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Backstage: Cardboard Citizens – turning homeless hostels into theatres

The staging of Benefit was designed to incorporate lighting in the set. Photo: Richard Davenport
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Anyone in touring theatre will tell you that taking a show on the road requires additional ingenuity from a design and production management perspective. Creating a piece of theatre that works well in a wide range of theatre venues is never an easy task. Add to that the varied demands of performing in non-theatre spaces too – schools, homeless hostels and prisons – and you have a whole new set of challenges to think about.

Cardboard Citizens is well equipped to deal with these challenges after two decades of creating touring theatre with and for homeless people, says Tony McBride, director of projects at the company and director of its latest touring show, Meta.

“We are very familiar with the hostels and prisons that we go into, and the spaces that we perform in. So the designers have a good working knowledge of the restrictions of what they have to work with,” he says, adding: “Anything to do with restriction can sometimes aid creativity.”

Cardboard Citizens’ recent touring show Meta was developed with students from Tower Hamlets, London. Photo: richard lakos
Cardboard Citizens’ recent touring show Meta was developed with students from Tower Hamlets, London. Photo: Richard Lakos

Size is an obvious factor for consideration, but so is manoeuvrability: access to a hostel dining hall is rarely as smooth as to a modern theatre or art centre. “I remember back in the day when actors were having to hoick big steel structures up four flights of stairs and around tight corners,” says McBride. His team is now “much more mindful of the pressure that that puts on a touring company” and how clever design can minimise that stress.

Having extra bodies on site during get-ins and get-outs is helpful too. A couple of Cardboard Citizens members – homeless people who regularly take part in workshops and events with the charity – are on hand at each venue to support the professional cast, most of whom have some experience of homelessness themselves.

For those rare scenarios when access is too tricky, the company may rehearse a “plan B version of the show” to enable them to reach a particular venue with which the company has an ongiong relationship. Flexibility is key.

When Cardboard Citizens plays at arts centres – as it has increasingly since receiving strategic touring funding from Arts Council England in late 2014 – it can expect to find a good quality lighting rig, sound mixing desk and PA. That is not the case at some of the other venues they visit: McBride explains creative solutions are sometimes required.

“We may tour a very basic lighting rig, or we will find a way, as happened with Benefit, our last theatre tour, to build elements of lighting into the set.” Sound-wise, the company is always “self-contained”, the director says, ready to exploit the transformative potential of sound design in even the least atmospheric physical contexts.

The aim with these measures – whether set, lighting or sound – is to “transform an everyday hang-out space where people know what they expect, so that when people enter into it, it looks and feels different”, says McBride.

A certain sensitivity is required, however, given not just where the company is performing, but also the audience, who might be new to theatre and potentially nervous or intimidated.

“We’re very mindful that we’re going into people’s homes, people’s spaces, and very conscious of not imposing ourselves,” the director explains. “It comes down to the attitude of our actors and the company, and the effort that they make to approach and befriend.”

This extends to arts centres, where to ensure that homeless audience members feel welcome in what might be a new and alien space, Cardboard Citizens invites members to volunteer as greeters front of house.

Engaging audiences is critical for all touring companies, but even more so for Cardboard Citizens, given the particular methodology the organisation is known for. The ‘forum theatre’ format involves telling a story, then performing it again, the second time inviting audience members to intervene: taking on a character in the drama and making choices to enable different, hopefully more positive, outcomes. If audience members aren’t engaged and comfortable in the space, no one intervenes and the company must work harder to provoke a discussion about the issues being explored.

Physical barriers to audience interaction are another consideration, explains McBride, who says the the route to the stage “needs to be as easy a journey as possible” – as is the wider performing environment.

“It’s really important that the house lights are brought up for the audience, and then, if we need to, to bring the theatre lights down, because you certainly don’t want the intervener to have a sense of being on the spot and seen to be performing.”

There are a lot of competing factors to consider to make a success of these types of shows – Cardboard Citizens, to its credit, makes this complex balancing act look easy. McBride’s right: sometimes creativity is born of restriction.

Spotlight: Giving audiences the power to rewrite the plot

During performances of Cardboard Citizens’ show Glasshouse, members of the audience were invited to stop the show and change the outcome. Photo: Sarah Sansom
During performances of Cardboard Citizens’ show Glasshouse, members of the audience were invited to stop the show and change the outcome. Photo: Sarah Sansom

Forum theatre, the methodology Cardboard Citizens uses in many of its tours, was developed by the Brazilian theatremaker Augusto Boal in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of a wider philosophy called Theatre of the Oppressed, forum theatre is about giving people the tools to change their circumstances by showing how different actions can lead to different outcomes.

As far as the technical and production management side of things is concerned, forum theatre started out as “very much a poor theatre approach”, says Cardboard Citizens’ director of projects Tony McBride. “The types of contexts in which it’s being practised have evolved since then.

“Back in the day, Cardboard Citizens would have been practising forum theatre in the poor theatre style. Now we’re in a position where we can explore the same methodology but with higher production values, as supported by the bigger budgets that we’re able to attract and work with, and the contexts that we apply that to.”

This includes stage management “being prepped to be watching and listening” so as to bring technical effects into the interactive section of the show where possible. “It’s not dependent on it, because actually it’s just the idea that we’re interested in, but fun can be had with that side of things and it’s satisfying for the audience and for the intervener when that does happen.”

The company uses a more stripped-back approach when the project calls for it, working on something for perhaps a week, then presenting “a light sharing at the end, and a debate around that”. On this scale, there’s “absolutely no need for anything technical beyond essential props and costume,” McBride says.

At the upper end of the scale, “there’s no reason why forum theatre should be any different to any other type of theatre in terms of its production value,” says the director. It’s important that the work is judged within the appropriate parameters.

“While we aim to produce high-quality theatre and we’re happy for that theatre to be critiqued alongside any other high-quality professional theatre, there is something that is particular about the structure of a forum theatre model. You can’t critique one without the other.”

Cardboard Citizens presents a theatrical restaging of Cathy Come Home at the Barbican, London, on July 5

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