Director of Social Change Geetha Rabindrakumar writes:

It’s been a year since life changed for us all, when theatres had to close their doors, and we realised we had to rethink our national Cardboard Camps programme which is delivered with local theatre partners in different cities. Our national work in cities brings together people from across the homelessness, arts and public sectors through a programme of events and networking, training and outreach workshops, culminating in a theatre performance by participants with lived experience of homelessness. We’ve had to postpone some of our plans, but have been able to deliver more than we had expected online.

Key reflections over this year

Local partners and practitioners have been keen to stay connected and to collaborate

“It’s really good to have all these people in the [Zoom] room and know that we all care about the same things” – Theatre practitioner in Newcastle

People have still been keen to look out beyond their own organisations at a pressured time, share their COVID response work, and discuss challenges and it’s been rewarding to create supportive spaces online to enable these conversations to happen, and to hear how organisations in both the arts and homelessness sectors have responded to both meet individuals’ basic needs as well as provide creative outlets and meaningful ways to connect.

In Newcastle, out of these conversations, we have convened a group of arts practitioners to share and develop their practice – talking about everything from how to create theatre and audience interaction (through Forum Theatre) over Zoom, to tackling digital exclusion in our work, to breaking down organisational barriers to collaboration, and the role of art in making all voices heard.

COVID has created opportunities to develop parts of the programme differently

COVID has provided us with a space to have more conversations with local homelessness sector partners in Newcastle to understand the needs and motivations of the people they support as well as the areas where change is needed, and to develop a programme to respond to what emerged. We have developed a collaboration with #HealthNow Newcastle to produce a piece of Forum Theatre online to illustrate health and homelessness inequalities that have been uncovered during COVID by a team of “peer researchers” with lived experience. The piece has been devised by a group of participants with lived experience of homelessness, and we’re excited to support them to perform the work to local stakeholders next week – and to engage our audience to think about the system and individual changes that they can help make in response.

Despite the upheaval of COVID, our pre pandemic national work has had a lasting legacy on individuals, decision makers and practitioners

“I like this strange and unexpected friendship that we have developed” – Camps participant

We’re delighted that the group of participants who performed at Bristol Old Vic nearly 18 months ago have continued to meet as their own theatre company during the pandemic, with ongoing support from Bristol Old Vic, and that their experience of the Camps project has provided supportive connections that have endured. Some of the group have also joined our Members programme, as this is currently accessible online.

“By demonstrating the world you believe in, you’re more likely to get that world.” – Fee Plumley, Manchester Camps performance policy panel member.

Timing is everything, and our Camps work in 2019 happened when both Bristol City Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) were developing their homelessness strategies, and our theatre performances were attended by key local politicians and staff. Theatre created a space for performers to create a play to show what needed to change, disrupted conventional power dynamics between performers who had experience of homelessness and decision makers and enabled powerful dialogue to happen between them. The value of authentic engagement with people with lived experience was clear, and both authorities have built this into their homelessness work since. GMCA have taken this forward in a big way and are now using legislative theatre to coproduce their Homelessness Prevention strategy , led by Katy Rubin and her fantastic team of facilitators with lived experience – and it’s been great to see the work they have done during this year, as well as the work that Shelter have now started with them, using legislative theatre to highlight changes needed around private tenants’ rights.

I believe I focus better on the way the young people I support are oppressed and I am able to shine a light on this for my colleagues. This has helped massively.”

Finally, the vast majority of arts and homelessness practitioners across different cities who undertook our Theatre of the Oppressed training in the programme have reported after a year or more that their practice has changed as a result.

Our role in this multi faceted legacy has been to help catalyse change, not to define or predict it, but to help build connections, experience of our approaches and a space where change can be imagined.

Thanks to the support and flexibility of our funders, and the energy of local people and partners we have been able to adapt and sustain our national work over this difficult year.

We’re now looking forward to completing the programme in the year ahead in Newcastle, Coventry and Plymouth which will be a mixture of online work and hopefully in real life in wonderful theatre partner spaces at some point too. We’ll use our learnings to continue to make a difference to people and places and to play our own part in shaping the future that emerges after this year.

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