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Features Essays Published 9 January 2018

The Trouble With Outreach

Playwright and youth worker Nathan Lucky Wood asks why work being made with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups is so closely focused around their most difficult experiences
Nathan Lucky Wood

In a cold function room in a London youth centre, fifteen young homeless people are watching a play. It tells the story of a young woman who finally gets a council flat after years of sofa surfing, only to lose her tenancy when she allows her deadbeat friend to stay, rent-free. The actors are not professionals; they’ve been brought together under the aegis of a medium-sized London theatre as part of a community project. They’re young, too – younger than the audience, even, in some cases – and they’re nervous, but committed. The audience watch politely as the protagonist is punished for her act of kindness, and ends up forced back onto the streets she thought she’d left behind. And then the play ends, and the audience applaud politely.

At this point, an older man steps forward. He is the facilitator and he is the only person in that room being paid. He explains that the play we’ve just watched was a piece of ‘Forum Theatre’. This meant that the audience would now have the opportunity to become part of the play themselves, and try to make the story end differently. Could anyone think of what could be done to make this story end differently?

A young man raises his hand. He wants to ask a question. Why have they come here to perform a play which is so depressing? Being homeless is already hard. He was excited to see a play because he thought he could forget about that. But now he had been reminded of it, and he felt awful. He wanted to know, what had been the point?

The facilitator didn’t have an answer. Nor, having worked across theatre and homeless services for years now, do I. But I do think it’s an extremely good question, and one that I think anyone doing Outreach work should take seriously.

The category of theatre-making with non-professionals is very broad, and would include youth theatre and community theatre. But here I’m talking specifically about work being made with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups – young offenders, homeless people, refugees – who have been identified due to a recognition that they are particularly vulnerable, at risk, or in need, in some way. This type of work is varied and diverse, ranging from established, highly experienced companies such as Cardboard Citizens and Clean Break, to smaller companies, charities and individual artists, for whom it may be one strand of work among many in their practice. This kind of theatre – theatre being made with at-risk groups – has the potential to be powerfully, profoundly life-changing; but it also has the potential to be exploitative, and cause harm. I think anyone involved in making theatre has a duty of care to all those participating in the process; but this is doubly true of working with non-professionals, and doubly true again of working with vulnerable people, with their own histories of trauma and complex lives. We have a duty to reflect on what we are doing, and how it could be better.

What does this risk of harm consist of? For me, there are two related sources of danger: a tendency in some of this work to solicit and encourage personal testimony, and a tendency to use the participants’ identities as vulnerable or at-risk people as the focus of the process.

It’s easy to see why a theatre workshop can become a place where personal stories are disclosed. A workshop where things are running smoothly has a unique atmosphere: minds are focused; bodies are relaxed and warmed up; there has been some laughter, and some touching. A feeling of intimacy is generated. It can feel, particularly if contrasted with a chaotic or traumatic life outside that room, like a safe space. And in that context, it’s natural that people might want to share things that are troubling them. Sometimes that could take the form of stories that might be extremely traumatic. In this kind of room, a powerful atmosphere can be generated, where people feel empowered and able to share things they may have kept bottled up for a long time. And for a theatre artist, whose entire work is based on the generation of powerful atmospheres, this can be intoxicating. It feels like something important is happening, people are opening up, and the work therefore feels valuable.

This is an area where we have to be extremely careful. The sharing of personal stories can feel good, in the moment, only to be regretted later. In the context of a short-term drama project, the facilitators will likely not have the time, skills or training to deal therapeutically with a serious disclosure; nor, usually, will they be around to offer support once the project is finished, the performance done, and the participants have to integrate their experience of the project with their experience of their daily life. Also hard to predict is the effect a traumatic disclosure will have on the other participants in the room; what one person may be comfortable talking about may be intensely triggering for another participant. None of this is to say that a drama workshop should not be a space where people feel comfortable opening up, and talking about themselves and their experience. It’s only to say that we must be aware of the risks present in such a situation; and we must not mistake the emotional intensity that comes when people share trauma for good work.

It’s one thing to provide a safe space where people feel comfortable enough to share personal stories about themselves; it’s another thing to actively encourage this sharing, or to place it at the heart of a theatre-making process. It can feel like a small step from a group discussion of, for instance, racism, to a sharing of personal experiences of racism; and another small step from there to using those experiences as the starting point for an improvisation; and another small step to then incorporating that in a performance. But in that process, people may have shared traumatic stories about themselves without any expectation that these would become part of a public performance. And in a group situation, where a ‘the-show-must-go-on’ atmosphere can kick in as time gets shorter, and stopping work can mean letting down your peers, saying you’re uncomfortable with the direction the work is going is not always easy. As theatre-makers doing this kind of work, we have to be aware of the risks of what we’re doing, and prioritise the wellbeing of the participants over the final product. For me, this fundamentally means not using people’s personal histories as a source of material. This is not to say that good, ethical work can’t be made based on personal experience; but it has to be made clear to participants at the start of the process exactly what they’re signing up for.

I do think, however, that a tendency to centre personal experiences in this kind of theatre-making is a symptom of a general tendency in much outreach work to place the group’s shared identity – Augusto Boal would say their shared oppression – at the heart of the process. So a project working with homeless people will explore homes, or the housing crisis, or life on the streets, or a project with refugees will explore migration. This is, in a sense, a natural tendency – if you are gathering a group of people in a room together, it makes sense to focus on what they have in common. If you haven’t worked with this group before, you won’t know their interests or personalities; but you will know that a group of young offenders will all have experience of the criminal justice system, and that will present itself as a natural starting point. But it’s not the only starting point, and it’s not necessarily the best. I once met a woman who worked to commission arts projects for young offenders. She had stopped bringing in theatre-makers and was now focusing on visual arts. I asked her why. “All the drama people want to do is plays about knife crime,” she said. “The kids get enough of that already.”

My own experience is largely in working with young homeless people, and this has shaped my thoughts about this work. One of the first things you learn working in youth homelessness is that the category of ‘homeless person’ covers an enormous diversity of experience, from the entrenched rough sleeper to the person who has spent over a year moving from one friend’s sofa to another, only to have finally had to spend their first night on the street, and been frankly terrified. The point is, homelessness is a traumatic experience that could happen to anyone, that falls mostly on the poorest in society, and that the structural injustice of our economy will do its best to trap people in. It is not, or does not need to be, permanent, and it is not, or should not be, the core of anyone’s identity. Any homeless person will have their own reasons for taking part in an artistic project; they may have previous experience of the arts, their own creative ambitions or desire to say something. But if the project is about homelessness, you are telling them – the reason you are in this room is because you are homeless. This is, in this context, the most important fact about you and the thing you have to contribute. For anyone, but I think particularly for a young person, still at a point where they are forming their identity and their sense of themselves, this is an extremely damaging message to send.

I have one particular memory that might illustrate this. We were offered tickets to bring a group of young people to see a show that had been described as a fantasy adventure. On the way, the young people were excited; it was a break from their usual, and I had a long chat with one of the guys about his experience of drama at school, what he’d enjoyed about it, and his feelings about the theatre. On arrival at the venue, someone warned us that some of the material might be a bit ‘challenging’, but if people felt uncomfortable they were free to leave at any time. And then we went into the theatre, and watched an extremely grim story of a rough sleeper, tormented by memories of his mother’s violence and alcoholism, and the way that pattern of family life was recurring in his own life. The point here is not to disparage the performance, which was extremely good. But it was not a pleasant evening for a group of young people, some of whom would be bedding down on the streets that very night. Some of them I think found it triggering, upsetting; one told me afterwards that if he had known what it would be like, he would not have come. And the key moment for me, was the moment when the house lights went down, and the play began, and it was clear that this was a story of a young rough sleeper. Beforehand, in the lobby, there had been excitement; nerves; some interest in being in a different space, the pleasure of a trip to an unfamiliar part of London, and anticipation – what was this show going to be? Why are we here? And then it started, and that question was answered – you’re here because you’re homeless.

That was a great play for a traditional theatre audience to see; it portrayed effectively the suffering people in our society have to undergo; it did a valuable service in reflecting back to comfortable, middle class audiences, what part of the world is like. But this is the problem. If you are middle class, you can see theatre about anything – space travel, the labour party, theoretical physics, the black power movement. But if you are homeless, all you get to see is the worst of your own experience, reflected back to you.

Funding structures play into this. Anyone who has written a Grants For The Arts application knows, crucial to a successful application is telling a coherent story. Word counts are tight, and the section on outreach sticks out like a sore thumb. If you are producing a hard-hitting play about the realities of life on the streets, I can see how it’s much easier to justify a line in your budget about giving free tickets to young homeless people, than if you’re directing an imaginative re-telling of The Importance Of Being Earnest. But why shouldn’t that experience be just as valuable for homeless young people? Again – diversion, entertainment, laughter, distraction – the theatre provides these things to middle class ticket buyers. But outreach provides only cathartic recognition of your own suffering.

So – what is to be done?

I would mention three things which I think should be remembered when making this work. First – be honest about your reasons for making it – honest with yourself, and with your participants. Second – don’t mistake what is exciting for you as an artist, or for an audience, with what is valuable for the participants. These may overlap but they are not the same. Avoid voyeurism or treating those you are working with as a source of material. And third – give people an experience of creativity. Take them seriously as artists. Don’t assume their only value comes from their experience of suffering.

And lastly, for both funders and companies – be more wide-ranging in the work you offer, and the work you fund. Don’t limit your outreach offer to work that foregrounds people’s worst experiences. Give those who need it a chance to step outside themselves as well. Take them to good plays and make good plays with them.

Unlike books, which can pass through second hand shops and libraries, or films, endlessly copied and downloadable online, theatre will never drop by chance into the hands of those who need it. To reach beyond its standard audience takes an active effort; theatre must go to them. The liberatory potential of this artform is enormous. If we, as artists and workers in this industry, truly want theatre to reach beyond its elite audience, we have a duty to do this kind of work; to fund it, to support it, and to think critically about how we could be doing it better.

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Nathan Lucky Wood

Nathan is a playwright, youth worker and theatre practitioner in London. He was part of the Soho Young Company 2013-14, and was long-listed for the Writers Award there. His plays have been performed at The Roundhouse, The Bush, The Arcola, the Southwark Playhouse, and elsewhere. He's a founding member of Mouths Of Lions theatre company and co-Artistic Director of Right Mess.

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