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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Telling Stories

Written & Directed by Chris Goode. Cast Michael Fenton Stevenes, Kelda Holmes, Christian Roe, Gwyneth Stron, Cathy Tyson, Lawrence Werber

The other night, I got sucked into a general election coverage black hole. Sat in bed, clicking through article after article, eyes fixed wide open when I should have been asleep. I was – I am – terrified. Then, a day or so later, I read this by George Monbiot on the train, hands shaking a little with fury. So much – climate change, the housing crisis, extreme inequality – is fucked, and the media is worrying about what Ed Miliband looks like eating a sandwich.

Likewise, there’s been a lot written about election theatre in the last few weeks and months. And yes, there is a lot of exciting political theatre that’s been programmed ahead of the country going to the polls. But amidst all the uncertainty and spin and sly manoeuvring, what leave more of an impact are those reminders of who the outcome of today’s vote is really going to impact upon. It’s the theatre about people, as much as the theatre about politics, that I find lingering in my mind.

I’m proudly voting Green today (a privilege, I confess, of living in a Labour ultra safe seat and not having the agony of worrying about letting in the Tories by splitting the left-wing vote – fuck first past the post, by the way), but Owen Jones’s argument for supporting Labour – especially in marginal constituencies – is pretty persuasive on this point. As he puts it, there might not be a huge gap between Conservative and Labour, but a hell of a lot of people fall into that gap. Increasingly, it looks as though the coming days are going to be a scrappy, close-fought fight, and the real winners or losers won’t be those sat in Parliament, whatever side of the House they end up on.

Take the characters who populate Beyond Caring. Since Alexander Zeldin and his cast started working on the show a couple of years ago, zero-hours contracts have become a key election issue, but Beyond Caring isn’t really “issue theatre”. It’s just about people. Weary, ignored, cruel, tender, stubbornly hopeful. People making the best of a shitty situation, cleaning up – literally and metaphorically – the mess they’ve been landed in.

Three cleaners on zero-hours contracts work a relentless 14-day cleaning job, alongside disillusioned full-time worker Phil and needlessly cruel night-shift boss Ian, venting his frustration in small displays of power. Ultimately, though, they’re all people who have been let down, forgotten, left out of the “aspiration nation”. But none of this political commentary is explicit. Instead, the hyper-naturalistic texture of Zeldin’s production simply puts us in the same room as these people, watching as they lead their precarious, unremarkable lives. “Just pay attention,” the show seems to be saying. Just look.

A memory: I’m about to cross the road outside Euston Station when I notice a man appealing to passersby. They all ignore him. I walk over, awkward, asking if I can help. He needs money for somewhere to stay tonight but he feels as though he’s running out of options. I listen. He tells me his name. I tell him mine. I try to offer some feeble advice, but honestly I don’t really know what support systems – if any – there are for him to access in the short term. I have to leave, so I give him what little cash I have on me and tell him I hope he finds somewhere. It’s not enough.

I cry, quietly and inconspicuously, all the way to my destination. Guilt itches at me – why didn’t I stay for longer than those few minutes? why, so often when I’m walking somewhere in a hurry, don’t I stop at all? – but mostly I feel a sort of helpless anger. All the talk, all the policies, all the posturing, have suddenly become a sharp kick in the stomach.

But then I think about the inevitability of that moment dissolving into the texture of my day, slowly melting into all the other experiences and conversations and worries. I think about the luxury and privilege of forgetting. I think about how I’m already turning that encounter, that man’s life, into a narrative. I wonder if that makes me just as bad as those who ignored him.

And I think about the long, wounded howl of Men in the Cities.

Tone-wise, Stand is perhaps as far from Men in the Cities as Chris Goode’s practice gets. After I see the show at BAC, Hannah Nicklin suggests that it’s the latter’s gentle counterpart; they’re two different sides of the same coin.

Men in the Cities is angry. Exquisitely, excruciatingly angry. It’s the raw, bruised cry of rage that is sometimes the only response to the world we live in. Rip it all down and start again. The same energy that’s channelled towards destruction in Men in the Cities is directed into positive, life-affirming action in Stand, be that campaigning against climate change, fighting for animal rights, or simply raising children with the strong sense of justice that allows them to take a stand in turn. All of those who share their stories of standing up for something acknowledge all that is wrong with the world, but they continue nonetheless.

Although Stand is a collection of individual narratives, gathered from people in Oxford, I’m struck by how communal they all feel. None of these stories are about us, say the six people sat on stage. It was him, it was her, it was all of us. It feels apt to be sat listening to these stories of action and community in BAC’s Council Chamber, a room soaked in the history of its local people, in a building whose motto “Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us” has taken on new meaning in recent weeks.

Confronted with just how fucked up the world is, it’s easy to feel guilty or helpless or both. My conscience is constantly pricked by the need to do more, while my anger is deflated by the feeling of being too small to make a difference. Handing out a few leaflets for the Green Party, or signing a petition, or spending a couple of minutes talking to a homeless person on the streets – they all feel like miniature, cowardly acts, ways of soothing that itchy conscience without really doing very much. Even the much bigger, much braver acts described by some of the individuals in Stand are just tiny drops in a vast ocean.

But there is something, however small, in stories. Watching Stand with Hannah, it reminds me of a moment near the end of her show A Conversation With My Father, in which someone suggests that what she is doing – telling stories – is the real way to initiate change. It is, at the very least, one way. Stories are how we shape our lives and our place in the world, so if we tell those stories differently then maybe – just maybe – we’re somewhere on the way to acting differently.

And there’s something about who gets to tell their stories and whose stories are told for them – or not told at all. On the same day as seeing Beyond Caring for a second time, I go to an afternoon performance of Turning a Little Further, a show devised with local female carers as part of the Young Vic’s (brilliant, as far as I can tell) Two Boroughs project. Partly inspired by Happy Days, recently in the main house, it’s a shifting portrait of women up to their necks not in sand but in other demands and responsibilities that weigh just as heavy.

“We have not given anyone a voice,” insists the short programme note, “we have simply allowed those voices to be heard.” And that’s the sense you get from the piece, which is filled with this wonderful, poignant, ecstatic cacophony of voices. It’s also properly beautiful – all glitter and soft coloured light and flowing, joyful movement. At one captivating point, bodies shoal and move as one mesmerising mass under a low amber glow; at another, a swing becomes a simple symbol of freedom and play.

It’s difficult too. “I’m choking on my own heart,” says one woman – a line that sticks in my own throat. Often, the struggle of just navigating daily routine is painfully felt, as is the indignity of being swept aside by government and society alike. What’s also felt in the room, though, is the sheer joy of this space of creation and escape, a space that feels increasingly under threat. “This,” I want to shout, “this is why theatre matters.”

Together with Beyond Caring, it’s a sharp reminder of what’s at stake in the fight ahead of us – today, yes, but also in the days after that, and the days after that. So many of the women in Turning a Little Further talk about being invisible, about not being heard. I don’t want to be part of a society where those voices are left to fade away entirely.

Finally, because it’s the sort of day when I either have to be a bit idealistic or collapse into tears, I’ll be singing this in my head on the way to the polling station.

Photo: Richard Davenport.