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Lung theatre company: ‘The fringe is a space where people believe in theatre’s impact’

Lung co-directors Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead Lung co-directors Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead
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Touring theatre company Lung makes work that blurs the line between art and activism. Co-artistic directors Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead tell Natasha Tripney about giving voice to young carers in their latest show

The day-to-day realities of being a young carer rarely receive much attention in the media, but it is a widespread issue with one in 12 people under the age of 18 responsible for caring for somebody. “There was a feeling among young carers that they weren’t often represented on TV,” says Matt Woodhead, co-director, with Helen Monks, of national touring theatre company Lung, “and if they were it wasn’t accurately.” The pair set out to rectify this with their new show.

Founded in 2012, Lung specialises in making work that blurs the line between art and activism. The idea for the latest show Who Cares, running during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Summerhall, was initially suggested to them by the Lowry, as the venue had an existing partnership with Salford Young Carers.

Woodhead and Monks invited a group of young carers to describe their daily routine through a series of first-person verbatim exercises. They spoke to people who were caring for siblings and parents, sometimes both; they spoke to someone whose mum had a stroke at the school gates. But they didn’t stop there. The young people they spoke to have been involved in every aspect of the show from the design to the staging. Woodhead describes it as “one of the most open creative processes we’ve ever had”.

Initially the idea was to make a one-off performance, but the pair quickly realised the stories they were gathering were too hard-hitting for that – they needed to have a longer life.

Who Cares review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘tear-jerking throughout’

The show then toured schools. One of the big issues among young carers is that many people didn’t even know they were carers – this was even the case with one of the actors in the show – so they set out to raise awareness, to allow young people to recognise themselves.

As with a lot of Lung’s work, the show is just the beginning. The company wants to have an impact on policy. With this in mind it has launched a campaign with the support of the Children’s Society, in the form of a series of pledges – drafted by the carers – that have been sent to MPs in all the areas visited in the development of the show. These include the introduction of a young carer identification card so they don’t have to constantly explain their situation if, for example, they’re late for school.

As with previous Lung shows, the company builds a relationship with the participants that continues to develop over time. The young people involved in Who Cares have grown up during the time they’ve been working with them. “Two years when you’re 18 is a really long time,” Woodhead says. “One of the young carers has gone on to be employed by the Lowry”, Monks says proudly. They stress the importance of aftercare for both audiences and participants, making sure the support is ongoing.

When I speak to them in a Covent Garden cafe, they’re gearing up to take the show to Edinburgh. They feel ready. “If you can perform to schools you can perform to anyone,” Monks says, although she adds: “In some ways our rowdiest crowd was the House of Lords.” They performed the show there earlier in the year and the MPs kept leaving in order to vote. Universal credit came up at one point, says Woodhead, which seemed apt.

The company started out six years ago at the University of Sheffield. The pair wanted to find ways of putting voices on stage that weren’t normally heard. Their producer at the time was a fan of Bradford City and she’d told them about the 1985 Bradford City stadium fire in which 56 people died and how it was never spoken about. They decided to try to get people to share their stories about what happened. “We were in a bit too deep,” Woodhead says, “we were 21 and approaching football fans in their 60s and 70s.” But they gained people’s trust and ended up working on that show for three years. “The impact was massive.”

It was a small idea that ballooned, says Monks. “We ended up performing it in the stands at Bradford City in the last game of the season,” adds Woodhead, “and when we did it in Edinburgh, all these Bradford City fans came. The cast would turn around and fill their pants as they realised the audience was full of people who’d travelled three and a half hours to see it.”

The 56 review at Battersea Arts Centre, London – ‘sensitively handled’

There’s a level of responsibility involved in the work they make. They’re custodians of other people’s stories. “That moment when you see them sitting on the front row as the lights go down,” says Monks, “you’d be mad if your heart wasn’t racing.”

They ended up performing the show on the 30th anniversary of the fire and the audience members, many of whom had been there on the day, came and stood on stage. “If you do it in the right way, verbatim theatre can have quite a big impact. Having a Dictaphone and a purpose allows people to speak about things they wouldn’t normally.”

The company’s next show was E15, about the Focus E15 campaign in Newham, a protest by a group of local mothers against austerity measures and an attempt by the council to rehouse them in places as far away as Manchester. At one point they occupied a disused block of flats. Woodhead and Monks listened to their stories. That was another really active creative process, says Monks. “We ended up accidentally joining their campaign.”

E15 review at Camden People’s Theatre, London – ‘a rallying cry’

During this time, Monks’ acting career was also picking up. She starred in Caitlin Moran’s TV sitcom Raised by Wolves and as Pip Archer on The Archers.

In 2016, Lung worked with journalist Richard Norton-Taylor on Chilcot, a distillation of the Chilcot inquiry encompassing testimony from army veterans and Iraqi refugees. They’re skilled in getting people to open up to them. “Because we look like we’re 12 years old, people put their trust in us,” Monks says. “There’s a level of anonymity that comes with theatre. People can say what they genuinely think and know there will be an actor speaking their words.”

Last year they made a show based on the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, in which it was erroneously claimed that there was a plot by Islamist teachers to take over schools. They set out to explore the story behind the headlines because the narrative generated by the press was still being used to justify policy. Once again they hoped to use their work to bring about change. The creative process was a long one – focused on building relationships. They spent three years working closely with parents, teachers and governors, and looking at the transcripts of the trial and Ofsted reports. “I feel like people such as Michael Gove have no idea that places like Alum Rock exist,” says Monks, of the Birmingham suburb where the school at the centre of the scandal was located.

Trojan Horse review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘slick, stylishly fluid show’

Initially they struggled to attract interest in the show. That changed when they presented it at the Edinburgh Fringe. “If it hadn’t been for the fringe we wouldn’t have the support we currently have. But it does cost us all of our money. It’s a lot of risk,” says Monks. “What I love about the Edinburgh Fringe,” adds Woodhead, “is that it’s a space where people believe in the impact theatre can have.”

When they first started out it felt as if what they were doing was relatively new, making work in which artistic excellence and engagement coexist. “It now feels much more common to see those things go hand-in-hand and I feel like it’s an exciting time to be making this kind of work, especially at a time when people are feeling increasingly voiceless.”

Profile: Lung

Co-artistic directors: Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks
Producer: Ellie Claughton
Turnover: £80,000
Funding: Arts Council England, Oglesby Charitable Trust, John Fernald Award, Peggy Ramsay Award

Who Cares is at Summerhall, Edinburgh until August 25. Go to: lungtheatre.co.uk for full details


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