This summer we partnered with homelessness charity Groundswell to present a piece of research they conducted between 2019 -2020 on the relationship between homelessness, health and welfare and help to communicate their vital findings. We commissioned Sophie Ellerby (Lit, Nottingham Playhouse & High Tide Festival, Function Criterion Theatre, Three, Arcola Theatre) to write a play to highlight the issues found in the research. Stef O’Driscoll (How To Save The Planet When You’re a Young Carer and Broke, Boundless Theatre, Love Reign, Young Vic, Herstory, Arch 468/Brighton Festival/Lighthouse) came on board to direct, alongside performers with lived experience of the issues at the heart of the play.
To Whom It May Concern toured venues over June and July, inviting people working in the social sector to come together, watch the play and take part in a workshop to discuss the issues and consider what action they could take to make change.
We spoke to Stef O’Driscoll who directed the piece and Suzy Solley, Research Manager at Groundswell about the project.
STEF: What was it like to work on this piece?
I loved every minute of it. The cast are incredibly talented and kind human beings and Sophie’s words and Diane’s story felt so powerful that the project has a sense of activism running through it. It renewed my belief that theatre and telling stories has the ability to change. It might not collapse a whole system overnight but if we could shift the thinking of one service worker whether that be a healthcare worker or someone from the DWP then that’s a start.
SUZY: What did you hope to achieve from creating the play?
We conducted an in-depth piece of peer research on homelessness, health and welfare just before lockdown. We were thinking of ways in which we could disseminate this research and to bring people together. We thought this could be a great piece of theatre and, of course, our first thought was to work with Cardboard Citizens.
We hoped that through the play, we could create a connection between the characters and the audience, and that the audience would be able to empathise with the characters. Ultimately, we hoped that the show would be a catalyst for change and opening conversations around what we could do to improve people’s experiences. Unsurprisingly, the piece explores the challenges that people face while navigating welfare, health and housing systems. It was difficult to watch, but the workshop invited guests to share good practise and explore solutions. It was very powerful to see the audiences’ reactions and their motivation to contribute to change.
SUZY: Why did you want to work with Cardboard Citizens on this project?
Citz and Groundswell have a long history and friendship and we knew we could make a great partnership. We also wanted something modern, exciting, powerful and funny that challenges common stereotypes through real life stories of people experiencing homelessness. The playwright and director that Citz commissioned to work on this were able to do this and develop something with such empathy and tenderness for the characters and the participants who took part in the initial research.
We had worked together on research projects before but never made a piece of theatre together. It turned out that we were right, and we do make a brilliant team. Groundswell beginning gathering all the information through research and Citz being able to bring this to life. It felt like watching magic happen.
STEF: Some of the cast have lived experience of homelessness and the play deals with issues they may have had first-hand experience with – how did you handle this in the rehearsal room?
It was important that the company knew that they did not have to or were not expected to lead from a place of lived experience and if lived experience was shared in relation to the story line or character development it was listened to and held with great care.
We had an open and transparent rehearsal room, anyone could step out at any point and talk to a member of the Cardboard Citz team if the themes and issues were challenging on that particular day. We also incorporated physical de-rolling exercises at the end of the day that often were about physical shaking of the day to a banging playlist and end in a place of joy and connection with the rest of the team.