!! and with less expensive lunches. 

What I would’ve said at Uncommon Ground today: 

So I kind of didn’t want to get into definitions, but actually I’ve got to, because when I was first asked to speak about socially engaged theatre my initial response was, what is that? And then I was like oh yes of course that’s a scared persons way of saying those really dirty words– political theatre.

So over the next ten minutes I’m going to say those words a lot.

SLIDE 1 Political theatre. It’s really interesting how people have been saying that socially engaged theatre or political theatre is back in fashion. As if times are suddenly more political. When of course they’re not. The absurd political moment we’re at right now is the logical conclusions of two things. One of our western civilizations being built on greed, oppression and exploitation so of course we’re going to get the demi god trump and the temple of Brexit and right-wing media ran by billionaires. The second is what I’ve come to think of, especially with all the talk of British values is how our national characteristic is one of ignoring and forgetting. Ignoring and forgetting the impacts of colonialism, slavery, our instrumentalism in war.

Which brings me to theatre – if we’re living in times that are steeped in ignoring and forgetting, surely theatre has a role in making us look and see and think about the world we live in now. It’s as simple as that for me. I believe all theatre is political, choosing to do a straight Ibsen play, for me, is choosing to perpetuate our traditions of ignoring and forgetting, I’m sure at the time Ibsen rustled all kinds of feathers but for me, right now it’s just not relevant, unless you’re choosing to ignore and forget.

Political theatre for me means the responsibility for subject matter, and for how we approach it. Not that political theatre should be dogmatic and tell people what to think but it should open up questioning around things that are affecting us right now.  (SLIDE 2) We were approached by the Trade Justice Movement to make a play about TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, potentially the most boring subject ever to make a play about! But for us at the heart of that play, The Deal Versus the People, was thinking how working-class people do want to know, do care about our rights and protections being taken away.

Political theatre also has a massive responsibility for form. For us at Common Wealth we’re always thinking how can we make a play that no one has ever seen before, that we’ve never seen before.  We’re really interested in atmosphere and worlds and how we work with music, site and visuals to achieve that. (SLIDE 3) With No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, mine and Aisha’s really early conversations were about how not to do something worthy about Muslim girls, so early on we said this has got to feel like a nightclub as much as a boxing match, so the audience were on their feet and we had lots of smoke and lasers and bass.  

Because our work is political, the audience has always been at the center of that, how do we make sure it’s not just people who are like us, who might already agree with us. It’s why me and Rhiannon started the company, as a reaction against the middle-class art world that didn’t reflect people we know or the things people we know are talking about. I would have the best conversation about our debt based monetary system with my friend’s little brother who’s a dealer. Growing up in working class communities you know that people are not stupid, that there’s a massive appetite to explore politics and change.

And for us because theatres are such sites of middle class activity it always had to be site-specific, we always had to take theatre out of theatres. (SLIDE 4) So we find houses, boxing gyms, warehouses, places in the heart of communities. And to make sure we get new audiences, we work with housing associations, police, NHS.

We work across agencies and networks because audience is important to us and because we think of our plays as campaigns, it’s how we get the message out. Getting a feature in the housing association newsletter is massive, it means the messages from the play are getting spoke about beyond the show. We were well aware that when we got in national papers and TV that a former steelworker in Sheffield could be watching the news about We’re Still Here and connect with what we’re saying in Port Talbot. Or that a teenage girl in Birmingham might read about No Guts happening in Edinburgh.

Theatre being a campaign has for us always been about those ripples going out. That you don’t know what a show actually does to your audience but you know those ripples are going out there. And that those ripples all contribute to people feeling connected, to the narratives changing. To people thinking oh yeah there is someone else out there who thinks like me and wants to see the world change.  That we don’t all want to ignore and forget.

More and more we’ve also been thinking about the politics of how we do things. We’ve become very aware that sometimes you can go somewhere, make a play with a group of people and form a tight community, very tight, very emotional and at the end of that people have opened up so much, found so much. (SLIDE 5) One of the steelworkers we worked with on We’re Still Here just sobbed at the end he said he felt like a caterpillar, that he’d opened up all of these things inside him and he wasn’t sure what to do with it whether to open it all up or whether to close it down and contain it again. We’re still in touch with him but we’re very aware of what happens to all that energy once a play is over. It starts to feel like a very capitalist way of making work, very linear that even though the process is so deep and rewarding you produce an end goal. So we’ve started to think now how do we make things circular.  So that when we’re making a play with people we’re already supporting them to seed new ideas before the play is over, that there’s something there ready.

It’s one of the reasons why Speakers Corner (SLIDE 6) our political, creative social space in Bradford is so powerful, because we have a space where new ideas can be seeded and tried out and people can propose things they’d like to see happen. And it’s supportive, so when we’ve made a play together or put on a festival and done all that opening Speakers Corner can be a home and a site of reflection and support for each other, it’s circular. When we started Speakers Corner (as a collective with 10 teenage girls and 10 women) I thought should I be doing drama workshops, I did a few but I didn’t want to put that on the collective, it felt better that the programme was very political and coming from us all.  And now a year later, the girls are saying they’d like to make a piece of theatre about mental health where the audience has to escape the mind (which I think is brilliant), and it feels right that they’re not wanting to make a piece of theatre because they want to be actors necessarily but because they see it as a powerful means of getting a message out.

They see how theatre can do that very special thing of bringing people together, to not feel alone, to not feel like you’re the only one thinking or experiencing this. And to charge up an energy in an audience that’s a political energy of wanting to go on and change things.

We’re making a new show now, Radical Acts (SLIDE 7) inspired by the radical action women made 100 years ago and thinking about what radical action still needs to be taken by women today. And we’re thinking how do we make political theatre that has impact, so we’re researching key dates like when benefit cuts are being discussed in parliament and will coincide our performances with these key dates.  What drew us to making something in response the centenary of some women getting the vote was when I worked on Women of the World festival in Bradford and every women’s group I went in to ask what they’d like to see at the festival all started off by saying ‘ask someone else, ask the group leader.’

Political to me in its simplest form, means power and there’s power in voice, in being heard, in telling your own story, in having focus and attention when you might not have had it before. I hate when people talk about ‘the voiceless.’ Everyone has a voice, they just need to be listened to, Last week, we worked with women and girls of all ages, the youngest was 8 weeks old, the oldest in her late 70’s, and we focused on experiences of when women have made change and how we’re all doing that, incrementally for each other.

Political Theatre, I think in its great tradition has always been this circular thing, a response to the world we’re witnessing. And you respond and create something and send it back out and these circles keep growing and the narratives keep changing, and bit by bit we’re part of that process of change.