Stage Swap: Hitting the streets with The Big Issue

The WhatsOnStage team find out what it’s like to spend a few hours in the shoes of a magazine vendor

Ben and Theo with their Big Issue vendor John.
Ben and Theo with their Big Issue vendor John
© Peter Gibbons

Standing in the rain outside the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End, our Big Issue rain macs may have been dampened but our spirits were not. We (WhatsOnStage editor Theo and I) were introduced to our mentor vendor John, who would take us to his usual pitch and show us the ropes of selling one of the UK's best known magazines.

Walking down from the Covent Garden distribution point to our spot just off Leicester Square, John, an army veteran who walks with the aid of two crutches, told us that the tube strike had meant his journey into work started at 4:30am that morning and had taken three hours on five buses. The extra cost of the bus journeys meant he needed to sell more magazines than normal – no pressure then.

We obviously didn't make very convincing vendors, nervously mumbling "Big Issue sir?" whilst thrusting a magazine into the path of frustrated commuters and confused tourists, an hour into our two hour slot neither of us had sold a single magazine.

What struck me was the amount of people who simply refused to acknowledge my existence, I'd been prepared for lots of people saying no, but being completely ignored by so many people knocked me back a bit. Imagine having to do that for up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, as John does.

My hope in humanity was slightly restored by a kind few who went out of their way to talk to our vendor, John in turn did not hesitate to ask how their operation went or wish them well in a new job. John knows his regular customers and more than that, cherishes them as friends, arguably more valuable in such a lonely existence than the £1.25 he makes from each magazine. By the end of our session we had collectively sold 15 magazines; eight of these were bought by a lovely girl from Sonia Friedman's office.

As we made our way back to Equity HQ for the debrief we reflected on the experience, both agreeing that we will never pass by a Big Issue vendor without buying a magazine or at least acknowledging them. The first Stage Swap, it seems, had accomplished its main goal.

Haydn Gwynne, Big Issue vendor Andre and Alison Steadman
Haydn Gwynne, Big Issue vendor Andre and Alison Steadman
© Peter Gibbons

The day's activities were part of the first in a series of events entitled #StageSwap, an initiative set up by The Big Issue Foundation and WhatsOnStage and supported by Equity. Stage Swap involves members of the theatre industry giving up their time to sell the magazine and raising awareness of the work vendors do throughout Theatreland and the UK in general.

Joining us for the launch of the scheme were actors Alison Steadman, WhatsOnStage Award nominee Haydn Gwynne, and West End stars Sally Dexter and Sam Lupton.

At the debrief, Steadman told us that she thought Stage Swap was "a great experience, I learned a lot. It made me really think about people who are homeless." Gwynne added: "I approached the day with a little trepidation but very glad I did it. Even in such a brief time I got a sense of the highs and the lows of trying to sell The Big Issue (a really good magazine by the way!)."

Sally Dexter, who recently appeared in Viva Forever, described the day as "a great experience! I spent the morning being inspired and enlightened, but discovered a heart warming sense of community I didn't know existed in the culture of London. People do care! More people just need to understand what The Big Issue is and what The Big Issue Foundation does, because homelessness is an issue that is getting bigger."

Lupton who is currently playing Boq in Wicked echoed these sentiments: "A really fantastic, enlightening and enjoyable day. It really opened my eyes to the truth behind The Big Issue! Everyone in Theatreland should do this!"

To find out more about Stage Swap, including how you can get involved in the next one, click here.