‘We simply want to say we’re all human beings, and we really mean it, when we think: This could be me. This isn’t somebody different from me. This could be me.’
Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding theatre company, producing and touring new plays about homelessness.
Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding social service helping hundreds of homeless people rebuild their lives.
If these statements seem contradictory, it is only because rigid thinking divides artistic and social work into opposing categories of action. Art and social policy are abstract concepts. Homelessness is very concrete. It is also very complex, in both its causes and its effects. It is untidy and doesn’t respond well to tidy thinking. Cardboard Citizens has developed an approach to homelessness that is creative, robust and light-footed. It adapts equally to constant change in policy and services and to ups and downs in vulnerable people’s lives. It crosses conventional boundaries between art and social intervention because it must: the success of this work depends on elements of both.
And the result is real, lasting change – in the lives of the homeless people who take part in its theatre programmes and in the thinking of the audiences who engage with the performances it creates.
Theatre is the most visible aspect of Cardboard Citizens work. Each year, the company commissions and produces a new play that starts with the members’ lives. They are mostly homeless, living in a hostel or on someone’s sofa, out of work, and often struggling with mental ill health, addiction, debt or other problems. At any one time, there may be 60 to 100 people taking part in workshops, volunteering or getting support from Cardboard Citizens (and much larger numbers seeing their work in performance, trainings or masterclasses). A few will be cast – and paid – to perform in each year’s production, but many will have contributed to the play’s development.
‘We are legendarily quite tough. People want it because it’s a mark of respect: we are not going to pat you meekly on the head and say well done, well done, well done until you’ve earned it. And then it’s a real achievement. When people are acquiring the paid posts they have really got to be ready and that’s likely to be the fruit of a 3 or 4 year journey with the company.’
The play is theatre, not journalism. It does not tell anyone’s actual story. It simplifies and synthesises messy reality into drama. In doing that, it allows audiences to connect with the invented characters. Because this is not one person’s story, it can be anyone’s story. You can imagine yourself in the place of the character as you watch. You can wonder how you might feel or behave in the same situation – and that connection is essential because the play is only half of the event. Cardboard Citizens uses the methods of Forum Theatre developed by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian innovator who has been such an influential figure in community theatre. Boal died in 2009, but he was a regular collaborator with Cardboard Citizens, who hosted his visits to London for years.
Forum Theatre is one manifestation of what Boal called the Theatre of the Oppressed. It takes different forms, but at its heart is an invitation to the audience to propose alternative ways of responding to the situations in which the characters are involved.
In Cardboard Citizens’ work, the complete play is performed without interruption. Then, after an interval, the audience is asked what could be different. The actors improvise the scene in question along the lines proposed – and this time the audience member plays the character who is making another choice. Boal coined the term ‘spect-actor’ for this merging of roles. It can be a very powerful experience to cross from the seats to the stage. It gives the audience the right not just to watch but to change a performance. It’s another dynamic of participation, in which an audience debate the morality and feasibility of various actions. And for those who propose and then act out solutions it can be life-changing. Many members join Cardboard Citizens following a first contact at a forum theatre performance.
‘Possibly one of the most intense, stimulating, challenging and liberating experiences of my life.’ Participant
Trust in the democratic process
There is a lack of dogmatism at the heart of Cardboard Citizens. There is plenty of anger at how some people are treated and fierce resolve to bring about change, but that is not the same as believing that you know all the answers. Nor is it the same as using theatre for propaganda, even if you do treat the same subject in play after play after play. As the name implies, Theatre of the Oppressed starts from a belief that society is unjust in some aspect, and it aims to produce change by helping people become more aware of that injustice. But it does not offer a solution, in the Agitprop (or Disney) tradition. It trusts people to find their own solutions, through the process of acting out situations and alternative choices. The forum is a space for democratic debate, not instruction.
This can be a very real form of empowerment. In some contexts, such as a school where bullying is a problem, forum theatre can engage directly the people who can change what is happening. In others, as in Cardboard Citizens’ work on homelessness, the oppression may be too widespread or complex and the people with power to change it may not be present. Still, the process of debate, performing alternatives and seeing their outcomes deepens whatever insight the audience has gained from watching the play at the outset. Forum theatre says that the people in the room have the right and the ability to work out answers – just as they do outside the theatre.
The result, partly because of the very high standards that Cardboard Citizens expects of its productions, is a theatre experience that is moving but not manipulative, intellectually rigorous but not inaccessible. Its trust in people is not the rhetorical formula of politics: it is enacted in every forum theatre performance.
A commitment to relationship
Cardboard Citizens currently has 1200 members with about 100 people joining each year. Membership is open-ended, with a promise that people will always be welcome. That is an extraordinary, almost reckless commitment by an organisation with no secure financial base (each year it has to raise almost £1 million in running costs). But it is profoundly important because vulnerable people’s lives are especially liable to setbacks and they might need help five years after their last contact with company. It is also a symbolic commitment to relationship, non-judgemental and continuing. For Cardboard Citizens at least, homeless people are not problems to be solved. They are company members with changing needs and gifts to offer.
Cardboard Citizens’ may have high artistic ideals but the company accepts that its chosen mission is to work with people whose lives are inherently fragile, and in some cases chaotic. Events occur and members do not meet their commitments. Sometimes that is because of their own choices; often it is not. But the question of choice is of secondary importance if the company offers permanent membership. All that matters is working out what to do for the best now.
So Cardboard Citizens has an Information, Advice and Guidance service with a small team to help members with health, welfare, housing, employment and training needs. They give listen and advise, got to interviews with members and refer them to specialist support. Few arts organisations would even consider this but Cardboard Citizens accepts that it is unrealistic to make theatre with homeless people if you ignore their everyday problems.
‘There is the performing arts which is fun and a wonderful outlet, but also the support to bring me down to earth and say let’s sort out your budgeting and housing situation. I feel I’m being listened to, that I’m quite respected.’
Maddie, Company Member
True to the art
Since the 1990s, some participatory art organisations have found themselves drawn into an uncomfortable proximity with policies whose values they do not necessarily share. Their interest in positive social change can overlap with the priorities of state bodies concerned with health, education and welfare. They might work together to support someone to find work and a home after leaving prison, but their approach and reasons can be very different.
Still, if your funding and targets come from a state agency operating in a political context of welfare cuts, it is hard not to be influenced by that culture. Some of its critics argue that participatory art has effectively been conscripted by a political ideology whose values it does not share. That danger always exists. Artists need to live and finance their work. Refusing to work for unsympathetic funders is a luxury not many can afford.
It is not naïve or unprincipled to try to do work in which you believe, in a framework which you do not accept. It is just difficult. Very difficult.
‘Perched between the arts and the social sector, one of our continual tensions has been not adopting wholesale the language and customs of the social sector, while at the same time having great respect for why people in that sector have arrived at certain ways of doing things.’
Perhaps because they have worked so long in just one field of social policy – homelessness – Cardboard Citizens have successfully walked this tightrope. They achieve results that are valued both by the individuals concerned and by state agencies, while making theatre that holds the system to account for its role in homelessness. No one who has seen a Cardboard Citizens play, performed by people with personal experience of homelessness, could miss the political – but not dogmatic or propagandist – intent of the work.
Artists who leave the well-trodden paths in search of something better, as Adrian Jackson and his colleagues have done, rarely find it an easy choice. Neither finance nor recognition easily come their way. It is hard for others to decide whether their category-defying work is good or not. Have they found a new path of lasting value or are they just lost and alone? It’s safer for those who stay in the mainstream to see them as misguided mavericks, especially as their work implies a rejection of that mainstream.
Not all those who break existing rules make good choices or great work. But Cardboard Citizens has done both. Its 25 year history is a triumphant vindication of the artistic, social and political value of Augusto Boal’s ideas and of the creative possibilities of bringing theatre artists and vulnerable people together.
‘Working with the company has given me a sense of purpose and direction, so I’m not just meandering through life leaving a vapour trail of social destruction behind me! You can quote me on that.’
Simon, Company Member
All photos courtesy Cardboard Citizens