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It's showtime for Legislative Theatre!

Report from the rehearsal room: Housing First Legislative Theatre

By Alexa Sargeant, Katy Rubin, and Matt Kidd.

Well it's October and members of the Housing First co-production panel, members of the Elephants Trail project, and facilitator Katy Rubin, have been gathering weekly since early July.

We’ve been meeting in-person, socially-distanced (!), with two complementary goals: to create a play based on the experiences of the group members that will jump-start a participatory policy-making process called Legislative Theatre; and to strengthen facilitation skills, so that this group will be able to lead other communities and audiences through similar processes in the future.

And over the next week, we’ll be performing twice - once for a small group in-person today, and then on October 15 for a larger audience via Zoom (and you’re welcome to RSVP for that one!).

At both events, peers, policy-makers, friends and colleagues will watch the play, called You Know Where the Door Is; discuss the problems the story reveals; improvise with the actors to re-imagine how to address these problems; and, inspired by what was tried onstage and the structural barriers that were revealed, write their own policy proposals.

But that’s not the end: we are inviting a group of policy-makers to join in a final debate, and commit to take action on the ideas! Co-produced structural change requires accountability at every level.

We’re hoping to generate some creative ideas, or further develop ideas that have already been brewing in Greater Manchester, to improve the Housing First program and help to shape how it works with individuals and communities.

We also want to influence the wider system on issues relating to homelessness and mental health; such as staffing and ways of working in hostels and mental health services.

For more info and to register, click here.

Meet the team: Alexa, Damo, Judith, Neil, Mat, Mel

Alexa, one of the actor-facilitators (pictured below playing the part of the landlord), discusses the project and its aims.

Tell us briefly about the roles you play. What issues are coming up in your scenes?

In this piece I play the role of a landlord in one scene and a receptionist in another. The landlord's role highlights some of the prejudices and judgments people can have of those who experience homelessness and the lack of empathy and understanding people can have of people whose life experiences have left them with significant trauma. It also demonstrates where the imbalances of power can exist in the most everyday of situations between people, particularly where knowing our rights( or not) can make a difference to how people behave towards us.

The second scene I play a receptionist at a mental health service. Whilst on the whole this character is friendly and helpful, this scene demonstrates the position people are often put in when visiting doctors or other professionals of having to disclose personal information in full view of others as well as the difficulty a person might encounter trying to access a new service in a new place with little support.

How did the group develop these scenes?

Initially we were asked to consider our own personal experiences and, drawing on them, to create a few short scenes. We made a joint decision about which to utilise based on how closely they fit with this particular theme and then we expanded the scenes, adapting and making changes or adding new things in as we went.

None of it is scripted so the dialogue can change each time we do it, but we generally end up keeping roughly to the gist of the conversation and interactions.

What’s been particularly surprising about this process?

I was surprised at how quickly a group can get an unscripted performance together in a few weeks with zero previous acting or theatre experience and how much fun it is to work in such an open and flowing way. If we don’t like something we can change it. If something in a scene doesn’t work we can drop it. We get to experiment and find what suits us so we have full control over the story and how it's acted out.

The tricky bit has been the facilitation.

What is the role of the facilitator, which you’ve been practicing, in Legislative Theatre?

The facilitator role I am practicing is there to welcome and introduce the performance and alongside Judith help to warm the audience up and begin to engage them with the experience of addressing problems. Its interactive theatre and the audience becomes part of the play later on so we need to help bridge the gap between actors and spectators by involving them in a fun way before we start.

What are you hoping will come out of all of this?

I’m hoping the organisations and policy makers and followers get a better insight into the difficulties people face with the systems in place within homelessness and mental health services.

I hope it sends a strong message they can really empathise with enough to want to make real changes . We often have systems in place we know don’t work and yet those who could make adjustments don’t bother either because they don’t think there are enough people being affected or they don’t know what can be done .

This process addresses both those issues - one person having that issue is one person too many but in these plays you soon see it’s many more people, and being able to discuss alternatives and other ways of doing things means people share ideas for better practice and then they are asked to commit to making a change. Once you sit yourself in a room of people with lived experiences who have just played out some of the real life experiences they have had and your job is to make a difference, you would need to be a pretty heartless person to just walk away and do nothing.

How do you think these tools could be useful to you in the future, if at all?

I can definitely see the process being used to help the people in my own community to address the power imbalances between communities and statutory organisations like the Council and health services. It's a great way of levelling the playing field and for supporting people to experience things from a position different to the one they are used to inhabiting.

Often I feel just the act of stepping into someone else's shoes can have a profound impact on our perception of others and if it does nothing else it gets people talking - talking about power, oppression, lived experience, problems and challenges and it provides a safe space to do it in without pointing fingers or casting blame .

We are all people at the end of the day and we all know what it's like to struggle. If we understood better what gets in the way of us acting for change and picked up our power we could influence how the system operates so it's less oppressive and punitive. Sometimes just a small alteration in how we do things makes a huge difference to a lot of people.


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