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Jo Caird: A Theatre Experience Like No Other

In July 2009 I reviewed a show called Mincemeat for this website. It impressed me so much that I gave it a five-star write-up and immediately signed up to support the inspiring work that the company, Cardboard Citizens, was doing supporting homeless and displaced people, using theatre and performing arts as a catalyst for change.

Over two years passed and I was invited to Toynbee Hall, along with other friends of the company, to a public performance of the show currently touring London's hostels, day centres and prisons, Three Blind Mice, by Bola Agbaje. The company is one of the UK's leading practitioners of Forum Theatre, a style of work which calls upon audience members to stop the performance and step in to change the course of the action, with the aim of creating a different outcome for a particular character. The piece is introduced by an emcee known as the 'Joker', who tells the audience which character to look out for in each of Three Blind Mice's three discreet scenes: what does this character want? what are the challenges he is facing? if you were in his shoes, what would you have done differently? After the performance, the audience is asked which of the stories they would like to see again, and that scene is replayed.

Any regular readers among you will probably have gathered by now that I'm a firm believer in theatre's power to open people up to new ways of thinking, change attitudes, build confidence, encourage inter-community dialogue, and all sorts of other good things. But even I was blown away by what I saw at Toynbee Hall two weeks ago.

Individuals with no experience of theatre got up in front of an audience of 200 to act alongside the company (all of whom have some experience of homelessness), stepping into the main character's shoes to stop him dismissing his housing officer's offers of assistance, to seek to improve his relationships, to help him avoid becoming involved in violence. Some of the suggestions brought about better outcomes than others, but Terry O'Leary (a Cardboard Citizens veteran of nine years' experience) was never judgemental in her role as the Joker, allowing all sorts of different situations to evolve and keeping the atmosphere positive and dynamic.

I was amazed at how effectively the company used theatre as a tool to explore how the attitudes we live by and the decisions we make inform our situations, and said so to the team the next day. If I was impressed by the response to the piece at Toynbee Hall, they told me, I should really see a show in its intended context. Last night, therefore, I saw Three Blind Mice a second time, at City YMCA along with a group largely comprised of under-25s living in supported housing at the hostel.

Initially, it looked like the company would be playing to a very small crowd, but following an announcement over the PA that the hostel's Christmas raffle would be drawn directly after the performance, the room filled out. And although this audience of young people may not have been keen to begin with, it's wasn't long before they were deeply involved, getting up to act in front of their peers, having lively discussions about the chosen character's options and outcomes, and telling their own stories.

A different scene to the one that was picked at Toynbee Hall was chosen to be replayed last night, and while at the previous performance the audience mainly sat quietly until they were asked to contribute ideas, last night was a rather more energetic affair. Clearly, no two performances of Three Blind Mice, or any Forum Theatre show, will ever be the same, making this a truly exciting way of working.

It's impossible to predict how this one, isolated experience of Forum Theatre might affect the lives of the young people in attendance last night, but there's undoubtedly something very empowering about changing the course of someone's destiny, even if that someone is a fictional character. By exploring the different consequences of a character's actions, this work shows just how important seemingly small decisions might turn out to be, and encourages participants to consider their own choices in this light. It also acknowledges the enormous challenges faced by homeless and displaced people trying to change their lives for their better, including, regrettably, the flawed social policy letting down the most vulnerable in society.

In February, the company will be presenting a new show, A Few Man Fridays, at the Riverside Studios, the first public production since the extraordinary Mincemeat. This is theatre made by people who really understand what it can and should do. I urge you to see it.


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