The past few years have been completely abuzz with social change, as things like #MeToo and #TimesUp have breached the headlines and conversations on race, sex, gender and disabilities are finally opening up as part of the wider discussion.
Whilst it may feel like things are at turning point, it’s all too often that those new understandings don’t filter back to a physical change within the system and we treat other people, and theatre can be no different.
Just cast your eyes to the West End, where the same shows written by white men are churned out again and again as an ode to the “classics”. By reviving the same old stories and keeping them in circulation, surely those problematic attitudes that we as a society have been trying to conquer for an age continue to be upheld?
Theatre is supposed to offer a window into society, but the lack of stories about women, about people of colour, the disabled, transgendered people – the list goes on – are completely ignored centre stage, suggesting that they don’t exist, when you know as well as I that they certainly do.
But where the West End is falling down, independent theatres across the country are working to reinvent these spaces and let the stories of the marginalised shine through.
Camden People’s Theatre, London
One of these such theatres is Camden People’s, former pub in London that grew out of a splinter group of Unity Theatre. Camden People’s established themselves in 1994 with a collective of artists including Sheridan Bramwell, Shaun Glanville, Lynne Kendrick and more.
Their aim was to produce more non-text based pieces at affordable prices to develop the local community and push the forefront of modern theatre with more international pieces, as such their current mission statement is “to support early-career artists making unconventional theatre – particularly those whose work explores issues that matter to people now”.
This is has been a mission that Camden People’s has taken on vehemently, launching things like Calm Down, Dear: a festival of feminism in 2013. They were the first to put the spotlight on feminist performance in such away, and carried on that reputation with performances like Our Glass House, a show that delved into the reality of domestic violence and encouraged victims to come forward.
Since they started, Camden People’s have been getting people to ask the question: Can a theatre show actually help people?
The answer is unequivocally, yes, yes it can.
By normalising these stories, whether it’s domestic violence or the female experience through Crimson Wave and the life of a queer black woman in Everything I Am, Camden People’s is helping to open people’s eyes to the breadth of our society. For no longer can we keep our heads in the sand.
Contact Theatre, Manchester
Another like-minded theatre has been making waves up north for quite a while having built a platform that tells the stories no one else is, located at their home base on the University of Manchester campus.
At Contact Theatre, it’s the youth that lead the way, working alongside the staff to develop the artistic programme, act as Board members and even decide what the new venue refurbishment will look like. After all, this a space that is explicitly for them, so they need to be a major part of deciding what that space will become.
That emphasis on those aged 13-30 sees the theatre put on a range of incredibly involved stories that allow youth to take hold of their own narrative. Shows like 30 Years of Queer and exhibitions like Oh Man explore concepts of queerness and manhood, whilst Young Identity and Contact: One Mic Stand literally hands over the stage to some of Manchester’s finest young artists for them to share their words. But this isn’t your average dry poetry night: performers compete head to head in a battle of lyrical mastery and charismatic delivery for the grand prize of the evening.
Whether its Rent Party, Beige Bitch or Amy Vreeke’s The Year My Vagina Tried to Kill Me, Contact Theatre puts the spotlight on young people and the control in their hands – if anyone is going to change the world, it starts with them.
Unity Theatre, Liverpool
Much in the same vein as Contact, Liverpool’s Unity Theatre is putting the narrative back in the hands of performers and audiences alike.
Theatre began as a community experience, a chance for people to share and rejoice as friends and family took to the stage to entertain and enjoy, and Unity works to continue that experience through shows that excite, entertain and inspire.
Their intimate spaces bring the audience into the performances, immersing them and enveloping them completely, and their programme’s unique selection of opportunities invites in the local community to partake in theatre themselves.
Budding theatre makers can kickstart their careers and develop their skills through shows like Meek, where private lives become political and freedom of expression is not an option, whilst Skin flips the idea of modern theatre on its head with an expression of self-image, identity and belonging through Hip-Hop and dance.
Omnibus Theatre, London
Housed in the legendary Old Clapham Building, Omnibus is battling London’s infatuation with the West End through a diverse catalogue filled with ambition and vibrant stories.
With acting giants like Sir Michael Gambon behind them as patrons of the venue, Omnibus has put on some of the most thought-provoking and engaging theatre in the capital, whether it’s exploring victimhood through the true events of Peru Two in Mule or the reimagining of a 1932 folk tragedy Blood Wedding, where the grit, passion and darkness of London meets Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic tale.
Coming later this year Omnibus will be presenting a powerful first-person account of bigotry and abuse in the ultra-conservative social landscape of contemporary Northern Ireland through their cathartic piece, Boundaries. The show was developed from real testimony of women and LGBT+ victims of harassment and victims in NI, explored through the character of Diane, a young woman targeted by a gang of young men systematically trying to ruin her life, but Diane.. Diane decides to fight back.
Shows like Boundaries are so utterly important in framing how we deal with toxic masculinity and its resulting trauma as a society. Like the #MeToo movement triggered a domino effect of witness testimony, so to can portraying these experiences on stage, each voice contributing to the cacophony of experience so that we can be heard, and social change can be initiated.
Almeida Theatre, London
Self-proclaimed as a small room with an international reputation, Almeida’s unique space leaves you feeling thoroughly immersed in the action. They encourage their artists to take risks, to provoke reactions and question everything. Throughout the years, Almeida has had many facades: a library, a lecture theatre, a laboratory, a scientific society – it’s entire purpose has always been to investigate the world.
What is masculinity? What does it mean to be male? Why is suicide the biggest killer of men under 45? These were the questions asked by a panel of journalists, writers and actors at the Almeida in April of this year during one of their Almeida Questions discussions on stage.
Or, how has modern Hip-Hop been informed by the lyrical storytelling of Shakespeare? How are the lines between the two blurred, and have they always been like that? Akala, a rapper, poet and activist, spoke at Almeida in 2017, exploring his Hip-Hop Shakespeare Academy and the poetry that exists within today’s music but which is often overlooked.
What can we do for the worst thing in the world was another question asked in 2016, during Almeida’s production of They Drink It in the Congo, where the anarchic play dove headfirst into the deadliest war conflict since World War II.
These are the kinds of stories, of shows, that Almeida does perfectly. They’re unique and they’re poignant, the kind of experience that stays with you for a little while after, acting as a lens to view the world through in a new and different manner.
Battersea Arts Centre, London
Another venue working towards the betterment of the community is the Battersea Arts Centre, located towards the centre of the capital city near Clapham Common. The venue boasts an extraordinary exterior, first built as the Battersea Town Hall in 1891 and listed as Grade II in 1970, but it’s the inside of the BAC where the true beauty lies.
The landmark venue has become home to arts of all kinds, stimulating the creativity of the community, exhibiting local heritage and hosting an array of engaging and enjoyable viewing experiences that look to expand an audiences horizons.
Just one look at the BAC’s upcoming season sees shows like Adam and Missing join the fray, one detailing the remarkable, heart-wrenching true story of a young trans-man fleeing his home of Egypt for brighter pastures in Scotland, and the other exploring the psyche of a woman whose soul is decaying through incredible choreography and a tantalising multi-lingual vocal landscape.
Like Almeida, the BAC has developed a programme that will change how you see the world. Watch a show like You Never See an Alien with an Afro, where Lemn Sissay takes you through his theory of how he, like Superman, is indeed a superhero and you’ll come away with a new outlook on the world. Or, watch a modern reworking of the gothic classic Frankenstein, and learn about what constitutes a contemporary monster in the current socio-political climate through beatbox, song, soundscape and battles with the BAC Beatbox Academy.
Not only does BAC work to develop our ideas as an audience, but also as a participant. Through their new Scratch Hub, a creative co-working space, people can access resources, test ideas, attend talks and evolve their skills to unleash great projects and positive change. Alternatively, Homegrown and The Agency are there to support local youth who want to become more involved in theatre, acting and production to pursue their dreams.
Edge Hill University Arts Centre, Ormskirk
Theatre, all too often, begins in the hands of men. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it does create a problematic situation when it becomes a platform that only men can excel in. Of course, this a problem that permeates every corner of society and it has been a long and arduous process trying to exterminate it.
For a long time, women weren’t allowed to be educated, but it was Edge Hill University that became the first non-denominational teacher training college for women in the UK and it has continued to open the dialogue on women’s rights through its outstanding arts centre.
As a turning point in history for women’s rights, the university and its arts centre has dedicated 2018 to Wonder Women, celebrating 100 years of suffrage through a series of events, installations and activities taking place from January to December.
Shows like This Really is Too Much come as part of the year-long season, exploring the ridiculous expectations society has placed on women through dance, dark comedy and provocative humour, whilst You’ve Changed sees Katie O’Donnell utilising song, dance and her silver tongue to shine a light on the reality of transitioning as her performance takes her from Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers, challenging the idea that “genitals equal gender”.
Theatre is one of the purest and most accessible forms of education. It’s something that anyone can take part in, can observe and can learn from, and so it follows that it should be the first place to present social change. It’s powerful, cathartic, calming, thought-provoking – an experience that can stick with a person for the rest of their life.
Like this article began, it’s important to remember that theatre is a window into our society at present but also the very near future. Theatre reflects society but society also reflects theatre, which is why representation and new, innovative stories needs to presented on stage to prevent us all from getting stagnant.
Support independent theatre like Camden People’s, like Omnibus, like Almeida and everyone else mentioned above by grabbing a ticket and experience something new and exciting! Not sure where to start? Browse all theatre here…