Common Wealth aim to make theatre for non-theatre audiences. Our Glass House is our current show, which is site-specific, staged in a residential house and explores domestic abuse, with the audience choosing their own journeys through the space. What’s remarkable about the piece is that because it’s slap bang on someone’s street, there’s a huge opportunity to engage with the local community. While touring to Bristol, Bradford, Edinburgh and now London, we’ve built our own approach of engaging non-theatre audiences with multi-disciplinary, site-specific theatre.
First off, we walk around the area and make contact with what exists locally: community centres, doctors surgeries, Housing Associations and even pubs; in Bradford, the pub was the audience meeting place, which helped spread the word. In Edinburgh, we were lucky to be loaned a house by Prospect Community Housing, a Housing Association who were so supportive of the show that they ended up running their own box office so people could just pop in and get a ticket. Initiative and support from these organizations and businesses is invaluable, giving a community direct ownership of the piece and someone else to talk to about it other than us.
We also make it very clear that people can talk to us whenever they like. Early on we knock on all the neighbours’ doors, have a chat about the project and invite them round to the house to look at the set. Often we’ll get a gaggle of teenagers looking through the window (our set is quite fantastical), so we always invite them in to look at the set and meet the actors. The teenagers are often our best advocates, promoting the show to family and friends.
We try to be as transparent and as open as possible; we love that the ‘YOU ARE HERE AS A WITNESS’ sign in Edinburgh was visible all the way from the shopping centre down the road. We also love that, when the set build team took down the trees from the forest in the attic and had a fire in the back garden, neighbours came and knocked on the door and sat round the fire with us; they knew us and wanted to say goodbye to Our Glass House. It was an achievement for them as well as for us – the first time a show from the Fringe had gone to Wester Hailes.
It’s a surprise for people to see experimental work on their doorstep. In Bradford, there was a big group of lads who mainly spent their time getting stoned and driving around. One night they drove past the house at the end of the performance, which finishes out on the street; the car slowed, the window wound down and then they watched until the end, clapping along with the rest of the audience. This group of lads and their extended mates kept coming back, night after night. It’s an experience that non-theatre audiences get into with very little explanation, as they are less accustomed to the formality of theatre and therefore more brave.
It helps that the end scene finishes on the street outside, as it changes the dynamic; suddenly the show becomes this whole new thing, a very direct piece of street theatre that rings in the air. In Bristol, a neighbour opposite told us that her husband wasn’t interested in coming, but every night he would come to his window and watch the ending from there. Staging scenes in the street engages people with the show and opens it up so that the audience becomes wider than just ticket-holders.
It’s also significant that our work is about relevant social issues. This is demonstrated when we knock on doors to introduce the project, and so many women say to us “well I’ve been there, I’m completely behind what you’re doing,” so we have that support and a connection from the beginning.
Similarly, with our new piece about Muslim female boxers (to be staged in a boxing gym), I can talk to my son’s nursery workers, who are mainly Muslim wome,n and say “I’m doing this play about challenging stereotypes of Muslim women” and they immediately get it. They start telling me their stories or stories of friends, and quite often we have people saying “ooh, you should interview me”, and we usually do.
For us, we never patronise or feel a barrier between us and the community we’re in; we acknowledge that people are people, some are really interested when we pop up on their street and some aren’t but end up getting involved anyway as they take their kids to school. Without revealing too much, at the very end of the show the pregnant character is railing out on the street and shouts up at the house “I will not be with a man who teaches his children to hit, beat, bite, throw”. We love that this message goes out to the whole street – not just our ticketed audience, but also the ones watching from their windows or just passing by, and the ones who would never think of stepping foot in a theatre.
Our Glass House is running in London from 11th – 30th November. For tickets and more information, visit the Camden People’s Theatre website.