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Martin Askew: Young working-class people are crying out for a ladder to the arts

Fabrizio Santino and Sam Frenchum in There Is a Field, which Martin Askew was commissioned to write for the Synergy Theatre Project. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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After losing some of his closest friends to crime, Martin Askew used creative writing as a way to overcome the trauma. He tells The Stage how theatre can reach out to young people trapped in a macho culture

I was brought up Hoxton in the 1980s, then a tough working-class area in the East End of London. Back then, it was the hub of organised crime and gangs: crime culture was everywhere.

My family were fighters and boxers. My uncle Johnny ‘Bootnose’ Wall was a professional and my cousin Lenny McLean was the most famous bare-knuckle street fighter in the country. He went on to star in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I was a young amateur boxer who just wanted to be accepted by my peers.

It was a tight-knit community of people making ends meet. Unemployment was high and poverty and drugs were starting to change the dynamics of the place. The start of my becoming a screenwriter and playwright can be traced back to those days and that place.

I started writing after witnessing the murder of my close friend Paul. We were walking home one night, when someone pulled a knife on me and a fight started. My mate died there in the street, in front of me. On the way to his funeral, I witnessed four of my friends die in a horrific car crash.

Back in the 1980s, murders in working-class communities would be reported only in local papers, not in mainstream media like today’s big knife-crime problem. While it is rightly making headlines, politicians don’t seem to be thinking about why this is happening and ways to counteract these problems. I know from personal experience that youth centres and the arts could be hugely useful. Instead they are all losing their funding.

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and went into intensive therapy. My first scribblings were all self-reflecting, dealing with my own traumas and writing my emotions down. The creativity seemed to unblock the pain and guilt of losing my friends.

At first, my writing was just for me – the creativity kept me sane. From there, I had to find a creative place to take it further. That place was Hoxton Hall, a small community arts theatre that took me in with open arms, and fed me lentils.

All those lovely, middle-class, arty types gave me a classical education in the arts – my very own spiritual retreat. I became addicted to writing and acting and did plays by Chekhov, Cartwright, Berkoff and Pinter. It inspired me to write a few small monologues of my own. What a revelation. My mind was expanding, but on the streets I was still entrenched in criminal and gang culture.

I felt I had to hide my love for art. I had a reputation as a tough guy from a very tough family and felt a deep-seated shame that I was becoming arty and soft. It’s complex – my father’s generation had access to the arts and he never felt the theatre was a place he couldn’t go. He watched Laurence Olivier and Peter O’Toole in the West End, as well as Pinter plays and variety performances.

When I had those feelings of becoming ‘soft’, I would drift back to crime and violence. But at the same time the fear began to grow that I would become a statistic, like some of my other friends.

I am a professional screenwriter and playwright, but I still feel alienated because of my class

Today, I am a professional screenwriter and playwright, but I still feel alienated because of my class. I am always the odd one out. It took 10 years of pain, prison and nearly getting killed before I finally found a way out.

I didn’t have the support of any theatres or arts-funding bodies. I had to be dogged and determined to carry on being creative and funded myself with van jobs and night-security shifts just to be a writer.

When I did get a six-month contract on a film – or a small commission – it felt like a godsend. I didn’t choose writing as a career, it came out of trauma. I don’t write to titillate, I want to tell the truth – to inform and build bridges.

What is the future for other people like me, who have much to offer theatre, but may never go near one or realise what it can give them? How do we get the theatres to better support creative people from a working-class background? How can we make it more inclusive? We need to give important jobs in theatre to young, fresh voices from diverse cultures and classes, with a much wider range of insight. Doors should be opened for the most deprived and unloved people in our society.

Lyn Gardner: Is British theatre guilty of failing the working class?

At the moment there are young people from poor backgrounds who are talented storytellers and could be great playwrights, but have no way into theatre. Many don’t know how much they could offer. There are not enough bursaries and funding is being lost, or not being put in place to start with.

Throwing the ladder down should be our ethos. Theatres need to have an open-door policy for all. Every theatre should have in-house writing schools – or what I would call ‘dropshops’– set up to help writers who have no training along the way.

A few great organisations out there do this, and their work often falls under the radar. The blueprints are out there. I work with the Synergy Theatre Project, which goes into prisons and pupil-referral units to help ex-offenders and people at risk of entering the criminal justice system find jobs in the creative industry.

Every day, we meet young people from macho cultures who don’t feel the arts are for them. But when we get them to write – often in a very autobiographical way – I’m regularly gobsmacked by their pure and honest narratives. Then we get professional actors to perform these stories. After seeing that, the confidence in what they can achieve hits the roof. Most want to carry on, but the trouble is each project is short-term and once we’ve introduced them, it’s time to leave.

All the arts – particularly theatre – can help make a positive change in people’s lives. Especially if you’re on the fringes of society like I was and so many people are still. Working-class creatives are crying out for a rope to be thrown to them. Our government needs to fund more creative grassroots organisations if they truly want a safer society. I feel it is that important.

We have so many problems out on our streets, but if our young people truly have a place they can come to and some sort of ownership of their own heritage, the sky is the limit.

Martin Askew is a playwright and screenwriter. For more information go to synergytheatreproject.co.uk

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