Oxford’s everyday activists inspire audiences

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Oxford’s residents have a history of taking a stand. Over the years the city has been home to the likes of Emily Wilding Davison, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Tony Benn and John Ruskin. During the English civil war, it had associations with the radical Levellers movement, two of whose members were executed near Gloucester Green. The city’s Ruskin College has long been a symbol of workers’ education, as well as hosting the inaugural Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970. But as Oxford celebrated its radical history last year, theatre-maker Chris Goode and the Oxford Playhouse were more interested in what it means to be radical today.

Commissioned for the Playhouse’s Radical Thinking season, the show Stand – now on at Battersea Arts Centre in London – celebrates the ordinary and extraordinary ways in which local people are standing up for what they believe in. For some, that means activism in a familiar form: campaigning, demonstrations, occupations. For others, it’s simply about being a parent. In the show, Goode has captured and told six of these stories.

The Oxford Playhouse asked its community a simple question: when was a moment you stood up for something you believe in? “I feel like the callout set the bar quite high,” Goode reflects. “There’s something nicely self-selecting about it, because it means that the people who want to talk really want to talk.” Having chosen his six storytellers, Goode interviewed them all over a couple of weeks, gathering the material that would later be performed by his cast of six actors.

The stories they found were as varied as the people sharing them. There’s a climate campaigner, a woman who works with refugees, a mother, an activist who campaigned to save the alternative community at Oxford’s Jericho boatyard, one of the founders of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, and a man in his 80s who has spent most of his life protesting against animal testing.

Isn’t there a danger, though, that these eclectic narratives just end up serving a structure imposed by the theatre-makers? Goode’s answer to that question is to be constantly confronting it. “I just think being really aware is half of the task,” he says. “You have to let go of your agenda quite often, because it has to be about the people rather than about the issues that you’re trying to articulate.” All of the interviewees speak, for example, about their childhoods, offering a portrait of their personalities as much as their acts. “I think one of the virtues of Stand is that you see everyone in quite high resolution,” says Goode. “Hopefully you get a real sense of the details of people’s lives, so that they’re not just mouthpieces for certain points of view.”

That said, Goode admits that he and his team always had the aim of inspiring their audiences, with the hope that they in turn will go on to stand up for their own causes. “I felt like there had to be that call to action embedded in the show,” Goode explains, “quite gently, but definitely there.” For that call to action to be heard, though, the show has to connect with audiences who might feel worlds away from the activists sharing their stories – “you have to feel like you’ve been listening to people like you,” as Goode puts it. That’s where the human detail comes in.

“One of the really nice things about the people we found is that they were all really quick to talk about themselves in ways that pointed at moments where they’d failed, moments when things had gone in an unexpected direction – moments of daftness,” says Goode. Activism has its fair share of the ridiculous alongside the serious – “bizarre situations where they’re superglued to something or they’re wearing a costume in a peculiar place”. And what Stand’s storytellers all share, like so many of us, is a guilty feeling that they could be doing more: “Even among really hardcore activists, there’s always someone who’s more hardcore.”

Stand was also an opportunity to present people’s courage in a new light. “People don’t often see themselves in that way,” says Goode, “they don’t see their own bravery.” One example is Jan Thomas, who wanted to celebrate her adopted daughter’s small stand against injustice, but found to her surprise that Goode was more interested in her story as a mother. “I felt I had done nothing special,” she tells me. Since taking part in the project, though, she has been bolder in taking a stand, joining some of her fellow participants in their campaigning activities. “After seeing Stand and meeting the others I resolved to be much more active in standing up for the things I believe in.”

A big part of the project has been about engaging new audiences with the work of the Playhouse, not least through performing the show in a local community centre. “I think there’s a perception around Oxford Playhouse, as there is around a lot of venues and organisations of that scale, that they’re slightly fortressed,” suggests Goode. “It felt really important to them as well as to us that this was a way of opening up some different doors.” Producers Hannah Bevan and Michelle Walker describe Stand as unlike any other show the Playhouse has ever worked on, adding that “to be bombarded with audience responses ever since the show opened about how joyful and inspiring they found it was nothing short of a dream”.

“I’ve never done anything with quite such a strong local focus,” adds Goode, questioning how that might translate to audiences during its London run at BAC. “There’s definitely a strength in that specificity, but I don’t know whether it’s a crucial strength yet.”

Just days after Goode and I spoke, Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall was hit by a devastating fire, followed by an overwhelming show of support for a venue with a radical history of its own. It seems that in Battersea, as in Oxford, there continues to be a tradition of standing up for what matters.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

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One response to “Oxford’s everyday activists inspire audiences

  1. Pingback: Wanted, West Yorkshire Playhouse | Catherine Love·

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