Hey everyone, I can’t believe I’m ten months into this awe-inspiring, fascinating, terrifying job. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of you reading this but I’m not sure if you all know me yet, so I wanted to write something about myself, art, life and, I guess, why I’m here.

As many of you saw, Cardboard Citizens launched a new programme earlier this year. So many of our members, supporters, friends have helped us to shape the programme, and the response to the new season, and to Bangers, has been phenomenal so thank you all for that. I wanted to take moment to talk about where our new work is coming from for me personally. Here’s a little something back from me…

I grew up in varying degrees of poverty with a single mum who was in and out of work in the middle of London on the estates. I’ve spent a lot of my time calling it a privilege, an education of diversity and difference, an education in stories and those who tell them, an education for who I am now. Which is true. But what I rarely talk about is the bad side. Prefer to reframe the narrative. But there was of course bad, a lot of bad and a-lot of terrible pathways that were presented to me that I’m lucky to have been able to navigate around, lots of the people I knew didn’t.

My journey isn’t particularly unique in many ways, but it’s useful for learning. One learning point is about the transformative nature of art on the individual and another is showing the depth and definition of what homelessness is.

Before I applied for this job, I knew I was homeless once, I was acutely aware of poverty, displacement, and homelessness, because of my own lived experience, because of people I’d worked with and also, I spent 6 months working in a refugee camp in Calais. But even with some knowledge I only thought I was made homeless once. I came home from school in my early teens to locks changed and an eviction notice on the door.

I remember the instant shame.

And the fear.

I was going to be homeless, on the streets, I was gonna get ridiculed and bullied at school.

You see my understanding of homelessness back when I was a teenager and arguably still now in the public psyche, is this. Homelessness is being on the streets or begging. Back then I hadn’t had any real understanding that what I’d lived in for a lot of my young life was also in the legal definition of homelessness.

I spent a significant part of my young life in fear of and living in violence and abuse, in my own home. Which means according to the government and Shelter’s guidelines I was homeless. Because of that, I had moments with child services: even having a cursory interaction with care increases the likelihood of you being homeless later in life exponentially

When I was little older, still in teens, I lived in a house without any heating, with severe damp and no flooring – many people are living in this reality right now – this is called inadequate housing in the legal definition of homelessness, and is systemic of a full housing crisis.

Fast forward again I was living in a crowded house after leaving the parental home on not the best terms. Too many people for the number of bedrooms. Fast forward again and a couple of bad relationship breakdowns left me on friend’s sofas, jobless and hustling. Sofa surfing. Defined as insecure housing.

For me an incredible mixture of unawareness, shame and working class “don’t complain and get on with it” mentality, didn’t really enable me to see all of these moments of homelessness in my own life, I knew the poverty though, that sits in your body, doesn’t go away. I just didn’t want to or actively pursue the idea of me being homeless. I guess if you don’t know somethings happening, you can’t seek help or hold people accountable. If you can’t name something, how do you know it’s real. If you are used to something your whole life, why would it seem unusual. I thought it was “just life innit.”

The people I grew up with sometimes had it better, sometimes had it far worse. These environments can be breeding grounds for the unfortunate parts of our society. There’s violence, crime, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism and more. When you live a life of uncertainty and limited possibilities, you get scared and angry, you can hit out, you can go down these awful paths. Paths that I could easily have gone down. It often feels like your narrative has already been written when you come from similar backgrounds to me. At best your story will be working in a shop or a tradesman (which is a dream, I often wish I’d just gone with my stepdad and continued being a decorator.) at worse prison or death or being on the streets. (At some point in between that, the army often comes sniffing around).

You either make good or make do.

Narratives can be powerful things, they’re hard to budge, they stick, they get into your brain and do something to your neuropathways. Its why theatre can be so incredible and why we often get addicted to streaming boxsets. Searching new narratives.

But when you only have a small amount of them, about you, they can be a weight on your shoulders. Many of the people I grew up with have gone down pathways that I haven’t, bad and destructive pathways. Fulfilling the narrative society thrust upon them.

Why didn’t I?

I think I have to be honest and say it’s about luck, opportunity and…art. Once a teacher put a guitar in my hand when I was young. And I could play it. It was a phenomenal eye-opening moment. Now I had another pathway.

I could be a rockstar!!

But seriously, music and art breeds curiosity, you start listening to different music, different people’s voices, you hear different points of view and different experiences. It’s world opening. (There’s no mistaking that so many young people from poverty gravitate to music and it becomes a gateway to other artistic outputs and “ways to get out”) Suddenly you know more, your worlds opens up. There are different worlds out there. Worlds you could be a part of. And then you start listening to the stories and realising that there’s other ways to tell them. Dance, poetry, paintings and of course theatre.

Art is everything.

Even more so if you have nothing.

It’s escapism, it’s life affirming, it’s a career, it’s world opening. It’s narrative changing.

Thing is being poor is one thing, but not having access to these riches can be devastating.

Lots of people had lovely lives growing up, parents that told them they could be anything, that magical things could be achieved, told that, the worlds your oyster or sold a myth of meritocracy. But a lot of us, don’t know there is that possibility, that there are things to aim for, we’re told to be happy for our lot and work hard and you might leave something for your children. In the same way that, if you don’t know somethings happening how can you ask for help, if you don’t know it exists how can you aim to be it.

But art can open those things to so many of us. And it shouldn’t be hidden behind closed doors for people to make a hobby out of it or just be held by a certain group of people or for it to be made an academic endeavour. Art is more than just important, for people like me it is social justice, it does something that society should have done, it holds you, it allows you to grow, it comforts you, it opens up your world, it gives you opportunities, it can pay you (sometimes), it can educates you, it can hold people accountable and inspire people to great things or just simply to live.

This is what Cardboard Citizens is about, it’s about doing all these things, allowing growth and inspiration for people with lived experience and without. Through telling the stories that we need to know about the world to theatre go-ers, stories that can instigate and change society and individual opinions, or activate new narratives for people that have had theirs limited.

Cardboard Citizens are a company that does, not just says. A company that opens peoples worlds. We aim to use experiences and stories like mine and many, many others to enable individuals to identify that there may be an issue in their living situation or inspire people to see themselves as part of the cultural richness that we inhabit or let them know that the job of artistic director, stage manager, writer, sound designer or that theatre even exists and that they can do it.

With our new programme and extending our remit to include poverty and inequity – the systemic issues that overwhelmingly lead to homelessness – we get to enable learning, growth, and opportunities.

As many of you will have seen in the launch of our Spring/Summer season, our new manifesto and remit are ushering so many big new initiatives for our Members and audiences…

  • We have the Citz Futures Traineeship, which aims to break down the barriers into the arts while paying and training new professionals in the theatre industry. Jobs that are fulfilling careers that also have massive transferable skills.
  • We have free artistic training with our relaunched workshop programme, led by some incredible, critically acclaimed artists.
  • We have Cardboard Collective, a new music-based programme for young people, that will act as a pathway to use their talents to put on live events and find more artistic collaborations.
  • We have an exciting programme of incredible theatre which started with Bangers by Danusia Samal. The show was the launch pad for Citz futures trainees, a joyful and important show at Soho Theatre, and a tour into communities for people to enjoy for free.
  • We also have a play about the trans housing crisis by Vinnie Heaven and some more commissions in the pipeline.
  • As well as all this we have started a consultation process for new embedded community programme in Tower Hamlets, the borough that has been Citz’s home for many years, a borough that has the biggest percentage of people living in poverty in London (more on this soon).

and this is only the beginning.

It’s a time of such huge opportunity and great need at Citz.

We’re launching this ambitious new programme in response to an intense need for support among the communities we work with, brought about by the impacts of the pandemic.

In the meantime, Covid-19 has set our own finances back by five years, meaning that support from our friends is more important than ever. We need to raise £1.2 million this year in order to deliver this work (we’re a third of the way there). If you’d like to help us do this, you can donate here or email our Development Manager, Leone Richmond on leone@cardboardcitizens.org.uk for a chat.

You’ll receive all the insights and invites to get closer to our work whatever you donate, we know that money is relative, it means something to you, no matter how much it is, and it means everything to us. The act of donating means so much to all of Citz family. It means we can keep pushing, innovating and doing the right thing.

But seriously, every one of you reading this is fundamentally important to the past, present and future of Cardboard Citizens. Thank you for the part you play in making all of this happen, and for joining us on the journey ahead.

Love and rage,

Chris Sonnex signature