Blog: What it's like to work on a Citz Residency

Posted on: 23 January 2017

Written by: Charlie Marshall

At the end of last year, Cumbria’s Rosehill Theatre became the latest venue to work with Cardboard Citizens as part of its theatre residency project. Here local community artist Emma McGordon, explained why it was the most inspiring project of her career to date.

I’d seen the work of Cardboard Citizens 18 months ago when they came to Cumbria to tour the play Benefit, so I had an idea of how Forum worked in performance. Being part of a residency process however gave me a whole new insight into Forum Theatre’s capacity to make a real change in the lives of those who were making that theatre. I’ve been an associate artist with Rosehill Theatre for a number of years and been involved with lots of community outreach projects, but I can honestly say the Cardboard Citizen’s residency was one of the most inspiring.

I’d not met any of the participants before but had an awareness that they had all faced homelessness in some capacity. Some of the group we worked with knew one another from hostels while others were complete strangers to each other. Working with Dan [one of the residency leaders] in the first week gave me a real insight into group dynamics and bonding processes. The group’s willingness to take part in games and share their own stories in such an open and candid way was a surprise as I’d worked with adult groups before who were reluctant to do anything that might expose or embarrass them. Dan’s ability to both challenge the group whilst simultaneously maintaining a safe environment allowed trust to form quickly and a team spirit soon emerged. It was also a lot of fun to be involved as group member along with Rosehill Theatre’s Community Manger, Anne Timpson, as we soon realised that despite many differences of life experience, we shared more than we originally thought and were all bonded by the desire to get this thing done to the best of our ability.

"There was a real sense from the people we worked with of not only being listened to but having had their story listened to."

Midway through the residency we met Terry [O’Leary, Cardboard Citizens’ Associate Artist], who had the challenge of directing the play we’d begun putting together with a working title of On the Edge. That second week was where the play began to take shape and it was incredibly interesting for me as a writer to see a play with no script emerge before my eyes. The group members, myself included , all began to share much more of their own experiences of the system whilst also having a sense of anonymity as everything said was through the veil of character. Group members who had previously began to relax and enjoy the process. There was a lot of laughing. There was a lot of reality.

The day of performance came around quickly and there was a nervous energy from us all on the morning of the final run through. After a few character stand-in decisions and lots of learning the stage craft of moving and replacing limited props to form a whole range of scenarios, I found myself as an Italian waiter, a call centre worker and the voice of a TV announcer. The play went smoothly and there was a real sense from the people we worked with of not only being listened to but having had their story listened to. It was great to see them back a few days later when the Cardboard Citizens performed Cathy and even better to see the confidence of the group members who got up during the Forum.

Observing the way Dan and Terry worked was very beneficial for me as a community artist. Being a writer, it gave me several ideas as to how I could take my own work forward possibly using the development of a Forum Theatre piece to get the core of an issue; to hear the real voices of experiences. Forum Theatre and work of Cardboard Citizens is something I will continue to follow with interest and I look forward to working with them again in the future.

Cardboard Citizens are bringing Creative Residency projects to vulnerable people across the country, exploring the barriers they are facing and identifying solutions, through fun, creative workshops and performances. For more information, please email michael@cardboardcitizens.org.uk

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With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded