Features Published 21 February 2019

Making work with ‘real’ people

Playwright Luke Barnes writes on what he's learned from developing new play 'The Jumper Factory' in collaboration with men from Wandsworth prison.
Luke Barnes

‘The Jumper Factory’ at Young Vic Theatre. Photo: Leon Puplett

When you’re making a project with a group of real people (n.b. actors are also real people but for the purposes of this article… you know what I mean) you’re doing it not only for the benefit of the wider community, but also for the benefit of the people you’re working with. You’re asking a group of people from a background estranged from the theatre to make a show, be in it, have their mates see it, and probably talk about something that is probably quite traumatic to them. How the fuck do you get people to do that? And, more importantly, why would you want to?

The answer is that hopefully you believe that the act of storytelling can have an impact on them, can tackle the dialogue surrounding them and serve the progression of their community. The Jumper Factory is made in collaboration with young men who’ve been affected by the criminal justice system. In hyper-masculine Wandsworth prison, where we first developed this show, that community is the prison. We had to ask what is actually useful in the act of making a show for the community we’re serving. The content has to come from them. Because if you don’t live it – you’re just intellectually understanding or guessing – then what you’re effectively saying is that you know these peoples lives better than they do. The unspoken contract has to be that “I am an expert in theatre, you are an expert in your world, together we can make something”.

I asked them. One on one. What do you want to say, what do you want to change, what do you think the community needs to be talking about but can’t? The challenge is to take everyone’s responses and find the universal story. In this instance the answer wasn’t really surprising. The universal became: “We’re all scared, we’re all worried about life passing us by, we’re all having to be brave… and nobody is admitting it”.

In giving participants the power to dictate what we’re speaking about and why, the piece becomes active. It turns into a piece about not being alone, about admitting feelings, about dropping bravado. This is in the hope that men can be more honest with each other, admit their feelings, and hopefully allow each other to deal with the intense emotional and psychological challenges that come with being inside prison.

When there’s no formal contract in place, there are set challenges that you have to be aware of. Namely that nothing that goes into the play that anyone in the cast is uncomfortable with. In the case of The Jumper Factory, that means nothing that could affect anyone’s parole, relationship with other prisoners, or relationship with the prison staff and, more generally, anything that could cause the rehashing of undealt with trauma. We also had to create a form that allows people to drop in and out. You could rehearse with eight people but only actually have four do the show, because they aren’t obligated to turn up, and in the case of prison they can be let out or moved at any point. As participants may not necessarily be actors, you need to find a form that embraces that rather than demands too much. And lastly, you need to find something that makes use of all the awesome things that people can do, because the challenges are also possibilities. This is another type of theatre. Something I think that can be, as, or more valuable, entertaining, and artistically high achieving as any other.

The feeling of watching these mostly physically imposing men admit to feeling scared, alone, and sick of having to pretend its okay, in a church hall surrounded by guards, is one of the few times in my career I’ve felt like theatre has a genuine purpose. It’s the same feeling I had when I saw The Writer. It’s the same when I saw Emilia. It’s the same when I saw Misty. It’s the same when I saw Jubilee. An audience half going “thank fuck someone said it” and half going “wow I can’t believe this has been going on all the time” and everyone going “this needs to change”. This is what we’re striving for.

After working on a few projects with them as a freelancer, I am in awe of the Young Vic Taking Part department. They act as the bond between the theatre and the community. If you engage with Taking Part you’re entitled to free tickets to the Young Vic for a very long time. What this means from the theatre’s point of view is that it’s making an ongoing commitment to Southwark and Lambeth, serving it, and making sure its audience never becomes entirely commercial. It means that everyone that lives in the local area can access this building, regardless of their financial, physical or emotional situation. This is a place for them. This is the model of the modern theatre. A theatre making work of the highest artistic calibre, while still having the conversations that the community it serves needs to be having.

Theatre is, by definition, the act of rebelling. It’s holding broken systems to account and demanding a conversation about fixing them both in, and outside, of theatre itself. In this instance it’s a group of men holding a patriarchal world of toxic masculinity in prison to account, and demanding its reform.

Theatre is a very simple thing made complicated by intellects that are more concerned with being seen as clever than with the purpose of the work. It is not about playwrights, or directors, or actors, it’s about the intention of the storytelling. It’s Emilia saying “lets burn it down”. It’s Arinze’ railing against the idea of the “Urban Jungle Safari Shit” at the end of Misty. It’s Vinay Patel’s Grandad saying “Let’s go home” in An Adventure. It’s the Doctor in The Wild Duck saying “Don’t take away the life lie”. It’s The MC saying “Live your life”. It’s about a fully grown man standing in a room full of other men saying “I’m scared and I have to pretend I’m not. Can we stop pretending?” It’s the hope of something better not the celebration of an individual. And having a real person say it to their community, in their way, is as, if not more, effective than hearing Benedict Cumberbatch do it.

The Jumper Factory is on at Young Vic theatre from 27th February to 9th March. More info and tickets here

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Luke Barnes is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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