Drama can boost the wellbeing of homeless people, but engaging them is not without challenges. Jon Randall shares his experiences producing and touring theatre with Lancaster’s homeless community.
“I’ve got enough drama in my life already.” I have been attempting to drum up enthusiasm for our Tuesday morning session at Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service, just opposite The Dukes’ Centre for Creative Learning. Training Co-ordinator Hilary Wellgate and I are typically greeted with the same response while users of the centre continue to eat their breakfast. The fact is they have far more immediate concerns than what they imagine to be prancing about on a stage pretending to be a tree.
We tried to find creative approaches to devising artistically ambitious work that went with the grain of their lives and circumstances, rather than against it
Like recovering from a night attempting to sleep on concrete, defrosting, cradling a hot drink, searching for a home, applying for welfare, having a shower or finding their next meal. Why should they have any desire to get involved with theatre?
Drama activities for the homeless
Initially, the group explored drama techniques that supported wellbeing and self-discipline, before progressing to develop scripted and devised performances. The aim of the project evolved to adapt existing stories informed by experiences of street homelessness, while cultivating a sense of belonging to a creative team.
I became involved with Alternative Outcomes in the summer of 2014 as an assistant creative practitioner, documentary film-maker and then lead artist. Since then, we have worked alongside a range of professional artists, with a handful of consistent core members and nearly a hundred others, who have contributed towards creating four publically performed theatre pieces.
Our first show ‘Ebenezer Dealer’ was an adaptation of the theatre’s Christmas show that year, A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge was re-imagined as a local drug dealer in search of redemption. The play was performed script-in-hand on The Dukes’ main stage before 200 people. It toured homeless shelters in the north west of England and was recorded as a radio piece, which BBC Radio Lancashire broadcasted on Christmas Eve.
During 2015, the group produced another two short performances. In ‘Twisted’ and ‘Cinderfella’ we used a similar approach of lifting the themes and characters from existing scripts and reshaping them to reflect the life experiences of the participants.
At the same time, improvisation and more contemporary styles of practice were beginning to inform a creative process that responded to the group’s needs. This approach equipped them with the skills to channel the same resourcefulness that is a necessity of daily existence on the streets into a theatre space.
Struggles and challenges
The transient nature of the homeless community often contributes to a fluid and frequently unstable creative process. Struggles that any performer may be experiencing could include substance abuse, mental issues and complicated personal relationships. Chaotic life circumstances can understandably impact on a participant’s commitment to developing work, attending rehearsals or performances, or even remaining in the same town for any extended period of time. In response to these challenges, we tried to find creative approaches to devising artistically ambitious work that went with the grain of their lives and circumstances, rather than against it.
Many of these solutions were revealed during the creation of ‘After The Floods’, an immersive installation and performance that explored accounts from Lancaster’s homeless community in response to the citywide blackout during Storm Desmond.
Under the guidance of Alex Summers, The Dukes’ Associate Director, we had a huge amount of professional support to facilitate the experience envisioned by the group. We focused on the use of audio recordings (for which, working with composer and sound designer Richard Smithson was essential) to reduce the pressures of learning text.
The audio was accompanied by a series of intimate performances in blacked-out tents, giving the audience a physical proximity to the homeless community in an exchange that they perhaps may not engage with on the streets.
Weaving narratives based upon their own accounts of the floods engendered a sense of ownership of the material but also had a positive impact on their investment and commitment to the project. We also tried to incorporate as many fragments of text, physical images and ideas from absent members into the show, to honour their stories, contributions and voices from the process, while creating a rich world for audiences to interact with.
The experience of touring the production created a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the group: loading the set in and out of the van, supporting each other if things didn’t go to plan and inspiring others to get involved. Audiences responded positively and it was a joy to see the enthusiasm, confidence and self-worth of individuals sky-rocket over a couple of weeks.
We often talk about the group being a revolving door of ensemble performers, thinkers and makers. And yet, every session feels like the people who are in the room for that time are Alternative Outcomes. It’s always been vital for the group to remain open to anyone who wants to come along to an inclusively safe space where they can feel their opinions and perspectives on life are validated.