Features Guest Column Published 16 July 2013

We Stopped, We Looked, We Listened

Stories on the streets of Hammersmith.

Emma Gersch

Since my last column in April, the Moving Stories team has now carried out another life affirming stint of our promenade event,  Stop, Look, Listen. Following on from its success at the Southwark Playhouse a few years ago, we were commissioned to run it at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, and I am happy to report that we enjoyed an overwhelming response from all involved over the three day project (April 8th-10th). A few months on, I can now gain some perspective and reflection in order to realise the impact the event had.

By way of quick overview for anyone who missed the last column, the event invited an audience to join one of a team of Story-Guides who had been working in the local area during the previous week. The Story-Guides were tasked with engaging two to three local people who would agree to share their story with their small audience groups, in their place of home or work. This was no mean feat in a city of people who are not used to being stopped to talk about themselves, unless for market research, sales or charity purposes. We encountered many challenges along the way, but most surprisingly, we were overwhelmed by how many people agreed to open up and share.

The underlying philosophy of this work is that everybody has a story, and that we will be richer, kinder, more insightful human beings if we spend a little time listening to them. One could argue that this is not really theatre, since there are no performance or theatrical elements involved. For me as a theatremaker, this work is the very foundation on which I can understand and build theatre; the essence of the human condition. Real people, telling real stories, and sharing these live with a small, engaged, involved and absorbed audience groups.

When we posted an advert for our Story-Guides, we were inundated with applications. We were looking for actors with an acute fascination with people and life. Our Story-Guides needed to be charismatic, bold, brave, appropriate, resilient, open, flexible and, most importantly, ego-less. Quite a wish list! From over 300 applications, we shortlisted and workshopped with 60, then scaled down to our final 8 who matched our wish list, and offered even more than we had hoped. We spent a rigorous day together clarifying for ourselves exactly what we were doing and why, posing potential risks and damage controls, and most interestingly, defining our language. We were on the verge of approaching strangers in a bid to engage people to tell their stories, and we had to make sure we didn’t scare, confuse, patronise, embellish or send up anyone we met.

For this reason, we decided to go out individually, without a notepad, and with a range of adaptable phrases to explain our work. For some of our more confident volunteer storytellers, we were able to use the words “theatre, performance, audience and Riverside Studios”. For those less forthcoming, we explained in terms of sharing stories, bringing local people back together, and community. Our group of Story-Guides each had a different approach, background and personality, which meant they naturally gravitated towards different people to observe and engage. On our first day out and about, we simply watched people and I encouraged the team to align with people they were struck, moved or intrigued by. We had a particular interest in finding people whose stories might otherwise go unheard.

Each day, we would re-group at the Riverside Studios to share the stories that we had gathered. It wasn’t long before we had a rich, diverse and unforgettable range of stories. Jane achieved the first ‘hit’ with Azat, the Iraqi man who owned and ran the Launderette. Over the course of several days she built up trust with him by sitting with him, drinking tea and exchanging stories. He was fixated on her need to re-shape her eyebrows, and to keep her warm by inviting her inside. Azat’s story was extraordinary; he shared (with humour and lightness) his stories of hiding in the Iraqi mountains for five years to survive the war, and then fleeing his native country to find refuge, going for weeks without food and sleep. He found a home in Hammersmith and had only praise for the English people and culture, and despite losing everyone he loved, he had managed to remain positive and upbeat about the future.

Each re-group brought with it new respect, excitement and amazement at the volume of individuals so willing to share their stories – too many to re-count in detail here. Clare found Laurence and Tim, the reformed criminals who had been given another chance by the shoe maker company Timpsons; Sarah met Ian, who worked with pride and loyalty for the London Underground at Hammersmith tube and shared stories of his love for cats and living alone; Sarah also met Marion, the cleaner at the Riverside Studios who had survived an abusive marriage and run away with her newborn baby and slept in her car in the underground car park at Tescos in Clapton for a week until discovered by a kindly woman who led her to safety and help from the social services. The baby is now 21 and at medical school in the USA, and Marion couldn’t be happier when she vacuums and sings loudly as she cleans the Riverside Studios. Jane and Anna found 89-year-old Bob, who invited them daily into his home, where he had been born and shared precious memories and stories of his life growing up in Hammersmith and losing his wife 5 years earlier. He shared the secret to his incredible youth: not to get stressed about anything.  It feels disrespectful to abbreviate just a handful of the stories here, but hopefully this gives a flavour of the profound and moving nature of what we uncovered. There are dozens more.

On April 8th at 1pm, our first audience group arrived and gathered in the foyer at the Riverside Studios. I had decided to make a brief introduction to prepare our audience for the journey. I invited the audience to open their eyes, ears and hearts, to be ready for the unexpected, and to enjoy the luxury to look afresh at the area, people and world around them, without agenda. We split the audience up into groups with the 7 Story-Guides and off they went.

We happened to be extremely lucky with the weather, and the sun shone throughout our 3 days, making the experience even more magical. Each day brought a different experience, but the key similarity across each event was the way in which the audience returned to the Riverside Studios after their hour journey, in a totally altered state. We invited our audience to join us for drinks, sweets and de-brief chats at the back of the bar. On some days, these conversations stretched into the afternoon. Some audience members who came on the Saturday came back again on the Sunday to be able to hear new stories. We invited our audience to write their responses on post-it notes and cover the walls at the back of the bar. By the end of the three events, we were overwhelmed by responses:

“A lovely hour of discovery. Reminds you that outside of the hustle and bustle of London life there are true human stories that are very humbling and grounding. Thank you.”

“Stop. Look. Listen is like having a precious key & window into the remarkable, moving stories of the amazing and wonderful people of Hammersmith.”

“Thank you so much, didn’t really know what to expect to begin with, but left enriched on a human level. And it reminded me – EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS A STORY TO TELL”

After the huge impact and resonance of our time at the Riverside Studios, we have been invited back to run the event as many times as we want and can. Next stop: funding applications, then hopefully back to the streets and the stories.

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Emma Gersch is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine