It was interesting to read Nathan Lucky Wood’s article for Exeunt last month, The Trouble with Outreach. What he is describing is simply not-so-fantastic practice, which is forgivable if not too much damage is done. Everybody can make mistakes when they start out, it’s just a pity if the only way people can find to develop their craft is to use as guinea pigs people who are really in the grip of oppression. Car developers use crash test dummies, not volunteer humans, for obvious reasons.
My tongue is only a little way into my cheek if I say that one of the downsides of having pioneered a strand of work using Forum Theatre some 25 years ago (which turned into Cardboard Citizens) is that perhaps we are partly responsible for masses of Forum Theatre being inflicted on homeless people around the country, with varying degrees of subtlety or wisdom. But let’s not forget Forum Theatre can be used with lots of different constituencies, and there are no shortage of oppressed groups around.
For sure, like any theatre practice to be done with groups that have experienced oppression or trauma – and especially if they themselves are participants or actors and also audience – care and thought need to be exercised as to what effects the events might have on people. [At the same time, actually in many cases the things people have survived are likely to have been far more difficult to cope with than a somewhat under-developed or ill-thought through piece of theatre, forum or not. When you have survived eviction, exclusion, and trauma, not much that even the most awful of ‘Legs Akimbo’-type theatre companies can do is likely seriously to add to your burden.] As with any theatre, the option to leave should be clearly available. As with any theatre, the work should be entertaining and it should have its pleasures, however gritty the material.
It’s important to be aware that theatre dealing with depressing or dull life experiences does not itself need to be depressing or dull – often the best way to deal with this kind of material, especially in Forum, is to treat it with humour. Brecht said that a theatre in which we cannot laugh is a theatre to be laughed at. If we just play people’s lives back to them, in dull kitchen sink naturalism, it may well simply add to their burdens.
Forum Theatre at its best is not about rubbing peoples’ noses in it – it is about coming together with a group of people to share real stuff and celebrate how resilient and inventive human beings can be in the face of adversity. Obviously, having made work in this fashion for a long time now at Cardboard Citizens, and continuing to do so, we have reason (and living proof) to believe that in general we cause more good than harm. We think of Forum as a ‘rehearsal for life’, allowing participants to explore, test and try actions and pathways to see how the outcome of a story can be changed.
Like many other forms of activism or social intervention, it works best in concert with other forms of support or action. At Cardboard Citizens, we work in partnership with a whole range of other organisations and charities to which we signpost our Members – all of whom have experience of homelessness. We have a team of staff at Cardboard Citizens dedicated to supplying our Members with concrete support in many areas of their lives, and we also do our best to ensure wherever possible at Forum performances in hostels, prisons or our own home in Whitechapel that there are trained staff on hand to provide support to individuals if needed. The theatre is simply the catalyst for change – and the changes need all kind of follow-up and support to ensure that they are both meaningful and enduring.
Not every theatre company has the resources or the knowledge to do these things, but that should not bar people from trying their best to help effect change.
As for the point Nathan Lucky Wood makes about theatre outings targeted at homeless groups – sure, why on earth would theatres assume that the only plays homeless people would want to see are plays about that experience? I think the better London theatres do make tickets available for a variety of things. We had a great scheme in 2000, a Millennium project (remember them?), called 2001 nights – whereby we facilitated 2001 visits to cultural activities of all descriptions over that year. It was wonderful. Our Members were enabled to become very discerning critics, writing about the events they witnessed and sharing vigorous discussions about the relative qualities of different shows and exhibitions. For our own shows, which range far beyond being simply about the experience of homelessness, we always offer £1 tickets to homeless and ex-homeless people – whether this is Cathy, which will play at the Soho Theatre and around the UK this spring – or the Pericles or Timon of Athens we co-produced with the RSC a while back.
In the end, it comes down to questions of ethics, experience and quality. Forum Theatre is one of a variety of theatrical modes we use at Cardboard Citizens – it’s certainly not right for all situations. But when it is presented in the right place, by the right people for the right audiences, it can be glorious, liberating, life-enhancing, and genuinely change-making. It can provide a uniquely powerful space, a space of freedom, which allows marginalised people to tell untold stories and to advocate for themselves, without well-meaning or censorious intermediary. Viva Boal.